It is a little hard to justify treating
the U.S. and Canada apart from England insofar as the peasant land market
is concerned. Not only are most studies of the medieval peasantry
undertaken by American historians concerned with England, but it is sometimes
hard to decide who is an American historians and who is English.
For example Paul Hyams and Mavis Mate are English, have written important
articles on the land market, were trained in England and now teach in the
United States. Despite the somewhat provincial aspect of limiting
myself to this field, it seems to me worth asking why so little has been
done in the United States and Canada concerning the peasant land market.
Partly because of the influence of the Toronto School of English medieval
history but even more because of certain persistent tendencies in the way
American medievalists look at medieval society, it is worth exploring how
investigation of the land market has been caught up in and obscured by
our preoccupation with rather abstract questions of peasant individuality
and village community. It is through what I regard as a false, or
at any rate misleading, dichotomy between "modern" individualism and medieval
community that American medievalists have viewed the land market.
Problems of the origin of a capitalist mentality or the solidarity and
breakdown of the village serve as a constricting framework even now, limiting
research into the full complexity of a practice, the brisk trade in buying
and selling peasant land. The peasant land market is not, in fact,
easily categorized into decisive evidence for the strength or weakness
of individualism, the peasant family or the rural community.
I am interested in this historiographic question
because of a general sense that American research on the medieval peasantry
has suffered from certain conceptual limitations. At François
Menant's seminar in February I had the privilege of giving a paper on this
problem. François' seminar, devoted to "pression [prélevement?]
seigneuriale," allowed me to think about the relative absence of the seigneurial
regime in the work of U.S. and Canadian historians. I suggested that
while the weakness of American Marxist intellectual tradition was not without
significance, a more important factor was the tendency to regard the peasant
community as autonomous, its relationship to lords either distant or affected
only by impersonal demographic and economic factors. Father Ambrose
Raftis and his students at the University of Toronto in their studies of
medieval England emphasized the autonomy of the rural manor and village.
According to these historians, the pressure of the lord's demands were
less important to the lives of villagers than their internal differences
between well-off and marginal tenants. Agriculturalists, the "masters
in the village," were influenced by such external factors as population
growth and decline, prices and the lords' strategies to maximize income
(demesne-farming in the thirteenth century or commutation of services after
the Black Death). But even beyond the Toronto School's influence,
a certain mistrust of identifying such a thing as a "feudal system" (let
alone "feudalism") focused the attention of North American historians on
a peasantry conceived as individual actors and only intermittently hemmed
in by a system of exploitation.
By system I mean not only the fact of seigneurial
pressure exerted by levies but also the integration of family structure
and life-cycle into the profits of lordship. In European studies
of peasant inheritance, marriage, dowry, indebtedness, provisions for old
age and finally the peasant land market have been seen in terms of a seigneurial
structure intent on maximizing tenurial stability and profits therefrom.
For Catalonia, which I know best, Mercè Aventin and Lluís
To have most recently demonstrated these interconnections.
In the U.S and Canada (and here I confess
myself guilty of this as well), family and transmission of tenements has
been viewed apart from lordship, and the land market in particular has
been regarded in terms of the individual and community. For American
historians the peasant is either an unconstrained individualist or a member
of an organic community whose bonds eventually wane with the onset of modernity.
The presence of a land market is thus explicable as proof of individualistic
self- or familial aggrandizement, or the fraying of communal ties after
the Black death, or both. What has been missing is some feeling for
the mechanism of feudal social and economic relations in which the buying
and selling of land is linked to such factors as number of children, inheritance
customs, and the nature of seigneurial rent.
While the Toronto School has tended to give an
optimistic picture of the English peasantry by minimizing seigneurial pressure,
some recent studies point to a rediscovery of peasant oppression and rebellion
against it. At François' seminar I mentioned Thomas Bisson's
Tormented Voices (which deals with peasant complaints of nobles' violence
in twelfth-century Catalonia), Steven Justice's Writing and Rebellion (on
the insurgents of England in 1381), Richard Wunderli's Peasant Fires (a
romanticized account of the Niklashausen uprising of 1476), and William
TeBrake's Plague of Insurrection (on the Flanders revolt of 1321-1328).
These books and others demonstrate that not everyone believes peasants
felt themselves unconstrained by the conditions of their existence, but
they express more interest in the voice of the peasant community and its
mentalities than in the actual conditions peasants were attempting to change.
I see these studies as evidence for a belated rediscovery of medieval violence
and oppression which appears to the authors as all the more surprising
given the previous lack of appreciation for the ways in which the seigneurial
regime actually functioned as a means of surplus extraction.
There was a period in which quantitative studies
of demography and peasant families were undertaken by such historians as
David Herlihy. On the one hand there is work on the impersonal large
forces studied in the 1970s and, on the other hand, anecdotal material
about peasants collected to show how diverse and richly textured was medieval
rural life (here I am thinking about later products of the Toronto School
such as the Festshcirft for Father Raftis, The Salt of the Common Life;
or Sherri Olson's A Chronicle of All that Happens). There is very
little in between these two extremes. There is some attention to
dowry and peasant marriages in conjunction with the history of Italian
urban women (Diane Owen Hughes) and English peasants (Eleanor Searle).
Judith Bennet has looked at gender and the medieval countryside.
Lawrence Poos' studies of demography and the economy of post-Plague Essex
are mptable for their judicious analysis of evidence and appreciation of
comparative context. Poos, barely touches on the land market, however.
If we compare American historiography with England the former appears impoverished:
the concern with servitude shown in Rodney Hilton's work, with lordship
and serfdom as described in the recent work of Rosmond Faith, the analysis
of prices, standards of living, status and the seigneurie in Christopher
Dyer, or the comparative breadth in Chris Wickham's work, or the demographic
analysis of agrarian income and structure of Richard Smith-- there is nothing
really comparable in North America.
The debate over Robert Brenner's theories about
the seigneurie and the transition from feudalism to capitalism seem at
first glance to disprove my contention that the social historical force
of seigneurial extraction has been neglected in America. Brenner's
attack on demographic determinism was intended to redirect attention away
from impersonal Malthusian forces to the efforts of the land-owning classes
to consolidate their holdings and degrade the condition of their tenants.
Here clearly there is a seigneurial regime and it functions as an articulated
system, but what concerned Brenner more than twenty years ago and what
continues to do so in his contribution to the volume on Slavery and Serfdom
edited by Michael Bush is the transition from feudalism to capitalism and
in particular the question of English exceptionalism. The emergence
of Britain as "the first modern society" as the volume in honor of the
late Lawrence Stone puts it, is attributed to the inability of the English
copyholder in the early modern era to resist the expansion, engrossment
and enclosure of land by the powerful. Only apparently paradoxically
the relatively free personal status of the English agriculturalist in contrast
to his French colleague rendered him less able to transmit a small holding
from one generation to another. In England, as in Catalonia, an effective
revolt against serfdom has the supposed result of separating tenants not
only from their masters but from their particular farms as well.
The context for Brenner's observations is still
the relative weight of individualism and community. His conclusions
and emphasis on seigneurial pressure may differ from those of the Toronto
School but there is still the sense of tension between a progressive if
isolating mentality of the English peasant and the retrograde communalism
of France in the first instance and even more, eastern Europe. Brenner
judges the differential evolution of eastern and western Europe in terms
of the greater force of peasant enterprise and individualism in the west,
where serfdom was thrown off, than in the East where it deepened in the
The land market as such is unremarked in Brenner's
work even in the contrast between the entrepreneurial England where peasants
were not linked to subsistence holdings and France where self-sufficient
holdings survived. Perhaps this is because the presence or absence
of a land market is not so conveniently associated with degree of progress
towards capitalism, or it may be symptomatic of the tendency to marginalize
consideration of the land market entirely in North American studies of
the peasantry, even those in which the seigneurial regime and its impact
plays a role.
The land market has, however, been used in arguments
against Brenner's thesis. Patricia Croot and David Parker criticized
Brenner for assuming that an investment mentality must be associated only
with large farms when in fact the active market in very small pieces of
land shows a willingness on the part of small-holders to engage in rational,
efficient assembling of land without particular ties to family parcels.
Mavis Mate has used an analysis of the land market
in East Sussex to demonstrate how complicated the rural class structure
was. Instead of a monolithic contrast between powerful lords and
helpless peasants, she finds peasants who are both tenants and landlords,
customary tenants who buy and sell other parcels of land, peasants who
are entrepreneurs and family farmers at the same time. She answers
the question of English progress versus French backwardness by reference
to the more fluid land market and more flexible laws in the former realm.
Here then, as with Brenner, the real problematic is still the origins of
capitalism with the difference that the land market is more explicitly
linked than in Brenner to modern open competitiveness.
Is the land market then evidence for the breakdown
of community and the rise of individualism? In Ambrose Raftis' work
on Ramsey Abbey and its villages the presence of an active land market
after the Black Death and its absence before indicates the corrosive impact
of the epidemic after which "private and independent interests took precedence
over those of groups". Less focused on the aftermath of 1348-1349,
Marjorie McIntosh in Autonomy and Community: The Royal Manor of Havering
devotes only a brief two pages to the land market, but she too sees its
growth in the early fifteenth century in terms of her title, a tension
between "autonomy" and "community."
Is the presence of a land market evidence for
a mentality of individualism as opposed to an earlier communal orientation?
Here the Toronto School is not completely monolithic in its response.
While Raftis himself has tended to regard the land market as a product
of decaying common ties, his students have been more inclined to see transfers
between living peasants as part of family strategies and dependent on family
size and expectations. For Raftis' student Anne DeWindt, for example,
buying or selling land by peasant tenants in King's Ripton (belonging to
Ramsey Abbey) depended on changes in family size (in more or less Chayanovian
fashion). Evidence for an active land market is used to bolster the
standard Toronto argument that the community of the village was more important
in governing the every day life of the manor than the distant lord.
This is a community versus seigneurie paradigm rather than community versus
individual: "The manorial lord made an effort to record these transactions
for the peasant in order to ensure his share of the profits. . . but the
motivation and rationale for this activity on the land market must be sought
from within the peasant community itself." The problem, as
Peter Gatrell observed, is that DeWindt didn't offer much evidence for
the link between family size or age of children and the buying or selling
of land. The problem of records insufficient to make sure of family
connections is well-known in connection with debates over the use of manor
court rolls. Where such records are complete, as at Halesowen in
Worcestershire studied by Zvi Razi, there is an erosion of the tie between
families and specific pieces of land, but there doesn't seem to be a connection
between acquisition and disposal of land on the one hand and family expansion
or contraction on the other. But Christopher Dyer and Edwin DeWindt
have found links between the land market and the desire to provide
something for children otherwise cut out of inheritance, so that the presence
of non-inheriting children would be a stimulus for acquiring small assorted
In looking at American studies of English rural
society as a whole, I would summarize their preoccupations in three categories:
1) the origins of capitalism and the end of feudalism. This
is of clear interest to Brenner and to Marxist scholarship but without
being quite so explicitly labeled is present in the Toronto School insofar
as the Black Death is seen as breaking apart a traditional form of organization
and equilibrium without giving it the name "feudalism." More congenial
to the Toronto School and to most North American historians of the Middle
Ages is 2) the forces of individualism and community. These can be
opposed, as in the theory that the land market represents the triumph of
individual ambition over communal egalitarianism or in attributing social
tension within villages to the differentiation between a peasant elite
and everyone else. But especially in the work of the Toronto School
community, family and individual are set up against seigneurial power.
The peasant community is depicted as stronger than the seigneurial administration
(in the DeWindts work, for example), or the peasant family is presented
as close and harmonious (Barbara Hanawalt's The Ties that Bound), or the
individual peasant has greater scope for ambition than we have usually
thought (Sherri Olson's A Chronicle of All that Happens or Judith Bennett's
recent study of female brewers [ale-wives]).
The risks of teleological imposition of contemporary
concerns onto the Middle Ages are sufficient to render suspect these formulations
of medieval peasant mentality and its changes. To see peasants either
as self-effacing within a local solidarity or as newly energized entrepreneurs
is to avoid serious consideration of what motivated peasants and what their
The third aspect is a tension between the neo-populism
of Chayanov and the destabilization brought about by market forces in general,
including the land market in particular. In Chayanov's view of the
peasant family economy, peasants do buy and sell land but only to preserve
the family and assure the transmission of its patrimony to a new generation.
The effect of market forces is to undermine the older solidarities of the
peasantry. For Lenin, Dobbs, Kosminsky and the early Rodney Hilton
the emergence of a class of wealthy peasants undermined the class structure
and solidarity of the peasantry and functioned pretty much on the order
of the individualism mention above: dissolving communal ties by a
petty capitalist accumulation of economic power. This is readily
acknowledged on the right wing of the political spectrum in the most famous
example of the celebration of individuality and enterprise, Alan McFarlane's
Origins of English Individualism.
Chayanov does not have an exclusive resonance
in North America, but while Chayanov's emphasis on family life-cycle has
is no longer so influential in Britain (as Philip Scofield pointed out
last year at Noirmoutier), it remains popular in the United States and
What is really at issue is the absence
of anything to replace the ideas built around individuality versus community
or neo-populism versus the market. As long as this is the case rather
basic questions about the land market are not easy to deal with and so
are not asked. There is, as I've already noted, a remarkable absence
of attention to the land market even in such excellent and detailed accounts
of peasant life as Richard Hoffmann's exhaustive study of the Duchy of
Wroclaw in Silesia. Hoffmann notes the disparities of wealth among
peasants and explores the workings of credit and debt, but has nothing
on the land market. Where there does seem to be a real contribution
to the matter is in studies of the social meaning of land transactions
as in Barbara Rosenwein's work on Cluny and its lay donors and in her recent
book on the cultural meaning of immunities. The "American School"
of anthropological history does offer perspectives on property that go
beyond questions of private aggrandizement versus community to explore
the non-economic context and implications of sales and donations of land.
Iwould like to deal
briefly with two exceptions that although not centered on the land market
suggest some connections between this and other questions concerning the
place of peasants and their room to maneuver within the seigneurial regime.
The first, Eleanor Searle's Battle Abbey and its Banlieu is well-known
to many of you, far better and with considerable more expertise than anything
I can command. In her study of the burgesses living within the vill,
Searle considers the land market at some length. These burgesses,
originally servants and craftsmen dependent on the monastery, held houses
with lands appertaining to them as well as agricultural lands outside the
village. Their status was somewhat ambiguous: they were free
men as regards personal condition but were not entirely free holders of
property. They did not possess a formal borough charter and so the
term "burgesses" stops short of encompassing a clear franchise. The
distinctive aspect of their participation in a land market was that the
abbey was the most energetic buyer during the maximum period of activity,
the 13th and early 14th centuries. Attempting to reconstruct a demesne
out of what had been alienated as leased property, the monastery and not
individual burgesses emerges from analysis of the documentation as the
most aggressive player in the land market.
The status of those who can more properly be
regarded as peasants was also ambiguous, according to Searle. Battle's
"customary tenants" were copyholders whom the abbey attempted to degrade
to villeinage in the late thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the same
period in which it was also restoring its demesne by purchase. The
customary tenants held in "ancient demesne," that rather tricky form of
privileged status that they defended against the abbey's attempt to levy
death duties (heriot) as a sign of a lower status. Battle Abbey was
only partially successful in its attempt to impose this and other indices
of servitude but what it did succeed in doing was to choke off what had
been a free peasant land market. In effect a compromise was worked
out that allowed the monastery to control and profit from inter vivos sales
among tenants while relaxing its insistence on levies more clearly implying
servitude. The land market is thus linked to status as an indication
of the relative freedom of these tenants to transact with minimal seigneurial
interference, whatever their formal status or legal designation.
At the same time, when faced with a choice between defending the free sale
and purchase of land or holding off the levy of heriot, the tenants were
willing to forgo the land market in order to compromise, forestalling a
degradation that might have rendered moot their practice of untrammeled
exchange of land in any event. Here, contrary to what one would expect
from the researches of the Toronto School, seigneurial jurisdiction and
pressure did limit the economic autonomy of the community while stopping
short of the actual imposition of servitude.
Teófilo Ruiz in his book on city and country
in Old Castile shows us a land market with some similarities to what Searle
found for England. Examining over 1,000 transactions from 1240 to
1360 Ruiz found the church was an important buyer, joined by townsmen and
individual clerics. Peasant were net sellers of land. Here,
however, there was little in the way of servile status. Most important,
the dichotomy between community and the individual or rather change in
the relationship between the two did not exist in Old Castile. Long
before the Black Death or any other putative solvent of social bonds, peasants
bought and sold land at a furious pace. There was never a time when
this was not the case and such activity does not seem to contradict the
communal ties of these settlements. Moreover, unlike Zvi Razi's Halesowen,
transactions were not among neighbors but often between townsmen or institutions
on the one hand and villagers on the other.
Old Castile was a territory without servile tenure
and so the active land market may be associated with personal freedom.
Most important, however, is the depopulation of the region before the Black
Death by reason of the attractive conditions offered on the expanding frontier
of the thirteenth century Reconquista. Thirteenth-century Castile
was a non-Malthusian society in which there was no population pressure
in relation to the supply of arable land. This is not to say that
its peasantry was prosperous. Willingness to move as well as the
evident impoverishment and debt of many sellers attests to quite the contrary.
But beyond the obvious freedom from seigneurial constraint in buying and
selling, the land market existed in medieval Castile independently of a
crisis of feudalism, a transition to capitalism or radical changes in tenure,
family structure or seigneurial pressure.
What one sees now
in European research on the peasant land market is a tendency to look at
the phenomenon in itself without too much interference from more abstract
questions of community versus individual or transition from one mode of
production to another. This has its frustrations: as we have
tended to emphasize, our work has demonstrated the omnipresence and importance
of the peasant land market while making less progress in explaining it.
Clearly it is related to family strategies, inheritance and the perceived
opportunities and economic necessities of buyers and sellers. Why
this has not had much resonance in North America in recent years I don't
know. The studies of Searle and Ruiz are not very new and I can't
point to anything more recent that is not closely associated with the advanced
work being done in England.
There is no logical reason why Americans have
to make a significant contribution to this as the study of a history not
one's own is always carried out at a distance both logistical as well as
to some extent psychological. The reasons for this backwardness,
however, are more related to historiographical shifts than to the difficulty
of carrying out local studies (otherwise the Toronto School would never
have gotten started). These historiographical factors I would summarize
as a movement toward mentalities and away from material culture.
As I indicated, peasant mentality, perception of opportunities, complaints
and rebellions are more popular topics than ever, while even the Toronto
School's attention to local case studies has tended to dissipate into anecdotal
material. Again as already mentioned, there seems to have been relatively
little work done in the methodological space between quantitative tabulating
of information from manor court rolls (the Toronto School at its zenith)
and sympathetic but unfocused accounts of peasant oppression. The
disillusionment with 1970s social history has threatened the study of social
If it is a cliché, in closing remarks,
to express one's gratitude for learning at such a conference more than
one can contribute, it will be obvious that in my case this is quite true.
I can only hope to help stimulate some revival of interest in the working
of rural society and economy in the US and Canada through the example of
the scholars assembled here.