Nov 19, 2019, 2:39 PM
A summary essay of the book, The Origins of English Individualism: Family Property and Social Transition, by Alan Macfarlane, professor of social anthropology and historical anthropology at Cambridge university from 1975-2006.
—by Lisa Outhwaite
“…one of the most thoroughly investigated of all peasantries in history turns out to be not a peasantry at all. The classical example of the transition of a “feudal”, peasant-based society into a new, capitalist, system turns out to be a deviant case”.
The general point made is the refutation of previous claims of English life prior to the 16th Century being predominantly that of a peasantry (here defined as land ownership and property rights generally being held by the family and extended kin and not the individual, with a general lack of social mobility or capitalist economy).
- Ample evidence for frequent land ownership transference outside of the family group in the 13th century.
Inheritance was subject to a will and not birth-right laws.
Children did not work as a collective family unit and left home, often marrying late.
Households were predominantly nuclear, with little evidence of multiple married couples sharing the same dwelling (typical for collectivist societies).
Marriage tended to be later.
In 13th Century England, single women, married women and widows all had very considerable property rights as individual persons.
In the period prior to the Black Death up to half the adult population were primarily hired labourers, which is incompatible wth notions of a peasant economy.
The exchange of labour services for cash was widespread by the middle of the 12th Century.
Production was often for exchange rather than personal use.
Strong evidence of individual mobility, in marked distinction to typical peasant societies.
“Evidence for this re-assessment comes primarily from local and legal records. It is based on what happened in particular villages and the nature of the law. It reveals a picture of a social and economic structure greatly at variance even with what we know of most of continental countries in the 19th Century, let alone Asian or other peasantries.”
Travel diaries of the time made frequent comment on the peculiar system in England with its absence of communities, family ties etc.
Montesquieu observed in 1729 that England “hardly resembles the rest of Europe”
Other writers commented on the peculiar independence, individuality and freedom of the English.
The primary comparative historians of the 19th Century stress the differences between the legal, economic and social structure of medieval England. Only in England was the concept of indivisible, individually held, private property present by the 13th Century. A difference which made England “wholly exceptional in Europe”.