Mendels F. (1972) Proto-industry: the first phase of industrialisation

Mendels Franklin F. (1972) “Proto-industrialization: The First Phase of the Industrialization Process”, The Journal of Economic History, 32/1, The Tasks of Economic History, 241-261.

Definition of the concept

Proto-industrialisation: “the rapid growth of traditionally organised but market-oriented, principally rural industry. It was also accompanied by changes in the spatial organisation of the rural economy” (241). The pattern of European agricultural production, created a massive but short-lived, seasonal demand for labour during the harvest. Journeymen were underemployed during the year, they were an available workforce for the labour-intensive textile industry which needed a lot of workers as its productivity had hardly increased since the 12th century (242).

Limits of the system

The system had its limitations: workers were not making a lot of money and manufacturers had to put up with the fact that industry was merely a secondary activity after agriculture which severely limited production (243). Moreover, monitoring workers was next to impossible. These obstacles, eventually created the necessity for the centralised factories of the Industrial Revolution. But meanwhile entrepreneurs had been able to accumulate enough capital to start the late 18th-early 19th mechanisation (244).

Regional development

Another result was to create a rural demand for agricultural goods that was met by regions having specialised in commercial agriculture. These agrarian surpluses were to prove crucial for the 19th century industrial take off (245). By the time handicraft was replaced by machines, the proto-industrial regions had a large workforce that was to be used in the factories (Lorraine, Rhineland, Lille). But other became de-industrialized (Brittany, Ulster, Silesia, Flanders). The abundance of natural resources (coal, iron ore) or lack thereof often determined the fate of a region’s transition (246). The Industrial Revolution did not meant the end of handicraft, it adapted to the new environment (247).


It is important to mark the difference between early modern proto-industries and rural industrial by-employment that has always existed. Some criterions are essential segregate the two: proto-industry reached far beyond the local market. For instance, Northern Bohemian textiles were exported to Poland, Hungary and Austria. Proto-industry also supposed a spatial division of labour with some region specialised in industrial production and other dedicated to feed them (248).
The shift from rural industry to proto-industry has been explain in various manners:

  • Jan De Vries: population growth increased the supply side of the labour market, which started the mechanism.
  • Eric Jones: the fall of grain prices forced the inhabitants of the least productive regions to look for additional sources of income.
  • Eric Hobsbawn: the integration to markets altered the consumption and production patterns of the rural population, creating new needs and opportunities that the proto-industries met (249).


In Flanders, where proto-industry developed, nuptiality and, to a lesser extend, natality, reacted to the ratio of grain to linen prices. In some cases – contrary to the Old Regime crisis model developed by Ernest Labrousse – the correlation was stronger between marriages and linen prices than between marriages and rye prices (250). Thus “cottage industry affected population trends. The development of a labour-intensive industry by the peasants made it possible for them to multiply in their villages without corresponding increase in arable surface.” But in some cases, proto-industry was a response to rather than a cause of population growth, but it is likely that in a second phase proto-industry made that growth sustainable (252).

Toward the Revolution


During proto-industrialisation phases, there was no withdrawn of a part of the workforce from the agrarian sector to the industrial one, as cottage industries were only using labour surplus made available by seasonal underemployment. There was no opportunity cost, nor risk of food scarcities, unlike during the urban migrations caused by the Industrial Revolution (255).


On the level of capital, the most important difference between proto-industry and modern industry was the fact that capital was circulating under the form of primary materials and wages and was not immobilised as capital-intensive machinery. The result was a simple and fluid mechanism where investments were not so important as to significantly influence performances and business cycles (256).

Assessing proto-industries’ weight

The importance and the resilience of the proto-industry after 1800 gives credit to the partisans of a gradual move toward industrialisation rather than an Industrial Revolution. For instance, Markovitch assumes that by 1789, the share of industry in France’s GDP was already larger than the one of agriculture (258). It is even possible that a significant share of the French economic growth well after 1800 was fuelled by traditional industries (259).


This is one of the most important articles written in economic history, 35 years later researchers are still chewing on it. Most of those intending to disprove Mendels have merely repeated the limitations he himself defined for his theory. For more on how Mendels was positioning himself in this lively debates, please refer yourself to the letter he wrote in 1984 to the New York Review of Books.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: