The Cradle of Capitalism: the Case of England


Alan Macfarlane


[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

'European miracle'.


     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

without land.


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

peculiarities lie?


     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

changed to





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

doubting it.


     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

English feudalism.


     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'.

(pp. 425-6)



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.

(1919: 164)


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'

(p. 32).


      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

feudal tenants.


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

low degree.


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'

(pp. 162-3).


    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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