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All organic economies were subject to constraints upon growth for reasons familiar to the classical economists, but their relative success in coping with these constraints differed substantially. This is visible both when comparing different areas at the same point in time and when comparing the circumstances of a given economy at different points in time. In this article the state of the English economy in 1300 is compared with its state in 1800. At the former date the balance between output and population was unfavourable. A run of poor harvests spelled grave and widespread suffering. Five hundred years later this had ceased to be true. The particular focus of the article is upon the significance of a rising level of productivity per head in agriculture, not simply in supplying food but in providing the raw materials and energy needed if industry and transport were to expand. In the circumstances of an organic economy both were heavily dependent upon the ‘surplus’ made available by a productive agriculture after meeting the needs of the population for food.