review by James P. Bowen (University of Liverpool)
book edited by Jane Whittle
‘Landlords and tenants in Britain, 1440-1660’ is published by Boydell and Brewer. SAVE 25% when you order direct from the publisher – offer ends on the 15th August 2019. See below for details.
This book, the first volume in the Economic History Society’s ‘People, Markets, Goods: Economies and Societies in History’ paperback series, revisits Tawney’s classic work, The Agrarian Problem in the Sixteenth Century, published in 1912. It arises from a conference held to mark the centenary of the book’s publication and includes the leading figures in rural and agrarian history showcasing the latest research on issues originally discussed by Tawney. The book is logically structured. Keith Wrightson’s foreword provides personal insight as to attitudes amongst Cambridge economic historians who maligned Tawney. The first three chapters offer overviews beginning with Jane Whittle’s historiographical essay concerning Tawney, providing background to his Agrarian Problem. Christopher Dyer surveys the fifteenth century, given Tawney’s view that demographic changes were key in creating change in fifteenth-century England, providing the conditions for the ‘problem’ of the sixteenth century. Harold Garrett-Goodyear addresses the issues surrounding copyhold tenure and the institutional function of manor courts in promoting lords’ private interests as landowners and how this was reflected in economic and social change with the emergence of agrarian capitalism, greater social differentiation and the transition from feudal to modern society.
The remaining chapters are thematic, several of which are detailed local or micro-studies. Briony McDonagh and Heather Falvey explore the enclosure process at a local level. Complementing the rural viewpoint, Andy Wood shows how notions of custom and popular memory were prominent in urban society below the ‘middling sort’, specifically weavers of Malmesbury, Wiltshire, a cloth-working town. Whilst there is an apparent lack of evidence for Tawney’s sense of ‘ideal customary’, he suggests this does not undermine his view, conversely reinforcing his argument about the centrality of custom in popular political culture and disputes arising because of struggles over customary entitlement and urban identity. Providing a comparative dimension Julian Goodare searches for a Scottish agrarian problem, pointing out that whilst the two countries had different legal and political systems, similar processes seem to have been at play, suggesting a common economic problem rather than law or political structures.
Several chapters address the issue of tenure, Tawney having pointed to the insecurity of leasehold tenure and the increasing commercial landlord policies as being central to the agrarian problems of the sixteenth century. Jean Morrin examines a landlord-tenant dispute on the Durham Cathedral Estate over the abolition of traditional customary tenures, specifically tenant-right. She argues for a more subtle approach to leases in the early modern period given the various forms which they took, presenting a picture of negotiation and compromise, which not only encouraged tenants to improve farms, but also granted them the right to bequeath, sell or mortgage their leases to whomever they chose. Jennifer Holt explores the case of the Hornby Castle Estate in north Lancashire, analyzing the potential income from customary land and quantifying the shares of lords and tenants, demonstrating how manorial tenants benefitted despite the lord’s attempt to raise rents and fines, retaining their tenures on a customary basis.
Chapters by Bill Shannon and Elizabeth Griffiths look at landlord-driven agrarian improvement intended to raise revenue. Christopher Brooks considers the legal and political context, in particular the impact of the Civil Wars and Interregnum, highlighting the complexities which weakened Tawney’s assessment of the mid- and later seventeenth century. He highlights the common laws engagement with customary tenures by 1640, arguing that greater security afforded to smallholders enabled them to assert their rights more aggressively, with patriarchal and seigniorial landlord-tenant relationships being replaced by economic relations. Legal developments meant common law served the interests of ‘middling’ agricultural society and the gentry and that by the 1680s, land, including copyhold, had been absorbed into the market for both property and credit. Finally, David Ormrod reflects on the significance of Tawney’s work in relation to long-standing theoretical debates regarding the rise of capitalism and the transition from feudalism to capitalism.
Whittle’s short conclusion effectively synthesizes the chapters, showing that debates have progressed since Tawney’s work not least with regard to the newer approaches towards political, social and rural history. Emphasis is placed on the ‘blurred boundaries’ which existed, leading to disputes notably over enclosure and tenure. Developments in England are viewed in a wider western European perspective, with reference to up-to-date research and future questions identified. The chapters form a coherent volume which, as the title suggests, focuses on the changing relationship between landlords and tenants, a well-established trend in agrarian historiography. Moreover, while it is recognized that any notion of a sixteenth-century agrarian revolution has been rejected, it nevertheless rightly argued that Tawney’s Agrarian Problem, ‘remains a crucial reference point’, containing much to, ‘inform and inspire the twenty-first-century historian seeking to understand the changes that took place in rural England between 1440 and 1660’ (pp. 17-18).
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