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Journal of Political Ecology:
Case Studies in History and Society
VOLUME 3 (1996)
of Political Economy: Some Early Tudor Views on State and Society
by Neal Wood. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994. pp. x +
Reviewed by Thomas
D. Hall, Lester M. Jones Professor of Sociology, DePauw University.
Neal Wood's Foundations of Political Economy
is an intellectual history of the germination of political economy in
the writings of late fifteenth- and sixteenth-century English reformers.
Professor Wood does for political economy what Janet Abu-Lughod (1989)
did for the histo y of the "modern world-
Professor Emeritus Neal Wood roots his analysis of
this intellectual discourse in the events of the day and in the lives
of the writers. They were the first observers and commentators on nascent
rural capitalism who grounded their analyses and proposals in their own
experiences. They aimed
As a reviewer I claim no expertise in intellectual
history or the Tudor period. Rather, I review this work from the stand
point of a sociologist-anthropologist with n avowedly world-systemic and
ecological bent. As the reviews by intellectual historians are quite favorable,
I will not try to summarize the exegetical arguments, but only summarize
Wood introduces his argument with due caution, noting
that these writers are neither philosophers or giants, but propagandists
who shared dissatisfaction with current conditions and who sought moderate
reforms. They focused on what we have come to call political economy,
The chapter on sixteenth-century England is a succinct
summary of the conditions under which most of these writers lived. It
was an era of growing state power and centralization, increasing legal
activity, and the birth of capitalist textile production in rural areas.
The new drive for land for grazing sheep engendered massive displacement
of rural peasants, who were often ready recruits for rebellions and uprising.
Literacy was on the increase, leading to a mixing of new with ancient
ideas. Education was increasingly seen as important for further protecting
the interests of society's elites.
Next, Wood dissects the development of the economic
conception of the state. A key feature of the new conception was attention
to information on wealth and the groups who possessed it. These writers
emphasized the economic as opposed to moral purpose of the state. Thus,
their recommendations for reform focused on economic issues. They developed
the distinction between useful and nonuseful labor for the first time
(p. 38). Because many of these writers were farmers or
John Fortescue, a forerunner of the reformers, opposed
absolutism, feared popular unrest and excessive democracy, saw the law
as supreme, favored a government consisting of a mixture of king and parliament,
argued that natural law limited political action, and suggested that a
reciprocal relation obtains between governed and government. He was "decidedly
conservative with an unshakable faith in a hierarchical society"
(p. 47). For him, the test of a good government was the prosperity of
the people. He argued that poverty gave rise to idleness and susceptibility
to rebellion. Thus, it was in the King's interest to promote political
stability through economic prosperity. He was not, however, as vitally
concerned with reform as his Tudor followers because he lived in a more
prosperous age. Nonetheless, he laid much of the ground work for their
Sir Edmund Dudley (c. 1462-1510) was the first Tudor
reformer. He was an activist public servant whose prosecution of merchants
led to his eventual execution for treason. Although anticlerical, he,
too, was conservative. He wrote of the "tree of commonwealth,"
developing this metaphor at great length. Still, he emphasized the need
for the state for the "creation of wealth shared proportionately
by all" (p. 77). His concept of commonwealth did not include the
state or society or government, but was more akin to common good. This
common good depended on Christian faith, efficient administration, enlightened
nobility, and fully employed commoners. He did favor the royal power to
control the clergy, but made no contribution to the conception of the
state as an institution. He did emphasize economic conditions, noting
the identity of interests between ruler and commoners. He argued that
prosperity would decrease likelihood of rebellion and lessen crime. He
was very uneasy about "acquisitive individualism" (p. 89) among
nobility and affluent commoners.
These ideas are the starting point for Sir Thomas
More, the most famous of the writers Wood discusses. Wood argues, conventionally,
that More's Utopia was neither democratic nor egalitarian. It allowed
slavery and was patriarchal in the extreme. Wood notes that during More's
chancellorship six heretics were burned at the stake. More was personally
involved in all but one case. As the chapter title notes, More was "the
enlightened conservative" who defended hierarchy and was fanatical
in exterminating religious dissent.
His Utopia presented the state in its ideal form.
More used it to explain the deterioration of European society and offer
a model for improvement. It also showed that a stable state rested on
a thriving economy, which, in turn, rested on universal socially useful
work. The purpose of the state was to
In the next chapter we learn that Thomas Starkey was
the first to use the concept "state" in its relatively modern
meaning. Starkey, too, worried about idleness and absolutism. He furthered
the economic conception of the state, emphasizing the need for material
comfort for a healthy union of body and soul. As a Christian, he worried
about "fallen man," which he saw as the source of the need for
education. He argued that poverty and extreme inequality were the roots
In response to uprisings of the 1530s and 1540s, a
number of Christian writers, the so-called commonwealth men, sharply criticized
conditions and proposed many reforms. The first of
The penultimate chapter is devoted to Thomas Smith's
"moral philosophy." Smith's emphasis on secular and rational
proposals, unlike the moralistic commonwealth men, was a new development.
Wood claims that Smith was the first political economist (p. 193). He
was the son of a farmer who became a member of parliament and later secretary
of state. He identified ruling-class interests with justice, with the
proviso that they also promoted the interest of the governed. He developed
an incipient notion of sovereignty, and distinguished between government
and the state. He saw important roles for "free men" in the
state. Free men did not include bondmen or women. He developed a crude
model of economic man who acted rationally in his own interests. He argued
that exorbitant rents and the influx of treasure from the New World were
the causes of inflation. He used the metaphor of a clock for the economy,
which he conceptualized as a set of interacting parts. He also recognized
that the economy of one country could not be understood in isolation from
those of other countries. He conceived of the state as a household writ
Although Smith acknowledged individualistic drive
for money and power as a fundamental cause of social problems, unlike
the commonwealth men he did NOT recommend moral reform as a solution.
Rather, he sought to manage greed for the well-being of the state. Based
on his understanding of enclosures, he recommended protection for traditional
dispersed land holdings
He was highly critical of the condition of higher
education, which he saw as vital to the training of new leaders. In this
discussion Wood delivers a veritable gem from Smith's A Discourse on the
Commonweal of this Real of England (1581):
Probably every college teacher who reads this book--or
this review--has heard, or made, similar comments.
In the final chapter, Wood acknowledges that these
writers were not giants, but still demand attention because they are the
founders of political economy, constructed a modern conception of the
state, and were first-hand observers of "incipient rural capitalism
and some of its harsh social and economic consequences" (p. 236).
They were also the first to suggest remedial action via governmental intervention.
In ignoring them, we miss links between medieval and modern ideas.
Whereas Wood argues that the new political economy
was grounded in the experiences of men of affairs in Tudor England, there
is more to this than he suggests. His intellectual history can be juxtaposed
insightfully with Jack Goldstone's (1991) analysis of revolutions and
rebellions. Two points of Goldstone's elaborate argument are salient here:
first, that rebellions are rooted in demographic changes--a point both
Wood and his Tudor writers note, if considerably less clearly than Goldstone
does; second, that rebellions begin as attempts to restore the status
quo ante and only become revolutions when some members of an erstwhile
disenfranchised portion of the
These Tudor writers were calling for a return to a
previous order -- before the demographic disruptions -- but in doing so
they had to invent new conceptions, a new vocabulary, and a new
For the reader interested in the roots of political
economy, the chapters on specific writers might well be skipped or skimmed
(chapters 4 through 9). The heart and force of Wood's argument, however,
is in his textual exegesis in these chapters. Because he quotes text in
original Tudor or Elizabethan English, the going can be difficult at times.
But occasional gems, like the passage on students quoted earlier, reward
the reader. Wood's text, on the other hand, is always clear and well argued.
For anyone who enjoys a well-crafted book or is interested in intellectual
history, reading this book is well worth the time.