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9-08-2015, 15:40

Economics and technology, 1450–1600

In a famous scene from Don Quixote , the knight Don Quixote and his faithful squire Sancho Panza hear along a stream “strokes falling with a measured beat, and a certain rattling of iron and chains that, together with the furious din of the water, would have struck terror into any heart but Don Quixote’s.” The noise “is but an incentive and stimulant to my spirit,” says Don Quixote, “making my heart burst in my bosom through eagerness to engage in this adventure, arduous as it promises to be.” After secretly tying his horse’s legs together, Sancho Panza persuades Don Quixote to wait until morning, and tells him a long story to pass the time. Once it was light, the two: began to move towards that quarter whence the sound of the water and of the strokes seemed to come … they came upon a little meadow at the foot of some high rocks, down which a mighty rush of water fl ung itself. At the foot of the rocks were some rudely constructed houses looking more like ruins than houses, from among which came, they perceived, the din and clatter of blows, which still continued without intermission. Rocinante [Don Quixote’s horse] took fright at the noise of the water and of the blows, but quieting him Don Quixote advanced step by step towards the houses, commending himself with all his heart to his lady, imploring her support in that dread pass and enterprise, and on the way commending himself to God, too, not to forget him. Sancho, who never quitted his side, stretched his neck as far as he could and peered between the legs of Rocinante to see if he could now discover what it was that caused him such fear and apprehension. They went it might be a hundred paces farther, when on turning a corner the true cause, beyond the possibility of any mistake, of that dreadsounding and to them awe-inspiring noise that had kept them all the night in such fear and perplexity, appeared plain and obvious; and it was (if, reader, thou art not disgusted and disappointed) six fulling hammers which by their alternate strokes made all the din. Sancho Panza immediately burst into laughter “so heartily that he had to hold his sides with both hands to keep himself from bursting,” whereupon Don Quixote struck him with his lance and ordered him not to talk about the incident. “[How] am I,” he asked Sancho Panza, “a gentleman … to know and distinguish sounds and tell whether they come from fulling mills or not … when perhaps I have never in my life seen any as you have, low boor as you are, that have been born and bred among them?” 1 In this scene, Miguel Cervantes captures not only Don Quixote’s often misguided sense of gallantry and heroism, but also some of the economic changes going on in sixteenth-century Europe. What the knight and his squire mistake for giant opponents is a water-powered fulling mill, in which mechanical stampers beat woven cloth with water and special clay called fuller’s earth to make it thicker, bulkier, and more windproof. Fulling had long been done by hand – or actually by foot, for fullers stamped the cloth in special tubs – but in the sixteenth century wind and water power began to be used to power fulling mills, which dramatically reduced the number of workers needed. Mechanical fulling equipment was quite expensive, so that fulling mills were generally owned by investors, not by those who tended the machines. Lifting soggy cloth in and out of fulling mills, and spreading it out to dry, was still hard physical labor, not the sort of thing that a gentleman like Don Quixote would ever do. Don Quixote probably wore cloth that had gone through a mechanical fulling mill, but, as he says, only a lower-class person such as Sancho Panza would have been “born and bred among them,” that is, near the noisy and unpleasant mills. Cloth was the most important commodity handled by merchants, and changes in cloth-making were at the heart of the growth of the early modern European economy. The transformation of the European economy through investment in new, largerscale processes of trade and production is usually termed the “rise of capitalism.” Along with the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the growth of the nation-state, the expansion of capitalism has long been viewed as a central factor in the development of the modern world.