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Landlords and Tenants in Britain, 1440-1660: Tawney’s Agrarian Problem Revisited

Editor(s):Whittle, Jane
Reviewer(s):Hipkin, Stephen

Published by EH.Net (March 2014)

Jane Whittle, editor, Landlords and Tenants in Britain, 1440-1660: Tawney’s Agrarian Problem Revisited.  Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK: Boydell Press, 2013. xv + 240 pp. $30 (paperback), ISBN: 978-1-84383-850-0.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Stephen Hipkin, Department of History and American Studies, Canterbury Christ Church University.

This book, the product of a conference to mark the centenary of the publication of R.H. Tawney’s first book, The Agrarian Problem in the Sixteenth Century, will have more than justified its publication if it encourages students, as Keith Wrightson puts it in the foreword, to read “Tawney himself,” rather than “about Tawney,” and to discover how much “he already knew, or at least intuited (and sometimes presented in a more lucid manner than his successors).”  Of course, Tawney also got many things wrong, and Jane Whittle’s clear introduction, admiring though it is, does not shy away from pointing out some of the more important of them: his failure to consider demographic change, his assumption that insecure copyholds predominated among customary tenures and that evicted peasants flooded towns or became rootless vagrants, and his failure to appreciate the significance of the large and growing class of subtenants by Elizabethan times.   Yet this diverse collection of essays is not principally about how things now stand on Tawney, but rather about how things stand in the effort to make sense of social and economic dynamics and the balance of power between landlords and tenants in rural England during “Tawney’s Century” (1540-1640) and the period that preceded it.

Christopher Dyer’s densely packed review of current evidence on population, resources, markets, and peasant society between 1440 and 1520 is the only chapter to attempt a period overview, but is not encouraging for those in search of an overarching narrative.  Rather it suggests highly variegated local trends and plenty of scope for puzzlement over the big picture, not least the lack of any sustained growth in the overall population before 1520.

Three contributors assess the evolving stance of the central courts on matters of local custom. Harold Garrett-Goodyear explores the way by which early Tudor common law courts came to incorporate customary tenures within their ordinary jurisdiction and finds the impetus came not from altruistic government, but from manorial lords who found they could not impose the verdicts of their own courts on increasingly powerful tenants.  In a related chapter, Christopher Brooks finds that the civil war years witnessed the continuation of a process which put greater emphasis on the role of common law juries in the determination of titles and customs, which led to further atrophy of the manorial system in many places and confirmed customary tenures as a desirable investment  By contrast, in Scotland, Julian Goodare argues, the central law courts had undermined tenants‘ rights of inheritance and thus their security of tenure by the early seventeenth century.

In arguably the most ambitious and certainly the most theory-driven chapter in the collection, David Ormrod examines Tawney’s contribution to debates about the rise of capitalism before elaborating his own contention that “changes in the institutional environment of English farming” between 1642 and 1672 (when subsidies on corn exports were first approved) enabled commercialized agriculture and merchant capital to combine to form “the basis of a new rural economy, a system of capitalist agriculture underpinned with centralised state support.”  Ormrod concedes that it is not easy to “define the difference between agrarian capitalism and a merely commercialized agricultural sector,” and not all readers will be persuaded by his argument that a distinctively “capitalist” agriculture in England emerged in tandem with a “system of full market rents.”

In recent years, exhaustively researched local case studies of have done much to uncover the complexity of social and economic configurations of interest in English rural society during Tawney’s Century, so it comes as little surprise that the remaining seven chapters of the book comprise additions to this genre.

Three papers focus on enclosure disputes.  Briony McDonagh explores developments at the village of South Cave in the Yorkshire Wolds, emphasizing the variety of changes labelled as “enclosure” and the ways diverse groups coalesced in opposition to it.  Heather Falvey‘s account of events at Chinley in Derbyshire during the mid 1570s likewise stresses the complexity of rural social relations and the importance of interpreting enclosure riots in their intimate local contexts.  Andy Wood’s focus is on the unsuccessful struggle during the early seventeenth century of poorer householders in the industrial town of Malmesbury to access urban common rights in the face of opposition from a “Richer sort” determined to “debar and exclude” them.  As we might expect, Wood celebrates the struggle of the excluded as testimony to a commitment to custom that “was about more than the simple assertion of pragmatic material interests.” Nonetheless, gritty materialists are likely to continue to insist that such interests were at the heart of the struggle, and that the appeal to custom furnished its necessary – albeit no doubt internalized – rhetoric.

Jean Morrin and Jennifer Holt offer essays examining landlords’ attempts to modernize customary tenures in different parts of northern England.  Both case studies uncover strong resistance to lordly initiatives. As Morrin demonstrates, the tenants of Durham Dean and Chapter at Merrington may have ended up with leases, but they were beneficial leases retaining many of the advantages of their old tenures, while those on the Hornby Castle estates, Holt concludes, “won and won again in their power struggles with their lords.” Customary tenants “had more powers of resistance” than Tawney predicted.

Examining wasteland enclosure in lowland Lancashire, William Shannon finds support for Tawney’s claims that enclosing was done by the lord while improving was done by the tenant and that wasteland enclosure benefited both landlord and tenant, though the gains for the latter were much less certain, and without willing tenants prepared to take on the task of improvement there was no reward for the lord.  However, Tawney’s characterization of improving landlords as blind and selfish receives short shrift from Elizabeth Griffiths, for whom recent dearth and escalating food prices are the necessary context within which to frame an assessment of landlordism in early seventeenth-century Norfolk: the open field system, designed for subsistence, needed to give way to a more productive agrarian regime.  The proper question to be posed is, she suggests, “how far did landowners overstep the bounds of reasonable behaviour as they exploited and modernized their estates?”  The verdict of Griffiths’ excellent chapter is that the three Norfolk landowning families on whom she focuses behaved in a “reasonably fair and perfectly sensible” manner, and strove to avoid confrontation as far as possible.

If there is a general message from this thought-provoking collection it is that historians of Tawney’s century should eschew easy generalizations about the character of social and economic relations between landlords and tenants.  This is perhaps bad news for textbook writers and undergraduates searching for an overarching narrative, but a ringing endorsement for advocates of thickly textured local history.

Stephen Hipkin’s recent publications include “The Coastal Metropolitan Corn Trade in Later Seventeenth-century England,” Economic History Review (2012).

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Subject(s):Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Extractive Industries
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):Medieval
16th Century
17th Century