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Re: Help Request
by Louis Proyect
30 January 2002 18:23 UTC
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Your query gets to the heart of World Systems Theory.

There are 2 basic approaches to the problem that essentially derive from a
debate between Paul Sweezy and Maurice Dobb in the 1950s. Agreeing with
Henri Pirenne, Sweezy believed that capitalism was a largely urban
phenomenon that developed in the late middle ages through the expansion of
trade that had been interrupted by feudal wars and "barbarian" attacks
during the preceding centuries. (I put barbarian in quotes because there is
ample evidence that the Eastern horse-riding clans actually made trade
possible between Western Europe and the East--but that is a topic for
another discussion.) Dobb said that capitalism was basically an agrarian
phenomenon that emerged in 15th century Great Britain when the enclosure
acts turned serfs into wage laborers.

In the 1970s, Robert Brenner launched the next stage of this debate by
taking Dobb's arguments one step further. Although Dobb did take urban
class relations into account, Brenner pretty much not only ruled out the
cities as nurseries of capitalism, he also claimed that colonialism had
little role to play as well. This went directly against Marx's views in the
chapter "Genesis of the Industrial Bourgeosie" in V. 1 of Capital. It also
went against Marxist concepts of imperialism laid out not only by Lenin,
but by the "dependency school" at MR, and ultimately against World Systems
analysis that superseded it. It counterposes capitalism as a "mode of
production" to capitalism as a world system. It imposes ideological
straight-jackets, in my opinion, that have little to do with Marx. For
example, it says that unless there is free wage labor, you can not have
capitalism. Obviously this cannot explain the rise of South Africa where
bonded labor was the norm.

I recommend two books on these debates, first of all:

1) Rodney Hilton's "The Transition from Feudalism to Capitalism", which
includes participants in the original Dobb-Sweezy debate

2) "The Brenner Debate," edited by T.H. Aston and C.H.E. Philpin. 

On the web, I recommend 

A.G. Frank's Transitional Ideological Modes :  Feudalism, Capitalism,


and a number of articles I have written in reply to the Brenner thesis at:


I also recommend Jim Blaut's "Colonizer's Model of the World" and "8
Eurocentric Historians" which has had a big influence on my own thinking.

Finally, there is a h-humanities review that should prove useful to you:

Published by H-Albion@h-net.msu.edu (January, 2002)

Jane Whittle.  _The Development of Agrarian Capitalism: Land and
Labour in Norfolk 1440-1580_. Oxford Historical Monographs. Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 2000.  xii + 361 pp.  Figures, maps,
tables, notes, appendices, manuscript sources, bibliography, and
index.  $74.00 (cloth), ISBN 0-19-820842-1.

Reviewed for H-Albion by Philip Morgan <morganp@jaynet.wcmo.edu>,
Westminster College, Missouri

The principal demand of the English revolt in 1381 was the abolition
of serfdom.  Wat Tyler argued, moments before his murder, that "all
men should be free and of one condition."  The revolt failed and
serfdom was never abolished.  Nevertheless, it is axiomatic in most
histories of later medieval England that serfdom simply faded away
in the half-century which followed the revolt, either irrelevant or
redundant in the new society which emerged after the demographic
collapse of the fourteenth century. Contemporary social comment,
both literary and parliamentary, aches for a lost world of social
equilibrium. The precise nature of this new society has attracted
historians and literary scholars of diverse tastes and approaches. 
But, amongst social _and_ economic historians, as opposed to those
mere social historians who can't or won't do sums, the lasting
debate has been the place and dynamic of this new society in the
transition from feudalism to capitalism.  The demographic crisis was
more or less universal in medieval Europe, but the consequent
history of social and economic development was regionally diverse. 
For English medievalists this has always held out the tempting
blessing of relevance to modern political and economic debates, for
lurking offstage is the implicit assumption that there was a
distinctive historical development path to the English economy.  In
such a context the answers to big questions like the origins of
agrarian capitalism can indeed be sought in the experience of the
English countryside, the whole world seen, as it were, from Miss
Marple's St Mary Mead.  The view is both possible and necessary, for
many of the theoretical models, which have dominated discussion of
the transition, remain untested against the evidence of detailed
local and regional studies.  Jane Whittle's book is a contribution
to what is generally known as the "Brenner debate" based upon an
intensive study of the Norfolk manor of Hevingham Bishops,
containing within it the village of Marsham.  She concludes that an
economy generated by small peasant landholders, relatively free of
state or lordly exactions, helped promote the development of

The manor belonged to the bishops of Norwich until 1536, although
the church, either as landlord or institution, scarcely appears in
the study. The records of neighboring manors, mostly held by country
gentry like Lord Morley and the Paston family, are used as a
supplement and check.  To these are added probate materials, the
records of parish administration, petty sessions and taxation from
south Erpingham hundred and the whole county of Norfolk.  The
immediate focus is thus a fifteen-mile stretch either side of the
River Bure in north-east Norfolk ten miles or so to the north of
Norwich.  Source linkage, conclusions from manor court rolls
moderated by the material in the 1522 muster rolls or other taxation
lists, or by the run of testamentary materials, is an especial
virtue. Aside from taxation returns, the records of central
government, especially the royal courts, are not used. 
Nevertheless, the repertoire of sources is, as the author has argued
in a recent article in the _Agricultural History Review_ (2000),
capable of sustaining both a view of a _pays reél_ and a _pays
légal_.  In light of Norfolk's later importance in agrarian history,
and this territory's role in worsted weaving, the choice of
Hevingham is entirely appropriate, although it is used to explore
models of economic change rather than reconstructed as a particular

After a theoretical and historiographical first chapter, the main
text begins with a review of the importance of manorial legacies and
concludes that forms of land tenure rather than lordly intervention
were paramount. Thereafter, lords virtually disappear from the book,
which remains focused on the actions of peasantry, mostly customary
tenants of free status. Edmund Fryde's unsophisticated and no doubt
old-fashioned study of land tenures, _Peasants and landlords in
later medieval England, 1380-1525_ (1996), does not rate a single
citation.  A comparison between the two books, one in which serfdom
and lordly power remain remarkably resilient, and the other in which
the focus shifts to the peasantry themselves, is an educative
contrast for the unaligned reader.  Engrossment, increasing
insecurity of tenure, and rising landlessness are seen as the
interconnected strands in potential capitalist development.  Later
chapters thus consider the patterns of the peasant land market,
social differentiation, and the landless communities of servants,
laborers, and rural craftsmen.

During the fifteenth century Hevingham had an active land market
which displayed a marked shift from customary inheritance to
self-planned routes of devolution.  The majority of landholders
appear to have set themselves up as householders by purchase rather
than inheritance, confirming the decline of the family-land bond. 
Land prices rose markedly in the early sixteenth century.  Whittle
employs a number of techniques to follow these trends, including
"reconstructed inheritance strategies" (p. 125) derived from her
databases.  Engrossment seems to have occurred, not by the actions
of a proto-capitalist peasantry, but by rises in the parcel-size of
land exchanges.  A frequent criticism of such peasant-society
studies as these is that they are bleached of humanity, individual
experience being viewed as mere source-mined anecdote.  But, there
are several cameos here which entice and exemplify, including the
inheritance experience of the Mollet family between the 1480s and
the 1560s which demonstrates the process of engrossment, the fall of
Edmund Bishop, the manor's principal mortgagee in the 1480s, later
described as an over-committed speculator, and the enterprising
career of the four-times married and widowed Avice Pye.  Some
communities prove elusive.  Between 20 per cent and 40 per cent of
those who appear in the parish register of Marsham do not appear to
have held land, but conventional sources on the poor such as
taxation returns, when compared against reconstructed life cycles,
reveal those listed to have often been young landless men rather
than the lumpen poor. By statistical measure there were high levels
of relative poverty within a dense population in south Erpingham
hundred in the 1520s.

Pursuit of those communities which depended on non-landed incomes
relies heavily on materials from a much wider range of Norfolk
sources, often inventively deployed, but the author finds no
evidence that the nature of the hired workforce had changed greatly
between 1350 and 1580.  Nor does there seem to have been increased
proletarianization.  In Marsham at least wage labor seems to have
held to traditional patterns as a supplement to a smallholding
economy.  The attempt to follow the progress of labor legislation
from its mid-fourteenth-century origins to sixteenth-century petty
sessions records, which are unusually full and informative for
Norfolk, is one example of the many ways in which the writer adds
value to her study by crossing a traditional historiographical

Hevingham illustrates the impact of customary tenures exposed to a
free market in land.  The results, engrossment and landlessness,
Whittle concludes, were neither the result of population growth nor
insecure tenure.  Rather, it was the "grasping tenant" (p. 307),
active in a historically free market in land, who helped reduce the
supply of land available to the poor.  It was also the existence of
an active peasant land market from the fourteenth century and
earlier, rather than lordly intervention, which aided engrossment
and social differentiation.  The distinctive English path, so far as
it is exemplified in this case study, owed much to a light system of
taxation, both by the state and by a decaying regime of manorial

The book's approach and style is heavily theoretical and
statistical; data sets derived from court rolls and other sources
are ground small, small, small.  Since contributors to the debate
are also fond of mutal recrimination about each other's theoretical
unsophistication or naïve use of data, the book is also threaded
with lengthy discussions of methodology and historiography.  All of
this makes for a pretty challenging read. Aware of the dangers of
percentage blindness and definition dizziness in her readers,
Whittle maintains a commendable hold on both her arguments and the
evidence which she elucidates.  There are separate thematic
introductions, interim summaries, and straightforward conclusions to
each section.  The unsophisticated reader (and reviewer) is seldom
lost and the book in fact provides an excellent guide, not merely to
its own theme but to the ways in which real research can be done on
the big questions.  In smaller doses readers at many levels will
find particular sections on the use of wills and taxation records,
on the perils of calculating population growth and wage rates, and
how to reconstruct inheritance strategies of considerable utility. 
Of like interest are some distinctive record types, including a run
of some 140 payment and mortgage agreements in court rolls from the
1480s to the 1550s which allow changes in land prices to be
followed, and the "unique" enforcement of labour regulations in
Norfolk quarter sessions.  Much good use is made of a 1566 petty
sessions list which records employers and their servants in Marsham
(although it actually survives in a rough court book of the manor).

But, there are gaps.  Social and economic historians are
inordinately fond of lists, running sources, and cadastral records
which allow the identification of trends.  Engrossment, it is
argued, begins to accelerate in the 1440s, but there is a gap in the
court rolls between 1461 and 1482, and 1559 and 1580.  Exciting
though the payment agreements are, they are uninstructive of trends. 
The writer is thus properly defensive about these and other problems
of statistical completeness and quality, although some aspects of
the discussion derive equally from the structural instability of all
models of economic change.  Some comparisons with neighboring manors
produce variations.  These are generally said to be "real
differences," as between Scottow and Marsham, or the product of
diversity, and sophistication in money dealings.  Hevingham is both
an appropriate model, but also a particular place amongst other
equally particular places with a messy historical record.  Whittle
seldom leaps across such gaps, although she ventures to suggest that
there must have been a link between the enforcement of labor
regulations in the early fifteenth century and the petty sessions of
the sixteenth.  The end of serfdom remains the significant
structural change of the later middle ages, the acceleration of
parliamentary enclosure that of the eighteenth and early nineteenth
centuries.  The development of agrarian capitalism, it is argued,
may have predated the first and reached its maturity after the
second, but its roots and course belong to the history of peasant
farming rather than lordship or demographics.

        Copyright (c) 2002 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits
        the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit,
        educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the
        author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and
        H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For other uses
        contact the Reviews editorial staff: hbooks@mail.h-net.msu.edu.

Louis Proyect
Marxism mailing list: http://www.marxmail.org

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