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The idea of industriousness has been an ever-recurring issue since Max Weber launched it as a putative explanation of the advent of economic modernity. The notion of ‘industrious revolution’ has provoked a renewed flourishing of publications focusing on this issue. Although most historians agree on the emergence of industriousness in seventeenth-century Europe, there is no consensus regarding the chronology, hence the real causes, of this mental and discursive shift. This article emphasizes the problematic role played by literary evidences in these social and cultural models of diffusion of new consumer values and desires. It then establishes the timing of the emergence of the ‘industriousness discourse’ using an original approach to diffusion based both on the quantitative analysis of very large corpora and a close reading of seventeenth-century economic pamphlets and educational literature. It concludes first that there was not one but several competing discourses on industriousness. It then identifies two crucial hinges which closely match the chronology proposed by Allen and Muldrew, but refutes that championed by de Vries and McCloskey. The industrious revolution as described by these authors would have happened both too late to fit its intellectual roots and too early to signal the beginning of a ‘consumer revolution’.



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I am extremely grateful to Peter Mandler, Craig Muldrew, participants in the Early Modern Economic and Social History seminar, and two anonymous referees, for their comments on previous versions of this article. I am also indebted to Andrew Hardie, Jean-Baptiste Michel, and Paul Schaffner for allowing me to use their data and to Billy Janitsch, Andreas Vlachos, and Andrew Wilson for technical assistance.



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1 de Vries, J., The industrious revolution: consumer behavior and the household economy, 1650 to the present (Cambridge, 2008); McCloskey, D. N., Bourgeois dignity: why economics can't explain the modern world (Chicago, IL, 2010); Muldrew, C., Food, energy and the creation of industriousness: work and material culture in agrarian England, 1550–1780 (Cambridge, 2011).

2 de Vries, J., ‘Between purchasing power and the world of goods: understanding the household economy in early modern Europe’, in Brewer, John and Porter, Roy, eds., Consumption and the world of goods (London, 1993), pp. 85132; de Vries, J., ‘The Industrial Revolution and the industrious revolution’, Journal of Economic History, 54 (1994), pp. 249–70; de Vries, J., ‘Luxury and Calvinism/luxury and capitalism: supply and demand for luxury goods in the seventeenth-century Dutch Republic’, Journal of the Walters Art Gallery, 57 (1999), pp. 7386; de Vries, The industrious revolution.

3 De Vries, The industrious revolution, pp. 43 and 52.

4 See Bologh, R. W., Dialectical phenomenology: Marx's method (London, 1979), pp. 76–9, and on Marx and the dual normative conception of needs (good and bad needs) and their historical development, see Hamilton, L., The political philosophy of needs (Cambridge, 2003).

5 De Vries, The industrious revolution, p. 44.

6 Ibid., p. 52.

7 See for example Robertson, H. M., Aspects of the rise of economic individualism: a criticism of Max Weber and his school (Cambridge, 1933); Tawney, R. H., Religion and the rise of capitalism: a historical study (London, 1926); MacKinnon, M. H., ‘Part i: Calvinism and the infallible assurance of grace: the Weber thesis reconsidered’ and ‘Part ii: Weber's exploration of Calvinism: the undiscovered provenance of capitalism’, British Journal of Sociology, 39 (1988), pp. 143210.

8 De Vries, The industrious revolution, p. 52.

9 McCloskey, Bourgeois dignity, p. 12.

10 For a good example of what a cultural analysis of the diffusion of desire means, see Peck, L. L., Consuming splendor: society and culture in seventeenth-century England (Cambridge, 2005), ch. 3. The best analysis of the seventeenth-century redefinition of honestas in civic communities is Withington, P., The politics of commonwealth: citizens and freemen in early modern England (Cambridge, 2005).

11 McCloskey, Bourgeois dignity, pp. 16–17.

12 Ibid., p. 23.

13 Greenfeld, L., The spirit of capitalism: nationalism and economic growth (Cambridge, MA, 2001), p. 96.

14 McCloskey, Bourgeois dignity, pp. 29 and 339–45.

15 See Ashworth, W. J., ‘The ghost of Rostow: science, culture and the British Industrial Revolution’, History of Science, 153 (2008), pp. 249–74.

16 McCloskey, Bourgeois dignity, p. 1.

17 Michel, J.-B., Shen, Y. K., Aiden, A. P., et al. , ‘Quantitative analysis of culture using millions of digitized books’, Science, 331 (2011), pp. 176–82.

18 See the Supporting Online Material for a detailed description of their work.

19 The very blurry definition of what a book is in the early modern period reduces the significance of this sort of figure, but it gives a good idea of the size of the sample.

20 The analysis of this database was made possible thanks to the Bookworm software developed by B. Janitsch and M. Camacho at the Harvard Cultural Observatory.

21 The EEBO database includes books from the English Short Title Catalogue i and ii (based on the Pollard & Redgrave and Wing short-title catalogues) and the Thomason Tracts and the Early English Books Tract Supplement. Together, they amount to more than 125,000 books published between 1475 and 1700. The Text Creation Partnership (TCP) subset represents roughly 40 per cent of all these records. For details about the TCP project, see All these records have been transcribed by hand so they should be (in principle) immune to OCR-related errors. It is not, however, a perfect sample; the order in which these texts are transcribed depends on requests by scholars and librarians from participating institutions around the world. Thus, these 50,000 might not be representative of the full dataset. The figures given in this article are based on the last version of the dataset that was released in November 2012.

22 McKitterick, D., ‘Introduction’, in McKitterick, D., ed., Cambridge history of the book in Britain, 1830–1914 (Cambridge, 2009), p. 50.

23 Mandler, P., ‘The problem with cultural history’, Cultural and Social History, 1 (2004), p. 103.

24 Erasmus, D., De contemptu mundi, The dispisyng of the worlde, compiled in Latyn by Erasmus Rot. and translated in to Englyshe by Thomas Paynell (London, 1533).

25 Cawdrey, R., A table alphabeticall, conteyning and teaching the true writing, and understanding of hard usuall English wordes, borrowed from the Hebrew, Greek, Latine, or French etc with the interpretation thereof by plaine English words (London, 1604), and Blount, T., Glossographia, or, A dictionary interpreting all such hard words, of whatsoever language, now used in our refined English tongue (London, 1656).

26 The number of books (in absolute value) represented in Fig. 3 corroborates this interpretation.

27 This follows the argument in Slack, , ‘Material progress and the challenge of affluence in seventeenth-century England’, Economic History Review, 62 (2009), p. 592, that early English ‘political economy’ made material improvement palatable.

28 These verses from King James 1611 were quoted many times as, for example, in the Treatise of the covenant of grace posthumously published in 1645 by J. Ball (p. 186).

29 See, for example, John Wheeler, secretary of the Merchants Adventurers, A treatise of commerce: wherein are shewed the commodities arising by a well ordered and ruled trade, such as that of the Societie of Merchants Aduenturers is proued to be: written principally for the better information of those who doubt of the necessarinesse of the said societie in the state of the realme of England (London, 1601), p. 22.

30 Hesiod, Aristophanes, and Plato had already used the comparison, but it is Aristotle who theorized its political dimension. For the use of the comparison by Christian writers see Johnson, J. W., ‘That neo-classical bee’, Journal of the History of Ideas, 22 (1961), pp. 262–6. Danielle Allen has recently argued against Johnson periodization, but her evidences – mostly from beekeeping treatises – is far from conclusive. See Allen, D., ‘Burning the Fable of the bees: the incendiary authority of nature’, in Daston, L. and Vidal, F., eds., The moral authority of nature (Chicago, IL, 2004), p. 75. Ants have a similarly ancient pedigree reflected by Prov. 6.6, which in the King James translation reads ‘Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise.’

31 Digges, D., The defence of trade: in a letter to Sir Thomas Smith Gover from one of that societie (London, 1615), p. 2.

32 Ibid., p. 41.

33 Mun, T., A discourse of trade from England unto the East-Indies answering to diverse objections which are usually made against the same (London, 1621), p. 6.

34 Misselden, E., The circle of commerce, or, The ballance of trade, in defence of free trade: opposed to Malynes little fish and his great whale, and poized against them in the scale (London, 1623), pp. 132–3.

35 Mun, T., England's treasure by forraign trade: or, The ballance of our forraign trade is the rule of our treasure (London, 1630s), p. 125.

36 Burton, R., The anatomy of melancholy, 1st edn 1621 (Oxford, 1638), p. 53.

37 Malynes, Consuetudo, vel, Lex mercatoria, p. 363.

38 Herdt, J. A., Putting on virtue: the legacy of the splendid vices (Chicago, IL, 2008), pp. 221–2. See also Slack, ‘Material progress and the challenge of affluence in seventeenth-century England’, p. 591.

39 W. M. Halliwell-Phillipps, The man in the moone, telling strange fortunes, or, The English fortune-teller, 1609, especially the ‘prodigall’ and ‘serving-man’ chapters.

40 Greaves, R. L., Society and religion in Elizabethan England (Minneapolis, MN, 1981), p. 383.

41 Montagu, H., Contemplatio mortis & immortalitatis, 1st edn 1631 (London, 1638), p. 146. See also B. Quintrell, ‘Montagu, Henry, first earl of Manchester (c. 1564–1642)’, Oxford Dictionary of national biography, online edn, Jan. 2008,

42 Dyke, J., ‘Sermon of buying and keeping the truth’, in Dyke, D., ed., Divers select sermons on severall texts (London 1640), pp. 305–93.

43 See the ‘Introduction’ in Berg, M. and Eger, E., eds., Luxury in the eighteenth century: debates, desires and delectable goods (Basingstoke, 2002).

44 Withington, P., Society in early modern England: the vernacular origins of some powerful ideas (Cambridge, 2010), pp. 80–7.

45 The first ‘prentice’, Godling, was industrious, while the other, Quicksilver, was characterized by his prodigality and their fates were radically opposed. See Sommerville, C. J., The discovery of childhood in puritan England (Athens, GA, 1992), p. 81, and cf. Heywood, T., The four prentices of London (London, 1615).

46 Sommerville, The discovery of childhood, p. 89.

47 See the texts listed in Sommerville, C. J., ‘The anti-puritan work ethic’, Journal of British Studies, 20 (1981), pp. 7081. We can also observe the consequences of this pragmatic and temporary relaxation in the Protestant economic morality in Anthony Horneck's sermons in the 1680s and 1690s.

48 Hont, I., ‘The early Enlightenment debate on commerce and luxury’, in Goldie, M. and Wokler, R., eds., The Cambridge history of eighteenth-century political thought (Cambridge, 2006), p. 389.

49 Ibid., p. 392. See also Hundert, E. J., The Enlightenment's fable: Bernard Mandeville and the discovery of society (Cambridge, 1994), ch. 2.

50 Hundert, The Enlightenment's fable, p. 111.

51 Mandeville, B., The fable of the bees: or, Private vices, publick benefits, 3rd edn 1724, ‘Remark K, On prodigality’, pp. 105–6. Partially quoted in Hundert, The Enlightenment's fable, p. 206.

52 As these time-series are non-stationary (both globally and in these sub-periods), I have tested them for cointegration. Whereas the two series are not cointegrated for the period 1820–1914 (the p-value obtained with the Augmented Dickey-Fuller test for the residual series is 0.36 and the test-statistic is bigger than the 10 per cent critical value), for the period 1710–1820 the two series are cointegrated (the ADF p-value is 0.00 and the t-statistic is much smaller than the 1 per cent critical value). In both cases, the lag length was determined according to the Schwarz Info Criterion.

53 McCloskey, Bourgeois dignity, p. 27.

54 Muldrew, Food, energy and the creation of industriousness, p. 300; Richards, J., Rhetoric and courtliness in early modern literature (Cambridge, 2003), p. 91.

55 Muldrew, Food, energy and the creation of industriousness, p. 304.

56 Parker, H., Of a free trade, a discourse seriously recommending to our nation the wonderfull benefits of trade, especially of a rightly governed and ordered trade (London, 1648); Blith, W., The English improver improved, or, The svrvey of hvsbandry svrveyed (London, 1649). See also Petyt, W., ‘Britannia Languens’, in McCulloch, J. R., A select collection of early English tracts on commerce, from the originals of Mun, Roberts, North, and others (London, 1856), pp. 275505, and Papillon, T., A treatise concerning the East India trade being a most profitable trade to the kingdom, and best secured and improved by a company and a joint-stock (London, 1677).

57 Petyt, ‘Britannia Languens’, p. 536.

58 Graunt, J., Natural and political observations mentioned in a following index, and made upon the bills of mortality (2nd edn, London, 1662), ch. 12, pp. 33–5.

59 R. Allestree, The whole duty of man, laid down in a plain and familiar way for the use of all,… with private devotions for several occasions, 1704 (1st edn, 1658), p. 31.

60 W. Blith, ‘Epistle to the husbandman, farmer, or tenant’, in The English improver, or, A new survey of husbandry: discovering to the kingdome that some land, both arrable and pasture, may be advanced double or treble, other land to a five or tenfold and some to a twentyfold improvement, yea some not now worth above one or two shillings per acree be made worth thirty or forty, if not more (London, 1649).

61 Houghton, J., England's great happiness, or, A dialogue between content and complaint: wherein is demonstrated that a great part of our complaints are causeless, and we have more wealth now than ever we had at any time before the restauration of His Sacred Majestie (London, 1677), reproduced in McCulloch, A select collection of early English tracts on commerce, pp. 251–74, here, pp. 261–2.

62 Vries, The industrious revolution, p. 68.

63 Sommerville, ‘The anti-puritan work ethic’, p. 73.

64 Slack, From reformation to improvement, chs. 4–5.

65 The two series are non-stationary (both globally and in the relevant subsets) and the computed p-value for the ADF test for the period 1640–1710 is nil whereas it rises to 0.30 after this date.

66 Petty, W., ‘Englands guide to industry, or, Improvement of trade for the good of all people in general’, in Chamberlayne, E., The fourth part of The present state of England [electronic resource]: relating to its trade and commerce within it self and with all countries traded to by the English, as it is found at this day established (London, 1683), ch. 6, p. 82.

67 Although according to Christopher Berry this phenomenon only became manifest after 1650, Linda Peck has recently shown that it had been a dominant issue in treatises about the general interest since the time of the repeal of sumptuary laws by James I. See Berry, C. J., The idea of luxury: a conceptual and historical investigation (Cambridge 1994), and Peck, Consuming splendor.

68 Fortrey, England's interest, reproduced in McCulloch, A select collection of early English tracts on commerce, pp. 211–50.

69 Goldstone, J. A., ‘The demographic revolution in England: a re-examination’, Population Studies, 40 (1986), pp. 533; Clark, G., ‘The condition of the working class in England, 1209–2004’, Journal of Political Economy, 113 (2005), pp. 1307–40; Clark, G., ‘The long march of history: farm wages, population, and economic growth, England 1209–1869’, Economic History Review, 60 (2007), pp. 97135; Allen, R. C., ‘The great divergence in European wages and prices from the middle ages to the First World War’, Explorations in Economic History, 38 (2001), pp. 411–47. van Zanden, J. L., ‘Early modern economic growth: a survey of the European Economy, 1500–1800’, in Prak, M., ed., Early modern capitalism (London, 2001), pp. 6987.

70 S. N. Broadberry, B. M. Campbell, A. Klein, M. Overton, and B. van Leeuwen, ‘British economic growth, 1270–1870’, Working paper, University of Kent, School of Economics Discussion Papers (Dec. 2011).

71 Maddison, A., The world economy: a millennial perspective (Paris, 2001).

72 Muldrew, Food, energy and the creation of industriousness, p. 308; Appleby, Economic thought and ideology, pp. 145–7; and Hatcher, J., ‘Labour, leisure and economic thought before the nineteenth century’, Past and Present, 160 (1998), pp. 6771.

73 Wrigley, E. A., English population history from family reconstitution, 1580–1837 (Cambridge, 1997), p. 614 – between 1656 and 1671.

74 Muldrew quotes North's A discourse of the poor in which he criticizes rising wages as favouring the leisure preference for workers and undermining industriousness. See Muldrew, Food, energy and the creation of industriousness, p. 309, and North, R., A discourse of the poor (London, 1753, but written in the 1680s), pp. 5860.

75 Muldrew, Food, energy and the creation of industriousness, p. 317; Sommerville, The discovery of childhood, p. 81.

76 Child, J., A new discourse of trade  (London, 1693).

77 See Barbon, N., A discourse of trade (London, 1690), p. 14, which de Vries particularly likes to quote: ‘Desire implys Want: It is the Appetite of the Soul, and is as natural to the Soul, as Hunger to the Body.’

78 The Bristol merchant John Cary published a very popular protectionist pamphlet in 1695, reissued several times up to 1764, in which he urges English manufacturers to be more industrious and emulate the ‘Progresses [that] have already been made step after step by our Manufacturers to imitate, and in many things to exceed all they have seen abroad.’ Cary, J., An essay on the state of England: in relation to its trade, for carrying on the present war against France (Bristol, 1695), p. 57.

79 For a criticism of the way the societies intended to curb prostitution see, for example, Mandeville, B. (written under the pseudonym of Phil Porney), A modest defence of publick stews: or, an essay upon whoring, as it is now practis'd in these kingdoms (London, 1724).

80 Slack, From reformation to improvement, pp. 119–20.

81 This is particularly conspicuous in Hale, M., A discourse touching provision for the poor (London, 1683), pp. 519–36. It corresponds almost word for word with what Muldrew argues.

82 Child, A New discourse about trade.

83 Davenant, C., Discourses on the publick revenues, and on the trade of England (London, 1698), pp. 74 and 77. This is a point forcefully made in Berg and Eger, Luxury in the eighteenth century.

84 Davenant, C., An essay upon the probable methods of making a people gainer in the ballance of trade (London, 1699), pp. 53–4.

85 Muldrew also quotes Gough, R., Human nature displayed in the history of Myddle (London, 1834; 1st edn 1701), p. 29. This local historian does not extensively use ‘industrious’ and out of five uses of ‘industry’, only one is not opposed directly to ‘labour’.

86 De Vries, The industrious revolution, pp. 66–7 n. 70.

87 Hont, ‘The early Enlightenment debate on commerce and luxury’, pp. 395–403.

88 Defoe, The complete English tradesman, pp. 65–8.

89 B. Franklin, ‘Self-denial not the essence of virtue’, Pennsylvania Gazette, 5 Feb. 1734.

90 It also shows that the educational discourse remains significant, too. The secondary interest of this analysis, which uses a database altogether different from the Google digitization project, is to corroborate the more extensive N-gram results. The data is available through

91 Allen, R. C., The British Industrial Revolution in global perspective (Oxford, 2009); Allen and Weisdorf, ‘Was there an "industrious revolution" before the Industrial Revolution?’, is a recent exponent of the economic determinism school. Allen argues that industriousness was chiefly the result of hardship. Consumers had to put in more work to maintain their level of consumption rather than to increase it. Most of the ‘consumer revolution literature’ is biased towards anthropological or psychological determinisms. See the seminal work by McKendrick, N., Brewer, J., and Plumb, J. H., The birth of a consumer society, the commercialization of eighteenth-century England (London, 1982). A third form of (rather unfortunate) determinism is bound to gain more prominence in the historiography with the development of crypto-genetic evolutionist theories like that proposed by Clark, G. in his recent Farewell to alms (Princeton, NJ, 2009).

92 Weber is close to Nietzsche's conception of genealogy: the psychological drive being an archetypical form of moral evolution.

* I am extremely grateful to Peter Mandler, Craig Muldrew, participants in the Early Modern Economic and Social History seminar, and two anonymous referees, for their comments on previous versions of this article. I am also indebted to Andrew Hardie, Jean-Baptiste Michel, and Paul Schaffner for allowing me to use their data and to Billy Janitsch, Andreas Vlachos, and Andrew Wilson for technical assistance.

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