The Mainspring of European Growth

  • R. A. Buchanan


The Europe which emerged from the period of medieval consolidation was in many respects recognisable as the Europe of today. Distinct linguistic traditions provided fertile ground for the development of nationalism, and many political, legal, and academic institutions had been created which have enjoyed a continuous existence from the Middle Ages to the present. But in other ways the differences between Europe in the early sixteenth century and the twentieth century are more significant than the similarities. In particular, Western European Civilisation in 1500 occupied a modest backwater of world politics, whereas 400 years later it had come to wield an absolute world ascendancy. This transformation was the result of profound changes within Western Civilisation, which will be explored in this and subsequent chapters. At the outset, however, it is important to stress both the continuity and the dynamism of the process which make it possible to relate a succession of disruptive innovations, both material and intellectual, to a stable core of European institutions. Thus it is possible to maintain that, despite all the changes which have characterised Western Civilisation over the last five centuries, it is still essentially a continuation of the civilisation which had established itself in Western Europe during the previous half-millennium.


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  1. 1.
    The technological advantages of the European newcomers to the Indian Ocean are admirably represented in C. M. Cipolla, Guns and Sails in the Early Phase of European Expansion (Collins, 1965 ).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Mercantilism continues to be a theme much discussed by European historians. The most substantial treatment was E. F. Heckscher, Mercantilism 2 vols (London: Allen & Unwin, 1935)Google Scholar
  3. but this is now somewhat dated. W. Minchinton (ed.) Mercantilism (D. C. Heath & Co, Boston US, 1969) is a useful compilation of various points of view on the subject.Google Scholar
  4. 3.
    The image of Europe being intellectually stood on its head is used in Herbert Butterfield, The Origins of Modern Science (Bell, 1949).Google Scholar
  5. This book still provides a stimulating introduction to the subject. See also A. Rupert Hall, The Scientific Revolution (London: Longmans, 1962) for a more technical treatment.Google Scholar
  6. 4.
    Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (first published 1904–5, English edition, Allen & Unwin, 1930). Extracts from the main contributions to the scholarly controversy which has followed this seminal essay are collected in Protestantism and Capitalism: The Weber Thesis and its Critics edited by Robert W. Green in the series ‘Problems in European Civilization’, (D. C. Heath & Co., Boston, US, 1959).Google Scholar
  7. 5.
    Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and causes of the Wealth of Nations Book II, ch. 3, ‘Of the Accumulation of Capital, or of unproductive Labour’. In the edition of 1786, this quotation is on p. 13 of vol. II.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© R. A. Buchanan 1979

Authors and Affiliations

  • R. A. Buchanan
    • 1
  1. 1.University of BathUK

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