How Europe won the race to prosperity

Why were London and Rotterdam, not Beijing and Istanbul, the cradles of the intellectual revolution that triggered the modern age?

A painting depicting an experiment in an English school on a bird in an air pump, 1768. National Gallery, London. (Photo by Photo12/UIG via Getty Images)

This article was first published in the June 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine.

How can we explain the astonishing rise in living standards in the past two centuries? Once we start thinking about the question of the origins of modern economic growth, mused Nobel-prize-winning economist Robert Lucas in 1988, “it is hard to think of anything else”. If even a world-leading expert on business cycles feels that way, what should professional economic historians feel? The literature on the topic is vast, and it may at first glance seem surprising that anyone could add anything of interest to this thrice-squeezed lemon. Yet the odd thing is that culture – by which I mean the entire set of beliefs, preferences and values of society, including religion and social and moral attitudes – has so far played a modest role in this literature. Economics has dominated the story. Perhaps this was because the economics profession, where most important work in economic history has been carried out in the past generation, for a long time was hostile to any use of culture in historical explanation.

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