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when the Flemish farmers imported English marl. " Scanty as
the crop was, it seems to have been very exhausting, for half
the land, in ordinary cases, lay fallow. . . Such crops as were
obtained, were not procured without large relative expenditure."
The agricultural implements were of the poorest; the plough was
a ponderous structure of wood and iron, that it took four horses
to drag over, rather than through, the soil. Metal was so scarce,
being mostly imported from Normandy, that the wear and tear
of plough-iron in a dry season was a large item in the farm budget.


As little hay and no green crops were raised, the sheep were

mostly killed at Martinmas; and such as were left, with the

oxen, starved through the winter, so that improvement of stock

was impossible. As late as 15-17, bullocks bought for the navy

weighed less than 400 pounds. Few garden-vegetables were

cultivated, and down to the reign of Elizabeth, they were

imported for the tables of the rich from the Continent. This

want and the general use of salt food spread scurvy and even

leprosy among the people.

See Prof. Thorold Rodgers's History of Agriculture and Prices in
England, vol. I.

§78. Later agriculture is intensive; that is, it expends a
large capital upon a small surface. It finds at its hand sources
of wealth that tax all its resources for their mastery, but more
than repay the larger outlay. It goes down to the sub-soil,
instead of spreading over the top-soil of new fields ; it finds a
new farm under the old one. It gives up methods of rotation
in which the land lay fallow, and adopts a new one, in which,
through generous returns to the soil, it yields two crops a year.
It multiplies the number of live-stock on a farm, and feeds them
generously and under shelter, that it may obtain the means to
overcome the natural barrenness of the soil or multiply its fer-
tility. It masters the coldness and heaviness of clayey or low-
lying soils by artificial drainage, so that the crop in harvest is
advanced by weeks and the peril of the autumnal rains avoided.
It offers the highest premium for improvements in live-stock,
seeds and implements. " Many of these agricultural practices
are only possible where there is a large agricultural population ;
for which, on the other hand, work is found by these very
practices" (Laveleye).

§ 79. While the finest results in agriculture are achieved (as
in parts of Saxony) by the outlay of a large capital, directed by
large intelligence, upon a considerable area of land, — yet, with
the actual human material engaged in farming, and in the exist-
ing state of its intelligence, the best results, on the whole, are
had where the farms are small and especially where they are
owned by the actual cultivators. Progress towards the sub-


division of the land — up to a certain limit — is a gain to agri-
culture. The opposite is a retrogression.

This fact was known even to the ancients. Solomon seems to
refer to it when he says : " Much food is in the tillage of the
poor;" and the Mosaic law forbade the permanent alienation of
lands after their distribution among the people. But the law
was evaded or ignored in the eagerness to form great estates ;
and Isaiah denounces a woe upon " them that join house to
house and field to field, till there be no place, that they may be
placed alone in the midst of the land," and the woe is the deso-
lation of the land and the reduction of its average yield of food
for man (V. 8-10).

Under Roman rule in Italy the small holdings were swallowed
up in the great estates of the aristocracy, in spite of the efforts
of the Gracchi to preserve the patrimony of the poor. The first
step seems to have been the enclosure (possessio) of the common
lands (ager publicu&) upon which the common'people depended
for grazing, and which were absolutely necessary to their methods
of agriculture. (The same process was arrested in Attica by
the laws of Solon, but was carried out in Lacedaemon.) Pliny
tells us the result : " Large estates have been the ruin of Italy
(Latifundia perdldere Italiani)." The peninsula declined stea-
dily in all the elements of wealth and production. The emperors
had to obtain from Africa and Egypt the wheat that fed the
Roman populace. The incursions of the barbarians led to the
breaking up and redistribution of these monstrous estates, and
Italy was able to feed her own children again.

§ 80. In the kingdoms of Western Europe only England and
Spain have repeated the experience of ancient Italy, and only
the former persists in the policy that led to it.

In these kingdoms (as in most, perhaps in all, countries in the
earliest stage of society), the land was at first held, not by indi-
vidual owners " in severall," but by bodies of freemen associated
in a village community. Their land or mark lay, as it were, in
two concentric circles around the village or thorp. The outer
and broader was the folk-land or common on which their cattle


mostly grazed. The inner circle of lands that lay next the thorp
was divided into three fields, in each of which every marksman
had a share, but the whole was cultivated in common by custom-
ary methods and under a rotation of crops that left one field
fallow and under pasture each year. In the thorp itself every
man's house and courtyard were his personal possessions; here
community gives way to immunity.

Gradually the equality of the marksmen in possession and
dignity gave way to a more aristocratic constitution of society.
A manor-house, often a castle, rose above its humbler neighbors,
and a lion's share of the mark fell to the lord of the manor, while
upon the inferior marksmen devolved the duty of cultivating
these demesne lands as well as their own. A social revolution,
like the Norman Conquest of England, brought in a new lord
of the manor, but added to, instead of removing the burdens of
the people. The bulk of them latterly became villeins, as tenants
who paid for their lands in the form of customary services in till-
ing the lands of their lord a certain part of their time. The value
of this labor was so trifling that the lord was quite willing to
commute the service for a money-payment, so that villeins be-
came copyhold tenants at a fixed rent. With the progress of
society, labor rose in value and produce fell, through the former
becoming more productive. The people grew richer; the lords
of the manors poorer. From tenants the farmers became free-
holders, for if the lord wanted money, the price of broad acres
would be readily forthcoming from some old stocking hid away
in the thatch-roof. " There can be no doubt that the lands of the
feudal lords were largely alienated in small parcels. Many causes
contributed to this result" (Thorold Rodgers). The masters
now sought — especially after the enormous reduction in the
labor-supply by the black death, — to cancel these contracts and
reduce their tenants to villeinage, requiring at their hands the
old services. Fortunately for the latter, the principle of custom
or usage was all-powerful in that early age. In the abseuce of
large intelligence and intellectual freedom, every established
usage was treated as having the strongest prescriptive right.


The custom that fixed the form and amount of the tenant's rent
was as valid as that by which the lord held his estates. The
people rose in Wat Tyler's insurrection against the innovation,
and the aristocracy, although successful in putting them down,
relinquished their claim rather than provoke another such rebel-
lion on conservative principles.

§ 81. An indirect way of stopping this reconquest of the
land by the people was found in the enclosure acts, of which
the first was the famous Statute of Merton (temp. Henry III).
By the provisions of these the aristocracy were authorized to en-
close such parts of the outlying folk-land as were not necessary
for the use of the tenants and freeholders of the manor. By
others passed at a later date the enclosure of demesne lands
lying in the fields of the mark itself, and consequently the
breaking up of the old system of tillage, was allowed. This last
measure, which involved a complete revolution in the rural
economy of the country, was consummated by the sixteenth
century. It was one that must have been adopted sooner or
later. The old system of communistic land tenure imposed
burdensome checks upon industry and enterprise; it held back
the farmer from adopting any but customary or traditional
methods of tillage; it took away some of the strongest in-
centives to industry. After its abolition, although the large
landowners turned a large part of their enclosed lands into
pasturage, to avoid paying what seemed to them the extravagant
wages then asked, yet such was the improvement in methods of
tillage that there was an increase in the entire production of

But this " dissolution of the ancient copartnership in the use
of the soil, and the establishment of separate and independent
farms in its stead," called for the most scrupulous and careful
adjustment of rival claims both in the laws and in their interpre-
tations. Instead of this we have loosely worded statutes, passed
by Parliaments in which the landed interest was supreme, and
interpreted by subservient and corrupt judges. Sir Thomas
More, an exception that did honor to the bench, tells us of


" husbandmen thrust out of their own ; or else by covin and
fraud, or violent oppression, put beside it; or by wrongs and
injuries so wearied that they be compelled to sell all." Vastly
disproportionate shares of the common grazing lands were en-
closed ; parts of the three fields to wbich the lord had no claim
were taken in with his demesne lands. Even when the farmer
was not dispossessed of his plough-land by force or fraud, he
was often broken in spirit and iu fortune by the enclosure of
the commons, and sank into the rank of a day-laborer. " The
peasantry lost not only the benefits derived from the right of
common over the greater part of England, but that loss involved
in numerous cases the loss of their separate fields. They had
lived upon the produce of the two, and their husbandry was
based on it."

§ 82. The dissolution of the monasteries, and the distribution
of the church lands among the new aristocracy created by the
Tudors, added to the misery of the people. The new owners
treated tenants and freeholders as possessed of no rights in the
land. The outcry of the people could not be stifled ; it forced
the Protector Somerset to appoint a commission of inquiry, which
reported that the charge of wholesale and general injustice was
fully substantiated by the evidence ; but they could suggest no
remedy. From this period we begin to hear of a " dangerous
class " in the alleys and back streets of English cities, where
disbanded monks and broken agriculturists congregated. The
yeoman class, which had been and still was the strength of the
uation, in peace and war, at home and abroad, in church and
state, was greatly reduced in numbers and weight, and oppressed
by rack-rents. " My father," says Bishop Hugh Latimer, " was
a yeoman and had no lands of his own ; only he had a farm of
three or four pounds by the year at the uttermost, and here-
upon he tilled so much as kept half a dozen men. He had
walk for a hundred sheep, and my mother milked thirty kine.
He was able and did find the King a harness with himself and
his horse while he came to the place where he should receive
the King's wages. I can remember that I buckled his harness


when he went unto Blackheath field [in 1497]. He kept me to
school, or else I had not been able to have preached before the
King's majesty now [in 1549]. He married my [six] sisters
with five pounds (or twenty nobles) apiece, so [besides] that he
brought them up in the fear of God. . . . He kept hospitality
for his poor neighbors. And some alms he gave to the poor.
And all this did he off the said farm, where he that now hath it
payeth sixteen pound by the year or more, and is not able to do
anything for his Prince, nor for his children, or give up a cup
of drink to the poor."

§ 83. Under the kings of the house of Stuart and under the
Commonwealth, the yeoman class rallied as to numbers and
weight in the nation. We find patriotic writers boasting of
them as the glory of England and the terror of France. Lord
Chancellor Coke speaks of one-third of England as held in
copyhold, i. e., at rents incapable of being raised above the rates
specified in the copy or roll of the manor. " Now copyholders,"
he says, " stand upon sure ground ; now they weigh not their
lord's displeasure ; they shake not at every blast of wind; only
having an .especial care of the main chance, namely, to perform
exactly what services their tenure doth exact, — then let the lord
frown, the copyholder cares not, knowing himself safe." Lord
Macaulay estimates the landowners in 1660 at 160,000, and as
forming with their families one-seventh of the population. At
that time all copyhold and similar tenures were converted into
soccage tenures by being placed under the jurisdiction of the
king's courts. Down to the middle of the eighteenth century
the distribution of the land among small holders and owners
was going on without interruption, but at that date it ceased,
the tendency to concentration took its place. The subsequent
history of English land tenure is a record of the enclosure of
the commons without regard to the rights of the poor, — of the
absorption of small holdings in great farms without regard to
customary tenure, and of the extinction of the yeoman diss
without regard to the nation's higher interests. Between 1701
and 1867 one-third of the farmed and pasture lands of Eugland


were enclosed by the rich, often by means of money loaned
them by the state for the purpose.

Leases are become exceptional, being rarer for nine years than
in the Middle Ages for ninety. Much of the land is held at
rack-rent; that is, the highest price that can be got in the open
market. The great mass of it is gathered into large estates,
which grow in bulk, while the number of landowners is small
and diminishing. Very little of it comes into the market, and
that is sold " at fancy prices" to rich men who can afford a
country-seat. The working classes have become more and more
wretched and dependent; all sense of any relationship, other
than that formed by the payment and receipt of wages, is now
lost by both the landowner and the people on his estate. " In
fact, there is no longer a true rural population remaining, for the
ends, political, social and economical, that such a population
ought to fulfil. The landed yeomanry, insignificant in number,
and a nullity in political power, are steadily disappearing alto-
gether. The tenant farmers have lost the security of tenure,
the political independence, the prospect of one day farming
their own lands, which they formerly enjoyed. And lastly, the
inferior peasantry not only have lost ground in the literal sense,
and have rarely any other connection with the ground than a
pauper's claim, but have sunk deplorably in other economical
respects below their condition in former centuries. Thus a soil
eminently adapted by natural gifts to sustain a numerous and
flourishing population of every grade, has almost the thinnest
and absolutely the most joyless peasantry in the civilized
world." ..." Once, from the meanest peasant to the greatest
noble, all had land, and he who had least might hope for more ;
now there is being taken away from him who has little, even
that which he has — his cottage, nay, his separate room. Once
there was an ascending movement from the lowest grade to the
highest; now there is a descending movement in every grade
below the highest."

See Cliffe Leslie's Land System* of Ireland, England and the Con-

"a bad reason is better than none." 79

§ 84. Attempts are made to explain this state of affairs by
ascribing it to the operation of causes that were equally and
even more vigorously in action when the tendency was to the
division and distribution of the land. Thus some ascribe it
vaguely to the perpetuation of the feudal system and its laud
tenure in England. We have seen how the customary tenures
of that system opei'ated most- powerfully to the advancement of
the people at the expense of their lords. We have also seen
how those forms of tenure, with their half-defined and therefore
objectionable rights, were finally expunged from English law at
the Restoration. And in fact the best landlords in England are
those that retain under the new forms something of the old
spirit that made feudalism endurable, — to wit, the sense of a
personal relationship between higher and lower, and the sense
of a duty to the land. Their tenants have security without
leases, for they know that no unfair advantage will be taken of
them. As they sometimes express it, their confidence in the
family is as good as a lease.

Others ascribe the mischiefs of the system to the right of
primogeniture, by which the whole estate passes to the eldest
son, to the exclusion of his brothers and sisters. This no doubt
is a mischievous rule, but it is one that tends to keep large
estates undivided rather than to lead to the absorption of the
small ones. No doubt it has the latter effect in an indirect way,
by leaving large sums in the hands of the landowners to buy up
these latter. But this right is not an invention of this century
or of the last ; it was in full operation long before the decline
of the English yeomanry began.

Others urge the want of a proper system for the registration
and transfer of laud titles. This also is a grave mischief, but it
is one of much longer standing than the mischief for which it
is to account. It has not kept the rich from buying up the
estates of poorer men.

§ 85. The true cause, as Coleridge pointed out, is the im-
portation of purely commercial maxims into the rural economy
of England. The trading spirit attained in England the as-
cendancy it has ever since possessed, about the time when the


separation of the mass of the English people from the soil
fairly began, viz. : the middle of last century. English political
economy from Adam Smith down, with some notable exceptions,
has been the exponent and the justification of that spirit. It
has shaped public opinion, controlled the tenor of legislation,
and controlled the direction of the industry of all classes. It
has stripped the landlord of all notions of stewardship for the
nation and duty owed to the land and the people who till it. It
has led men to regard the production and cheapening of com-
modities as the one great end of all activity. It has sacrificed
men and their personal interests to things.

Now in trade the law of parsimony is the supreme law. For
trade aims at getting as large and as quick returns as possible,
with the least possible expense iu managing and collecting these.
Trade can make no distinction between persons and things; it is
(in a low sense) no respecter of persons. It sets aside the dearest
friend or the worthiest object of pity, and takes the offer of the
man who bids highest and offers the best security. Other
things being equal, it prefers the largest purchaser to any other,
and even abates the price in his favor; for the ultimate object
being to get wealth enough to be rid of the trouble of getting
it, the offer that involves least trouble is the best.

Apply these maxims to the management of an estate, and the
problem becomes one of getting the largest returns with the
least outlay in wages and food. All question of the well-being
of the small farmer and the laborer are lost sight of. The hold-
ing of the former was taken in with other lands to make large
farms, that the landlord might have fewer tenants to deal with
and less trouble about his rents. The latter were systematically
and designedly brought into a position of dependence, because
they were thus the more easily managed. Their cottages and
gardens, for instance, were let to the tenant-farmer with the
understanding that he would see to repairs, and then the cot-
tages were re-let by him without the gardens, that their sole
dependence might be their wages. The wages-roll was cut down
to the utmost, because the less labor the less expense ; the
majority of those who had lived by the land were driven to the


cities, and only a fraction of the people of England now live
by agriculture.

See Coleridge's Works; VI, 215-25 (Amer. Edition).

§ 86. Did the English economists raise their voices in protest,
when the highest interests of the nation were thus imperilled ?
They said: "We have nothing to do with those moral and
political questions; we have no advice to offer. Only be it
known to you that additional labor employed in manufactures is
more, when employed in agriculture is less efficient in propor-
tion." They left men to draw the inference that it was a
national advantage when labor was withdrawn from work where
it could not be effectively concentrated, and transferred to the
cities and factories where it could. Furthermore they furnished
them with the factory system for application to tillage, — the
capitalist furnishing the means, and the actual worker on the
land being reduced to the rank of a day-laborer. They applied
to farming " the machinery doctrine of most produce from least
labor," which is " the doctrine of starvation to the laborer, and
dispossession to the small proprietor, and instead of belonging to
the advance of knowledge is a retrogression" (Wren Hoskyns,
M. P.).

" Political writers and speakers of this school have long enjoyed the
double satisfaction of beholding in themselves the masters of a difficult
study, and of pleasing ' the powers that be ' by lending the sanction of
'science' to all established institutions and customs, unless, indeed, the
customs of the poor. Instead of a science of wealth, they give us a
science for wealth." (Cliffe Leslie.)

§ 87. The system may be a failure socially and politically ;
but the chief question for us here is — Is it an economic success
or a failure ? A study of its general features and a comparison
with what we find in other countries leaves no doubt that, in
spite of brilliant successes in many matters of detail, English
rural economy is, on the whole, a failure, when regarded from an
economic point of view.

(a) It has failed by displaying a lack of aggressive power. It
has gathered up into large farms the areas previously cleared
and brought under cultivation by the small farmers of the past;


it has in some degree improved upon their methods. But it
has not evinced any ability to cope with and bring under tillage
the vast area of English soil that still lies in a state of nature.
A committee of the House of Lords of the session of 1873,
after a searching investigation, reported that " the improvement
of land, in its effect upon the price of food and upon the
dwellings of the poor, is a matter of public interest; but that
as an investment it is not sufficiently lucrative to offer much
attraction to capital, and that therefore even slight difficulties
have a powerful influence in arresting it." As we have seen,
seven and a half millions of acres in England alone still yield no
food for man or beast, — contribute simply nothing to the support
of the nation. The only proposal made to attack these masses of
unsubdued nature is, so far as we know, a proposal to divide them
up into small farms. In some cases, especially in the Highlands
of Scotland, the peasantry have been encouraged to enclose and
fertilize small patches of waste ground that nobody else would
touch. At the expiration of their nine years' leases they are
commonly ejected, and their little holms or farms are taken into
the larger farms. " I could name mauy," says a Scotch land-
agent, " who use this crofting for their waste lands, and then
turn out crowds of them and throw their land into larsre

(b) It has failed to develop the natural powers of the soil.
Were even the area that is now under tillage to be cultivated
as experience, both in England and elsewhere, shows to be per-
fectly feasible, the country would be under no necessity of

Online LibraryRobert Ellis ThompsonSocial science and national economy → online text (page 7 of 38)