Goodbye to Nearly All That

The Origins of English Individualism: The Family, Property and Social Transition

by Alan Macfarlane
Cambridge University Press, 216 pp., $6.95 (paper)

It is not often that a book appears which challenges the whole corpus of conventional wisdom about the evolution of the modern world; which sets out to show that not just one but a whole pride of emperors have no clothes. Nor are the emperors obscure princelings: Marx and Weber are the main targets, but Tocqueville, Durkheim, and Tönnies are there too. Also included among those marked down for execution is almost every scholar who has ever attempted a general interpretation of the English transition from traditionalism to modernity. Tawney, Postan, Hilton, Hill, Homans, C.B. Macpherson, C.H. Wilson, this reviewer1—we all rattle along in the tumbrel together, along with many others.

Mr. Macfarlane is an anthropologist as well as a historian, and he tells us that his studies of Himalayan society helped to stimulate his work on this book. The model he sets out to destroy is that which sees English historical development moving through three stages: first came the feudal society of nobles and peasants of the Middle Ages. This was shattered in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries by the rise of the bourgeoisie, a market economy, urbanization, wage labor, capitalism, and the new ideologies of the Puritan Ethic and possessive individualism. In this fertile ground were sown the first seeds of industrialization, which has created the modern world of capitalists and proletariat, science and technology.

Oddly enough, Mr. Macfarlane’s central question about this version of history is not the validity of the economic so much as the ideological argument for it. When, he asks, did individualism arise? Individualism he defines as a value system which puts the needs and desires of every autonomous and equal person above those of the group to which he belongs or to society as a whole; which stresses political freedom and civil rights; and which gives every layman—or woman—direct access to God without the mediation of a priest. He argues first that the traditional model depends on the assumption that this value system first emerged in the Early Modern period; and second that this hypothesis can be tested by asking a socio-economic question: when was it that the peasantry disappeared?

At first and second sight, this seems a peculiar way to proceed, but it depends upon his definition of peasantry. To Mr. MacFarlane a peasant society is characterized by widely diffused, more or less equal, small-scale ownership of land, worked by family groups which form a unit of production and consumption. Such a society acts on the belief and legal reality that the land belongs to the household and kin, not the individual; that the land has symbolic value as inherited family patrimony and should never be sold; that the interests of the kin take precedence over those of the individual; that women and children are subordinated to the dictates of the patriarch; and (in the Western world) that primogeniture is the rule of inheritance.

If we are willing to accept these assumptions and definitions, what are the facts about England? Mr. Macfarlane proves fairly convincingly that by 1600 the English countryside was characterized by large numbers of propertyless wage laborers, frequent sales of land by freeholders, involving a rapid turnover of families in a village, a wide gap between rich and poor, a system of sending children away to work for others rather than keeping them at home, and a late age of marriage. He then plunges back into the Middle Ages to pursue the elusive English peasant. He argues, using doubtful but not implausible evidence, that at least since 1350 the English small-holder has been buying and selling and bequeathing land at will, regardless of the interests of his kin. His conclusion is that personal not group interest reigned supreme in the land market—and hence that the principle of individualism was paramount.

So back he goes still further, into the thirteenth century. Here he has trouble, for the documentation is poor, and what there is has been interpreted by the leading authorities to demonstrate the existence of a peasant society. To get around this, he rejects these authorities in favor of some unpublished claims by a member of the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure—a group with which he is loosely connected. According to this unpublished work, there was no peasant society in 1200.

At this point he unexpectedly abandons the hunting of the snark. Pressed to reveal why England has never had a peasantry since the fall of Rome, he can do no more than refer the anxious reader—twice—to one of Montesquieu’s less perceptive observations, which anyway was not concerned with property rights: “In perusing the admirable treatise of Tacitus On the Manners of the Germans we find it is from that nation the English have borrowed their idea of political government. This beautiful system was invented first in the woods [of Germany].” Finally, Mr. Macfarlane buttresses his case by some quotations about the English by foreign and native commentators, starting with Montesquieu in the eighteenth century (“this nation is passionately fond of liberty”) and working backward. He does not notice that the further back he goes, the worse becomes the evidence, or that what exists mainly deals with the wealth and political and legal institutions of the English, rather than the small-holders’ attitude to kin or property—much less their sense of individualism.

Mr. Macfarlane’s slender—but far from nonexistent—web of evidence on this one point of attitude to property is made to carry a vast superstructure of implications. He seems to claim that it indicates that any idea of significant progress—or even significant change—from the thirteenth to the eighteenth century is a mirage. Out goes any suggestion that the era of the Renaissance and the Reformation saw not merely the development of the concept of the modern state but also of the doctrine of legitimate resistance to it. 2 Out go most of the other familiar developments in English history. Macfarlane does not acknowledge that in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and early eighteenth centuries there was a unique English agricultural revolution that greatly increased the food supply; that the English countryside was then slowly transformed into a tripartite social structure of large landlords, substantial tenant farmers, and wage laborers, involving enclosure and the destruction of many of the freeholders and copyholders; that there was a commercial revolution overseas and internally, and that there was a huge expansion of participation in the market economy. He attaches no significance to the development of such capitalist institutions as bills of exchange, credit mechanisms, joint-stock companies, banks, or insurance companies. The fact that London grew between 1500 and 1700 to be the largest city in the West, embracing 10 percent of the English population, he treats as of no importance.

Indeed the growth of urban society, where individualism in fact seems to have first taken root, Macfarlane wholly ignores, as he does the bourgeoisie. The rapid spread of literacy and the invention of printing are not even mentioned; nor is the shift from oral, ritualistic Catholicism to bookish moralistic Puritanism with its stress on the individual conscience, thrift, diligence in the Calling, and “holy matrimony” instead of chastity. Common lawyers like Coke and Selden, political theorists like Henry Parker, Harrington, Sydney, or Locke, moralists like Alexander Pope or Addison, have nothing to contribute. Individualism, it seems, sprang fully armed from the German woods and was brought into England in their boats by the Anglo-Saxons. This is little more than a reformulation of the myth of the Noble Savage.

Macfarlane’s book fails to be persuasive because it is so monotonously monocausal, and it ignores so many other economic, social, political, religious, and cultural changes. His exclusive stress on property rights and kin relationships apparently springs from the narrowness of his sources and his methods. Mr. Macfarlane has spent the last fourteen years meticulously investigating two villages in Essex and Cumbria, and much of his book depends on this local history. The trouble is that tax records and parish registers leave so many things out, and any attempt to rewrite total history almost entirely in the light of such data is bound to fail.

Moreover, even if Mr. Macfarlane should in the end turn out to be right in his facts—and this only medieval economic historians can judge—it still would not mean the immediate overthrow of the old authorities. Neither Marx nor Weber nor Tawney nor Hill nor anyone else would be very much upset to find small agrarian capitalists flourishing in medieval England—much less in the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries. Nor is it easy to see how patriarchs selling property, and bequeathing it at will, contribute to the individualism of their helpless wives and children. Indeed it is symptomatic of Mr. Macfarlane’s myopia that he totally ignores the close communal control, through the manorial court, of almost every aspect of the use of property. Such courts could tell people when, where, and what to sow or reap, how many cattle to feed on the common grazing land, etc. They also regulated so many aspects of personal life that it is difficult to see where in the medieval village the concept of individualism found room to flourish outside the one sphere Macfarlane emphasizes: the power to sell or bequeath property.

A doubt lingers, however, whether so negative a reaction to so bold and allegedly devastating a piece of revisionism is any more than a function of age. Could it be that because I am nearing sixty, I am intellectually so arthritic that I am incapable of abandoning an old and well-worn paradigm and embracing a new one that better fits the facts? Could it be that Mr. Macfarlane is the Einstein of history after all, and that I am too blind to see it? The possibility clearly exists, which is why anyone seriously concerned with the evolution of the modern world should at least look at this book and judge for himself. Mr. Macfarlane is a lucid and courteous controversialist, and if he should happen to be right in his facts and in his deductions from them, he is saying something very important.

He is also saying something rather trivial, if comforting to the natives in their time of troubles: namely that the English have always been different from everybody else. It would be a bizarre paradox if an anthropologist, as familiar with Nepal as with Essex, should offer the ultimate justification for the persistent insularity of English historical education, and in doing so succeed in destroying the grand theories about England propounded by all those foreigners, Marx, Weber, Durkheim, Tocqueville, Rostow, and the rest. But this, I believe, is an unlikely consequence of an implausible hypothesis based on a far-fetched connection with one still unproven fact of limited general significance.

  1. 1

    This review was written and mailed off four days before I either heard of or read Mr. Macfarlane’s article about my recent book on the family in the current issue of History & Theory. The only connecting link between the two reviews is the radically different vision we have of the evolution of English history.

  2. 2

    Quentin Skinner, The Foundations of Modern Political Thought (Cambridge University Press, 1978).