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Landlords and Tenants in Britain, 1440-1660

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

Edited by Jane Whittle
Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 256
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  • Book Info
    Landlords and Tenants in Britain, 1440-1660
    Book Description:

    This volume revisits a classic book by a famous historian: R.H. Tawney's Agrarian Problem in the Sixteenth Century (1912). Tawney's Agrarian Problem surveyed landlord-tenant relations in England between 1440 and 1660, the period of emergent capitalism and rapidly changing property relations that stands between the end of serfdom and the more firmly capitalist system of the eighteenth century. This transition period is widely recognised as crucial to Britain's long term economic development, laying the foundation for the Industrial Revolution of the eighteenth century. Remarkably, Tawney's book has remained the standard text on landlord-tenant relations for over a century. Here, Tawney's book is re-evaluated by leading experts in agrarian and legal history, taking its themes as a departure point to provide for a new interpretation of the agrarian economy in late Tudor and early modern Britain. The introduction looks at how Tawney's Agrarian Problem was written, its place in the historiography of agrarian England and the current state of research. Survey chapters examine the late medieval period, a comparison with Scotland, and Tawney's conception of capitalism, whilst the remaining chapters focus on four issues that were central to Tawney's arguments: enclosure disputes, the security of customary tenure; the conversion of customary tenure to leasehold; and other landlord strategies to raise revenues. The balance of power between landlords and tenants determined how the wealth of agrarian England was divided in this crucial period of economic development - this book reveals how this struggle was played out. JANE WHITTLE is professor of rural history at Exeter University.

    eISBN: 978-1-78204-133-7
    Subjects: Economics

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Figures
    (pp. vii-vii)
  4. List of Tables
    (pp. vii-vii)
  5. Abbreviations
    (pp. viii-viii)
  6. List of Contributors
    (pp. ix-xi)
  7. Acknowledgements
    (pp. xii-xii)
    Jane Whittle
  8. Foreword
    (pp. xiii-xvi)

    Early in my undergraduate career, my Cambridge supervisor in Economic History set two of us an essay on the agrarian problem of the sixteenth century: ‘was it less a problem of enclosures than of rents?’ (a good question). In trying to answer it we were not required to read Tawney’s great book. We read about Tawney; not Tawney himself. That did not matter, because we were advised that Tawney was ‘an old sentimentalist’ who had failed to recognise that England was already a ruthless and competitive contract society in the sixteenth century, a society of which our supervisor clearly approved....

  9. Introduction: Tawney’s Agrarian Problem Revisited
    (pp. 1-18)

    One hundred years ago, in 1912, R. H. Tawney published his first book, The Agrarian Problem in the Sixteenth Century. Tawney became famous as a socialist thinker and campaigner; his reputation as a historian rests largely on his best-known book, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (1926), and his later contribution to the debate on the causes of the English Civil War.¹ Yet The Agrarian Problem has been deeply influential in the economic history of late medieval and early modern England and is still a regular feature on undergraduate reading lists. It remains readable, lively and relevant. Its importance stretches...

  10. 1 The Agrarian Problem, 1440–1520
    (pp. 19-34)

    R. H. Tawney’s Agrarian Problem was an extraordinary achievement: it dealt with so many dimensions of the subject, identifying the key issues and presenting them with clarity and vigour. It is hard to appreciate that a hundred years have passed since its publication, and there are few books which retain their value after such a long passage of time. We tend to read a work of this period in the expectation that it will seem quaint and naïve. Instead, Tawney’s treatment of his subject is not so different from our own. Often in planning and writing this chapter, I supposed...

  11. 2 Common Law and Manor Courts: Lords, Copyholders and Doing Justice in Early Tudor England
    (pp. 35-51)

    Introducing The Agrarian Problem of the Sixteenth Century,² R. H. Tawney characterised the ‘problem’ of his title as a struggle between copy hold and leasehold. The ultimate triumph of the latter is confirmed by our familiarity with the terms of leasehold and leases: neither legal nor historical training is required to use the term in general conversation to refer to contractual tenures held for fixed terms and for fixed rents. Copyhold, on the other hand, belongs to a past era, an era in which tenures were ‘free’ or ‘unfree’, in which lords of manors held courts for their tenants, and...

  12. 3 Negotiating Enclosure in Sixteenth-Century Yorkshire: The South Cave Dispute, 1530–1536
    (pp. 52-66)

    Writing a hundred years ago, R. H. Tawney recognised the complexity of the term ‘enclosure’. In the first few pages of The Agrarian Problem he asks, ‘what exactly did enclosing mean?’ and the book goes on to draw attention to the wide range of agricultural changes conventionally labelled as enclosure.² His most significant contribution in this vein was probably to document the efforts of the peasantry to enclose land, but the book also discusses a huge variety of modifications to existing agricultural practice.³ Thus he makes reference to piecemeal enclosure and the exchange of open-field strips to create consolidated holdings,...

  13. 4 The Politics of Enclosure in Elizabethan England: Contesting ‘Neighbourship’ in Chinley (Derbyshire)
    (pp. 67-84)

    Among the numerous examples of ‘aggressive landlordism’ that R. H. Tawney cited in The Agrarian Problem are the nefarious activities of Godfrey Bradshaw in Chinley (Derbyshire) in 1569, which had first been brought to light in an article published in the Derbyshire Archaeological Journal in 1899.¹ Tawney’s discussion of the unrest provoked by Bradshaw’s estate management is based exclusively on the Star Chamber interrogatories issued on Bradshaw’s behalf, sources which, by their very nature, present a partisan and adversarial version of the episodes.² Tawney nonetheless assumed the veracity of the narrative implied by Bradshaw’s attorneys and explained the story as...

  14. 5 The Loss of Athelstan’s Gift: The Politics of Popular Memory in Malmesbury, 1607–1633
    (pp. 85-99)

    A century after its publication, R. H. Tawney’s The Agrarian Problem in the Sixteenth Century remains as imaginative, spirited and passionate as ever. For a long time, the book was neglected by early modern historians. The dismissal of The Agrarian Problem, often by those unacquainted with it, grew from Eric Kerridge’s denunciation of it in 1969. Adopting a school-masterly tone, Kerridge chided Tawney for spending too little time in the archives (‘Time which he might have given to studying history was devoted instead to the Fabian Society and the Labour Party’) and condemned The Agrarian Problem as mere socialist propaganda.²...

  15. 6 In Search of the Scottish Agrarian Problem
    (pp. 100-116)

    This was how R. H. Tawney introduced his seminal work on the ‘agrarian problem’ in sixteenth-century England. I would like to ask: could statements comparable to Tawney’s be made about Scotland? The question is a difficult one – but, perhaps for that very reason, an inviting one. Hitherto, the agrarian history of sixteenth-century Scotland has seemed particularly hard to penetrate from an English viewpoint. Work that has been done on subsequent periods of Scottish agriculture, especially the later seventeenth century onwards, has enabled English historians to address it in familiar ways and to incorporate it in broader patterns of agrarian change;...

  16. 7 The Transfer to Leasehold on Durham Cathedral Estate, 1541–1626
    (pp. 117-132)

    R. H. Tawney identified the insecurity of leasehold tenure and increasingly commercial landlord policies as part of the agrarian problem of the sixteenth century. He suggested that landlords converted their estates from customary to leasehold tenure so that the ‘fruits of economic progress’ would no longer be retained by the peasant cultivators but would instead enrich the great landowners.¹ This chapter discusses one dispute over the conversion of customary tenures to leasehold which suggests a greater variety of outcomes than Tawney anticipated. Most importantly, perhaps, it stresses that leasehold tenures came in a variety of forms, some of which benefited...

  17. 8 The Financial Rewards of Winning the Battle for Secure Customary Tenure
    (pp. 133-149)

    In The Agrarian Problem in the Sixteenth Century, R. H. Tawney described a wide range of possible constraints that customary tenure might impose upon lords and tenants.¹ He noted that customary rents were normally fixed, and that during a period of rising land values lords could seek to increase their share of income from the land in a limited number of ways. They might overturn custom and persuade the tenantry to convert to lease hold, or retrieve the situation through increased fines ‘so as to get in a lump sum what he could not get by yearly instalments’.² This last...

  18. 9 Risks and Rewards in Wasteland Enclosure: Lowland Lancashire c.1500–1650
    (pp. 150-165)

    In his Agrarian Problems, Eric Kerridge accused R. H. Tawney of conjuring up a sixteenth century characterised by ‘a relentless and remorseless capitalism which impiously rode down a wretched peasantry’.¹ Certainly no one could accuse Tawney of equivocation in terms of his Christian Socialist views: and it is not too hard to find forthright quotations in The Agrarian Problem, such as his dismissal of the Edwardian Riot Act as ‘a straightforward attempt to prevent the poor from protesting when their possessions were taken from them by the rich’.² Yet Tawney’s views were perhaps more nuanced than he is sometimes given...

  19. 10 Improving Landlords or Villains of the Piece? A Case Study of Early Seventeenth-Century Norfolk
    (pp. 166-182)

    This chapter turns attention to Tawney’s villains of the piece: the improving landlords and their role in the transition to a fully commercial and capitalist agriculture. The period covers the first half of the seventeenth century, the end of Tawney’s long sixteenth century which ran from 1485 to 1642, and focuses on the activities of three Norfolk gentry families engaged in raising rental incomes and modernising their estates. These families, the Windhams of Felbrigg, Hobarts of Blickling and Le Stranges of Hunstanton, commended in the eighteenth century for the excellence of their estate management, faced a range of difficult issues...

  20. 11 The Agrarian Problem in Revolutionary England
    (pp. 183-199)

    R. H. Tawney thought that the causes of the rural impoverishment, collapse of community, and domination of great landowners characteristic of his own lifetime lay in the English civil wars of the mid-seventeenth century and the decades that followed the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660. A key conclusion of The Agrarian Problem of the Sixteenth Century is that, despite the challenges they faced, the smallholders who made up the ‘intelligence of toiling England’ survived reasonably well into the seventeenth century largely because they could rely on the relief offered them by the royal prerogative courts.¹ Indeed, in anticipation of...

  21. 12 Agrarian Capitalism and Merchant Capitalism: Tawney, Dobb, Brenner and Beyond
    (pp. 200-215)

    This chapter examines the place of R. H. Tawney’s Agrarian Problem and other writings in debates about the rise of capitalism. It tracks two broad strands in ideas about capitalist development: the neo-Smithian approach which stresses the rise of market relations and trade, and the productionist or physiocratic approach which stresses changes in the agrarian economy, particularly the dispossession of small landowners, and the rise the tripartite capitalist organisation of landlords, leaseholding farmers and wage labourers. In the second part of the chapter the implementation of the Corn Laws and information on levels of rent for agricultural land between 1550...

  22. Conclusions
    (pp. 216-221)

    The key social and economic relationship in agrarian England between the early medieval period and nineteenth century has always been seen as that between lord and tenant, where the lord is typically a member of the gentry or aristocracy, and the tenant a working farmer engaged in agriculture. While Marxists, and socialists such as Tawney, have seen this relationship as inherently one of conflict – the lord seeking to maximise revenue from rent and the tenant seeking retain as much of the profits of their labour as possible; neo-Smithians have characterised it as a contractual relationship, and one in which landlords’...

  23. Select Bibliography
    (pp. 222-232)
  24. Index
    (pp. 233-240)
  25. Back Matter
    (pp. 241-241)