This historiographical survey of
the medieval landmarket is concerned mainly with the contributions of historians
working in Britain, or those working within the traditions of British historical
writing. This means that not all of the contributions come from British
historians, as they include the work of an Israeli and a number of historians
from the USA.
Before the 1960s the landmarket did not figure
prominently among the preoccupations of historians of the economy and society
of medieval England. Areas of research included agricultural methods, field
systems, the relationship between lords and tenants, and systems of inheritance,
all of which had implications for the landmarket. However, the landmarket
was not a major area of historical enquiry. There was some interest in
transfers of aristocratic land. Historians of the aristocracy like K.B.
McFarlane had shown that the fortunes of noble families had been built
up by the purchase of land, as well as by inheritance and political patronage.
One pattern of transfer in the thirteenth century involved the growth of
the fortunes of magnate families, and of greater monastic houses, by purchasing
land that was sold by impoverished members of the lesser nobility. Knights
and gentry, embarrassed by debt, were forced to sell to those who had spare
cash. It is no longer believed that this resulted in a general redistribution
of landed wealth from the lesser nobility towards the greater landowners,
but it was still a significant tendency within landlord society. Indeed
the study of sales of land by the aristocracy goes back to the earliest
period of documentation. We have a little evidence for land sales in the
seventh, eighth and ninth centuries, and a considerable number of charters
recording purchases of land by monastic landholders in the tenth and eleventh
centuries in eastern England.
Our concern here is with the development of a
landmarket among the peasantry. This could only become a major area of
study when historians adopted a peasant-centred approach to medieval society.
This depended on the systematic study of manorial court records, which
provided the means for investigating the lives and activities of peasants,
so that they could be seen as significant figures in their own right, not
just as adjuncts of lordship. This peasant-centred approach has sometimes
been claimed as the unique achievement of the group of historians based
at Toronto in Canada, and they did make an important contribution, but
in fact the method was being pursued by historians at Birmingham, Cambridge,
Durham, Leicester and Oxford from the 1960s. I will discuss this research
firstly by looking at the central debate on the nature of the peasant landmarket
- was it commercial or not? Then I will turn to look at some more recent
preoccupations among students of the landmarket: the landmarket's role
in the origins of capitalism; and in the development of social security.
A suitable starting point in considering historical
writing about the landmarket is the work of M.M. Postan. He fitted the
transfer of parcels of land by peasants into his overarching theory of
a population-driven expansion in the thirteenth century followed by a crisis
in the fourteenth. Postan, making one of his rare visits to the archives,
noticed in the library at Peterborough Cathedral a manuscript volume on
the cover of which was written the title Carte Nativorum (The charters
of the serfs). This was surely a contradiction because serfs could not
own charters? In fact when the contents of the book were examined it was
clear that the monks of Peterborough allowed their servile tenants to buy
free land as long as they surrendered their charters to their landlord.
A landmarket was allowed by the monks provided that they supervised it.
Postan explained the economic significance of these transfers of free land
in two ways. Firstly, he conceded that the market in land was influenced
by the increased market in agricultural produce in the thirteenth century.
Peasants bought land in order to profit from its cultivation. They had
the means to buy land, because they could sell their grain, wool and other
products at advantageous prices. If this was the whole story this would
mean that the landmarket began in the thirteenth century, in the age of
rising prices and expanding markets. Secondly, however, he gave special
emphasis to the permanent and enduring character of peasant society which
would lead to a constant exchange of land between households. Some large
families would need more land to feed their members, and could cultivate
it because they had the resources of labour. Other households, such as
those of elderly people or widows, lacked both labour and the need for
large quantities of foodstuffs. And so parcels of land would constantly
move from the holdings of those who did not require it, towards those with
a greater capacity to cultivate it and to consume its produce. There was
nothing new about the landmarket in the thirteenth century, just the documents
that recorded it. For Postan, who was so concerned with the changing balance
between land and people both on the small scale and the large scale, the
landmarket was an enduring 'natural' feature of a peasant society.
Postan's interpretations were challenged by Hyams,
who found that in the royal courts, disputes over sales of land began in
the thirteenth century and were most frequently found in the most commercialised
region, East Anglia. This suggested that the
landmarket had a commercial origin, and was a
relative novelty in the thirteenth century.
Further work on the Peterborough Abbey estate
by King shed new light on the landmarket. He found that it was mainly rich
peasants who were acquiring the free land recorded in the 'charters of
the serfs'. Their motive was not so much to expand their own holdings,
but to provide land for their daughters and for their younger sons who
were not allowed to inherit the customary land of the main holding. Therefore
the landmarket had a commercial origin because it reflected the wealth
of the emerging kulak class, and it also showed the desire of these wealthy
peasants to achieve the non-commercial end of endowing members of the family
The initial flurry of interest in the landmarket
preceded the systematic study of
manorial court rolls. A good deal of the initial
work on these records was done by research students, and their conclusions
appeared in rather specialist articles. Their initial findings eroded some
traditional assumptions. Jones showed, using Bedfordshire examples from
the thirteenth century, that in an area under some urban influence the
market in land led to a great deal of sub-tenancy. This meant that the
formal surveys of land holdings had misled historians. Lists of standard
holdings of virgates or half-virgates , (also known as yardlands or half-yardlands
which contained usually 30 or 15 acres) are found in the surveys compiled
by the great church estates, or by the state in the Hundred Rolls of 1279-90.
These imply a rather uniform and static landholding structure, but the
use of other sources gives a dynamic and varied picture.
Faith, working on Berkshire evidence, found that
inheritance after the Black Death was a rather rare occurrence. More land
was transferred through the market than within the family, though inheritance
within the family predominated before the Black Death.
Debates were going on in the 1960s and 1970s,
and a great deal of new research was being carried out on court rolls,
but all of this effort had a delayed reaction and the results did not arrive
fully in published form until 1984 and 1985. Two books were published that
made non-specialists aware of the activities of the previous decade. Harvey's
book on the peasant landmarket in medieval England was based on PhD theses
written much earlier by Faith, Jones, Lomas and Williamson. Smith's book,
with its more pretentious title of Land, Kinship and Life-Cycle contained
essays presented to a conference held in 1975 on the influence of life-cycles
on tenant landholding. Both books contributed to the debate between those
who argued that the landmarket was primarily a reflection of commercial
growth, and those who said that the impositions of lords, or family sentiment,
or even attitudes within peasant communities, had a strong influence on
the transfer of land. By now Chayanov's ideas had been translated into
English and had become known to English scholars. Chayanov analysed Russian
peasants in about 1900 and argued that the peasant economy was cut off
from conventional market forces. The labour used on the peasant holdings
came from within the family, and the produce was mainly used for consumption
by family members. Peasants gave the highest priority to subsistence and
auto-consumption, not trade. Families might acquire land when the head
of the household was young and his children were growing up, but then in
their decline as the parents became older, the holdings would be reduced
in size and accumulations of land would be broken up. Postan knew of these
ideas, and they had influenced him when he wrote about the charters of
Some historians of medieval England regard the
family as an important influence on landholding. Razi, in his study of
the very well documented manor of Halesowen in the
west midlands, pointed out the high proportion
of transfers in the period 1270-1348 which were made from one relative
to another, so that 63% of transactions were between family members and
80% of land was transferred within the family. Razi's great achievement
was to use court rolls for research into demography, and he showed that
there was a strong relationship between family size and the size of holdings.
Tenants with a virgate or yardland (30 acres) had on average 5 children,
whereas cottagers often had only 2. Razi was able to detect in the court
rolls evidence of a strong family sentiment in which fathers looked after
the offspring who had no formal claim to the inheritance, and old people
could expect to be supported in their retirement by the younger generation.
Families had a strong attachment to a holding so that in the event of a
failure of the main line, remote relatives, even those living away from
the manor, would return to claim their family's land. At Halesowen, the
density of kin was very marked. Relatives tended to live near one another,
and supported each other.
Razi's interpretation found support from other
investigations of the landmarket within the midlands. Jones established
that two-thirds of transfers in Bedfordshire villages were within the family
and consequently the landmarket between families was less active before
the Black Death. Howell, working on Kibworth Harcourt in Leicestershire,
argued that family and inheritance were still important influences on the
transfer of peasant land as late as the fifteenth century. Barbara Harvey
worked on the records of Westminster Abbey's extensive estates and recognised
that the landmarket was a threat to the larger family holding of a yardland
or virgate and indeed helped to persuade the lord to allow them to be sub-divided
into half or quarter virgates by the thirteenth century. But in that century
a halt was called by the lords and possibly by the peasants themselves,
lest holdings became over fragmented, and ceased to provide a stable basis
for a family's maintenance. The villagers influenced the landmarket, as
Hilton showed that the community as a whole had a prejudice not just against
excessive sub-division of holdings, but also expressed its dislike of the
accumulation of land in the hands of a few individuals. Finally, in my
own research on the estates of the bishopric of Worcester, I found evidence
of transfers of land between families, in the fifteenth century, resembling
the pattern defined by Chayanov. Many peasants in later life held smallholdings,
but had accumulated larger quantities of land in their 20s, 30s and 40s,
presumably in response to family need. In this case the market and the
ambitions of families, were not necessarily opposed to one another, as
those with growing families acquired pieces of land by purchase from their
Those historians who worked on eastern England
described a different situation. They first of all found that the landmarket
was much more active. The traditional tenements of the type found in the
midlands had ceased to exist on many East Anglian manors, and had broken
down into many small parcels. Therefore the transfer of tiny parcels often
of an acre or less dominates the records of manorial courts in East Anglia.
The landmarket appears to be dominated by individuals rather than by families.
For example, in Redgrave in Suffolk, 9% of transfers took place within
the family, though as each transfer tended to contain larger quantities
of land, 42% of land was in fact inherited. The comparable figures at Coltishall
in Norfolk, studied by Campbell, were that 13% of the transactions and
50% of the land that was transferred passed within the family. The different
percentages arise from the tendency of peasants to sell land in small parcels,
but to leave larger holdings to be inherited by the next generation.
In his summing up of research into the landmarket
Smith concluded that Chayanov's ideas were not applicable to England or
even to western Europe. Medieval English peasants were market orientated,
and employed much wage labour. In Russia, land was the only source of income
but in England people could pursue a range of occupations. They could for
example involve themselves in brewing and retail trade, or be employed
as wage earners in agriculture or industry, or they could become craftsmen.
The whole society was much more mobile, with a great deal of migration
from village to village or from village to town. A younger son who could
not acquire land by inheritance could often find a rich widow, and by marrying
her he could become a tenant in his own right. As well as emphasising
the market, Smith also played down the role of institutions. He believed
that the use of partible or non-partible inheritance did not produce radically
different landholding patterns. When younger sons inherited a fraction
of a holding in eastern England, they often then sold it. And in the areas
of impartible inheritance, younger sons could often gain access to land,
sometimes because they or their fathers bought it. Smith doubted the importance
of family sentiment, and also expressed scepticism about the influence
of the village community on the behaviour of individuals. Differentiation
among peasants in eastern England was promoted by the bad harvests of the
1290s and early fourteenth century which gave opportunities to the more
prosperous and ruthless tenants to take over the land of their poorer neighbours.
However, Smith allowed for some non-economic factors such as systems of
patronage within village society, which enabled wealthier families to exercise
influence over their poorer neighbours.
We can see therefore that a great landmark was
reached in studies of the medieval peasant landmarket in 1984 and 1985.
No general survey of the subject has appeared since then.
The study of the landmarket was given a new impetus
by the debate about the origins of capitalism. The 1975 conference on 'Life
Cycles' was attended by a historian who was also an anthropologist, Alan
Macfarlane. He had studied village society in the sixteenth and seventeenth
centuries, and was very impressed when he heard from medieval historians
about the evidence for an active commercial landmarket in the thirteenth
century. He wrote an iconoclastic book in 1979 on the origins of English
individualism in which he argued that peasants in nineteenth-century Russia
or in twentieth -century Nepal were dominated by family loyalties, but
in thirteenth- century England there was a lack of family sentiment. He
denied therefore that the English rural population can be described as
peasants, and instead he believed that they were individualists and had
a capitalist mentality. They bought and sold land like any other commodity.
Land did not belong to the family; it belonged to the individual. For Macfarlane
the family acted as an obstacle to economic development, and he was reluctant
to assign much importance either to landlords or to the village community
as a brake on enterprising individuals.
The American historian Brenner had offered a
completely different view also in the late 1970s. He was also an early
modernist, who believed that the gentry were the dynamic class behind capitalist
development. The English peasants, unlike their French counterparts, had
little security of tenure and could be evicted and removed by their landlords.
The gentry did this in the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and this
process marked the first stage of agrarian capitalism. Those involved in
landmarket studies accepted neither of these extreme and incompatible positions.
These have rejected Brenner's view that peasants formed a barrier to capitalism,
and had to be removed to make way for the ambitious and modernising gentry.
Razi has argued that in the thirteenth and fourteenth
centuries, contrary to Macfarlane, families kept land to themselves. He
believes that they felt a moral obligation to pass their inheritance on
to heirs. Also, all members of the family had a claim for support. Hence
fathers bought land for their non-inheriting children. The accumulation
of land by individuals did not lead to a long-term differentiation because
land was often spread out among the family. This was not an irrational
attachment to family land, and in a crisis, like the great famine of 1315-17,
the land was sold. The strong family attachment to land was, however, tenacious
and survived the impact of the Black Death. In 1351-1430 a great deal of
land was still transferred within the family, though often remote relatives
came into the village to claim the land because sons and other direct heirs
were not available. After 1430 inheritance declined; families became more
nuclear, and there was a narrower, more selfish outlook among peasants.
So Razi is saying that the Black Death and the social and cultural changes
of the 80 years after the plague epidemic created the preconditions for
the development of a capitalist mentality.
A number of researchers - Glennie, Mate, Hoyle
and Whittle - all see the land market as providing opportunities for the
accumulation of land by peasants in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
In other words, unlike Brenner, the peasants are seen as actors,
having some control over their own destiny, and
not just as the victims of their social superiors. Whittle's main work
was in Norfolk, an eastern county with a very lively market in small parcels
of land among peasants. As was typical in East Anglia around 1300, most
transfers took place outside the family, though as at Redgrave and Coltishall,
about half of the land was transferred within the family because inherited
holdings tended to be larger than those bought and sold. Whittle argued
that there was no lack of family feeling in the late middle ages, but sons
often did not need their father's land because they could acquire it for
themselves. Peasants were pragmatic about land. If it was scarce and expensive
they favoured inheritance. If it could be bought, they went to the market.
By the sixteenth century peasant holdings had grown to a considerable size,
often 50 acres or more. They were producing a market surplus with considerable
profits, and were more likely to keep holdings in the family. The gentry
should not be excluded from this picture; they were also active in production
and technical innovation. When they expanded their land holding, it was
often through the purchase of holdings, including peasant holdings. Brenner
greatly exaggerated their ability to expropriate peasant land and underestimated
the market forces which allowed gentry and thriving kulaks to buy land
from peasants. Gentry felt no shame in acquiring 'copyhold' land that still
carried some vestigial characteristics of servile tenure.
A related problem is the institutional and legal
basis of the landmarket. Did peasants develop a sense of ownership and
control of their land? We know that in the thirteenth century it was being
said that servile peasants owned nothing, and lords claimed the right to
control their goods: they could demand tallage 'at will' and they could
take animals and other goods on the death of a tenant. Everyone who acquired
a new holding, whether by purchase or by inheritance, paid an entry fine
that could be high or low as the lord wished. How could a landmarket operate
in such circumstances? Surely the peasants could not alienate land as it
was under seigniorial control?
In his introduction to his 1984 book, Paul Harvey
argued the striking case that holdings were rather fluid concepts until
the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Holdings were shares in the land
of the manor, and they were not given territorial definition with proper
boundaries until perhaps 1150 or even later. This explains why assarts
only make their appearance in the records at a late stage. If you cleared
new land in the early twelfth century, you just added it to your share
of the village's resources. By 1200 holdings had been defined so the assarts
were regarded as separate, with their own form of tenure and rent obligation.
Similarly a landmarket, or at least transfer and exchange of parcels, could
have operated informally before 1150, but by 1200 each holding had fixed
parcels and transfers had to be formally registered.
In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries the
concept of peasant property continued to develop, most recently discussed
by Bonfield and Poos. Whatever lawyers said about lords' control of customary
land, in practice servile peasants owned their holdings and could alienate
them. Customary law was regulated by courts which developed their procedures
in parallel with the royal courts. Tenants were give a copy of the entry
in the court roll and the rolls could be checked in matters of disputes.
There were regular procedures for making a sale and registering it in the
manorial court. The most important of these was the ad opus transfer which
protected the interests of the lord, because the transfer was reported
to his court, but also protected the interests of both the buyer and the
seller, because there was a public and open record of the transfer of the
tenancy from one person to another. Lords very rarely evicted tenants,
and respected the inheritance rights even of notorious rebels. The lord's
interest was to be able to discipline and perhaps expel a difficult tenant,
but a smooth flow of rents and services was best achieved by having a well-established
community of tenants who had a long-term stake in the land. The danger
was that such ownership would give the peasants ambitions for independence.
We find peasants anxious to sub-let, and indeed to convey their land by
charter rather than through the manor courts. Lords attempted to regulate
sub-tenancy and opposed the presumptions of peasants who wished to use
Under pressure from peasants the lords allowed
new ways of conveyancing. These included the conditional grant, such as
the agreement by which an elderly peasant would be maintained on the holding
when it was granted to a new tenant. But the most important development
in the fourteenth century was the death-bed transfer. Wills were a controversial
matter for lords who wanted to prevent customary peasants from making bequests
which might lead to land escaping from the control of the lord. The compromise
was to allow death-bed grants made before witnesses, preferably including
the lord's bailiff, which could be reported and approved at the next court.
Another development favoured women who, from about 1300, were commonly
receiving land jointly with their husbands, which gave them full rights
over land if the husband died. And it also became common to give women
the right to object if their husband proposed a transfer of land without
their consent (women's rights to land have been explored by Smith).
The landmarket is visible in the manor court
records as a change of tenancy. Lords liked to think that the registration
of surrenders and new tenancies in the courts kept them in control of tenant
land. However, to the parties involved it was a sale of property in which
the lord had to be consulted, and eventually the intervention of the lord
became a mere formality.
Lastly, Schofield, Smith and Clark have discussed
the role of the landmarket as a means of providing social security. There
are three distinct ways in which this can be observed. Firstly, in times
of adversity, particularly in the period of poor harvest and general crisis
between 1290 and 1340, the number of transfers rises greatly. When harvests
were bad and corn expensive, poor peasants sold land to buy food. More
often, one suspects that this use of the landmarket was closely connected
with the system of credit. Those who had borrowed money or obtained mortgages
on their land, were forced to sell in hard times. Whatever the mechanisms
that were involved, selling land helped peasants over hard times. Secondly,
at all times, retiring peasants used their land to obtain maintenance from
their successors by selling or transferring their land with the condition
that they received an allowance of grain, a share of the house, and other
means of living in retirement. Some historians would argue that this was
simply a commercial exchange - in other words, property was sold to buy
an annuity. Others see it as a customary social duty which normally fell
on children, but could be extended to non-relatives who took over an old
person's holding. Finally, institutional charities could gain from the
sales of land. Peasants would make a small-scale contribution to a local
almshouse or fraternity by leaving land to such institutions, or by requiring
in their wills that land be sold to be distributed to charity.
Lastly, we must return to the central concerns
of the landmarket and the work that still needs to be done to extend
our knowledge of this important economic and social activity. A priority
must be given to understanding regional differences. There was clearly
an important east-west divide, but we still do not understand the reasons
for the contrasts. We also need to understand the landmarket in relation
to other parts of the market. For example, the relationship between land
values and the prices of agricultural produce, and the ways in which fluctuations
in the market for grain, wool and other products might influence trends
in the buying and selling of land. Finally, we need to do more work on
the vexed question of the relationship between families and the market.
The rather simple idea that strong families are associated with peasant
society and that individualism is a feature of capitalist society must
be regarded with scepticism.
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