Introduction to The Origins of English Individualism; The Family, Property and Social Transition by Alan Macfarlane (Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1978)




This is a book that wrote itself. I had intended to spend a precious sabbatical term drawing together a large amount of material I had already collected on a very different subject. But I found that before it was possible to commence that study, I needed to get clear in my mind what sort of society England was over the centuries leading up to the industrial revolution. I intended to write two short articles and then to move on. The articles were written, (1) but I became gripped and intrigued by what I was finding. Now, at the end of the process, it is easier to see some of the reasons why I should have felt it necessary to range so widely.


     When I first undertook research and wrote about witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England I did so within the conventional framework provided by a degree in history at Oxford.(2) Despite some warnings from my first tutor, an acquaintance with medieval and early modern history and historians had led me to accept a general picture of English history which saw a slow but steady economic growth, a transition from a small-scale 'peasant' society, which gradually broke apart in the sixteenth century and out of whose ruin emerged the first industrial nation. I therefore interpreted witchcraft accusations as the spiritual and social concomitants of the changes which Tawney and Weber had charted. They were the result of the new economic and social individual' is which was undermining the communal, village based , society. As the market and cash penetrated into the once face-to-face, subsistence, society, economic forces and traditional ethical demands clashed. Out of this arose the guilt and anxiety which we manifestly find in the witch-



(1) They are both to be published in 1978; 'The Peasantry in England before the Industrial Revolution, A Mythical Model?' David Green, Colin Haselgrove and Matthew Spriggs

(eds.), Social Organisation and Settlement, and 'The myth of peasantry: family and economy in a northern parish' Richard Smith (ed.), Land, Kinship and Life Cycle. I am grateful to the editors of these collections for comments on these early articles.

(2) Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England: A Regional and Comparative Study (1970).







craft trials. The explanation worked reasonably well it seemed, and I was happy to accept the medievalist's account of the largely 'traditional’ Society up to the fifteenth century. There were, however, two rather large unresolved problems which this account could not deal with and which I was consequently forced to brush aside as impossible to solve.


      One of these problems was the reason for the decline of witchcraft prosecutions; the second was the peculiarity of English witchcraft within Europe. In relation to the second, it became clear that if one looked at Scottish or Continental witchcraft beliefs they were fundamentally different from those in England and highlighted what was absent in England. At a very general level, there was a notable absence of a sexual motif in England; the incubus and succubus, the sexual orgies with the Devil and other witches, were absent. English witchcraft was very decorous. Secondly, there was the absence of a food and hunger motif in England. The nearest we get to the cannibalistic orgies described outside England is the roast beef picnics of the Lancashire witches. Thirdly, English witchcraft beliefs made the suspects very individualistic. The covens and group meetings ascribed to witches elsewhere were absent; in England they tended to act alone, even if they sometimes knew the names of other suspects. Fourthly, there was an absence of attack on the nouveaux riches, against those who were marginally gaining on their neighbours and acquiring an unfairly large slice of the local resources. In England, witchcraft was directed against the slightly poorer who made demands on their neighbours. It was not used, as it is in many societies, to prevent economic differentiation, but rather to allow it to occur. These and other differences could not be satisfactorily explained within the framework which I had inherited.


      Although one could ascribe the peculiarities to differences of legal systems within Europe, for instance England's system of Common Law and juries, as opposed to the use of torture and Roman Law elsewhere, this only seemed to explain a little of the difference. Since I was firmly convinced by my general reading that the Continent, despite differences such as language or political system, was basically similar to England in culture, economy and social system. I was unable to understand why witchcraft should have been so different. It could clearly not reflect any deeper differences, since I was led to believe that there were none. This is the first block which I encountered.


       After witchcraft I turned to the study of sexual and marital relations in England in the same period.(3)  My supervisor, the anthropologist Isaac


(3) The Regulation on of Marital and Sexual Relationships in Seventeenth Century England'

(Unpublished M.Phil.thesis, University of London, 1968).





Schapera, pointed out that a horror of incest was, according to Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown, a universal human fear. He suggested that I should look at the historical material to see how such horror was manifested in England. I found that such revulsion was hardly present at all. The English from early times seemed singularly unconcerned about incest. This led me to an examination of the general sexual and marital pattern, which again did not seem to conform to anthropologists had found in other peasant societies. Kinship seemed relatively unimportant, marriage seemed to be little controlled by parents, the relations between the sexes seemed unusually relaxed, when one compared England with the contemporary Mediterranean region. Once again, what one would have expected if England had been the sort of country historians portrayed did not fit; but since no other model was available I was unable to go further.


     While working on witchcraft and sexual behaviour I had come across a number of interesting seventeenth century diaries, outstanding among them the diary of an Essex clergyman, Ralph Josselin. (4) My training led me to expect that, living before the watershed of the industrial revolution, his social and mental and economic life would appear very remote, very different from my own. It would still carry many of the overtones of the earlier medieval period from which the country was just emerging. I was startled to find, on the contrary, how modern' his world was; his family life, attitudes to children, economic and the very structure of his thought was very familiar indeed.

His sophistication and wide knowledge were impressively obvious and his feelings were instantly recognizable. Of course there were features that were different; a constant background of chronic sickness, a marked interest in the Day of judgement, certain political and religious beliefs. Yet it was his similarity rather than the difference which was striking. I felt, as those who have read Pepys' diary must have felt, that the diary reveals a man whose motives and actions are almost totally familiar. Neither of these or the many other diaries of the period fitted at all well with my general picture of pre-industrial England. Nor was I able to account for the widespread keeping of personal diaries at such an early date in England.


     I then turned to an anthropological study of a contemporary Himalayan society.(5) Two things especially struck me when comparing it to England in the past. The first was the very great difference in per capita wealth in the two societies. Historians kept talking about



(4) The Family Life of Ralph Josselin, A Seventeenth-Century Clergyman; An Essay in Historical Anthropology (1970); Alan Macfarlane (ed.), The Diary of Ralph

Josselin 1610-1683 (1976), Records of Social and Economic History, new series, 3.

(5) Resources and Population; A study of the Gurungs of Nepal (Cambridge, 1976).





England in the pre-industrial period as a 'subsistence' economy, with people on the verge of starvation, technologically backward, economically unsophisticated. But when I compared the technology, the inventories of possessions and the budgets of a contemporary Asian society with those for English sixteenth-century villagers, I found that there was already an enormous gap. The English were, on the whole, an immeasurably wealthier people, with a far higher investment in tools and other productive forces. To think of India or China in the early twentieth century as directly comparable to England just before the industrial revolution appeared to be a serious mistake. This raised the question of how and when England had accumulated wealth at the village level. This was clearly related to another major difference, the demographic one. It appears that almost all peasant and tribal societies follow what has been termed a 'crisis' pattern, with rapid population build-up, then a crisis of some kind, usually engendered by war, famine or epidemic disease. Population drops to a low level and then starts to build up again. This pattern characterized much of western Europe up to the eighteenth century, disappearing in the eighteenth century in Norway and France, for example. The curious fact is that, from at least the middle of the fourteenth -century, such a pattern has been absent in England. I could find nothing in the literature on economic or social life to explain why England should have escaped from such a cycle three centuries or more before any other large nation, or on how this was related to its affluence.


      Finally, I have been engaged during the last fourteen years in an intensive study of two English parishes from the fourteenth to the eighteenth centuries.(6) After collecting together every piece of surviving information about each place and processing it by hand and computer, it will be necessary to analyse the results within a general theoretical framework. As I worked on these documents and compared the results with  general historical accounts of change in England there was again a very considerable gap between what I was discovering and what I should have been finding. Instead of relatively 'closed' and integrated communities at the start, which gradually broke apart with the growing penetration of the market, increasing geographical mobility, the break-down of kinship groups and other changes, it began to appear that there was no long secular trend. There were, it is true, considerable fluctuations and certain major changes in the distribution of wealth, the demographic structure and technology. Yet it was just not possible to use the models of community-based societies which historians and


(6) Alan Macfarlane, Sarah Harrison and Charles Jardine, Reconstructing Historical

(Cambridge, 1977).





anthropologists had devised in relation to many parts of the world. I was fairly certain that, however one defined 'Community,' there was little of it in the villages we were studying, as far back as the century. Yet I was uncertain whether this was something new or old at that date; whether an older closeness had recently broken down and whether England was generally exceptional within Europe in this respect.         In other words, I was once again dissatisfied with the general framework within which I was working, but did not know precisely why,  or where I should look for an alternative model. This book is an attempt to sketch out an alternative history of England which would some of these difficulties.


      The title needs some explanation, for it is designedly doubly ambiguous. Marc Bloch has pointed out in the ' Idol of Origins, ' that the  word 'origins' means both 'beginnings' and also 'causes' and that there is 'frequent cross-contamination of the two meanings.' (7) I am here using both these meanings, enquiring into both when English individualism and what caused it. But the problem is compounded by the ambiguity of the word 'Individualism.' This is also used in two different senses in this book. Both the meanings can be read into a remark by

F.W.Maitland when he wrote, concerning the highly developed property rights of women, that England 'long ago' had chosen her 'individualistic path.'(8) The first meaning is the argument that England as  a whole was different from the rest of Europe, and even from Scotland, thus acting 'Individually' or separately. In this sense, England stood alone. The second meaning is at the level of the single person. It is that a central and basic feature of English social structure has for long been the stress on the rights and privileges of the individual against the wider group or the State. This is the more general meaning of individualism as used, for example, by Macpherson in relation  to economics and political philosophy, or Riesman in relation to culture. (9) It is the view that society is constituted of autonomous, equal, units, namely separate individuals, and that such individuals are important, ultimately, than any larger constituent group. It is reflected  in the concept of individual private property, in the political legal liberty of the individual, in the idea of the individual's direct communication with God. The argument below concentrates on the economic aspects of individualism, but other features will also be alluded I  to. This work is thus a search not only for a revised framework


(7) Bloch, Historian's Craft (Manchester, 1954), pp. 29-30.

(8) Maitland, English Law, p. 433.

(9) A lucid discussion of the various meanings of individualism is Steven Lukes, Individualism(1973). The author distinguishes eleven different constituents of the term, but argues that they tend to he very closely interrelated.






which would make some of my own previously unsolved theoretical problems soluble, but one which would help to explain whether and when England became different from other parts of Europe and the nature of the social structure which we have inherited.


January, 1978                                                                                       

Ivy Farm Barn,


Nr. Cambridge.