Mar 1, 1979
Individualism vs. Peasant-feudalism
“[13th] English society…was…an individualistic, mobile, and capitalist market society.”
“The Origins of English Individualism: Some Surprises.” Theory and Society 6 (September 1978): 255–277.
The founding fathers of modern sociology, Marx, Weber, Maine, and Tonnies, focused on England as the first industrialized, modern capitalist society to construct models for the progressive stages of social development. Their interpretation of English history became central to their understanding of how human societies historically evolve. Their key but questionable assumption held that England’s social evolution during the period 1350–1650 was marked by a “great transition” from a peasant-feudal ideal type of society to an industrial-capitalist type.
They further assumed that this transformation occurred this early only in England, and that it provided a model for similar transformations in other later societies. The “peasant-feudal” ideal refers to the view that English rural society was not yet split apart into separate economic and social worlds. In this view the basic element in society was not the individual, but rather the patriarchal family which acted as a unit of ownership, production, and consumption; the household was the basic unit of the economy, and production was mainly for use, not exchange; authority was patriarchal, land unalienable without consent of heirs, and heirs could not be disinherited.
But the alleged peasant-feudal ideal is a historical myth. Detailed studies of recent medieval economic historians disprove the concept of “a great transition” in the Tudor-Stuart period from peasant-feudal to industrial-capitalist model stage. There is no evidence that such a peasant model stage existed at any time since documentation became available in the late twelfth or early thirteenth centuries. On the contrary, thirteenth-century English society exhibits a cash economy throughout the countryside with most items from labor to property rights marketable for a cash price. Furthermore, products of the land were raised for markets as well as use; hired labor was already common; geographic and social mobility was also common among all classes; land was held by individuals, not patriarchal families, who could alienate it by sale at will. In fact, markets were as active as in the later periods with sales and purchases of land by both freemen and villeins; households were predominantly nuclear and kinship systems were quite similar to those of modern England or America. In short, thirteenth-century English society displayed no more a peasant-feudal ideal type than did sixteenth- or seventeenth-century England. It was, in fact, already an individualistic, mobile, and capitalist market society.
If MacFarlane’s thesis is correct, paradigmatic shifts will be necessary in the fields of history, sociology, anthropology, and economics. The theories of Marx and Weber are very intimately linked to what are dubious assumptions on the character of English society during the transitional period. If we continue to take them as guides in studying the origins of capitalism, we may well be asking the wrong questions. If Marx and Weber’s chronology is incorrect, then we will need to revise the role of the Reformation, Renaissance, and Enlightenment in creating modern individualism. We would also see fall apart the theories of Karl Polanyi, who believed that before the sixteenth century, true markets and free labor played no important role in the economy. Adam Smith’s assumption that homo economicus had existed for centuries in England seems more correct.
In one sense R. M. Hartwell is right in holding that purely economic explanations for England’s Industrial Revolution are not sufficient. But unlike Hartwell,  we could place this social environment not in the seventeenth century, but push it back to some time prior to the thirteenth century when documentation already shows an individualistic, capitalistic market society.
This article is a synopsis of his argument presented in Professor MacFarlane’s recently published book, The Origins of English Individualism: The Family, Property, and Social Transitions (Cambridge University Press, 1978).