English Individualism Revisited

Alan Ryan

  • The Culture of Capitalism by Alan Macfarlane
    Blackwell, 254 pp, £19.50, August 1987, ISBN 0 631 13626 6

Alan Macfarlane’s little book on The Origins of English Individualism came out in 1978. It argued that England had been in crucial respects a ‘modern’ society ever since the 14th century and maybe earlier, and that most accounts of the transition to modernity were therefore misconceived, and in so doing it attacked just about every vested interest in contemporary historiography. A good many historians returned the compliment by setting about it with the enthusiasm of crusaders clearing the infidel from Jerusalem. David Herlihy of Harvard derided it as ‘a silly book, founded on faulty method and propounding a preposterous thesis’, while Lawrence Stone thought it advanced ‘an implausible hypothesis based on a far-fetched connection with one still uproven fact of limited general significance’. On the other hand, Paul Hyams hailed it as a blast of fresh air and the sort of book we need more of, and Ernest Gellner was equally enthusiastic about its intellectual daring. I thought it was a splendid piece of work: a small book with large implications. Moreover, in its main claims it was clearly right, and none of its critics have in the least disturbed its central contention.

Justice and the Mare’s Ale (1981) repeated the offence in a more roundabout way, but Love and Marriage in England, 1300-1840 (1986) roused some of its reviewers to fury. Now, The Culture of Capitalism reprints eight essays on the themes of these three books, together with Macfarlane’s unrepentant and unconciliatory reflections on the hostility he has stirred up. For readers unacquainted with Macfarlane and his work, these essays make a very good place to start. Members of his fan-club such as myself may wish, however, that he had pressed forward with his case against his critics; these essays, acute and interesting as they are, mostly recapitulate the arguments which his books spelled out at greater length. They offer many interesting glimpses of the process by which Macfarlane came to occupy his heretical position: but they don’t do much to still doubts or to fill out the story Macfarlane wants to tell.

The casus belli in the war of Macfarlane versus Lawrence Stone, R.H. Tawney, Rodney Hilton, George Homans, Christopher Hill, C.H. Wilson, C.B. Macpherson (and long-dead greats such as Tocqueville, Marx, Weber, Durkheim and Tonnies) is his answer to the question of why fully-fledged industrial capitalism first took off in England. This has usually been thought to be the same question as ‘how did England escape its peasant origins and turn into a modern, individualist, market-oriented, rationalist and secular society?’ Answers have varied a good deal: Weber stressed the Protestant ethic; Marx the demands of the developing forces of production; political theorists like C.B. Macpherson the rise of an ideology of ‘possessive individualism’. These answers have emphasised different actors and different motivations, and have placed the revolutionary transition from peasant society to modernity at different points in time. Nor have they lacked both subtlety and a willingness to accommodate objections. Weber was at pains to stress that in emphasising the role of ideology and culture he was not offering a ‘one-sided idealism’ as absurd as the simple-minded materialism of his Marxist opponents. Conversely, Christopher Hill and other recent Marxist historians have developed a considerable sophistication in their understanding of notions of class interest and class allegiance, of the relation of economic interest and ideological and religious affiliation. But all these have been arguments within one overarching framework. All have assumed that there was a modernising revolution, that there had to be a break with a peasant past.

The argument of Macfarlane’s Origins was that it was the framework itself which had to be thrown out. To put the matter crudely – as he often does, and never more so than in ‘Peasants’, the first essay printed here – when Macfarlane went in search of the English peasant society which had been destroyed by possessive individualism, agrarian capitalism, modernisation, rationalism, secularisation or industrialisation, he couldn’t find it. When he went in search of the ‘pre-modern family’ where marriage was loveless, parental affection unheard of, a rational approach to family limitation unthinkable, he once more failed to find it. When he went in search of the family-centred system of property which characterises peasant society, he couldn’t find that either. Certainly, England had been for many centuries an agricultural society; most of the population had been village-dwellers. But they had not been what for the purposes of sociological theories of modernisation they should have been: namely, peasants in the classical Eastern European sense.

In effect, Macfarlane sets up two ‘ideal types’. The ideal type of peasant society displays all or most of the following features: the basic social and economic unit is the extended household, production and consumption alike taking place there; villages are self-sufficient, economic rationality is limited, and families are deeply attached to particular pieces of land; social and geographical mobility are thus limited, families rise and fall as a unit, and economic growth and family wealth are cyclical; girls are married at puberty according to choices made by their family rather than themselves, their task is to produce children, and children are regarded as an economic asset; the characteristic moral style of such a society is patriarchal and communal. The ideal type of modern society simply reverses these features: it is mobile, built on the nuclear family, displays a high degree of economic rationality, production for the purposes of trade, interdependence of town and country, controlled fertility, late marriage and moral individualism. The claim is that so far from England resembling the ideal type of peasant society before the ‘bourgeois’ or ‘capitalist’ or what-have-you revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries, England displayed most of the features of modernity at least as far back as the 14th century. There was no revolutionary transition to modernity.

What made the argument of Origins even more invigorating than the argument of ‘Peasants’ was the way Macfarlane got much of his evidence for the non-existence of the peasant from the very authors he criticises for their unself-conscious acceptance of the similarity between Medieval England and a true peasant society. It is true that, as his critics constantly complain, Macfarlane’s own research is confined to the Essex village of Earl’s Colne and the Cumbrian village of Kirkby Lonsdale. But it was Homans, Thirsk and Hilton themselves who provided him with plenty of instances of other Medieval villages whose inhabitants failed to resemble the ‘classical’ or ideal peasant. They had treated them as exceptions: Macfarlane insists that historians who come up with nothing but ‘exceptions’ ought to liberate themselves from the framework within which these appear anomalous and face the fact that the English never have been peasants. Yeomen and husbandmen, certainly, but peasants, never.

There are two obvious responses to Macfarlane’s attack on ‘revolution-centred’ history: the first to denounce his supposed sources, the second to insist that those whom he criticises never held the views he imputes to them, and so never said what he denies. His use of ideal types makes it particularly easy to do the latter: he himself recognises that he has imposed a model on writers whose talk of peasants is rather looser than it becomes after his tidying-up. His critics have responded in both ways, and sometimes in both ways at once – thereby, as Geoffrey Elton put it, ‘maintaining the difficult position that on the one hand the thesis only spells out what they have always said, while on the other it is not true.’ There is, in fact, something to be said for both complaints, though hardly enough to account for the hysterics of some reviewers.

As an anthropologist as well as a historian, Macfarlane can’t resist the temptation to sharpen his case as much as possible, which is why he works with ideal types which alienate historians. But he evidently feels in addition what I can only imagine is a temperamental need to distance himself as far as possible from all opponents. So he hardly tries to avoid giving the impression that he supposes that because Pollock and Maitland’s great History of the English Law ends at 1307, absolutely nothing has changed in the past seven hundred years, and that the Earl’s Colne yeoman would have been entirely at home in contemporary Ambridge. It is equally easy to think that Macfarlane’s operating assumption must be: ‘if it’s in Stubbs, Freeman or Maitland, it’s true; if it’s in the work of some nasty foreign sociologist like Marx, Weber or Tonnies, it’s false.’

Here in an essay on ‘Revolution’, he relies on Maitland’s claim that continuity rather than revolutionary transformation is the key to English law, and quotes S.F.C. Milsom’s judgment that whether or not Maitland was right about the earliest years of the English legal system, he was right about its character in the late 13th century. But he seems to have overlooked Milsom’s – and other historians’ – doubts about the aspect of Maitland’s work on which he himself places most reliance.

Macfarlane’s picture of the gulf between peasant and non-peasant society rests on a contrast between two systems of property rights. In one, it is the family who own land, land is divided equally between all members of the family, current ‘owners’ can be divested of their managerial rights if they prove inept – and so on. In the other, property is owned outright by one present owner who has absolute powers of disposal. In the first, children can assert their own future rights against their father; in the second, fathers can disinherit their children at will. Macfarlane insists that the striking feature of English law was that it treated property in the second way rather than the first. What he terms absolute individual property existed at the latest by the mid-13th century. Moreover, he makes a great to-do about the contrast between Roman Law and the Common Law, and treats absolute individual ownership as the decisive feature of the latter. This relies on the authority of Maitland: but Maitland in turn relied on the work of Bracton, and Bracton is a disquieting source. For Bracton prided himself on his knowledge of Roman Law, and the standard complaint against Bracton is precisely that he ‘Romanised’ the Common Law, assimilating it to an alien model. Worse still, it is precisely in his treatment of ownership that this is most marked, and therefore it is at exactly the wrong point that Macfarlane’s case is weakened.

Does this matter? In terms of the explanation of economic modernisation probably not, since it might well be argued that the feature of the Common Law which was paradoxically modern – paradoxically because it rested on the feudal system of tenures – is that it did not have an absolute conception of ownership, and so made ownership very flexible. This flexibility made it possible to create numerous different interests in a given piece of property and lent itself to the needs of commerce in a way that is deeply astonishing when one reflects on its origins in the provision of men and weapons for the feudal host.

However, the possibility that it may have been a very different characteristic of English property law that was important raises another question which most critics have raised, and one which Macfarlane is well aware of the need to answer. The formal system of law is evidently only one of the features of a society which bear on how economically rational it is. Whether it is the ability of one person to gather all the incidents of ownership into his hands which distinguishes the Common Law, or the ability to create marketable dependent interests, or, as I dare say is true, the combination of the two features, would be of no importance if, say, some collective body can dictate how we are to employ our property, or if, say, the prevailing ethos deplores the alienation of our property for commercial purposes. Equally, if the prevailing agricultural technology is such that we all live at hand-to-mouth subsistence level, the niceties of the law are beside the point: as they would equally be if our habits of procreation invariably led to near-famine.

Lawrence Stone, for instance, has suggested that manorial courts could so dictate what one planted, when one might plant it, what one might do with it, that even if the law was what Macfarlane supposes, the gulf between modernity and the pre-modern world would remain unbridged. Other writers have suggested that Macfarlane concentrates much too heavily on freehold tenures and ignores servile tenures which were subject to the custom of the manor, where disputes concerning them had to be heard. In spite of his giving the impression that one central idea from Maitland is all we need, Macfarlane has at any rate partial answers to these doubts. He knows that his opponents never denied that there was some wage labour, some buying and selling of land, some social and geographical mobility throughout the Middle Ages in England. What he and they disagree over is the centrality of these features. He knows, therefore, that what he is really doing is less, as Stone mockingly puts it, setting himself up as the Einstein of social history than shifting a perspective, and moving to the centre features which earlier writers thought only peripheral.

The argument which is elaborated throughout these essays, tackling questions about love and marriage, religion and the sense of evil, attitudes to nature and curbs on population, is that not only did people possess the legal capacity to behave in ways we find familiar but they also had every incentive to employ it and did so. They lived in an environment which allowed economically rational behaviour to flourish, and their personal allegiances were such that they pretty well had to behave in an economically rational way.

As to the environment, for instance, there is an argument which continues to exercise social historians about the nature of crime in pre-modern societies. The kinds of crime people commit reflect the degree of economic rationality around; also, and even more obviously, a very violent society is unlikely to be economically encouraging. A common view is that modernisation goes along with a change in criminality from crimes of violence to crimes against property; and among anthropologists there is a common view that violence in peasant societies is very often perpetrated by groups of bandits who are sheltered by peasants and villagers who see them as engaged in warfare against landlords and governments regarded as oppressive and exploitative enemies to the poor. The legend of Robin Hood suggests that this must have been the pattern of violence in Medieval and Early Modern England too. Macfarlane denies it. What is odd about England is that Robin Hood is the only bandit hero in English history, and under scrutiny he vanishes. Moreover, when we look at the supposedly violent and brutal Medieval and Early Modern villages of rural England, we find that almost nobody possessed weapons, and crimes of violence were rare.

As the modern reader hardly needs telling, the relationship between actual violence, perceived violence, recorded violence and punished violence is indeterminate at the best of times and pretty inscrutable for any period earlier than the 19th century. Nonetheless, the evidence ought at least to indicate the balance between violence and theft, and perhaps the nature of whatever violence there was. Macfarlane relies for evidence on his own and other scholars’ investigation of parish records; like J.A. Sharpe in Kelvedon, Macfarlane finds that Earl’s Colne was not a violent place in the two centuries from 1550-1750. ‘One woman was hanged for killing her child in 1608, another woman was acquitted on the charge of poisoning her husband in 1626, a man was branded for killing his stepson in 1667 and the following year a man was found guilty of homicide and was transported.’ Between 1600 and 1640 Sharpe found only one case of manslaughter and two of infanticide, one of them by a girl from a neighbouring village. These were small places, of course, the population of Kelvedon was some four hundred persons and of Earl’s Colne twice that; extrapolation to the wider society is difficult, and although Macfarlane remarks that the difficulty of disposing of corpses means that we probably know fairly exactly how many homicides there were, there is room for scepticism on that score. None the less, there is no sign that crimes of violence were frequent, or that people felt particularly frightened of violence. Macfarlane sums up from David Hey’s study of Myddle in Shropshire, which concluded that, in the late 17th century, ‘the crime rate seems to have been lower and the moral code more strictly observed than is the case in much of England today.’

More importantly, crimes of violence were very much rarer than crimes against property. In Justice and the Mare’s Ale, based on the Kirkby Lonsdale records, Macfarlane looked at the exploits of a band of coin-clippers and highwaymen. William Smorthwait, his brother and their friends were indeed ‘Insolent and Formidable Felons’ who committed numerous burglaries, perpetrated occasional though rather minor assaults, and for three and a half years boasted that they cared nothing for the local Justice of the Peace. The first feature of their carryings-on is just that they were entirely atypical. They were, moreover, very small beer; they certainly weren’t ‘bandits’, they certainly weren’t making a social protest, and their crimes were, if the distinction makes sense, ‘capitalist’ rather than ‘peasant’ – motivated by greed rather than a desire for revenge or sheer desperation. Indeed, half the time their actions look like the crimes of 20th-century tearaways committed out of season. Their burglaries were opportunistic and not directed at the richer houses in the district; their ability to carry on for as long as they did owed nothing to the active or passive assistance of the local population but a good deal to the difficulty of laying hands on well-mounted thieves operating in three different counties, as well as to simple fear of what they might do to anyone who informed on them. Though the gang was recruited from the families of the Smorthwaits and Bainbridges, there is no suggestion that they were engaged in feuds against any other family.

The other surprising feature of such criminality is that even in Cumbria, which ought to have been a pretty rough and lawless place according to the orthodox view, the victims of the Smorthwaits and Bainbridges never took the law into their own hands, and when the law itself stepped in, it was applied with some leniency. Edward Bainbridge was evidently a thoroughgoing nuisance to his neighbours for the best part of thirty years; mostly they tried to persuade him to behave better. When they finally prosecuted him, he was convicted and sentenced to death, but reprieved. Macfarlane estimates that ‘for the whole of Westmorland for the second half of the 17th century, perhaps half a dozen persons were hanged for normal criminal offences.’

As with crime and violence, so with marriage and the family. The image of a world in which modern ideals of companionship and parental affection only slowly made their way into the culture is part of the same myth of transformation. It is in this context that Macfarlane makes his most extreme claim for continuity: that what he calls the ‘Malthusian’ marriage pattern – the rational calculation whether the emotional pay-offs of marriage are worth the economic costs – goes back to the 13th century. Individuals chose their own partners, and their reasons for doing so were much like ours: the desire for companionship, aversion to a lonely old age, the pleasures of playing with one’s children. The risks they faced were the same: would one income fill two, three, four or more mouths? Macfarlane agreed that the élite may well have made dynastically-motivated marriages; they had less incentive to marry for love, since they could obtain extra-marital sexual and emotional satisfaction in a way their inferiors could not. The ‘middling sort’ were much like us. What the unrespectable poor got up to nobody knows, and Macfarlane doesn’t ask. Given his concentration on destroying the myth of the English peasant he needs only to show, as he does, that love and marriage in England fits the ‘modern’ reader rather than the ‘peasant’ ideal type.

Macfarlane is fighting on the right ground. His critics argue that political, environmental, familial and cultural features of Medieval and Early Modern England are deeply anti-individualist, anti-capitalist or pre-modern, and he is taking them on, point by point. What remains unsatisfactory amid so much that is intellectually so satisfying is a curious failure of intellectual taste, and an urge to exaggerate which leads Macfarlane into some very odd statements. It would, he agrees, be quite mad to suggest that ‘nothing important’ has changed in the social, economic and emotional culture of England since 1307 or thereabouts. But instead of acknowledging what has changed and what causes explain it, he strikes poses. So, for instance, he claims J.C.D. Clark as an ally, simply because Clark’s English Society 1688-1832 also asserts the continuity of English history, also mocks the Marxists, and also disbelieves in the explanatory power of appeals to the bourgeois revolution. But the continuity Clark purports to believe in is the continuity of a patriarchal, hierarchical, confessional society which is in crucial respects the antithesis of what Macfarlane describes. Clark, so to speak, thinks the bourgeoisie never rose; Macfarlane thinks it arrived in the ships of the Anglo-Saxons and therefore never needed to.

Again, it is intolerably sloppy to ascribe the peculiarities of the English view of marriage to ‘Germanic uxoriousness’ and then simply chuck every possible functional relationship between capitalism and the nuclear family he can think of into the explanation of how intense altruistic affection can co-exist with the ‘possessive individualism’ of the marketplace. Nor will it do to suppose that there is the kind of one-to-one correlation between cultural traits and economic behaviour that he seems to assume even though he plainly knows better; as his critics have urged, ‘Malthusian’ attitudes to marriage and procreation have been visible in Ireland since 1848, neither caused by nor causing the Protestant ethic or the spirit of capitalism.

Although the exciting thing about this kind of social history is precisely that it sees the attractions of big, dangerous theories, and is self-conscious about the historian’s attachment to them, his own methodological reflections are distressingly thin. It’s true that it was Colin Matthew who suggested to him that Origins was ‘quite clearly the product of a. a general movement of search for identity in the post-imperial period; b. anti-EEC-ism as well as the result of trends within the profession’, and it was Lawrence Stone who thought it was all a matter of cheering up the natives by telling them ‘that the English have always been different from everybody else.’ The Late Victorian historians Macfarlane admires were outward-looking imperialists, however, not Little Englanders. Freeman was a Little-Englander but Froude attached English exceptionalism less to the capacity for economic rationality than to the indefeasible right to rule the waves. And historians enthusiastic for an alliance of the Germanic peoples are hardly a model for anti-EEC-ism (more so for anti-Latinism, perhaps).

It’s worth complaining only because Macfarlane’s ideas are so good that one wants them better. In particular, it’s time we had a definitive and unchauvinistic answer to the questions: which countries are special, what is the relative importance of the various ways in which they are special, and at what points in history is that specialness most important? Are all the ‘Germanic’ countries special? Or is it ‘North-West Europe’? What, if anything, picks out England from among them? He has begun to provide answers which others can build on – for instance, in suggesting that English feudalism was unlike anyone else’s. But one wonders what he makes of Holland – were the Dutch less or more modern than the English? On the face of it, they were faster into the modern world and fell back only when English industrialisation took off: aren’t they therefore the perfect comparative case? If so, why stick to idealisations of Eastern European peasantries, a procedure likely to invite charges of cruelty to straw men? Let us, in short, have the sort of careful assessment of just what goes with what that will silence the critics and gratify his admirers.