The Fruits of Civilization (23-1-5) The Early Modern Period continued


Much flowed back to Europe from conquest besides great quantities of precious metals. Exotic dyestuffs, such as indigo, spruced up European clothing, making a more tradable commodity at home and overseas.

Tea from Asia, coffee from Africa, and cocoa from America became staple European beverages. Cotton and sugar, though previously known, came in larger quantities than ever before. Numerous new foodstuffs made their way to Europe: corn, potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, pumpkins, squash, string beans, and turkey, all from the western hemisphere. Rice imported from Asia adapted to both European and American climates. Tobacco from America arrived and thrived in Europe, despite determined efforts by both church and state to stamp it out. In later years, tropical fruits, nuts, and exotic woods were imported, as well as the valued remains of animals slaughtered on a horrific scale: furs and hides.


The great influx of commodities and monetary metals spurred prolonged inflation. By the end of the 16th century most prices were 3 to 4 times what they had been at the beginning. Many causal factors were influential, but monetary debasements by impecunious and unscrupulous sovereigns must be near the top of the list.

The effect was to redistribute wealth. Those with assets and price-elastic incomes – merchants, manufacturers, and landowners – made out relatively well. Workers, peasants, and pensioners paid the price.

Population dynamics played a part. A booming population in the 16th century begat surplus labor which suppressed wages. That agricultural productivity did not keep pace exacerbated the situation, at least as far as food prices went. Population growth ceased in the 17th century after it became fatally obvious that there were too many people and not enough to eat for those on the bottom rungs of the socioeconomic ladder.

In the eastern, more backward region of Europe, the situation provided an exploitative opportunity. In Russia and parts of Poland, peasant status, already parlous in the 15th century, took a turn for the worse: those who worked the land did so on terms tantamount to slavery.

In contrast, the Low Countries were a paradigm of productivity. By the end of the 15th century Dutch and Flemish agriculture had already outpaced the European average. The reason was historical. The settlement of the region during the Middle Ages left the people freer than those under manorialism. Agricultural innovation was practically a tradition.