Food Surplus, Artisan, Guilds, Industrial Revolution, Mechanized Looms and Luddites

Posted by PITHOCRATES - May 14th, 2013

History 101

As the Middle Class grew Artisans joined Guilds to Restrict Entry into their Trade

For most of our existence on this planet we were hunters and gatherers.  Like the animals in the wild.  Dependent on our environment for our food.  Which was often scarce.  Leaving our distant relatives with a chronic gnawing hunger in their bellies.  Sometimes the environment provided so little food that there wasn’t enough for everyone.  So a great many went hungry.  And a great many eventually died from that hunger.  Such was life for hunters and gatherers dependent on their environment for food.  Then we started thinking.  And figured out how to farm.

As farmers we took control of our environment.  Instead of eating only what the environment gave us we grew what we needed.  And grew even more to have a food surplus.  To get us through times when the environment did not provide a good growing season.  Having control over our food turned that chronic gnawing hunger into a rare and infrequent occurrence.  Which established us at the top of the food chain.  And made us master of the planet.  Where we shaped it to serve our needs.  Instead of living at its mercy.

With a stable food supply we were able to do something else.  Something other than grow food.  We could build things.  And an artisan class grew.  Potters.  Shoemakers.  Blacksmiths.  As time passed the artisan class grew.  Creating a middle class.  Markets where people met to trade their goods grew into cities.  The economy grew more complex.  The cities grew more crowded.  And the artisans became protective of their trades.  Joining guilds that restricted entry into their trade.  By maintaining a maximum number of artisans in each trade.  For though there was more food than ever the fear of hunger never went away.

In Medieval Europe Cloth Production was Second only to Food Production

Artisans joined guilds for one reason.  So they wouldn’t starve to death.  Basically.  By restricting entry into their trade they limited competition.  This allowed them to charge higher prices for their goods or services.  And that healthy income allowed them to buy all the food they desired.  Whereas if other artisans were allowed to set up shop in town they could offer their goods or services for less.  Forcing other artisans to lower their prices.  Which is good for the masses.  Allowing them to pay less for the artisans’ goods or services.  Helping them to push off hunger themselves.  But not good for the limited few who saw their wages fall with more artisans entering their trade.  Hence the guilds.

But artisans had more to fear than just people trying to take food off of their tables.  There was something else that was a far greater risk.  Technology.  Which led to increases in productivity.  That is, producing more with fewer people.  Replacing some highly-skilled artisans with lower-skilled and lower-paid people operating machines.  And without a job it was difficult to put food on the table.  With the specter of hunger haunting them some artisans did something about that new technology putting them out of a job.  They fought back against the machines.

Besides food there was another basic necessity the people needed.  Especially in England.  Where it got pretty cold during the winter.  To live in the northern climes you needed to wear clothes.  Or die of exposure.  In Medieval Europe food production was the number one occupation.  The number two occupation was cloth production.  To make the clothing people needed to wear to keep from dying of exposure.  Highly skilled weavers filled factories as they manually worked their looms.  Making the cloth that others would turn into clothing.

The most Infamous Neo-Luddite was the Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski

Their meager production rate kept clothing prices high.  Then came the Industrial Revolution.  First they mechanized spinning.  Creating more thread than a weaver could ever use.  Then they mechanized weaving.  Turning that thread into cloth at an incredible rate.  Turning cloth-making from a skilled trade into an automated process.  Producing more with fewer people.  Lowering the price of clothing.  And reducing the need for skilled artisans.  Making the people happy.  For they could buy more clothing.  And still be able to afford enough food to ward off that gnawing hunger.  Everyone was happy except, of course, those artisans put out of a job thanks to those new machines.

Britain was at War with Napoleon’s France in 1811.  During war the home economy typically suffers.  And machines replacing people didn’t help.  Highly skilled weavers either lost their jobs.  Or had to take steep pay cuts to compete with other unskilled laborers working the new mechanized looms.  Lower incomes made it difficult to buy food when prices were rising.  As they typically do during war.  Pushing some people to the breaking point.  And some people rebelled against the machines.  Smashing them.  And burning them.  These people were Luddites.  Their rebellion against technology was so great that at times more British Red Coats were in England putting down their rebellion than were fighting Napoleon’s Grande Armée.

But in the end the Luddites loss their struggle.  By 1817 the British had put down the rebellion.  And the Industrial Revolution carried on.  Making life better for the masses.  The modern economy flooding us with new must-have products at reasonable prices.  And creating scores of new jobs the Luddites never could have imagined.  Still, their anti-technology philosophy lives on.  Perhaps the most infamous neo-Luddite being Theodore Kaczynski.  The Unabomber.  Who fought against technology by planting or mailing bombs.  Killing three.  And hurting 23 others.  Who they finally found holed up in a primitive cabin in the Montana wilderness.  Where he rejected all technology.  Living without any of the creature comforts technology gives us.  Like electricity, fresh water or personal hygiene.  Being a Luddite to the extreme.

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