How Europe Made the Modern World: Book Review

How Europe Made the Modern World: Creating the Great Divergence (2019), Jonathan Daly. The Great Divergence has two parts according to historians: the Columbian Exchange and the Industrial Revolution (IR). Daly focuses on the Industrial Revolution, in part by shifting focus to Northwest Europe, basically Britain, France and the Dutch Republic and minimizing Portugal and Spain. My interest is the Columbian Exchange, but this book offers a lot of insight about Europe before the IR. Granted, Daly doesn’t talk about food, but much of his discussion is still relevant to my interests.

The basic starting point is the backwardness of Western Europe up through the Middle Ages, but with intriguing frameworks that become necessary to Western Civilization: rule of law, laws codes both civil and common (as in England’s Common Law), willingness to adopt technology and anything of value from other cultures, the long use of coal, iron, and water wheels, the printing press, individual and community rights, the scientific revolution, the Enlightenment, and war making abilities and technologies. Virtually nothing about IR, but then again there are plenty of references to that. Still, a bit of specificity on how the earlier factors directly influenced IR would have been helpful. The book also referred to how these factors were not effectively used in China, the Islamic world or India. Thus, the Great Divergence was “precisely the result of a deep slow evolution out of centuries of particular conditions unique to early modern Europe” (p. x). Spain and Portugal, integral to the Columbian Exchange, were among the least industrialized of the European countries.


“All of humanity’s early breakthroughs in culture, technology, finance, trade, literacy, and religion were made in Asia and northeast Africa. Adapting these innovations contributed powerfully to Europe’s development” (p. xiv).

Introduction: Alchemy of Civilization. “’Eurocentrists’ credit European culture, values, instructions, inventiveness, dynamism, or openness to change. ‘Globalists’ deny any European exceptionalism, pointing instead to Europe’s building on Asian foundations, exploitation of other peoples, state support for commerce, favorable geography and ecology, colonial expansion, and militarism” (p. 1). Europe before 1800 was economically unexceptional.


Chapter 1: The Supremacy of Law. Evidence of law codes go back to Hammurabi’s Code in the ancient world. Roman codes were extensive civil law systems, compiled by Byzantine emperor Justinian. The Medieval Church codified canon law. Rulers in the Middle Ages used civil law codes built on Roman law, while England adopted Common Law (essentially adapted from Anglo Saxons). Corporations were given similar rights as individuals (trusts had comparable rights), with the added benefit of limited liability. Commercial laws developed respecting contracts and other agreements, generally protecting property rights.


Chapter 2: A Passion for Travel. “Formal” travel accounts began with Herodotus about 450 BC. Merchants and other traders could travel vast distances, but few wrote down their findings—or left anything about their operations. The first surviving major account of the Silk Road was Marco Polo. Daly identified 8 trade circuits of the 13th century. Muslims dominated these trade routes.


“India was, like China, a huge, prosperous, populous country with abundant natural resources, a vibrant economy, a wide range of exportable commodities and finished goods, and developed trade networks. Among objects of trade exported from India during the European Middle Ages were ‘textiles, spices, medicinal plants, jewels, ivory horn, ebony, aloe wood, perfumes, sandalwood, and condiments” (p. 40). India was at the center of these Asian trade routes.

The Portuguese under Prince Henry the Navigator attempted to find a passage to India. Then Columbus sailed west to the New World, followed by hundreds of Western European ships. The Dutch Republic became the largest shipping power by 1600 based on shipbuilding improvements and logistic efficiency. The effect was toward a multinational economic and cultural exchange. New World plants included corn, beans, tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, peanuts, chocolate. Livestock, wheat and other cereals, rice, apples, coffee and tea came into the new world—along with European diseases. European maps became increasingly detailed.


Chapter 3: Tsunami of the Printed Word. Writing goes back to accountants at the beginning of civilization for administration of surpluses. The records became abstract and cumbersome. Cuneiform simplified it somewhat, developing into a general writing system. Phoenicians developed a writing system of consonants with 22 letters. Greeks added vowels. All writing was done by hand on papyrus, parchment, on clay or stone. China developed paper with bark, rags and plant fibers and the first printing press. However, this printing did not become widespread. Legibility increased with words separated by spaces, a readable script and punctuation.


Johannes Gutenberg developed moveable type and a mechanical press based on wine and olive presses, with several innovation in alloys for type, uniform pressure with the press, and a workable ink; printing his first book about 1450, then multiple copies of the Bible. Competitors set up shops around Europe, in some 260 towns across 17 European countries by 1500. This promoted literacy and the spread of knowledge, meaning ideas and technology could spread more rapidly—also history as events were more likely written down and available in archives. The technique spread to European colonies as these expanded post Columbus. It took centuries for printing presses (and literacy) to travel to China, India and the Muslim world.


Chapter 4: Rights and Liberties. Chinese established a hierarchy of bureaucrats under empire control; no landed aristocracy resulted. Muslims conquered much of Eurasia, creating slaves and slave armies.

Daly described European systems based on weakness during the Middle Ages. Charlemagne built up a considerable power base but not an administrative apparatus. The feudal system developed with multiple kings acquiring various levels of land and power, plus lower ranking nobles with peasants at the bottom. Aristocrats developed and consolidated power, both economic and military. Various forms of somewhat autonomous administrators developed, both lesser lords and cities granted specific rights and privileges. The Magna Carta gave power and liberties to more groups in England. Cities included guilds, corporations, and colleges. Monasteries had power independent of the Vatican, dioceses, and local lords.


“Domestic and overseas commerce expanded. Royal and princely mints began to issue more coins. From the mid-1100s, new silver mines opened, merchants learned business practices, like issuing promissory notes, from their Muslim counterparts. European producers and sellers increased their exchanges—grain from Picardy, the Baltic region, and southern England; sheep and wool from northern England and Scotland; finished cloth from the low countries; wine from southern France; fur and timber from Scandinavia and Eastern Europe. European merchants traded with Muslim intermediaries for Asian luxuries, like spices and silk. Mediterranean seaports grew busier. Trade fairs sprang up in strategic locations” (p. 70).


Wealthy merchants became their own aristocracy. The burghers became the bankers of royalty. Various urban charters gave protections to the weak, expanding the rule of law. Commercial interests came to dominate most towns in Europe. One important offshoot of urban self-government was representative assemblies. Royalty would call these mainly to raise taxes, usually to fund wars—developing into the tradition of consensual tax increases and “no taxation without representation.” Parliaments would be created in England and elsewhere.


Then came the Reformation, beginning with Martin Luther. Some countries like the Dutch Republic practiced religious tolerance. Others were more erratic or intolerant. Secular arguments for limits on political authority developed, usually associated with the Enlightenment. John Locke expanded Thomas Hobbes’ view of natural contracts to popular consent to justify sovereign authority. Written constitutions were adopted in many places, especially former British colonies.

Chapter 5: An Anxiety for Knowing. “What we call modern science, based on systematic inquiry, empirical research, meticulous record-keeping, collaborative endeavor, mathematical analysis of data, extraordinary leaps of imagination, and the positing of ‘laws of nature’ arose, just like modern conceptions and practices of political representation and rights, only in early modern Europe” (p. 83). Aquinas developed a complex “synthesis” of reason and faith, along with philosophy. Universities started to specialize in various sciences and other specific subjects. Linnaeus created a systematic classification system of plants and animals. Both microscopes (van Leeuwenhoek) and telescopes were created. The analysis of the universe went from Ptolemy to Copernicus, Kepler, and Newton. Galileo conducted a number of scientific experiments and analyzed the solar system with a modest telescope. William Harvey demonstrated how the heart pumps blood. Francis Bacon described the scientific method. Descartes developed a skeptical approach to thinking and knowledge.


Chapter 6: The Republic of Letters. “Joel … Mokyr defines the European Republic of Letters as a ‘transnational network of individuals connected by letters, books, and pamphlets’ and as a competitive market for ideas” (p. 101). This started with Renaissance humanists and migrating to intellectual centers including London. Improved mail service promoted these networks—like Britain and the Dutch Republic. 12,000 George Washington letters survive. Learned societies developed including the Royal Exchange in London in 1571 and aristocratic courts. These were clearinghouses for knowledge. Ideas and papers could be peer reviewed.


New England and Netherlands would have the highest literacy rates in the world by the 1600s, about 60%. Literacy rates in the developed world included 68% for the Dutch and 53% for England by 1800. The underdeveloped world had low literacy rates. Irregular news reports started about 1500, with newspapers by the early 1600s in England and Holland. Opposing political factions had their opinions in supporting papers and pamphlets. The British Parliament would have opposing factions by 1700 (the War of Spanish Succession)—Tories and Whigs.


Coffee houses first appeared in Mecca and Cairo after 1510, which spread to 600 in Istanbul before the end of the century and throughout the Muslim world. European traders eventually smuggled coffee plants to equatorial colonies. Coffee houses opened throughout Europe beginning in Venice in 1645, usually as serious places of business, scientific and other intellectual pursuits. People with specific interests went to particular coffee houses with Lloyds of London the most famous. In London “patrons founded political clubs, a fire insurance company, the London Stock Exchange, and the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge” (p. 112).


Voluntary associations were created for schools, hospitals, temperance, and many more. Denis Diderot came out with his Encyclopedia in 35 volumes between 1751 and 1772. Ben Franklin formed discussion groups in Philadelphia starting in 1727. The Birmingham Lunar Society started in 1770, including James Watt and Matthew Boulton, plus Erasmus Darwin and Joseph Priestly. Class was less of an issue for these intellectual pursuits.


Chapter 7: Breaking With Tradition. There was a revolution in the arts during the Middle Ages that included painting and architecture, leading to the Renaissance: Giotto, van Eyck, Brunelleschi, Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Holbein. Europeans became masters of war technology, turning gunpowder into rifles and canons. Beginning with the Portuguese caravel, navies became powerful. Europe and colonies became more “female friendly,” as women became more literate and added to economic development.


The direct cause of the Great Divergence, according to Daly, was the Industrial Revolution started in England with textile manufacturing, and the greater use of coal and iron. Coal had been widely used as the land was deforested. By the 1550s coal consumption in London was 10,000 tons, mainly for heat, cooking, and beer brewing. “In the first half of the 1600s, between 21,000 and 26,400 tons of pig iron were produced in England and Wales. … The coal output in England and Wales held fairly steady before taking off from the 1750s, reaching over 121,000 tons in 1790” (p. 133). Waterwheels were common for flour milling, expanding to woolen cloth and iron. The building crane expanded. The Dutch in particular used windmills for lumber and other uses. In European colonies windmills and watermills were used for lumber, refining sugar and making gunpowder. One factor for their expansion may have been lower costs of borrowing for capital projects. That is on top of science, literacy, relative economic and political stability, and sophisticated banking.


Conclusions. What Did Europe Make Modern? “Among the most important were efficient, secular, and impersonal systems of law; a penchant for travel and exploration resulting in the knitting together of all the continents and regions of the globe into one interconnected sphere of exchange; an unbridled, independent, prodigious, and all-encompassing publishing enterprise; the concept and practice of steadily expanding individual and collective rights; a universal community of disciplined, objective, methodical, and self-regulating scholars and scientists dedicated to systematically unlocking the secrets of nature; a commitment to continuously expand knowledge, share information, and disinterestedly increase human understanding; a love of artistic experimentation and novelty; a dramatically rising capacity to project military power; emancipation of women from traditional constraints; the systematic harnessing of non-muscle power; and a steadily rising material standard of living” (p. 137).


Precursors of rule of law included the codification of Roman Law. The first university was founded in 1080 to study law. Portuguese navigators created sailing ships capable of sailing across the Atlantic and down the coast of Africa to India. Permanent communication went from tokens, to writing systems, the alphabet, paper and printing—to widespread decentralized printing. Cites received charters of liberties and rights. Scientific endeavors, research, experiments, learned societies led to the Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment. Schooling became widespread, increasing literacy to the masses. Military might, exploitation and slavery were part of the equation. Basically, Europe was more open to change, with bottoms-up approaches important.