Sunday, March 8, 2009

The Origins of English Individualism

For years, people have been recommending that I read The Origins of English Individualism by Alan Macfarlane. Well, I finally did and yes, it is a classic study, well worth reading. Even though I was a little irritated at the beginning, with the tired academic squeamishness where Western sins are very real but Western achievements get the shudder-quote treatment.

The author was studying witchcraft trials in post-medieval England and came across some puzzling results – a lack of sexual and food-and-hunger motifs in the confessions (common in witchcraft trials elsewhere in Europe); the very individualistic outlook of suspects (also notably different from trials on the Continent); the lack of attacks on rising folk, rather those accused were slightly poorer folk making demands on their neighbours (i.e. witchcraft accusations reinforced economic differentiation rather than attacking it, a far more normal pattern). Then he turned to sexual and marital relations in the same period where he found the English seemed singularly unconcerned about incest. Indeed, compared to even Mediterranean societies in the same period, kinship didn’t seem very important, parents didn’t exert much control over marriage and relations between the sexes were unusually relaxed.

I love studies that start with an empirical puzzle.
What he found is that post-medieval England lacked a classic peasantry – that is, multi-generation households farming household land under the direction of a patriarch. Instead, you had individual ownership of land, a highly mobile populace, children leaving home when teenagers (even eldest sons) and (a dead give-away) female ownership of ordinary land. There was also an active land market, an active rural labour market and personal wills disposing of land. These are unnecessary in a society where land is collectively owned by the household – there land is typically reassigned to balance household numbers, children and younger siblings provide the labour force and land is family-owned so not up for testamentory disposal.

If ‘capitalism’ is individual ownership with an active markets in capital (including land), then England was ‘capitalist’ well before the Industrial Revolution.

So, when did the English peasantry disappear?

Macfarlane examines the evidence carefully (England is one of the best historically-documented off all human societies, rivalled only by Japan and bits of Europe) right back to 1200. With some caveats for local variations, Macfarlane could find no evidence that England ever had a peasantry in the classic sense. As far back as he was able to go, he found individual ownership, active land and rural labour markets, mobile populations. England – the rural society without a peasantry.

Macfarlane can offer no explanation of English exceptionalism, though he does cite a passage from Tacitus about Germans having very individualist property arrangements. I was reminded of something I had read in The Year 1000:
Thirty wills survive today from the late Anglo-Saxon period and ten of those are the wills of women (p.164).
Fernand Braudel makes similar comments about trying to find when capitalism started in England and being unable to find a period when there weren’t strong capitalist elements.

MacFarlane also found period commentary on how the English were richer than people on the Continent, and more assertive and acquisitive, something which gels with other evidence about relative living standards and high levels of social mobility. (In fact, a lot of the period Continental commentary on the English sounds much like what one reads today about Americans, and there are certain similarities also between period English commentary on Continentals with some current-day American commentary on Europeans.) American exceptionalism starts with English exceptionalism. A great read.

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