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Individualism and the English Peasantry

Rodney Hilton

Alan Macfarlane’s principal objective in The Origins of English Individualism [*] is to prove that there was no peasantry in England during the middle ages and that attempts to describe the development of capitalism as a consequence of the emergence of capitalist relations of production from a pre-capitalist peasant economy are misconceived. For him a market economy of independent producers, employing wage labour rather than family labour, was always present. A rural population of family producers providing mainly for their own subsistence is a myth. The English, as distinct from less fortunate peoples living in Europe and the other four continents, were always ‘rampant individualists’ and probably had been since the Germanic invasions of the fifth century. Capitalism, therefore, has always been with us; it is part of our nature. No wonder that Dr. Macfarlane’s jeu d’esprit has been taken up by conservative journalists whose enthusiasm is only matched by their evident ignorance of the history of their own country.

Macfarlane’s method is simply, if flawed. It is to create a model of a ‘classical’ peasantry and then to match pre-industrial England against it. If England does not fit the model, then England had no peasantry. The model is purportedly based for the most part on Eastern Europe, especially Russia. India and other Asian countries are occasionally brought in but the model is basically Slavonic. The characteristics of this ‘classical’ peasantry are as follows: the family, not the individual, owns the holding—Dr. Macfarlane unaccountably misses out landlords; the family on the holding is multi-generational; its emotions are identified with specific pieces of land; women had few, if any, rights; there is no wage labour; there is no social differentiation; there is hardly any production for the market; therefore there are virtually no markets; also, consequentially, there is no market for land. This model of the peasantry, he says, was foisted on English history by Macaulay, Marx, Weber and pretty well every medieval historian up to the present day. The malign influence of Russian infiltrators like Vinogradoff, Kosminsky and Postan is obvious.

Even if the East European peasantries were as described by Macfarlane, the failure of the English rural population to correspond with the model would not ipso facto entitle us to deny that it was a peasantry. But in any case, Macfarlane has been badly let down by his advisers. Peasants in medieval Russia produced for the market, bought and sold land (women as well as men), gave dowries to their daughters and redistributed their land through partible inheritance. There is no evidence that they lived in multi-generational rather than nuclear families. Russian estate and fiscal documents describe the ownership of the holdings in terms of the head of the family, as was done in contemporary west European documents of similar purpose. Specific features of the Russian peasantry which distinguished it from those of western Europe mainly derived from the abundance of land for colonisation. Hence, there was considerable mobility and opportunity for the creation of new households (this would explain early marriage). There was no reason for sentimental family attachment to a particular piece of land. Macfarlane should acquaint himself with these matters and could begin by reading R.E.F. Smith’s Peasant Farming in Muscovy.

The ‘folksy’ English medievalists (as one of Macfarlane’s sillier admirers refers to them) classify the basic producers of rural England during the middle ages as a peasantry for the following reasons, on the basis of an abundant documentation. The overwhelming bulk of the land under cultivation was divided into holdings for which the family provided the major labour force. A high proportion of the product was necessarily consumed within the household—and this was even true for many of the lord’s demesnes. The demand for money rent by landowners forced their tenants to market a proportion of the product of the holding. They found their markets in the towns and among the not inconsiderable number of non-producers. The shortage of land inevitably meant that as population grew, so did a near or completely landless element which found work on the bigger holdings or on the lord’s lands. Even so, Macfarlane’s estimates of wage labour are entirely unreliable and are characteristic of his unscrupulous selection of evidence. The 50 to 70% of males in East Anglian villages (cited on p. 148) who were servants were, in fact, mainly in centres of textile production, as Macfarlane’s sources make clear. Proportions of hired labour varied considerably from village to village as well as from household to household. Many peasant households had no servants, very few had more than one and they were an addition to, not a substitute for, family labour. The idea that English medievalists only accommodate production for the market, a peasant land market, wage labour and women’s rights in their studies of the medieval peasantry with embarrassment, is ludicrous. They have not, in spite of considerable disagreements between them, started off from a Slavonic model, bogus or otherwise.

Macfarlane pays little attention to processes and relations of production and believes that conceptions of property are what differentiate the English from lesser breeds. He is bemused by his own discovery (well known to others) of the ante mortem alienability of freehold tenures. He relies almost entirely on F.W. Maitland, who in any case is mainly talking about freehold among the upper classes, such as military tenures. He ignores S.C. Milsom’s gentle warning that Maitland ‘sometimes places highly abstract notions of property too early.’ [1] He ignores the implications of the considerable predominance in many areas of peasant land held in villein (that is, servile) tenure, attempting to assimilate it to freehold as though it were equivalent to sixteenth-century copyhold. It is not simply that, even if individualism could rampage among freeholders, it would be severely restricted among villein tenants by the control exercised by lords, and that, as Marc Bloch remarked, ‘in social life is there any more elusive notion than the free will of a small man’? More important, Macfarlane’s picture of medieval England as a country of small, competing entrepreneurs entirely omits the fact of lordship, the concentration of the ownership of land in the hands of the nobility, the gentry and the clergy and their exercise of manorial jurisdiction over the rural population. This is not irrelevant to the argument about the existence of a peasantry, for it is one of the defining features of the class that it bears on its shoulders, through tax and rent, the burden of the state, the aristocracy and the church. If he had tackled this issue, Macfarlane would not have been able completely to ignore the still continuing arguments about the origins of capitalism which were triggered off by Maurice Dobb’s Studies in the Development of Capitalism, a seminal work which he does not even mention.

This review has so far focussed on a few substantive issues raised by Macfarlane. If the book had been a serious historical investigation, it would have called for a lengthy reply. In fact the work is a careful pastiche of selective quotations from printed works, from unpublished books and articles which unsuspecting authors allowed Macfarlane to see before publication, and about twenty ‘personal communications’.

The quotations from principal sources do not give confidence in the author’s judgements. Marc Bloch is quoted both to support the thesis of English individualism and as one of the deluded believers in the primacy of the group in medieval social organisation. Max Weber is mainly cited at second hand from a biography or from the small selection from his writings entitled Theory of Social and Economic Organisation. In a quotation from the latter book, Weber’s description of women in ‘ancient’ England—probably based on the Anglo-Saxon law codes—is given as his view of women’s position in medieval England. Among the as yet unpublished works, Z. Razi’s thesis on medieval Halesowen is cited where it suits him (the peasant land market) but not where it runs counter to his theories about the early age of marriage. C.C. Dyer is cited as being unable to find more than one example of long lasting peasant families, whereas in fact the tables in the quoted article provide many such examples. In order to suggest that the author of this review believes in the ubiquity of multi-generational peasant families occupying holdings, a reference is given which in fact argues for the concept of family composition as a process over time, ranging from the single, unmarried male or female to the nuclear family with co-resident grandparents (The English Peasantry in the Later Middle Ages, pp. 28–9). Perhaps this suggestion is suspect because it implies that the English had habits like the continental Europeans. Finally, one must mention an example of the ‘personal communications’. Macfarlane swallows a statement by Richard Smith that three quarters of the lord’s income on Suffolk manors in the thirteenth century was derived from fines paid by tenants transferring land. It appears that Smith stated that it was three quarters of income from the manorial court perquisites. This is what any historian at all familiar with English agrarian history would have realised.

[*] The Origins of English Individualism by Alan Macfarlane, Basil Blackwell 1978, £8.50, pp. xvi, 216.

[1] S.C. Milsom, Introduction to Pollock and Maitland, History of English Law, 1968 reprint, p. lxxiii.

原载于New Left Review I/120, March-April 1980

 

 

 

 

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