The Cradle of Capitalism: the Case of England
[From Jean Baechler, John A. Hall & Michael Mann, Europe and the Rise of Capitalism (Blackwell, 1988)]
For Marx, Weber and many others it has been evident that capitalism is a
peculiar social formation. Its birthplace was in western Europe. Within
this region there was a particular area which was precocious in its
development, where the new social formation emerged in its purest and
earliest form. Marx noted that in the early dissolution of the preceding
medieval' property system 'England [was] in this respect the model
country for the other continental countries' (Marx, 1973: 277). It was, as
Brenner puts it 'classically in England' that we have 'the rise of the three-
tiered relation of land lord/ capitalist tenant/ free wage labour, around
which Marx developed much of his theory of capitalist development in
Capital' (1977: 75). For Max Weber also, England was 'the home of
capitalism' (1961: 251); it was in England above all that the Puritan
outlook 'stood at the cradle of the modem economic man' (1970: 174).
Since England was the cradle and nursery of capitalism, it is not
surprising that later writers have concentrated on that country. For
instance, Polanyi takes England's history as the central example of the
'Great Transformation' (1944). It is not unreasonable to suppose that if
we could explain why capitalism emerged and developed in England, and
specifically what differentiated it from other parts of Europe and allowed
this growth, we would have moved some way towards understanding the
We may look at some of the more outstanding attempts to solve this
problem. Marx's treatment of the causes for the emergence of capitalism
is intriguing but ultimately unsatisfying. He skilfully shows how the
transition may have occurred, and a few of the preconditions. But he
totally avoids giving any solution to the questions of why then and why
there. He analyses the central features of the supposed transition; the
creation of a 'free' labour force through the destruction of a dependent
peasantry is the central one. This was linked to the expansion of market
forces, money, production for exchange rather than for immediate
consumption. Thus growing trade and commerce is seen as one of the
major propelling forces: 'the circulation of commodities is the starting-
point of capital.... The modem history of capital dates from the creation
in the sixteenth century of a world-embracing commerce and a world-
embracing market' (1954: vol. 1, 145). But long-distance trade had been
present for centuries and had centred on the Mediterranean. Why
should trade suddenly have had this shattering effect, and why should its
prime target be north-western Europe? Unsatisfied with the analyses in
Capital with its mystic theories of internal contradictions which were
bound to lead to inevitable dissolution of the previous social formation,
we may look to his other writings.
In Grundrisse Marx outlines various combustible elements that would
explode into capitalism. There is money and more specifically 'mercantile
and usurious wealth'. But money, urban craft activity and towns had been
present in many civilizations. Why in western Europe did they alone lead
to the growth of capitalism? Marx does provide some further hints. One
central foundation for capitalism was the pre-existence of a rural social
structure which allowed the peasantry to be 'set free'. In other words
there was something particularly fragile in the pre-existing relations of
production. The substratum of feudalism, arising from its origins in the
'Germanic system' was particularly vulnerable to the new urban craft
development and accumulation of wealth. The crucial feature of the
Germanic system was its form of property. In the Ancient and Asiatic
civilizations, there was no individual, private, property. But in Germanic
society something new and odd emerged. In this period no land
remained in the possession of the community or group. People had
moved half-way, according to Marx, from communal property, to half-
individualized property based on the household. It would take another
thousand years for the second half of the movement to be made. In other
words, there is something within feudalism, some hidden spirit, which is
special. This is implied in other remarks, for example that 'the economic
structure of capitalist society has grown out of the economic structure of
feudal society. The dissolution of the latter set free the elements of the
former' (1954: vol. 1, 668). The metaphor of 'setting free' suggests that
Marx believed that the spirit of capitalism was already present before the
emergence of capitalism.
Weber considered a number of possible explanations for the
emergence of capitalism. He rejected the crudely technological and
materialistic ones: colonial trade, population growth, the inflow of
precious metals. He then isolated some of the necessary but not
sufficient 'external conditions', the particular geography of Europe with
its cheap transportation by water, the favourable military requirements of
the small states, the large luxury demand from an unusually prosperous
population. Ultimately it was not these external factors, but something
more mysterious that was important. It was the ethic, the justification of
the pursuit of profit. He found the roots of this in a paradox. The new
attitudes were waiting to escape. The paradox is summarized by Weber
himself. 'The final result is the peculiar fact that the germs of modem
capitalism must be sought in a region where officially a theory was
dominant which was distinct from that of the east and of classical
antiquity and in principle strongly hostile to capitalism' (1970: 162). This
region was medieval Christendom.
We may note the use of 'officially' here with its implication of the
submerged, unofficial, practice. Judaism was an important background
feature in giving to Christianity 'the character of a religion essentially
free from magic' (Weber, 1961: 265). But what was most important was
the presence of Protestantism. Protestantism A-as not the cause of
capitalism, but it gave older and deeper tendencies a necessary
protection. It was the enabling force. This view of Protestantism as a kind
of wind-break which allowed the young plant to grow is well shown in
numerous places by Weber. For instance , when writing that the Puritan
outlook 'stood at the cradle of the modem economic man' (1970: 174),
the image is not of a mother giving birth, but of a friend, perhaps a
godparent, who gives support and blessing to the new infant. More
specifically, Weber wrote that 'We have no intentions whatever of
maintaining such a foolish and doctrinaire thesis as that the spirit of
capitalism ... could only have arisen as the result of certain effects of the
Reformation, or even that capitalism as an economic system is the
creation of the Reformation' (1970: 9 1). Many aspects of capitalism were
much older. As Bendix summarizes Weber's position, 'this world
historical transformation, then, was not the product of Puritanism;
rather, Puritanism was a late development that reinforced tendencies that
had distinguished European society for a long time past' (1961: 71-2).
Weber provides some suggestive clues as to why England should be
the cradle of capitalism. There was the peculiar position of the peasantry.
In England the peasants were particularly weak and vulnerable because,
being an island, they were not needed by the king and nobility as a
necessary fighting force; 'hence the policy of peasant protection was
unknown in England and it became the classical land of peasant eviction'
(1961: 129). In England, Weber noted, no legal emancipation of the
peasants ever took place.
The medieval system is still formally in force, except that under Charles II
serfdom was abolished.... In England, the mere fact of the development
of a market, as such and alone, destroyed the manorial system from within.
In accordance with the principle fitting the situation, the peasants were
expropriated in favour of the proprietors. The peasants became free but
In France, however, 'the course of events is exactly the opposite. . . .
France, in contrast with England, became a land of small and medium
sized farms' (1961: 85-6). Not only was this a reflection of the different
power of the peasants, the pressures of wealth in England were greater.
Because of the rapid development of a particular means of production,
the English woollen industry with its division of labour and commerce,
the large-scale stock raising, Weber argued, made the tenant weak and
redundant. The massive growth of the English cloth industry from the
fourteenth century onwards meant that a new capitalist class emerged.
This was combined with the growth of the 'bourgeoisie', the free
dwellers in the peculiar towns and cities of northern Europe.
Having subtly interwoven some of the religious, economic and social
factors, Weber does not omit the political and legal dimension. He
argues that 'the State, in the sense of the rational state has existed only in
the western world' (1961: 250). He contrasts this western state with the
charismatic, patrimonial and other traditional systems of government in
China, India and Islam. The state is essential to capitalism; 'very
different is the rational state in which alone modern capitalism can
flourish'. The basis of the rational state is rational law. Here Weber
recognizes another paradox. The most 'rational', that is the most
carefully worked out and logically coherent of legal systems, was that of
Roman Law. Yet, ironically, capitalism flourished most in the one area of
Europe without Roman Law, namely England. Weber resolves the
contradiction subtly. He distinguishes between the formal side, in
modem terms 'procedural' or 'adjectival' law, and its content or
'substantive law'. Thus the 'rational law of the modern occidental state
... arose on its formal side, though not as to its content, out of Roman
law'. Yet, since 'England, the home of capitalism, never accepted the
Roman law' (1961: 251), it is clear that 'in fact all the characteristic
institutions of modem capitalism have other origins than Roman law'.
Weber gives a list of these devices.
The annuity bond ... came from medieval law, in which Germanic legal
ideas played their part. Similarly the stock certificate arose out of medieval
and modem law ... likewise the bill of exchange ... the commercial
company is also a medieval product, so also the mortgage, with the security
of registration, and the deed of trust. (1961: 252)
1 have dwelt on Marx and Weber at some length because they
anticipate almost all the theories that have come later. Though they
failed to solve the problem, it is doubtful whether any subsequent writer
has reached as close to a solution. A few recent attempts, concentrating
specifically on the question of why the miracle occurred in north-western
Europe can be considered. Braudel in his majestic surveys of capitalism
and material life has in general accepted the inevitability of the transition,
falling back on those material and technological factors which Weber
dismissed (1973). The seeds were assumed to be present and we just
watch them growing. The sense of marvel and uniqueness which Marx
and Weber possessed has gone. A recent voluminous attempt by
Anderson to solve these problems does not reach further than the great
theorists. The treatment of the central case of England, for instance, is
not satisfactory. Anderson admits that the 'feudal monarchy of England
was generally far more powerful than that of France', and yet 'the
strongest medieval monarchy in the IN-est eventually produced the
weakest and shortest Absolutism' (1974: 113). That England should go
through an 'Absolutist' phase, seems to be essential for Anderson; it is a
precondition of capitalism. I-et he signally fails to show that such a phase
occurs. As he admits, most of the more extreme measures of the Tudors
were not put into practice and they lacked a standing army. Despite what
he believes was an 'Inherent tendency of the Tudor monarchy towards
'absolutism' on the continental model, the Crown was surrounded by a
peculiar landowning class which was 'unusually civilian in background,
commercial in occupation and commoner in rank'. The result was that
this was a state which 'had a small bureaucracy, a limited fiscality, and no
permanent army' (1974: 127). Yet a large bureaucracy, heavy taxation
and a standing army are the three central criteria of absolutism as defined
by Anderson. An England where 'the coercive and bureaucratic
machinery of the monarchy remained very slim' (1974: 129) hardly
seems suited to the Absolutist mantle. (These criticisms, I recently
discovered, have also been made by Runciman, 1980.)
The failure to show that England had either of the two essential
prerequisites of the capitalist revolution according to his general model,
namely Absolutism and Roman Law, forces Anderson to fall back on a
rehashed version of Marx's theory about the expropriation of the
peasants, combined with a certain amount of 'natural tendency' thrown
in. Trade and manufactures grew, the peasantry were socially differen-
tiated and weak and were destroyed, both from without and within. We
are no further forward.
One of the most interesting developments in the discussion has been
in two articles by Brenner. In the first he showed the inadequacy of
demographic explanations of the rise of capitalism, particularly in the
work of Ladurie and Postan. By cross -comparative analysis Brenner
showed that the same major demographic pressures led to entirely
different results in western and eastern Europe. Nor can the explanation
lie in trade and commercialization in themselves. The solution lies, as
Marx thought, in the relations of production: 'it is the structure of class
relations, of class power, which will determine the manner and degree to
which particular demographic and commercial changes will affect long-
run trends in the distribution of income and economic growth - and not
vice versa' (1976: 3 1). What, then, is his theory? It is that the different
trajectories of western and eastern Europe arose out of the fact that in
western Europe the peasantry were already strong and could not be re-
feudalized, as they were in the East. But this general approach leads him
into problems with the test case of England.
It has normally been held, as we saw with Weber, that it was the
weakness of the English peasantry which led to its destruction. Brenner's
thesis leads him into a contradiction. In England the peasantry were both
weak and strong. Their strength led them to eliminate themselves. They
vanished and conquered at the same time. 'In England, as throughout
most of Western Europe, the peasantry was able by the mid-fifteenth
century, through flight and resistance, to break definitively feudal
controls over its mobility and to win full freedom' (1976: 61). Yet,
strangely, in England, they did not win economic security, as they were to
do in France. They did not manage to attach themselves to the land and
become a strong landholding peasantry: 'it was the emergence of the
classical landlord -capitalist tenant-wage labour structure which made
possible the transformation of agricultural production in England, and
this, in turn, was the key to England's uniquely successful overall
economic development' (1976: 63). Brenner is here trying to get the best
of both arguments. The peasants were strong and resisted the landlord
and did not become serfs again, on the other hand they were weak and
were eliminated. 'The contrasting failure in France of agrarian
transformations seems to have followed directly from the continuing
strength of peasant landholding into the early modern period while it was
disintegrating in England' (1976: 68). As well as the inconsistency of this
explanation, it is unsatisfying because it does not begin to tackle the
reasons for the peculiar nature of the English relations of production.
How had this situation emerged and in what, precisely, did the
Reactions to this first stimulating essay have pointed out the
weaknesses, but failed to go further. Thus in a thoughtful response
Croot and Parker agree that Brenner has pinpointed the significant
variable, the differences in social structures, but believe that 'the
explanation offered for the emergence or non-emergence of such
relations is unconvincing' (1978: 45-6). Unfortunately, these authors,
besides laying stress on one or two factors such as the importance of the
small farmer (yeoman) in England, are unable to offer a better solution.
Likewise Bois agrees that 'the decisive part in the transition from
feudalism to capitalism is played out in the countryside' (1978: 62n.), but
provides no more plausible explanation than Brenner. He points to the
divergences between English and French 'feudalism', which differed
from at least the thirteenth century according to Bois (1978: 65), but this
important insight is not followed up.
In a second important article Brenner then demolished another group
of theorists, namely the 'Neo-Smithian Marxists': Frank, Sweezy and
Wallerstein. He shows that the basic premise of all these accounts is the
view that capitalism was already there before it emerged. The profit
motive was already present. For instance, we are told that 'Sweezy's
mistake was obviously to assume the operation of norms of capitalist
rationality, in a situation where capitalist social relations of production
did not exist, simply because market exchange was widespread'
(Brenner, 1977: 45). Likewise 'the Smithian theory embedded in
Sweezy's analysis ... is made entirely explicitly, and carried to its logical
conclusion in Wallerstein's Modern World System (1977: 53). Brenner
has much innocent fun showing that these Marxists are at heart followers
of Adam Smith. What he fails to point out is that they are also Marxists.
As we saw earlier, Marx himself needed to believe that the capitalist
profit motive existed, that the germ was present, before the existence of
capitalism. Brenner has again cleared the decks, but provided no
alternative. His later reply to his critics elaborates the earlier position but
takes us no further towards a solution (1982).
Two further more recent theories are worth noting. The first is that
the development of the West was made possible by the political
fragmentation of Europe. Whereas the unified empires of India and
China crushed all economic progress, 'the constant expansion of the
market ... was the result of an absence of political order extending over
the whole of western Europe' (Baechler, 1975: 73). Thus Baechler's
main conclusions are that the 'first condition for the maximization of
economic efficiency is the liberation of civil society with respect to the
State. This condition is fulfilled when a single cultural area is divided
into several sovereign political units', as in Europe (1975: 113). This
thesis has been forcefully restated by Hall. He adds to it the important
role played by Christianity which 'kept Europe together . . . the
market was possible because people felt themselves part of a single
community' (1985: 115, 123). Again these are necessary, if not sufficient,
We are thus in a position where we have a clearer idea of the problems.
These are: why did capitalism emerge and triumph in a part of western
Europe in the early modern period? Why this area, and particularly why
in England? We also know what not to pursue: towns, population growth,
overseas trade, colonialism, the growth of trade and the market,
technology were necessary but not sufficient causes. We know that a
particular strand of religion, an integrated and rational state and new
kind of law, were all important. The common culture of Christianity
holding together several small sovereign political units was also
important. Above all, we know that it was not in a single one of these
features, but in the way in which economy, politics, law and religion were
linked together that the solutions are likely to lie. Furthermore we have
hints that there were some crucial differences here within Europe, and
especially as between England and other continental countries. We may
now turn to a possible solution to some of these problems.
There is a another widely held belief that the emergence of capitalism was
linked to a pre-existing social formation known as 'feudalism'. Two of
the most influential proponents of this view were Maine and Marx. For
Maine, feudal ties formed the basis for the most momentous of all
changes, from relations based on status (kinship) to those based on
contract. In feudalism, he wrote, 'the notion of common kinship has been
entirely lost. The link between Lord and Vassal produced by Commen-
dation is of quite a different kind from that produced by Consanguinity'
(1875: 86). He traced the origins of private property of a modern kind to
the new feudal ties (1875: 115). Feudalism was connected to what Maine
considered to be the central feature of modem society, the idea of
indivisible, inheritable, individual property symbolized and enshrined in
primogeniture: 'in the ancient world, and in the societies which have not
passed through the crucible of feudalism, the Primogeniture which
seems to have prevailed never transformed itself into the Primogeniture
of the later feudal Europe' (1890: 237). Maitland picked up the
implications of Maine's fundamental insight. 'The master who taught us
that "the movement of the progressive societies has hitherto been a
movement from Status to Contract" was quick to add that feudal society
was governed by the law of contract. There is no paradox here' (Pollock
and Maitland, 1968: vol. 2: 232-3).
Marx, we have seen, also saw that only out of a dissolved feudalism
could capitalism emerge. In the feudal system (as opposed to the Asiatic
and primitive), the essential divorce which is a precondition of private
property of the few had taken place. 'Feudal landed property is already
essentially land which has been disposed of, alienated from men' (1963:
133). While Maine and Marx stressed the changes in property
concepts, Weber noted other ideological changes. No longer was the kinship
sentiment dominant; loyalty to the family based on status was
a bond based, ultimately, on contract, the political decision to serve a
lord. According to Bendix, Weber argued that 'in western Europe and
Japan the specifically feudal combination of loyalty and status honour was
made the basic outlook on life that affected all social relationships' (1966:
364). It is on the basis of these views that most of the major
theorists of the rise of capitalism - Anderson, Brenner, Barrington-Moore -
see feudalism as a vital transitory state. Yet if this is true, some
puzzles remain. Two of these are particularly relevant to this essay.
Firstly, why did feudalism have such different consequences in different parts
of Europe, and particularly as between England and much of the
continent? Secondly, how was it that feudalism dissolved?
In order to proceed further we need to set up an ideal typical model of
what feudalism is, or was. For Maine, the central feature was the nature
of proprietorship. Put very crudely, the economic and the political were
not split apart, unlike capitalism which keeps them in separate spheres.
Feudalism 'mixed up or confounded property and sovereignty' (1883:
148), for in a certain sense, every lord of a manor was a king as
well as a landholder. Political power and economic power were both
delegated down the same chain. A second feature, more narrowly economic
and legal, was the ability to conceive of different layers of
ownership or possession within feudal tenures: 'the leading characteristic of
the feudal conception is its recognition of a double proprietorship, the
superior ownership of the lord of the fief coexisting with the inferior
property or estate of the tenant' (1875: 295).
Marx's characterization of feudalism in his various writings is a fairly
conventional and largely economic picture of an immobile, mainly self-
subsistent, 'peasant' society, with a hierarchy of owners. There was little
division of labour, production was mainly for use, and the serfs were
chained to their lords (1963: 128; 1954, vol. 1: 316; 1964: 46). Perhaps
Weber's most important insight was his recognition that feudalism
constituted a different political system. His views have been summarized
by Gerth and Mills thus:
feudalism is characterized by Weber in terms of private property of the
means of military violence (self-equipped armies) and in the corporate
appropriation of the means of administration. The 'ruler' could not
monopolize administration and warfare because he had to delegate the
implements required for such a monopoly to the several privileged
groupings. (1948: 47)
In other words, there is political and legal decentralization; the centre
cannot hold and mere anarchy is loosed upon the world. There is again
reference to the fusion of military, political, legal and economic power
down a chain of delegation. A feudal society in this sense is a
pre-state society; people are not citizens, but vassals of particular lords.
The most influential model of feudalism is that presented by
Bloch. Again his stress is mainly on the military, political and legal
features of feudalism, rather than on the economic and property aspects. He
summarizes the central features of the model thus:
a subject peasantry; widespread use of the service tenement (that
is the fief) instead of a salary; the supremacy of a class of specialized
warriors; ties of obedience and protection which bind man to man and,
within the warrior class, assume the distinctive form called vassalage;
fragmentation of authority leading inevitably to disorder; and, in the midst of
all this, the precarious survival of other forms of association, the family and
State. (1965: vol. 2, 446)
The fragmentation is well illustrated in his description of the
judicial system in Europe in about AD 1000 .'First, we may note the
tremendous fragmentation of judicial powers; next, their tangled
interconnections; and lastly, their ineffectiveness (p. 359). In some ways
feudalism is best defined negatively. It was not based on kinship: 'feudal ties
proper were developed when those of kinship proved inadequate' (p. 443).
Although modelled on family ties, this was a relation of contract, not
status. Nor was feudalism a state system. 'Again, despite the persistence of
the idea of a public authority superimposed on the multitude of petty
powers, feudalism coincided with a profound weakening of the State,
particularly in its protective capacity' (p. 443). In Bloch's view this strange
and unique system was a transition phase, the turbulence of the
Germanic invasions led to a fusion of Roman and Germanic that broke the
old mould. Ganshof, likewise, stressed political fragmentation. One
of his four defining features of feudalism was 'a dispersal of political
authority amongst a hierarchy of persons who exercise in their own
interest powers normally attributed to the State and which are often, in fact,
derived from its break-up (1964: xv).
We may provide one final description of feudalism. Maitland
lamented the difficulty of defining feudalism: 'the impossible task that
has been set before the very word feudalism is that of making a single idea
represent a very large piece of the world's history, represent the France,
Italy, Germany, England, of every century from the eighth or ninth to
the fourteenth or fifteenth' (Pollock and Maitland, 1968: vol. 1, 67).
The result is confusion. Maitland attempted to clarify the situation.
The central feature of feudalism, as Maine had stressed, was the
mixture of ownership, the blending of economic and political. The feud,
fief or fee was
a gift of land made by the king out of his own estate, the grantee coming
under a special obligation to be faithful (Maitland, 1919: 152)
To express the rights thus created, a set of technical terms was developed:
the beneficiary or feudatory holds the land of his lord, the grantor -A tenet
terram de B. The full ownership (dominium) of the land is as it were broken
up between A and B; or again, for the feudatory may grant out part of the
land to be held of him, it may be broken up between A, B, and C, C
holding of B and B of A, and so on, ad infinitum. (p. 153)
Maitland believed that 'the most remarkable characteristic of feudalism'
was the fact that 'several persons in somewhat different senses, may be
said to have and to hold the same piece of land' (Pollock and Maitland,
1968: vol. 1, 237). But there are equally characteristic and essential
features. In some mysterious way power and property have been merged.
Feudalism is not just a landholding system, but also a system of
government. While man-,- have seen 'the introduction of military tenures'
as the 'establishment of the feudal system, in fact, when 'compared with
seignorial justice, military tenure is a superficial matter, one out of many
effects rather than a deep seated cause' (1921: 258). He describes as
'that most essential feature of feudalism, jurisdiction in private hands,
the lord's court' (Pollock and Maitland, 1968: vol. 1, 68). The merging of
power and property, of public and private, is well shown elsewhere in
Maitland's work. The English lawyer Bracton knew of the distinction of
'private' and 'public', yet 'he makes little use of it'. This was because
feudalism ... is a denial of this distinction. Just in so far as the ideal of
feudalism is perfectly realized, all that we call public law is merged in
private law: jurisdiction is property, office is property, the kingship itself is
property; the same word dominium has to stand now for ownership and now
for lordship. (p. 68)
Although we have already quoted extensively from Maitland, it is
helpful to summarize his views of the ideal typical model of feudalism in
one further description. This is an elegant synthesis of the essence of
feudalism against which particular systems can be measured. It shows the
two strands of the economic and political held together. Feudalism is
a state of society in which the main bond is the relation between lord and
man, a relation implying on the lord's part protection and defence; on the
man's part protection, service and reverence, the service including service
in arms. This personal relation is inseparably involved in a proprietary
relation, the tenure of land - the man holds lands of the lord, the man's
service is a burden on the land, the lord has important rights in the land,
and (we may say) the full ownership of the land is split up between man
and lord. The lord has jurisdiction over his men, holds courts for them, to
which they owe suit. jurisdiction is regarded as property, as a private right
which the lord has over his land. The national organization is a system of
these relationships: at the head there stands the king as lord of all, below
him are his immediate vassals, or tenants in chief, who again are lords of
tenants, who again may be lords of tenants, and so on, down to the lowest
possessor of land. Lastly, as every other court consists of the lord's
tenants, so the king's court consists of his tenants in chief, and so far as
there is any constitutional control over the king it is exercised by the body
of these tenants. (1919: 143-4)
This completes our attempt to sort out in ideal typical terms the social
formation out of which capitalism was born.
Various things are now clear. The emergence of capitalism required
not only a particular geographical, religious and technological complex,
but, above all, a particular politico- economic system. This was provided
by feudalism. Yet there remain many puzzles. One lies in a general
paradox. In many ways feudalism as described in the Bloch/Maitland
model seems a very unpropitious ground for capitalism. Firstly, it rests
on that very fusion of economic and political which has to be broken if
capitalism is to triumph. Of course, the modern market has to rest on a
particular political framework; but for capitalism to flourish the economy
must be granted a great deal of autonomy. It must be set free. If
economic relations are merely a sub-aspect of devolved power, capitalism
cannot emerge. Secondly, the political system must be integrated and
centralized. The modern 'state' is a necessary concomitant to capitalism;
to this extent Anderson's stress on the necessity of absolutism is correct.
Yet the overriding and defining feature of feudalism is the dissolution of
the state, the loss of power at the centre. These puzzles are linked to a
more specific one. Feudalism is widely held to be a phenomenon which
covered most of western Europe. Why was it then that in England it first
dissolved into capitalism? Fortunately, the answers to all these puzzles
seem to lie in the same direction.
Many observers past and present have assumed that all of Europe, and
particularly most of north-western Europe, went through a similar
'feudal' phase. David Hume, after giving a sketch of feudal anarchy
consistent with the 'dissolved state' description, pointed to 'the great
similarity among the feudal governments of Europe' (1975: 20). De
Tocqueville described how 'I have had occasion to stud-,- the political
institutions of the Middle Ages in France, in England, and in Germany,
and the greater progress I made in this work, the more was I filled with
astonishment at the prodigious similarity that I found between all these
systems of law'. Having elaborated the similarities he concluded that 'I
think it may be maintained that in the fourteenth century the social,
political, administrative, judicial, economic, and literary institutions of
Europe had more resemblance to each other than they have perhaps even
in our own days' (1955: 15). Marx broadly accepted this view, arguing
that England was a truly feudal society, indeed it was the most feudal:
'the feudalism introduced into England was formally more complete than
the feudalism which had naturally grown up in France' (1964: 88). If this
view is correct, then the puzzles remain. But there are reasons for
Weber seems to have realized that the English feudal system was in
some way different. Having distinguished between two major forms of
government in traditional societies - patrimonialism and feudalism -
Weber recognized that England did not fall exactly into either. We are
told that 'he took England as a borderline case in which patrimonial and
feudal elements were inextricably mixed' (Bendix, 1966: 358). England
had a powerful, decentralizing force in the old baronial families, through
whom the Crown governed, but the Normans had also imposed a
powerful central force and the king's ministers and judges were also
The suspicion that England had a peculiar form of feudalism is
made stronger by Bloch's work. Read superficially, Bloch could be taken
to argue that England was an ordinary 'feudal' state in the early
Middle Ages. Writing of vassalage, Bloch noted that England was
'already feudalized on the continental model' (1965: vol. 1, 232). He
states that it was one of the countries with 'an exceptionally close feudal
structure' (vol. 2, 383), 'in certain respects . . . no state was more
completely feudal' (p. 430). Yet if we look more closely at the context of
these remarks, we can see that Bloch was aware of the peculiar nature of
Bloch noticed the centralization and uniformity of the English political
and social system. This was totally opposed to his major feature of
feudalism, devolution, disintegration and the dissolution of the state.
The contrasts come out when he compared England and France.
In England there was the Great Charter; in France, in 1314-15, the
Charters granted to the Normans, to the people of the Languedoc, to the
Bretons, to the Burgundians, to the Picards, to the people of Champagne,
to Auvergne, of the Basses Marches of the West, of Berry, and of Nevers. In
England there was Parliament; in France, the provincial Estates, always
much more frequently convoked and on the whole more active than the
States-General. In England there was the common law, almost untouched
by regional exceptions; in France the vast medley of regional 'customs'.
Thus England was uniform and centralized, France varied and
regionalized. Because 'the public office was not completely identified
with the fief', Bloch argued, 'England was a truly unified state much
earlier than any continental kingdom' (p. 430). Furthermore, the English
parliamentary system had a 'peculiar quality which distinguished it so
sharply from the continental system of "Estates"'. This was linked to that
'collaboration of the well-to-do classes in power, so characteristic of the
English political structure' (p. 371).
Bloch noted central differences. The 'distinction between high and
low justice always remained foreign to the English system' (p. 370). The
allodial estates common on the continent which prevented the final
penetration of feudal tenures to the bottom of society were totally
extinguished in England where all land was ultimately held of the king
and not held in full ownership by any subject. England was exceptional in
not having private feuding sanctioned after the Norman Conquest; it
therefore avoided that disintegrated anarchy which was characteristic of
France (vol. 1, 128). Indeed, English feudalism, we are told 'has
something of the value of an object-lesson in social organization', not
because it was typical of feudal society but because it shows 'how in the
midst of what was in many respects a homogeneous civilization certain
creative ideas, taking shape under the influence of a given environment,
could result in the creation of a completely original legal system'.' It is
this 'completely original legal system' which provides the key to the
emergence of capitalism. But what is the secret of this system? For the
solution to this puzzle it is necessary both to understand perfectly the
nature of feudalism and to have a deep knowledge of how the English
system worked. It needed Maitland to state the essential paradox of
English feudalism and to resolve it.
Maitland commented that 'we have learnt to see vast differences as
well as striking resemblances, to distinguish countries and to distinguish
times' when we discuss feudalism. Thus 'if we now speak of the feudal
I For a subsequent recognition of some of the peculiarities of English feudalism, see
Ganshof (1964: 67, 164-6).
system, it should be with a full understanding that the feudalism of
France differs radically from the feudalism of England, that the
feudalism of the thirteenth is very different from that of the eleventh
century' (1919: 143). For England 'it is quite possible to maintain that of
all countries England was the most, or for the matter of that the least,
feudalized' (p. 143). The paradox is resolved when we remember that
there are two central criteria whereby we measure feudalism. In terms of
land law, England was the most perfectly feudalized of societies, as Bloch
also noted. All tenures were feudal. Maitland wrote, 'in so far as
feudalism is mere property law, England is of all countries the most
perfectly feudalized' (Pollock and Maitland, 1968: vol. 1, 235).
owing to the Norman Conquest one part of the theory was carried out in
this country with consistent and unexampled rigour; every square inch of
land was brought within the theory of tenure: English real property law
becomes a law of feudal tenures. In France, in Germany, allodial owners
might be found: not one in England. (Maitland, 1919: 163-4)
For instance the 'absolute and uncompromising form of primogeniture
which prevails in England belongs not to feudalism in general, but to a
highly centralized feudalism in which the King has not much to fear from
the power of his mightiest vassals' (Pollock and Maitland, 1968: vol. 2,
265). Thus, in terms of tenure, England was the most feudal of societies
and Marx was right.
On the other hand, in the even more important sphere of public and
private law and political power, that is in terms of government, England
went in a peculiar direction, towards centralization of power, rather than
the dissolution of the state. Maitland points out that
our public law does not become feudal; in every direction the force of
feudalism is limited and checked by other ideas; the public rights, the
public duties of the Englishman are not conceived and cannot be
conceived as the mere outcome of feudal compacts between man and lord.
Maitland outlines the major features of this limitation of public
First and foremost, it never becomes law that there is no political bond
between men save the bond of tenure . . whenever homage or fealty was
done to any mesne lord, the tenant expressly saved the faith that he owed
to his lord the king. (p. 161)
Thus a man who fights for his lord against the king is not doing his
feudal duty; he is committing treason. Over-mighty subjects could not
draw on justification from this system. This point is so important that
Maitland elaborates it in various ways.
'English law never recognizes that any man is bound to fight for his
lord.... Private war never becomes legal - it is a crime and a breach of
the peace' (p. 161). A man can hardly 'go against' anyone at his lord's
command without being guilty of 'felony'. As Maitland wrote, 'Common
law, royal and national law, has, as it were occupied the very citadel of
feudalism' (Pollock and Maitland, 1968: vol. 1, 303). To bring out the
full peculiarity of this, Maitland tells us, 'you should look at the history of
France; there it was definitely. regarded as law that in a just quarrel the
vassal must follow his immediate lord, even against the king' (1919: 162).
In England, 'military ser-,ice is due to none but the king; this it is which
makes English feudalism a very different thing from French feudalism'
There are a number of other differences which make this central
feature possible and flow from it. There is an alternative army for the
king, which helps to protect him against an over-dependence on his
Though the military tenures supply the king with an army, it never
becomes law that those who are not bound by tenure need not fight. The
old national force, officered by the sheriffs, does not cease to exist.... In
this organization of the common folk under royal officers, there is all along
a counterpoise to the military system of feudalism, and it serves the king
well. (p. 162)
Another source of strength for the centre is the fact that 'taxation is not
feudalized'. Maitland tells us that 'the king for a while is strong enough
to tax the nation, to tax the sub-tenants, to get straight at the mass of the
people their lands and their goods, without the intervention of their
lords' (p. 162). Thus he is not entirely dependent on powerful lords for
soldiers or money.
Nor is he entirely dependent on them for advice. We are told that 'the
Curia Regis, which is to become the commune concilium regni, never takes
very definitely a feudal shape. . . . It is much in the king's power to
summon whom he will. The tradition of a council of witan is not lost'
(p. 163). Finally, the king is not forced to delegate judicial power to the
barons. 'The administration of justice is never completely feudalized.
The old local courts are kept alive, and are not feudal assemblies.' As a
result of this:
the jurisdiction of the feudal courts is strictly limited; criminal jurisdiction
they have none save by express royal g-rant, and the kings are on the whole
chary of making such grants. Seldom, indeed, can any lord exercise more
than what on the continent would have been considered justice of a very
Starting with considerable power, the king 'rapidly extends the sphere of
his own justice: before the middle of the thirteenth century his courts
have practically become courts of first instance for the whole realm'
The contradiction is thus resolved. By taking one aspect of the feudal
tie, the idea that each person is linked to the person above him both in
terms of tenure and power, to its logical limits, the English system
developed into something peculiar. By the standards of Bloch's French
model of feudalism, England was both the most and the least feudal of
countries. Looked at another way, England was the ideal typical feudal
society, with an apex of both landholding and justice and power in the
chief lord, and it was other feudal systems which, through the devolution
of too much power, were defective. Both are tenable views. Despite some
minor modifications, Maitland's vision is still acceptable, certainly there
'can be no doubt that by the end of the period covered by his books', in
other words the end of the thirteenth century, 'the world was as Maitland
saw it' (Milsom, in Pollock and Maitland, 1968: vol. 1, xlvii).
The argument very briefly stated and summarized is as follows. No
single factor explains why capitalism emerged. We do know some of the
necessary causes, as outlined by Maine, Marx and Weber. All of them
are important. But to proceed further we need to concentrate on hints
from all these writers, as well as Brenner and others, that as well as
geography, technology and Christianity, there was needed a particular
form of political and economic system. This was broadly provided by
'feudalism'. But the variant of feudalism which finally allowed the
'miracle' to occur was a rather unusual one. It already contained an
implicit separation between economic and political power, between the
market and government. While it was not absolutism in Anderson's
sense, it was a firm and centrally focused system which provided the
security and uniformity upon which trade and industry could be based. If
we accept the view attributed to Adam Smith by Dugald Stewart that
'Little else is required to carry a state to the highest degree of opulence
from the lowest barbarism, but peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable
administration of justice; all the rest being brought about by the natural
order of things' (1980: 322), then the English political system provided
such a basis. It guaranteed peace through the control of feuding, taxes
were light and justice was uniform and firmly administered from the
thirteenth to eighteenth centuries. This offered the framework within
which there developed that competitive individualism whose later history
I have tried to analyse elsewhere (Macfarlane, 1978).
Yet it would clearly be foolish to overstress any evolutionary necessity
in this process. It could at any time have been reversed; the victory of the
Spanish Armada, for instance, might well have changed the direction.
Nor is it sensible to overstress the uniqueness of England. There was
clearly much that overlapped with northern France, the Netherlands and
Scandinavia. Yet Marx, Weber and others were not wrong to see
England as the cradle of capitalism. If Protestantism was one of those
who stood at the cradle, an unusual politico -economic system which
Bloch and Maitland have so clearly described for us, is another guest at
the baptism. Indeed it may even be that it was this guest who lay in the
cradle. Who brought it there, and when, is, of course, another story.
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