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Rural Society and Economic Change in County Durham: Recession and Recovery, c.1400-1640

Author(s):Brown, A. T.
Reviewer(s):Bailey, Mark

Published by EH.Net (April 2016)

A. T. Brown, Rural Society and Economic Change in County Durham: Recession and Recovery, c.1400-1640. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell Press, 2015. xv + 288 pp. £60 (cloth), ISBN: 978-1-78327-075-0.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Mark Bailey, School of History, University of East Anglia.

Alex Brown is an Addison Wheeler postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Durham, and this publication is based on his Ph.D. thesis.  Modern Ph.D.s in economic and social history tend to offer an in-depth study of a single community, but Brown tackles a large geographical area over an unusually long timeframe.  In doing so, he establishes a platform from which to offer perspectives on a number of major debates, such as the transition from feudalism to capitalism, the rise of the gentry and the crisis of the aristocracy.  His ambition is largely justified and fulfilled: this is a well-researched, clearly structured, uncomplicated and thoughtful study.

County Durham is chosen for a number of compelling reasons: the two major institutional landlords within the county — the bishopric of Durham, and Durham cathedral priory (renamed the Dean and Chapter in the 1540s) — have left a substantial archive; the precocious local development of the coal industry offers an opportunity to explore whether mercantile capital was invested in industry or diverted into land; and, finally, the region’s geographical diversity provides a contrast between the arable lowlands in the  east and the pastoral uplands in the west.

Brown begins by charting the impact of the fifteenth-century economic recession on rural society in Durham, and then assessing how decisions made in its depths shaped the ability of local people to respond to galloping inflation in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.  In particular, he contrasts the responses on the estate of the priory with those on the bishopric. During the course of the fifteenth century customary land on the former was largely converted to leases, and holdings were reorganized into larger units often held by syndicates, enabling the priory to staunch the hemorrhaging of its revenues.  During the sixteenth-century inflation, leases presented the priory estate with a mechanism for increasing revenues at a level commensurate with rises in land values.  Unusually, the standardized leasehold units were seldom fragmented or absorbed into larger leases, and, as a consequence, the settled landholding structure supported in each township a sizeable group of middling yeoman, each of whom held consolidated farms of between fifty and one hundred acres.

In contrast, the bishopric responded to the cash crisis of the mid-fifteenth century by exploiting revenues from coal rather than reorganizing the structure of tenant landholding, and therefore little customary land was converted to leases or reorganized into standardized units.  The persistence of the old tenures and landholding structures meant that after c.1550 the bishopric was unable to extract a commercial value from its agricultural holdings, whose rents were ossified at a low level by custom.  Consequently, small numbers of tenants were able to exploit the favorable combination of low rents and rising agrarian profits to construct large farms, so that in c.1600 many townships on the bishop’s estate possessed a polarized social structure characterized by a small but wealthy yeoman elite and a large number of cottagers, smallholders and laborers.

The prior and the bishopric managed estates whose composition was essentially fixed, whereas lay landlords were able to acquire and dispose of manors more freely.  The depressed demand for land during the fifteenth century enabled a handful of lay landlords to construct sizeable estates across Durham, so that in c.1500 a small seigniorial elite controlled around one half of all lay manors in the county.  By c.1600 these estates had fragmented, such that no lay landlord owned more than a dozen manors.  Brown avoids regarding this dramatic change as evidence of either a rising gentry or an aristocracy in crisis, but instead argues that “passive” rentier landlords — who in Durham tended to be the great lay lords — were caught in a pincer movement of inflation and stagnant rents leading to financial ruin.  Landlords who actively exploited opportunities in agriculture, trade and industry fared better, and in Durham these tended to be the lesser gentry.  The growth of the coal industry, especially after the 1570s, provided some leading Newcastle merchants with the capital to enter the rural land market, although they did so in order to secure control over coal seams rather than to establish themselves as landed gentry.  New money from Newcastle trickled rather than flooded into the Durham countryside.

The novelty of Brown’s approach is to contrast the managerial policy on two contiguous estates in the same part of England: thus, by holding constant the variables of time and place, he can isolate accurately key differences in institutional decision-making and so chart their subsequent impact upon both lords and tenants. The shift to standardized leaseholds on the prior’s estate, and the bishopric’s adherence to the old forms of landholding, locked each estate onto a different pathway of development with starkly different consequences for lords and tenants in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.  He cites this as a powerful illustration of path dependency theory and of how managerial policies created major institutional constraints on seigniorial estates.

The study’s broad sweep means that some important points of detail escape closer scrutiny.  The reasons why the priory chose the leasehold pathway, and the bishopric did not, remain vague.  The exact nature and evolution of the bishopric’s copyholds, and, indeed, of the prior’s leaseholds, attract little analysis for a study placing so much emphasis upon tenure.  Indeed, the leases were neither straightforward nor unchanging, evolving over time from life leases, to short-term leases, and finally into longer-term leases with reversionary rights benefiting the tenant and protecting the integrity of the holding.  Each phase required careful elucidation, including any evidence for changes in the formulae of grants.

But these are quibbles.  Overall, this is an admirable and ambitious first monograph from a promising young scholar.

Mark Bailey is Professor of Late Medieval History at the University of East Anglia.  He has published on the decline of serfdom in England, and has been invited to deliver the Ford Lectures in British History at the University of Oxford in 2019.

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