Book Review: “The Origins of English Individualism”, Alan MacFarlane

I bought this book, mainly due to seeing it too often referenced by authors I admire (James Bennett being a case in point). And despite its relative antiquity (it was written in 1978) it is still a draft of intellectual cold, still water. Essentially in this book Professor MacFarlane attempted to swim against 150 years of received opinion about the development of the distinctive political and social milieu of England (and yes it is about England rather than the United Kingdom or Britain that he writes).

He had been drawn to this by his previous work on witchcraft in which he noted that in England witches were remarkably different to their continental cousins (In England covens and cannibalism were virtual absent, as was intense sexuality and a hatred of the newly wealthy, instead English witches were individualistic, decorous and essentially targeted their wrath against those who were a drag on society). If witches were so different then it surely suggests that society itself was different?

The traditional view of English history is of the long, slow progress of freedom, from a past of feudalism and an omnipresent peasantry though some strange sublimation by which England created a form of freedom from which derived the industrial revolution, the rule of law and the greatest empire the world had ever seen and then on to a socialist society (Marx). Before the Civil War and the rise of Protestantism (Weber) Britain was analogous to the rest of Europe in that it was a traditional peasant society. By this was meant that all, bar the aristocracy and some in the few small towns, lived in family groups. Land was synonymous with family and was held not by an individual as property but as a group familial holding. Many generations lived in the same homestead and all worked the family property; people neither left, sold nor transferred their land except in extremis. Wage labour was almost unheard of. In this it was much like France and Germany of the 17th/ 18th Century and like Russia and Eastern Europe in the pre Communist period. More importantly it was similar to India, Africa and China of modern days.

This similarity of modern peasant societies makes the study of the England’s development extremely important as policy makers should be able to extrapolate from our experience. This should allow the rapid development of those unhappy parts of the world by following policy short cuts and ironing out the mistakes made in England.

MacFarlane’s work however seems to fatally undermine this thesis. By extensive research in legal documents, church records, diaries and so on, he comprehensively rebukes the traditional idea that, “The past is a foreign country, people do things differently there”. Indeed he claims that whereas this might be true for the rest of the world the people of England were remarkably similar to us today in their way of life.

The key drivers of English exceptionalism were he says, the method of inheritance the transferability of property, the large pool of wage labour and the nuclear family. All this is allied to a level of equality before the law and a level of litigation almost American in its scope. Marriage was late, and indeed often not at all with women having all rights to property (a big difference to the Continent). Indeed it seems that instead of the traditional Weberian idea that Protestantism increased individual rights as it concentrated in an individual relationship with God had the counter intuitive results as it strengthened male power.

The book is full of apposite quotations from the documents but I shall include just the one here, about a chap called John Thedrich, described by Professor Zvi Razi as a, “typical wealthy Halesown peasant”,

“He inherited from his father a yardland holding or more yet in fourteen land transactions he purchased and leased at least another yardland. He leased for life a holding of half a yardland or more and another smaller holding for a year. He also leased three meadows for his livestock. In 1314 he acquired from the lord a plot of wasteland to enlarge his barn and in 1320 he bought a parcel of land from his neighbour to extend his courtyard. In 1320 and 1321 he exchanged land with four villagers in order to consolidate his lands into one block. He had sub-tenants and at least two living in servants. During the peak periods he used to employ several extra labourers. He and his wife were amerced forty-three times for selling ale against the assize... He sued villages for various debts...He was amerced eight times for assault and shedding blood. John Thedrich had between 1294 and 1337 at least 196 court appearances and the fines and amercements which he paid during the time amounted to £2-10.3.” (the average annual wage at the time being £5-1.0 approx).
The key point here is that this activity is inconceivable in a traditional peasant society, where land being sacrosanct and virtually inviolable. Not only that, from his court appearances we can see that he is not a million miles away from modern England beyond merely his financial transactions. Another point to make clear is this is all happening decades before the Black Death that is often claimed to have created the circumstances by which the feudal locks of peasants to specific land were forced.

The problem that MacFarlane has however is that before 1200 documentary evidence becomes sparse, thus though he is able to show to his own and this reviewer’s satisfaction that England had an entirely different societal dispensation from the Continent after this time he fails in his stated aim of defining the ‘Origins of English Individualism’. He can neither point to its start, no can he define where those origins came from.

As he himself writes in his postscript ,
“I have my own suspicions as to where those ‘origins’ were in time and space and
they are similar to those of Montesquieu”.
Montesquieu’s thoughts in ‘The Spirit of the Laws’ were these,

In perusing the admirable treatise of Tacitus On the manners of the Germans we find it is from that nation that the English have borrowed their idea of political governance. This beautiful system was invented first in the woods”. Nor was it merely the political system that was ‘borrowed,’ but also, he suggested, the land law and inheritance system. Crucial here was the fact that, as Montesquieu observed, the Germanic system as described by Tacitus was one of absolute individual property; there was no group which owned the land, and hence no idea that the family and the resources were inextricably linked. In his description of the Salic law he stresses that it ‘had not in view a preference for one sex to the other, much less had it a regard to the perpetuity of a family, a name, or the transmission of land. These things did not enter the heads of the Germans...’ Montesquieu was clearly not in a position to show how the English could have come to take over this or other aspects of this ‘beautiful system.’ It is sufficient for our purposes here that this enormously wideranging mind should have realised that England was different from every Continental country in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and to have believed this difference had very old roots.
Of course this book has its enemies, after all he was targeting almost the entire historical establishment of the time, but its thesis seems more convincing than the idea that the essential Englishness that created the industrial revolution (and yes I know that that is now a contentious phrase as it was more gradual than previously thought – a conclusion that fits MacFarlane’s ideas rather well) was either some great fluke, or indeed that it popped up fully formed like Athena from Zeus’s head.

Or maybe Edmund Grindal, Bishop of London in 1559 was right all along when he said that “God is an Englishman”.

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