The Agrarian Problem in the Early Fourteenth Century
By Bruce M.S. Campbell
Past & Present, No. 188, pp. 3-70, August (2005)
For most of the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries England’s economy, along with that of much of the rest of Europe, expanded and grew. From the mid thirteenth century, however, the economic tide began to turn, and by the 1290s it is clear that prosperity was waning fast. The circumstances, timing, pace and scale of the recession naturally varied a great deal from region to region, but the net outcome was the same almost everywhere: by the early fourteenth century a great and growing proportion of the population found itself living in seriously reduced circumstances and ever more prone to crises of subsistence. That symptoms of distress were widespread is not in doubt; it is their diagnosis that remains problematic. The theories of Marx, Malthus and Ricardo have all been invoked to account for the worsening state of affairs, as have the New Institutional Economics. So, too, has a growing body of environmental evidence, which is providing fresh perspectives on the exogenous significance of heightened climatic instability on a global scale and of associated epidemics among animals and humans. It was, however, the calamity-sensitive nature of society that endowed these catastrophes with their transformative impact.
Any analysis of why the early fourteenth-century agrarian economy was so predisposed to ‘crisis’ necessarily requires careful consideration of class and property relations on the land, for, as Robert Brenner and S. H. Rigby have both emphasized,these could be of decisive importance. At that time landlords exercised feudal rights of lordship over their tenants, many of whom were of servile status and therefore legally subordinate to their lords. This power relationship shaped the tenurial rela- tionship between those who owned the land and those who occupied and worked it.