Socio-economic revolution in England and the origin of the modern world

.                            ALAN MACFARLANE


[From : Revolution in History, eds. Roy Porter and Mikulas Teich, Cambridge Univ. Press, 1986]

p. 145

In the early nineteenth century de Tocqueville contemplated the differ­ences between France on the one hand and England and North America on the other. He came to the conclusion that he was witnessing the emergence of an unprecedented phenomenon, a new and `modern' world compounded of democracy and individualism.' For an inhabitant of France, the shock of the contrast was enormous. A similar shock had jolted those eighteenth-century Scotsmen whose observations of the contrasts between England the Highland Scotland had led them into` speculations which laid the foundations for economics, sociology and anthropology as we know them today. Yet the contrasts would have been magnified a hundredfold if de Tocqueville, Millar, Kames, Adam Smith        , and others had come not from adjacent regions, but from the great civilizations that flourished elsewhere in the world. If they had come from India, or China, for example, as yet little affected by European culture, they would have been even more struck by the extraordinary civilization which was flourishing in England and North America. Concentrating for the moment on England, what were the most outstanding features of this brave new world?                                                                                                                          

Our hypothetical oriental visitor, male or female, would have found a peculiar legal system, based on unwritten codes and precedents, known as the Common Law, combined with a separate and equally strange system known as Equity. This legal system had many unique features; for instance the use of juries, the absence of judicial torture, the concept of equality before the law. The law enshrined an obsession with property, which was conceived of as virtually private, rather than communal. These strange procedures and concepts of the law were linked to political and constitutional peculiarities. The most important of these was the idea of the sovereignty of the people and the supremacy of law. The Crown was under the law and answerable to the people in parliament; this was not an absolutist state but a limited monarchy. England was a state with


146                  .     ALAN ` MACFARLANE

representative government and a constitution, even if only a small part of the people were yet enfranchised. Political power was widely dispersed and seemed to be diffused through much of the society. There was only a small standing army, no armed police force, no huge centralized bureauc­racy or court. This was far from the despotism that still existed over much of continental Europe or in much of Asia. It was a balanced constitutional system.

There were linked social peculiarities. Although very steeply ranked, with infinite gradations of status and occupation, there were no exclusive castes or orders. The fourfold orders of priests, warriors and rulers, townsmen and peasants, were blurred by numerous more important divisions. There were no legally separate orders of nobility or slaves, little differentiation between townsmen and country dwellers, no endogamous enclosures within certain ranks. There was an unusually large and prosperous `middling' band, lying between the very rich and the very poor. There was easy and frequent social mobility. Furthermore there was a high rate of geographical mobility. People were constantly on the move, to London and other towns, to markets and fairs, throughout the life-cycle. One set of institutions which helped both kinds of mobility was the market for paid labour. Instead of family labour providing the basis for production, most labour was purchased in the market; the institutions of servanthood, apprenticeship and wage labour were very widespread to a degree unknown elsewhere.

There were many striking features in the realm of production and economic relations. Already there was a rapidly developing use of non-human energy through steam and machinery; associated with it there was a concentration of people into new and unusually compact groupings, urbanism and factory organization. Throughout town and country there was a pervasive emphasis on monetary values, on trade, profit, accumu­lation. The acquisitive ethic was dominant, the division of labour was far advanced and England was truly a nation not only ruled by shopkeepers but with a generalized shopkeeper mentality. Her overseas possessions were run principally for profit, rather than for their military or political value.

There were associated features in the demographic and familial struc­tures which would have been equally surprising to a visitor from the orient. Above all, kinship seemed very weak; people were early indepen­dent of parental power and most relied mainly on their own efforts. Even that crucial function of kinship, in dealing with accident and old age, was largely eroded for there was a highly developed and non-kinship based Poor Law. The weakness of kinship showed itself in the household structure; this was nuclear, on the whole, with few joint or extended


Socio-economic revolution in England      147

 families. The marriage system also reflected the unimportance of wider kinship. Marriages were based for the most part on personal initiative rather than parental arrangement, on a mixture of psychological and economic considerations of an unusual kind. Marriages occurred at a relatively late age and it was not seen to be absolutely necessary to marry. Only one partner at a time was allowed, divorce was almost impossible, yet remarriage after death of one partner was extensive.

An oriental visitor would probably have been saddened at the mixture of wealth and squalor, comradeship and loneliness, tolerance and aggressiveness of the civilization. Yet he would have been impressed by the demographic and economic achievement. The population was rising rapidly yet the usual positive checks of famine, war and disease were not operating. Somehow the country had escaped from the shadow of demographic crises. Wealth was conspicuously increasing, even if it was unfairly distributed, and an affluence and material ascendancy was emerging unknown elsewhere in the world. Here was a land where the fortunate and the energetic, at least, could found dynasties and where certain traditional forms of generalised `misery' were being eradicated.

Other differences would have struck such a visitor; in religion and ritual, in art and aesthetics, in concepts of time and space, in attitudes to the natural world. Yet enough has been sketched in to make the point that for such a visitor, and for us as historians, there is something extra­ordinary which needs explanation. Much of what had emerged by the first half of the nineteenth century in England and North America has now permeated the world and is part of the air which many nations breathe. Time has accustomed us to it. Yet to the French, Scots and our hypo­thetical observer something decidedly strange seemed to have occurred in one small corner of the world. England and North America were the extreme case of many of the tendencies throughout Europe and par­ticularly in North Western Europe. To understand how this happened is perhaps the most important of all historical questions.

For simplicity's sake we may distinguish two ways of answering this question. The first is the `revolutionary' theory of history. `Revolution', of course, is a misuse of the word, for it literally means a state where things come back full-circle, as in the `revolution' of a wheel. Thus Ibn Khaldun's cyclical view, or Edmund Leach's pendulum theories of change in Highland Burma are true `revolutionary' theories.2 Yet, as normally used by historians when they talk of the `French Revolution', the `Industrial Revolution', and so on, they mean that A has moved to B, which never existed before. There are two constituents to the concept: newness and suddenness. Although it would be possible to talk of `revolutions' that last for thousands of years, as the `neolithic revolution', usually the word and


148                                           ALAN MACFARLANE


concept is used by modern historians to describe changes which occur over a year, decades and sometimes up to a century or so. The speed of the `revolutions' will vary with which of Braudel's three levels of time we are dealing with. `Geographical time' moves very slowly, over millennia; social time moves in a century or less; individual time, including political time, often moves in a year or less.3 In this essay we are dealing mainly with the `social' level. The element of newness, of rejection of the past, often leads to a violence in that process; it is not a rebirth, a gentle renaissance, or even a rebellion, which ultimately changes only the personnel. The rules of the game are changed, and usually many players object; hence bloody struggle. A further, added, feature of true revolutions is that they tend to be multi­stranded. That is to say, a change in one part, whether we ascribe it to the superstructure or infrastructure, will be connected to changes in other parts. For instance, a revolutionary change in demographic structures is likely to be linked to equally revolutionary changes in familial, economic, legal and other structures, since all are connected.

Given this preliminary specification of revolutionary models of change, we may ask how well they worked for the most interesting of all cases, that peculiar birth of the `modern' world on a small island off Europe by the early nineteenth century. Those historians and philosophers who have espoused revolutionary theories in this instance have come up with a rather mixed set of answers. The major prophets of the revolutionary view, Marx and Weber, roughly dated the `revolution' from `feudalism' to `capitalism', another way of labelling what we have described, as having occurred between about 1475 and 1700. One of their principal historical exponents, R, H. Tawney, therefore concentrated on the sixteenth century in England as the `watershed' (his metaphor) between the `medieval', `peasant', 'pre-capitalist' world and the `modern', `individual­ist', `capitalist' one. Hence the sixteenth century is known affectionately as `Tawney's century'.4 In the next generation, Tawney's successor, Christopher Hill, moved the revolution forward a century. Now the seventeenth century was the `Century of Revolution', with many of the revolutionary developments occurring fairly suddenly in 1640.5 More       : recently still there has been a move to bring the `revolution', or at least its

familistic dimensions, forward another century, into the eighteenth             century, when there was invented and propagated `affective indi­vidualism'. This was `perhaps the most important change in mentalite to have occurred in the Early Modern period, indeed possibly in the last thousand years of Western history', and it was particularly linked to the rise of a particular family system from the middle of the seventeenth century, which predominated in the eighteenth.6 The fact that there is so much uncertainty as to when the major revolution occurred, combined


Socio-economic revolution in England        149

 with a strong view that whatever did occur before the nineteenth century was a failed revolution,7 makes us a little uneasy. Surely it should not be difficult to pin down the birth of the modern world in such a well documented society?

Our uneasiness with this interpretation increases when we look briefly at the strands elaborated above in a little more detail. Shortage of space will force me to set boundary dates, indulge in gross simplification, and omit the supporting evidence for the assertions. Elsewhere I have tried to discuss many of the topics, briefly surveyed here, in more detail. The central question is at what point, roughly, can we be certain that the features we have elaborated did not exist in the English past? Having located this `other' world, we will be in a position to date and perhaps to search for plausible reasons for the revolutionary transformation.

We may start with law and government. The Common Law is known to have reached a mature stage of development by the end of the thirteenth century at the latest.9 Of course the law changed, but its basic structure and principles were laid out by that time. Thus many of the peculiarities of the law, particularly in the process and in the concepts of property, were present by the thirteenth century. Likewise, the central political feature, namely that England was not an absolutist state, that the crown was responsible to parliament and under the law, was established before the time of Magna Carta in 1215. It was maintained thereafter, despite some attempts in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to introduce a ' continental-style absolutism. The related features of little central bureauc­racy, no standing army, no armed police, the tradition of non-paid local administration and justice, the self-policing local community, were all very ancient. They all went back to the thirteenth century and beyond. Never did a revived Roman Law sweep away the older customs and laws, as happened on the continent.

The ancient legal and political foundations were early associated with social peculiarities. Late medieval society of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries had a very ranked yet relatively open social structure. There was no legally privileged nobility, a great contrast with France, and there were no slaves. Serfs were `free' men and citizens, except in relation to one person, their master. Even he had only limited rights over them. There was already a very large and prosperous middling section of townsmen, traders, artisans, yeomen, based largely on the flourishing international wool trade. There is little sign of a fourfold division of society, or of strong oppositions between townsmen (bourgeois) and countrymen (paysans). There was clearly extensive geographical mobility, again linked to the widespread and fully developed institutions of servanthood and appren­ticeship. Wage labour was highly developed, with probably more than



half the population working for wages rather than as family or serf labour by the fourteenth century.

Obviously there were huge technological differences between the thirteenth and nineteenth centuries. Though wind and water power were widely used, steam power and machinery were yet to come, and to this extent England in the late medieval period was different from the early nineteenth century. Yet behind the differences of technology there lay deeper similarities. Manorial account rolls and manuals, and other records show that throughout town and country the use of money was widespread. Almost everything could be represented in monetary terms and almost everything could be bought in the extensive and ubiquitous markets and fairs of Medieval England. This was a trading nation, with a highly developed market structure, thriving towns, and a keen interest among its inhabitants in profit. Land and labour were seen as commodi­ties; there was a great emphasis both in law and in life on possession. Most services had long ago been commuted for cash and the estates were :farmed for profit. The `shopkeeper' mentality, that is the interest in accounting, in producing for exchange rather than direct consumption, the desire to make economic profits, was widespread. Whereas later the Puritans and other Protestant groups would vehemently attack usury, and the interest rates would be brought down to very low levels, in the late middle ages money lending and mortgaging at interest were widespread and interest rates were much higher. Accounting methods, though crude in comparison to later developments and lacking double-entry book­keeping, were sophisticated enough to make it possible to keep a check on profit and loss.

The basic features of the kinship system seem to have been early laid down. The kinship terminology was in the twelfth century as it was to be in the nineteenth, a bilateral `Eskimo' system that isolated out the nuclear family. The concepts of descent were already formed into the mould that has persisted to the present. Descent was traced through both males and females, a cognatic system that we have today. The method of computing kinship was the canon-law method, based, on Germanic custom. The inheritance laws were fixed in their major principles by the thirteenth century. Male primogeniture was already a distinguishing feature, with rights reserved for widows. The central principle was that inheritance was not automatic, that `no man is the heir to a living man'. There was therefore no natural, automatic, family property, no `restrait lignager'; this was firmly outlined by Bracton in the early thirteenth century. Likewise the idea that property always descended and never ascended, that parents were never the automatic heirs of their own children was accepted, there was vertical rather than lateral inheritance.



Socio-economic revolution in England      I51

 The weakness of kinship in this egocentric, network-based kinship system is everywhere apparent from at least the thirteenth century. In economics, ownership, production and consumption were not based on kinship groupings. Religion did not reinforce kinship through ritual or ancestor beliefs. Political life below the level of the aristocracy was run on non-kinship lines with few indications of proper blood-feud, vendetta, mafia or clan warfare. The care of the sick, the poor, the old, had already been largely taken over by non-kinship institutions, by the parish, manor, guild and religious fraternities. The weakness of kinship showed itself in the household organization. There is no sign of a fundamentally different household structure, with a wide scale presence of complex households, as far back as the documents will take us, which is the fourteenth century.

All this fits with an early developed and peculiar marriage system. We shall outline this system in a little more detail. Marriage is the crucial link between economics and biology, between the individual and society. As such, it is not only a good reflection of deeper features of the economy and society, but also the crucial determinant of demographic patterns. A `revolution' in the socio-economic systems, for instance from a 'pre­capitalist' to `capitalist' form in the sixteenth century to eighteenth century could hardly have occurred without a concurrent revolution in the marital system, which in turn would have altered the demographic regime. While it is not possible in a short essay like this to analyse most of the supposed revolutionary changes in any detail, it is worth looking more carefully at one institution. Because of its vital mediating position between society and economy, marriage is ideal for such an examination. We may look at the constituents of what I shall term the `Malthusian marriage pattern'. It is so-named because it is the one that Malthus advocated in the early nineteenth century.

If we consider the major rules which constrained marriage in England in the early nineteenth century, most of them can be found in operation in the fourteenth century and often well before. Age at marriage is very difficult to estimate before parish registers and therefore there is consider­able guesswork in all work on the period before the sixteenth century. Yet the relatively late age at marriage for both men and women was probably a very old characteristic in England. The late age at marriage is mentioned as a characteristic of the early Germanic peoples who brought their culture to England and there is certainly no strong evidence to show that women ever universally married at puberty, as they have done in much of the rest of the world. It has been impossible to find a revolutionary change to that `unique west European marriage pattern' which Hajnal docu­mented .l0 A second rule of marriage is that of single marriage, or monogamy. This is again cross-comparatively rare and is clearly a pivot of

I52                      ALAN MACFARLANE   .

the marriage system. It is also demonstrably ancient. Again the Germanic peoples who invaded England had long been monogamous and the Christian Church, despite minor lapses, reinforced this cultural premise. A substantial change introduced by the Church, almost amounting to a `revolution', was a growing intolerance of divorce. Yet this was a change that had occurred well before the fourteenth century. A further, informal, rule which allowed widespread remarriage after the death of a spouse was also clearly established by the thirteenth century at the latest.

The rules concerning whom one should and should not marry were probably also very early established. Jack Goody has shown that the widened rules of forbidden marriage were established in Anglo-Saxon England." Of the positive, prescriptive, rules about which kin one must or should marry, there is little sign. There is thus no sign of a trans­formation of what Levi-Strauss has termed `elementary structures' of kinship into the `complex structures' which existed in the nineteenth century.12 Certainly, such elementary structures, if they had ever existed, were gone by the thirteenth century. To put it in another way, marriage in England was very early based on a contractual relationship, not on a status, that is kinship, tie. This was also true of another aspect of birth status, namely rank. There is little sign of endogamous groups based on blood or other criteria in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The bond could patently marry the `free' and did so, the gentry could marry the aristocracy, the trader could marry the landowner's daughter.

The customs concerning the all-important question of marriage payments and the economic negotiations at marriage are particularly well documented. England in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century exhibited a curious pattern of marital economics. The features included the payment of a `portion' with a girl as a sort of `dowry', which was to balance the jointure or Common Law `dower', or the customary widowright, which she would receive from her husband. There is no sign at that date of either a full-fledged `bridewealth' or `dowry' system, as described for India, Africa and Southern Europe. 13 Furthermore, the relative rights of the partners in this conjugal property were of an unusual kind. They followed neither the complete merging, the `community' of property, nor the absolute separation, the `lineality' of possessions, both of which were found in the customs of France and Scotland. This marital-property complex was clearly very old, many elements dating back to the thirteenth century and earlier.

These formal rules and customs are consistent with the early estab­lishment of a particular view of the purposes and nature of marriage. This was based on four central premises. The first was that marriage was ultimately of concern to the couple themselves, that it was founded on the


Socio-economic revolution in England      153

 mutual consent of bride and groom, and not on the arrangement of others. This was a widespread view in the early nineteenth century, but its curiosity is easily seen when we compare it to the majority of peasant societies which have arranged marriage. There, marriage is seen as too important a matter to be left to the personal whim of the partners. This central feature is of very ancient standing. It had been formally accepted into the Catholic view of marriage by the twelfth century and was probably based on much earlier custom.     :

A second feature of the attitude to marriage was equally important, namely that to marry, or not to marry, involved a choice. Hajnal has rightly seen this as the other major feature of the unique European marriage pattern, indicated by the very large proportion of females, rising to one in six on occasions, who never marry. By the eighteenth century in England there were large numbers of elderly bachelors and spinsters and it was widely accepted that marriage was optional. To the majority of societies, where marriage is seen as a `natural', automatic, life-cycle stage, a universal experience, this would seem strange. Unfortunately the statistical sources for identifying precisely how old this feature is are again defective. All that we can say for certain is that there is plenty of evidence for non-marriage and no conclusive evidence of universal marriage in the later medieval period. This is consistent with a particular view of the married estate early adopted by the Catholic Church. Marriage was a second best; the continent, celibate, life was the highest calling, following in the steps of the bachelor Christ. Marriage was for those who failed, a remedy for lust, something for the weaker brethren. A sacrament, no doubt, but of a lower order than a life of non-marriage. This downgrading of the marital state, the making of marriage into an optional, `cultural' event, rather than its celebration as the highest, necessary and `natural' state as in Hindu, Muslim, or Confucian religion, is of an early and striking importance. This view was clearly well established before the thirteenth century.

A third premise was that marriage was above all to be entered into for the mutual benefits to be achieved from the husband-wife relationship, rather than as a means to produce heirs. Marriage in the nineteenth century was clearly viewed as a partnership of mind and body. The husband-wife bond superseded all others; the contractual and selected relationship which is established curiously overrode all the relations of blood, with siblings, with parents, with children. This is decidedly unusual cross-comparatively, and again it is a view of marriage that is very old in England, as well as in other parts of Christian Europe. Early on in England we see the mingling of two traditions. Though Christianity elevated the state of celibacy, on the other hand it also emphasized the conjugal bond,


154                              ALAN MACFARLANE

admonishing believers that in Paradise Adam had realized that the creation of Eve meant that `therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall both be one flesh'. (Genesis 2: 24). This view fitted well with the old uxoriousness of the Germanic peoples whom Tacitus described in the first century sharing their lives and cleaving closely to each other. Whatever the origins, certainly the companionate view of marriage seems to have been widely accepted by the fourteenth century. As soon as relevant documents begin

, marriage seems to have been concerned more with the mutual relationship than with procreation. The absence of stress on producing children is consistent with the late age and non-universal nature of marriage and with the absence of any formal adoption procedures.

`           Finally there is the cultural premise that marriages are to be based on the mutual attraction of `love'. There is considerable discussion about when `love' marriage originated. Some place the origins in the twelfth

century, some earlier, some later. What appears to be very likely from the snatches of surviving poetry, the depositions in ecclesiastical courts, from descriptions in early encyclopedias, is that by the fourteenth century at least there was a widespread acceptance of `love' as a powerful constituent of marriage among ordinary people. Certainly, when the evidence crowds in during the sixteenth century, `love' is widely accepted as a powerful emotion linked to marriage. There is no strong indication that this association was something suddenly invented in the fifteenth or early sixteenth centuries. Of course there were many other motives for mar­riage, as there were in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Yet mutual liking, and preferably `love', were widely viewed as an essential com­ponent of marriage. This distinguishing feature was not something invented as a result of Protestantism or a growing individualism of the, sixteenth to eighteenth centuries.

The marital system was a mediating institution which gave rise in England to a peculiar demographic regime. A number of indications of its presence can be seen if we compare England in the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries to other parts of Europe, for instance to Sweden or France, as Wrigley has done. 14 In the mortality statistics there were two outstanding features. Firstly, England from the Black Death onwards seems to have escaped from the `crisis' regime whereby every few generations there would be a massive rise in mortality, usually caused by a war that dislocated an already threshold-treading economy. Such warfare would lead to massive famine and disease. In England there were, of course, continued epidemics up to the seventeenth century, and there were signs of famine deaths in Cumberland up to the same period. Yet in relation to the cataclysms which the painful history of much of conti-

Socio-economic revolution in England       155


nental Europe, India, China, Russia and elsewhere shows up to the eighteenth century and later, the English `crises' are relatively insignificant in the four hundred years between 1350 and 1750. A second notable feature of mortality was its relatively low perennial level. While much higher than today, as compared to many 'pre-transition' populations, we have here one of the two features of what Wrigley has termed a `low pressure' demographic regime.15 Infant, child and adult mortality were

not as high as they are in many 'pre-transition' populations, a feature that is apparent from at least the fifteenth century.

The fertility rates were also controlled and below their theoretical maximum. This can be seen in several ways. Firstly, there was a curious absence of those spurts of population after a period of high mortality which happened in France and other `high-pressure' regimes. In many societies, when an `ecological niche' is freed by mortality, it is quickly filled by a new individual. Likewise, when there is an expansion of resources, this is rapidly converted into a growth in population. This is the well-known Malthusian trap. Yet England seemed to have escaped from both these phenomena from the fourteenth century onwards. After the Black Death the population did not surge back, but continued to fall for another century. During the years of economic growth between the middle of the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, population did not rapidly rise to absorb the growing resources. This was related to the unusually controlled fertility rate. That is to say, not only was marital fertility moderate, but the overall fertility rate was well below the theoretical maximum for such a population. We now know that in the seventeenth century, when this was most evident, the lowered fertility was caused by late and selective marriage, rather than by contraception or abortion within marriage. The effect of this medium-level fertility was that it balanced the medium-level mortality; over the centuries between the fourteenth and the eighteenth, population grew very slowly indeed, allowing the country gradually to grow wealthier.

This last feature is one aspect of an even more interesting demographic peculiarity of a very long-lived kind. This was the way in which fertility somehow adjusted to economics, rather than being inflexibly linked to biological pressures. It has recently been shown by Wrigley and Schofield that there was a long-term association between fertility rates and real wages between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries.16 With a curious twenty-year lag, when real wages rose, so did fertility. The lag allowed a certain economic growth to occur and the association meant that popu­lation adjusted to economic forces in a beneficial way, producing the labour supply that was needed; through the fifteenth to the early eighteenth centuries, fertility was severely controlled. So powerful were

156    ALAN MACFARLANE         

:       the inhibiting pressures that in certain parts of England at this period the mean age at first marriage for women rose as high as thirty years; women had put off childbearing for about fifteen years after puberty and many did not marry at all. Then, where there occurred that spurt in productivity and demand for labour which we term the Industrial Revolution, the fertility rate responded. The marriage age fell and England for a century had the fastest rate of population growth in the whole of Europe. This flexible demographic system, one part of the Malthusian marriage pattern, was not a new creation of the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries, it would seem, but is evident from the fourteenth century at least. This makes it difficult to talk of the `demographic transition' as occurring in England. To a certain extent, it had already happened before the Refor­mation, although the equilibrium of births and deaths established at the medium level by the seventeenth century would drop to a much lower level at the end of the nineteenth.

It is clearly necessary to add qualifications to this very brief sketch of some of the central features of English history from the fourteenth to nineteenth centuries. Some might argue that the dating of many of the traits is either too late or too early. Yet a very strong case can be made for saying that most of the central legal, political, economic, social and demographic premises that were observable in the early nineteenth century were already formed by the fourteenth century at the latest. If this is true, it is not surprising that early modern historians have been undecided as to whether the `revolution' occurred in the sixteenth, seventeenth or eighteenth centuries. A second obvious qualification is to stress that we are here looking at the middle-level, `social' changes, not at the deepest-level geographical time, nor at the ripple of events. Even so, we also need to bear in mind these other levels, for they are all interconnected. There were numerous political, economic and religious      J `events' that had a profound influence, positive and negative, on the characteristics we have isolated. Many of these `events' could have reshaped the whole situation which we have discussed. Cultural premises are shaped by the ripples, as much as the other way round. To stress continuity is not the same as believing in inevitability. The `shape of Cleopatra's nose' school of history is perfectly compatible with a reali­zation that things did, in a particular case, change less in their funda­mentals than many suppose. To take one instance, the success of the Spanish Armada, bringing in its wake Roman law, Roman religion and Roman absolutism, might well have created a genuine revolution which would have broken all those continuous strands which we have elabor­ated. Nevertheless, as it was, the Armada was defeated, Charles I was beheaded, and, through a curious set of fluxes and chances, England


Socio-economic revolution in England                157

 remained a peculiar land which became a revolutionary force in the world not because it had undergone a revolution, but precisely because it had not. There is nothing inevitable about this, except in the distorting mirror of hindsight. We are not forced to return to a revised Whig evolutionism.

Nor need we argue that there was no change. Clearly many things did change. The oriental visitor stepping back from the early nineteenth century to the early fourteenth would have found many differences in the physical landscape, the technology, the arts and crafts, the language, the overseas dominions, the world of thought and belief. Even those features which we have looked at were constantly fluctuating, growing more complex or simple, or withering away. Nevertheless, the most accurate                                                            way to conceive of this history is not through the `revolutionary' meta­phors of sudden and catastrophic breaks which have become so fashion­able during the last fifty years. While such models are no doubt helpful and appropriate for the history of many other European nations, applied to England they set up false expectations and distort the evidence.

Yet historians require ways of conceiving of change and, if we are persuaded that the revolutionary models are of only very limited use in : English history, how are we to explain that very unusual world which had emerged by the early nineteenth century? An alternative approach is provided if we consult those who studied the history of England in the later nineteenth and early twentieth century. At that time a number of historians for the first time systematically investigated and began to translate the massive records of later medieval England. They were unparalleled in their command of the historical sources, which is the essential craft skill of the historian. They also had other advantages. Firstly, there was still sufficiently little published, and sufficiently little specialization in the subject, for them to be able to take a total view of English history, from Anglo-Saxon times up to their own generation. They did not suffer from that growing temporal and subject specialization which means that most historians now become 'sixteenth-century' or even `sixteenth- century-economic' historians. This inevitable compartmentali­zation easily feeds into a `revolutionary' interpretation, for it is easy to believe that everything suddenly changed either just before or just after one's period, or, even more excitingly, during it. The great historians who . dominated the subject between about 1870 and 1920 could gaze on the whole of English history and were hence in a position to assess more fully whether there had been any revolutionary breaks.

A second advantage of these writers was that they still suffered under what we might now consider to be a delusion, namely that what the oriental visitor found so surprising was in fact not surprising at all. These English historians, whatever their acquaintance with the works of



158              ALAN MACFARLANE

comparative law and anthropology, still really believed that it was the others who were peculiar. The full impact of comparative anthropology and the unsettling influence of Marx and Weber had not yet been felt. The capitalist and individualistic system of England was recognized to be different from that of the rest of Europe, yet its full curiosity at the level of world civilization was not yet really apparent. This belief was helpful for the historian. It meant that what an Englishman did was not seen as so odd that the historian was forced to assume that it could only be explained by some very violent transformation, some revolutionary break with the more usual human customs, the view to which Marx moved. The easy self-confidence of the later Victorian historians led them to be prepared to accept that what they themselves believed in might indeed have very ancient foundations, almost be `natural'.


      Thus the greatest of these historians, Stubbs and Maitland, approached English history with a long and broad vision, with an unrivalled grasp of the technicalities of the documents and the institutional world that had produced them, and no prejudice against believing that nineteenth century England might have its roots in medieval, or even Anglo-Saxon, England. Nor were they inspired by a zeal to show that their own world was the recent product of a revolutionary change which had such shallow roots that another revolution would easily shift it. Instead, they laboured with care and high intelligence and emerged with that vision of continuity which we are now rediscovering. Of course it is not difficult to brush them aside as irrelevant and misguided. Perry Anderson, for example, asserts that `the transition from the medieval to the early modern epochs thus corresponded in English history - despite all local legends of unbroken "continuity" - to a deep and radical reversal of many of the most characteristic traits of prior feudal development . , .'17 Legends, however, are of interest to historians, nor are they necessarily `untrue'.

    The legend told by Stubbs is indeed one of unbroken continuity. In his Constitutional History o f England he securely laid the foundations of the English social system very early on, in Anglo-Saxon England. On this foundation, a great deal had been built by the thirteenth century. `The great characteristic of the English constitutional system is the continuous development of representative institutions from the first elementary stage ... The nation becomes one and realizes its oneness. It is completed under Henry II and his sons. Stubbs is of course aware that there are turmoil’s ahead and that political and constitutional changes of consider­able importance will occur over the next six centuries. Yet he believes that the basic rules change little. `The constitution which reached its formal and definite maturity under Edward I ... the continuity of life, and the continuity of national purpose, never fails: even the great struggle of all


   Socio-economic revolution in England    159

[sic], the long labour that extends from the Reformation to the Revolution [i.e., 1688), leaves the organization, the origin of which we have been tracing, unbroken in its conscious identity, stronger in the strength which it has preserved, and grown mightier through trial'.19 There is no notion of any `revolution' in Stubbs's work, no hint of a cataclysmic change from a `medieval' to a `modern' world. This was not because he was blind to changes when they did occur. He noted that the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries `witnessed a series of changes in national life, mind, and  : character, in the relations of the classes, and in the balance of political forces, far greater than the English race had gone through since the Norman Conquest. 120 These changes he listed as the Reformation, the `transformation of the baronage of early England into the nobility of later times' and the `recovered strength of the monarchic principle ...' Yet he did not believe that the continuity was broken.

The continuities were strongest in the middling and lower ranks in which over 99 per cent of the English population lived, `As we descend in the scale of social rank the differences between medieval and modern life rapidly diminish', he wrote.21 Stubbs was aware that the balance of ownership changed, yet there were always the same major groupings, the gentry, the tradesmen and artisans, the labourers, and that peculiar middling English estate known as the `yeomanry'. Two features of the ancient yeoman tradition especially struck Stubbs, their wealth and their social mobility. He wrote that `the wills and inventories of the well-to-do freeholder and farmer furnish similar evidence of competency; and these are an irrefrageable answer to the popular theories of the misery and           : discomfort of medieval middle-class life . . .'. The house of the freeholder

was substantially but simply furnished, his store of clothes and linen were ample, he had money in his purse and credit at the shop and at the market.22 This is no miserable subsistence peasant, but a small capitalist farmer whose cash and credit indicates his involvement in the market economy.

The second major feature Stubbs noted is the early and easy social mobility. Before the close of the middle ages the rich townsmen had begun to intermarry with the Knights and gentry, and many of the noble families of the present day trace the foundations of their fortunes to a lord mayor of London or York ... it is probable that there was no period in English history at which the barrier between the knightly and mercantile class was regarded as insuperable ... 23

This was a society of closely spaced ranks with no insuperable barriers between them from very early on.

The city magnate formed a link between the country squire and the tradesman; and the tradesman and the yeoman were in position and in blood closely akin.




  Even the villein might, by learning a craft, set his foot on the ladder of promotion…24. One final feature of a `medieval' world that looks surprisingly like that of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries is the widespread use of wage labour and craft activity; there were, Stubbs tells us, `whole classes of labourers and artisans, whose earnings never furnished more than the mere requisites of life . . .'25

     The same legend is told by F.W. Maitland. In his many works we look in vain for any sign of a belief that a vast and revolutionary change had occurred at some specific point in English history, dividing off `medieval' from `modern' England. Instead, his view that the legal and social structure of England, in its basic principles, was already laid down by the thirteenth century is shown in many passages, only a few of which we can cite here.

    We are told that `at the end of Henry III's reign our Common Law of inheritance was rapidly assuming its final form. Its main outlines were those which are still familiar to us ...'26 By the death of Henry II ~I2~2), `English law is modern in its uniformity, its simplicity, its certainty . ..'2~ Lawyers from the fourteenth century onwards believed that `the great outlines of criminal law and private law seem to have been regarded as fixed f or all time. In the twentieth century students of law will still for practical purposes be compelled to know a good deal about the statutes of Edward I . . .'28 This continuity, he believed, had been of great advantage to English historians, setting them off from those of continental nations where it had not occurred.

 So continuous has been our English legal life during the last six centuries, that the law of the later middle ages has never been forgotten among us. It has never passed utterly outside the cognizance of our courts and our practising lawyers. We have never had to disinter and reconstruct it in that laborious and tentative manner in which German historians of the present day have disinterred and reconstructed the law of medieval Germany.29

This continuity is shown in the treatment of particular subjects. For instance, when analysing the forms of action at Common Law, Maitland took the period 1307-1833 as one period. He admitted that this was `enormously long', yet wrote that `I do not know that for our present purpose it could be well broken up into sub-periods.' 30

    The most important area of all, as Marx would have agreed, was the property law which governed relations of production. Here were the deepest continuities. This `most salient trait' of the `calculus of estates which even in our own day, is perhaps the most distinctive feature of English private law', Maitland thought very old. It has been a characteristic for six centuries, having taken a `definite shape' in the second half of the



Socio-economic revolution in England             161

 thirteenth century, drawing on much older  customs. 31 In his Consti­tutional History o f England, which covered the period from Anglo-Saxon England up to the 1880's, Maitland made no substantial modifications to Stubbs's general vision of continuity.32 For instance, he wrote `take an institution that exists at the end of the Middle Ages, any that exists in i 800 - be it parliament, or privy council, or any of the courts of law - we can trace it back through a series of definite changes as far as Edward's reign ... '33 It was because English constitutional and legal principles had been laid down so early that the history of English law which he largely wrote could amazingly end in 1272.

 Maitland pointed to many respects in which thirteenth-century England was like that of the nineteenth century. There was in both an absence of patriarchal power, patria potestas, that subjection of children and women to the absolute power of the oldest male; there was an absence of clans or other corporate kin groups; there was no concept of familial property, of joint and communal ownership. 34 Individual possession was characteristic from very early on. The thirteenth century was already dominated by contract and not status, to use Maine's distinction; as Stubbs had also noted, there were no hereditary ranks based on blood and law, no 'castes'. 35 There was equality before the law and all had legal rights, including women, children and villeins.36

 We may wonder whether this `legend' of continuity, so powerfully undermining of revolutions, has been destroyed by subsequent research on those documents, many of which Maitland himself first brought to  light. In the reprinting of the History o f English Law in 1968, Milsom describes it as a `still living authority'.37 Nowhere in his lengthy intro­duction does Milsom challenge Maitland's view of the thirteenth century. Indeed Milsom concludes that `there can be no doubt that by the end of the period covered by the book, the world was as Maitland saw it ...'38 Maitland, writes Milsom, `would probably wish his work to be super­seded. There is little sign that this will happen soon.'39 The world Maitland saw was `essentially a flat world inhabited by equal neighbours. Lordship is little more than a servitude over the land of another ... '40

If Maitland rejects a revolutionary interpretation of English history, how does he visualize the process of time as changing? It is certainly not in a crude evolutionary pattern, through a series of organic `stages', as advocated by a number of the evolutionary anthropologists and sociolo­gists of the later nineteenth century. This evolutionary framework, which influenced Marx through the works of Morgan, has had a considerable influence on twentieth-century historiography. Yet, in a memorable passage, Maitland calmly shatters such necessary, single-path, evolu­tionism.41 What alternative, then, can he offer? Maitland does not usually


162.                             ALAN MACFARLANE

address the problem directly, but often indicates obliquely how one might use an organic-growth model, yet without any necessity for things to have occurred in a certain way. An illustration of this approach is shown in his treatment of one of the central and enduring features of English history, the system of local government. Maitland writes that

Certainly to any one who has an eye for historic greatness it is a very marvellous institution, this Commission of the Peace, growing so steadily, elaborating itself into ever new ideas, and yet never losing its identity ... we shall hardly find any other political entity which has had so eventful and yet so perfectly continuous a life.42

Maitland holds here in a delicate balance both `newness' and `identity' over time, an institution whose history is both `eventful' and yet `con­tinuous'. Such an approach allows us the flexibility to admit that by a strange paradox things can both remain the same and also change.

Such a model of change is more subtle and less crude than a revolution­ary one, at least when applied to English history. No doubt it will be unattractive to those historians who agree with Butterfield that `the chief aim of the historian is the elucidation of the unlikeness between past and present ... It is not for him to stress and magnify the similarities between one age and another ... '43 If we are dedicated to hunt for dissimilarities, then `revolutions' before which things were very different are what we shall hope to find, and we can safely dismiss Stubbs and Maitland as poor historians. In that case, all that has been put forward in this essay, even if true, is of no interest. It is a species of that `so what' history to which my former teacher, Lady Rosalind Clay, used to allude. On the other hand, if we are concerned to find out how things have come to be as they are, we .         may well find that for certain societies the `continuity with change' paradox is the most flexible way of looking at the past. This approach can best be stated as a contradiction, the `Changing Same', as the jazz singer Leroy James called a song. This changing same is another way of speaking of the parable of the philosopher’s shoe, whose various parts were replaced bit by bit. At the end, was it the same shoe or another one? In another form, it is the metaphor used by the great historian of the Common Law, Sir Matthew Hale, when he likened the changing law to the Ship of the Argonauts. `The ship went so long a voyage that eventually every part of it decayed and was replaced; yet [says the paradox of identity in spite of change] it remained in a meaningful sense the same ship.'44 For English history, we would need to modify these metaphors, for the new heel, or the new planks were of a different shape and length to the ones they replaced. It was still a ship or a shoe, but the overall measurements had shifted very considerably. Put in another metaphor, an organic one, the tree had not changed from being an oak. But a small oak is very different in many respects from a large one.


Socio-economic revolution in England      `           163

     One could express this model in a more modern idiom. In trying to account for the way in which behaviour is generated in a North African society, the anthropologist Pierre Bourdieu has developed the notion of habitus, that is the idea of a system of invisible, general, but powerful rules which guide everyday behaviour .45 This is curiously similar to what is meant by that central English idea of `custom', as when Bracton wrote of the Laws and Customs o f England in the early thirteenth century. These are an assemblage of the `way things are done', the fundamental and guiding principles, the rules of the game. If we turn Bourdieu's idea from a static one into a changing model over time, we would argue that the habitus of the English was very early established. How it expressed itself would vary and change, but the expressions would be in conformity to fairly basic rules which are not easily changed. One might liken these to the tides, which are unaltering. The storms and stillnesses on the surface, the individual waves, are just as important for the sailor as are the tides. Yet ultimately, the ebb and flow remains within various bounds constrained by deeper laws. No one would argue that `revolutions' never occur, and historians should of course describe them when they do so. Yet to assume that they occur in every nation's history, and frequently, cuts short the his­torian's ability to respond to what the evidence tells him. It debases the his­torical coinage and it warps the historian's observation of the past.

Two final questions may be raised, but not satisfactorily answered in the space available. The first concerns the degree to which the non­revolutionary nature of the English past is representative or exceptional when compared to the rest of Western Europe. England was in many respects merely an extreme version of a general West European socio­economic system, and the inquiring oriental would have been almost as surprised if he had visited Italy, France or Spain, and particularly, if he had visited Holland or Denmark. On the other hand, as many travellers and observers noted, there was also something special about England. One manifestation of this was that, while there is no evidence of a real `revolution' in England in any specific century, there are indeed grounds for calling what happened in much of continental Europe in the century after 1789 a real revolution. The legal, political, social, economic and ideological systems do seem to have undergone a rapid, interrelated and profound transformation. Of course there were continuities, but there are much stronger grounds for speaking of revolution. Thus while England, with industrialization and urbanism, went through the most rapid ' physical, technological and material changes, its deeper relations of production and ideology were little altered. Elsewhere, the material world altered less, but the ancien regime structures were toppled and a new world was born. Ironically, that `new' world was based on the ancient models developed in England and exported to her colonies.


164                              ALAN MACFARLANE

If it is true that a misleading paradigm of the English past has established itself in certain quarters during the first two thirds of the twentieth century, we are left with an intriguing historiographical ques­tion as to why this should have been the case. Naturally, the reasons lie at many levels. Some of these have been hinted at above: the need to make the past very different in order to make it problematic, the influence of European sociologists and particularly Marx and Weber, the self questioning doubt induced by comparative anthropological knowledge. Other causes could be suggested, including the obvious use of the past to help predict the future. For instance, if all that exists now can be shown to be the result of a recent `revolution', then it is easier to consider changing present institutions. What exists around us can be seen to be an artificial, almost accidental, creation. It is a part of culture, not nature. If the family system or the capitalist ethic is only a few hundred years old, it is easier to feel that it may not last long either. The vision of numerous revolutions in the recent past is essentially optimistic, utopian. The premise of continuity can conversely be attractive to those who wish to stress enduring values, who dislike profound change. Thus the fluctuations in historical interpre­tation tell us a great deal about the changes in political ideology in this century. Recent errors are not the result of a lack of ability among twentieth-century scholars, even if it is difficult to point to historians of the stature of Stubbs and Maitland. As historians know, theories of change, for instance the move from cyclical to linear concepts of time, from static to progressive and from evolution to revolution, are deeply influenced by changes in the environment within which historians work. While it is possible to analyse the reasons for such shifts in interpretative paradigm at the Renaissance, Enlightenment or the Evolutionary phase of the nineteenth century, it is more difficult to understand the reasons for the rise and imminent decline of what might be called `Revolutionism'. We are still too close to the shift, some of us having even within our lives switched into and out of Revolutionism. All we can do in this short paper is to see how a useful model in other settings is inappropriate when applied to English history, distorting the evidence to fit into preconceived structures.


All books are published in London, unless otherwise indicated.

1. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (first published in 2 parts, 183 S, 1840), and L'ancien regime (1856).

2 Ibn Khaldun, An Introduction to History, and Muqaddimah, various editions; Edmund Leach, Political Systems of Highland Burma (1954).


'    Socio-economic revolution in England                                   165

 3 Fernand Braudel, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age

o f Philip II (1976), Fontana ed., vol. I, pp. 20-I.

 4 `Tawney's century' is the title given to the first essay, by F. J. Fisher, in the Essays in the Economic and Social History o f Tudor and Stuart England (Cambridge, 196I), ed. F. J. Fisher.

5. Christopher Hill, The Century of Revolution 1603-1714 (Edinburgh, 1961). 6 Lawrence Stone, The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500-1800 (I977), pp. 4-7; see also Edward Shorter, The Making o f the Modern Family (1976). He even more specifically dates the change to the eighteenth century.

 7 The failure of the English Revolution of the seventeenth century to change the social structure is stressed by Perry Anderson and Tom Nairn; see E. P. Thompson, `The peculiarities of the English', in The Socialist Register, ed. Ralph Miliband and John Saville (I965), especially p. 314.

8 More detailed discussion of continuities in property law and social structure are contained in my The Origins o f English Individualism (Oxford, I978); on law, order and public administration, in my The Justice and the Mare's Ale; Law and Disorder in Seventeenth-century England (Oxford, 1981), and A Guide to English Historical Records (Cambridge, I983). The evidence to support the remarks about marriage appear in my book Marriage and Love in England (Oxford, I986).

9 An excellent outline of English Common Law history is J. H. Baker, An Introduction to English Legal History (I979).

I0 John Hajnal, `European marriage patterns in perspective', in Population in            ; History (1965), ed. D. V. Glass and D. E. C. Eversley.

11 J. Goody, The Development o f the Family and Marriage in Europe (Cam­bridge, I983).

12 C. Levi-Strauss, The Elementary Structures o f Kinship (I969), p. xxiii.

13 J. Goody and S. J. Tambiah, Bridewealth and Dowry (Cambridge, I973),

14 E. A. Wrigley and R. S. Schofield, `English population history from family reconstitution: summary results I 600-1799', in Population Studies (1983),pp. I57-84.

15 Ibid., p. 184.                                                                                           

16 E. A. Wrigley, `Marriage, fertility and population growth in eighteenth­

century England', in R. B. Outhwaite, (ed.), Marriage and Society (1981), esp. p. 183.

17 Perry Anderson, Lineages o f the Absolutist State (I974), p. 113.

I8 William Stubbs, The Constitutional History o f England, in its Origin and Development (Oxford, I874), 5th ed., 1891, vol. i, pp. 584-5.

I9 Ibid., p. 682.

20       I bid., vol. 3, p. 3.   

21       Ibid., vol. 3, p. 570.

22       Ibid., vol. 3, P. 573.

23           Ibid., vol. 3, p. 615.

24           Ibid., vol. 3, p. 626.

25           Ibid., vol. 3, p. 6I9

26           Sir F. Pollock and F. W. Maitland, The History o f English Law Before the Time o f Edward I (2nd ed., Cambridge, I968), vol. 2, p. 260. Although known as Pollock and Maitland, almost all of the work was written by Maitland.    

27 Ibid., vol. I, p. 225.



166                              ALAN MACFARLANE

28 Selected Essays o f F. W. Maitland (Cambridge, 1957), chosen and introduced by Helen Cam, p. I23.

29 Pollock and Maitland, History, vol. I, p, civ.

30 F. W. Maitland, The Forms o f Action at Common Law (Cambridge, I968), ed. A. H. Chaytor and W. J. Whittaker, p. 43.

  31 Pollock and Maitland, History, vol. 2, pp. 10-11.

32 F, W. Maitland, The Constitutional History o f England (Cambridge, 1919), p. 20.

33 Maitland, Select Essays, p. I z7­

34 Pollock and Maitland, History, vol. 2, pp. 438, 242ff, 13,19,27.

­35 Ibid., vol. 2,, p. 233.

36 Ibid., vol. 2, p. 402.

.    3 7 Pollock and Maitland, History, vol. r, p. xxiii.

     38 Ibid., vol. I, p. xlvii.

39 Ibid., vol. I, p. Ixxiii

40 Ibid., vol. I, p. xlvii.

41 F. W.Maitland,  Domesday Book and Beyond (Cambridge,1921),  pp- 344-6.

42 F. W. Maitland, Collected Papers (Cambridge, I9II), ed. H. A. L. Fisher, Vol. I, p. 47I.

43 Herbert Butterfield, The Whig Interpretation o f History (Pelican ed.,            1973),p. 17.

44 Charles Gray in the preface to Sir Matthew Hale, The History o f the Common Law o f England (Chicago Univ. reprint,I97I ), p. xxxi.

45 Pierre Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice (Cambridge, 1977).