First Thoughts on the English Civil War

I’ve been working to alleviate my embarrassingly poor knowledge of the English Civil War (1642-1651). As I’ve been studying, one thing has really smacked me hard: the interconnections among science, technology, economics, and politics (and religion and the arts, but that’s for later). They all feed into each other.
We see scientific advances in agriculture and in cloth, creating better technology which is putting pressure on old economic forms. The advances in coal mining lead to a limited restoration of serfdom (which had been pretty much gone by the late 1400s) in Scotland to make sure there are a steady supply of miners.  Meres are drained destroying the livelihood of old-school hunters. Cottage industry is increasingly threatened by workshops. Increased yields make farming and herding more a matter of commodity exchange, which in turn made the price of crops more significant, and thus created unrest among yeoman farmers when increased yields caused the price to fall, all of which required measures of political repression, which in turn had an influence on scientific development and on economics.
We know that these things all interconnect, but looking at what is about to become the first capitalist nation, and seeing how all of these interactions combined to bring the old feudal property relations to the breaking point, really drives it home. And the parallels with today, where science and technology and ever-stronger socialized production make the capitalist distribution system ever more absurd (and stir up all the ignorance and backwardness and filth that’s been lying like a layer of silt at the bottom of the social pool), are inescapable.
There will very possibly be more posts on this as I study more.

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25 thoughts on “First Thoughts on the English Civil War”

  1. I can see serfdom, or at least feudalism as an easy consequence of automation and the universal minimum income. While I *want* automation of unattractive jobs, and UMI, I want the advantages, not those risks.

  2. One of the things you learn from studying ecology (as I did) is how strongly everything is interconnected, usually in nonlinear ways (e.g., we more often speak of food webs than food chains these days). Human society is no different. Indeed, one of the ironies of economics is that it comes from the same root as ecology (i.e., oikos, the place in which one lives), yet resolutely tries to ignore those roots and pretend society is somehow separate from the world that sustains it. We’re seeing now how well that works.

    Sounds like you’re reading a good social history. Share details?

  3. Howard- The problem with automation of jobs (which has been occurring for ages) is that there are fewer jobs out there, yet people need to work to support themselves. Until that is addressed (and it can be if we collectively look at the problem differently) it means more poverty as there are fewer jobs. As an extreme example, once most jobs are automated what is one to do when there is no way to earn an income?
    (And now we enter what my bestie terms as “Chris World”, because there are ways to address the issue but they require a lack of “I want more than the next person”.). :)

  4. Automation produces more wealth.

    I read a claim that the average American throws away 75 pounds of clothing a year, plus more textiles used for bedding etc.

    When women did their own spinning and weaving, could we have had 75 pounds of clothing a year to throw away? Possibly.

    Here is an estimate from the Civil War, when southern women learned to make homespun for lack of imports:

    W.N. Watt, in Early Cotton Factories in North Carolina and Alexander County estimated that it took 360 hours to produce 30 yards of homespun fabric—

    160 hours to pull the cotton by hand from the seed and card it when cards were available. The manufacturing of cards became less of a priority once the war began. The cost of cards when they could be bought went for $10 to $80 a pair.
    85 hours to spin and then hank the weft
    17 hours to gather bark, dye, size the thread and spool the warp
    12 hours to quill the weft
    10 hours to warp, beam, harness and “slew” the loom
    75 hours to weave the cloth
    A total of 36 work days of 10 hours each. If the labor is proportionate, it should take almost seven 10-hour days to produce the 5 2/3 yard of cloth for the Furr dress currently owned by Vicki Betts. [7] (

    Betty J. Mills, in Calico Chronicle, estimated that it took two weeks to spin the thread for a dress, one week to weave, and another week to cut and hand sew a dress, depending on the complexity.[8]

    If one woman could make 12 dresses/year, and the dresses weighed on average 6 pounds each, then she could possibly throw them all away after a year and do it again. But that amounts to a full time job providing enough clothing for 1 person to wear, while today clothing costs much less.

    Automation could result in much more wealth. But we have a matter of entitlement. In our current philosophy, the owners deserve whatever products their income allows them. Workers deserve whatever minimum the cheapest bidders get for doing the work. And unemployed people deserve nothing.

    Automation can produce large amounts of stuff, but if there aren’t enough people who deserve to have stuff to need large amounts, then why automate? There’s no need to produce large amounts cheaply if the deserving don’t need large amounts at all.

    THe exception is war materiel. We need as much as it takes to defeat the enemy. And when the enemy is hiding among foreign populations and we have to play a whole lot of whack-a-mole to kill them, we will need a whole lot of bombs. Almost an unlimited amount. So that’s one area where automation is not hindered by lack of demand.

    If we can accept a different philosophy of entitlement then it might turn out different.

  5. And while there are fewer but higher tech jobs around, it actually lowers the wages of those workers, as management points out all the starving people who would like the jobs.

  6. Geoff: It’s only bad economics that does that. Although there is another, related side to this issue: every scientific discipline has had, at a certain point, to separate itself from every other, in other to understand the basic laws, the underlying concepts. That is simply part of how human knowledge develops. As we learn more, we are able to understand better how these laws interact with the laws that govern other related (and seemingly unrelated) aspects of reality. So, I’m not disagreeing, but I should point out that this is less of a failure than it is of a natural limitation, which we are working to overcome as we learn more.

    I’m currently reading C.V. Wedgewood’s trilogy.

  7. Yep. I also learned that the Civil War had much more reflections in America while it was going on than I had thought.

  8. Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle is an excellent, though fictional, meditation on the aftermath of the ECW one generation later. He explores many of the same themes mentioned here: advances in technology and its impact on wealth, class, and societal structure.

  9. Our good host noted that only *bad* economics does what I criticized economics for doing. Tautology, but I take your point — I have a mad on about economics that most days makes me tend to forget to add that adjective and the nuance that accompanies it. I think my retrenched position would be that the economics used to support government and businessmaking in most economies (but most egregiously, capitalist economies) is more often bad than good. For example, life-cycle analysis has been around in one form or another for at least 50 years, yet is generally not used to support government and business decisions because it’s expensive: it takes time and money to do the analysis, and once done, it imposes considerable costs on companies that can more profitably be deferred to the future, when me and thee must pay the cleanup costs instead of the company.

  10. Unfortunately I don’t know the details, but family lore says some of my ancestors came to New England when they were on the losing side of some bit of the English Civil War.

  11. The Revolutions Podcast may be of interest to you. ( (Though it’s a bit of a time sink with 200+ half hour episodes.) It is a narrative history of revolutions starting with the English Civil War and ending with the Russian revolution. (The series on Russia starts next week.)

    What makes it interesting is that by following the threads through the different revolutions, you can see the commonalities and overall trends on how these things play out. One of the things it really drove home for me is how revolutions tend to have to different cultural drivers that are often at odds. (I.e. liberal revolutionaries vs. social revolutionaries.)

    Anyway, I can’t recommend enough. It really highlights the connections between the various revolutionary movements, both successful as in France and failed (1848, etc.)

  12. A couple of years ago I took an interest in the same subject for much the same reason.
    I suspect that by this point you’ve got lots to read as it is, but as they haven’t been specifically mentioned here, and because their attention to the factors and perspective discussed here seems relevant (they also happen to be brief and general, rather than burying the reader in detail), two I found worthwhile are Christopher Hill’s The English Revolution 1640, and Eduard Bernstein’s book on Cromwell.

  13. Is it sad that at least half of what I know about the English Civil War comes from Sabatini, Dumas, and Moorcock?

  14. @larswyrdson I wouldn’t say so. I have found that reading a good historical novel is the best way to get into a given historical era (viz. Prince of Foxes for Borgia-era Italy).

  15. I thought you might enjoy Attilla the Stockbroker and Barnstormer’s baroque punk take on the Civil War, Restoration Tragedy. It’s all done with contemporary instruments. I’ve seen the live show and damn do they make a fine noise.

    Here it is on YouTube.

  16. Interesting that the English Monarchy was overthrown, was down for a few years, and then restored. Nearly 400 years ago. And the world is still writing about it, thinking about it, and, apparently, composing musicals about it.

  17. Kragar: That’s one of the things I’m most interested in learning about: people talk about the Civil War as if it just happened without leaving lasting effects because the monarchy was restored, but no one I know who has actually studied it says that. So, yeah, that’s more or less what I want to try to understand.

  18. So did the civil war lead to the capitalist nation (was that the lasting effect the majority ignored) or was the capitalist nation forged from some other influence?

  19. I learned a lot about English history by reading John M. Ford’s The Dragon Waiting, then saying “Wait, REALLY?” and going to check which parts were accurate and which invented.

    They were almost never the parts I expected…

    But yeah, you can learn a lot of history from fiction, as long as you doublecheck it.

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