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23.08.06 Larson, Rethinking the Great Transition

23.08.06 Larson, Rethinking the Great Transition

This book challenges the standard model devised by economic historians to chart the changeover from “feudal” farming to “modern” farming for profit; the end of small fragmented peasant holdings with open fields and labour services to lords, to enclosure by lords, wage labour and larger commercial enterprises. Larson has already studied peasants and lords in the Durham area in a previous book of 2006 and is not aiming to retrace his steps. Here he covers the wider timescale to suggest that in various ways Durham does not fit the pattern of “the Agricultural Revolution,” not because it was backward and remained “feudal” much longer but because, though its agricultural practice changed, it did so by evolution and without the kinds of conflict which marked some other areas. He argues that one can see the various agricultural changes occurring piecemeal, with “modern” and “medieval” systems continuing in the same areas at the same time.

Though the title might suggest that the whole of Durham is the subject, the author points out that at the heart of the book is a study of two parishes, Bishop Middleham and Sedgefield, involving three villages; the third village, Cornforth, was in the parish of Bishop Middleham. They were part of the estate of the bishop of Durham. Throughout he compares and contrasts developments here with their counterparts in the lands of the Dean and Chapter of Durham and also with many studies of developments elsewhere in England.

The main thrust of the argument is that even before the Black Death Durham’s farming contained many of the ingredients which the standard model suggests should have led to the Agricultural Revolution as understood elsewhere, yet it did not. Farms increased in size, copyhold and leasehold were secure very early, prosperous peasant farmers were remarkably free and their communities were strong. In the sixteenth century population rose. Rents were low on the episcopal estate and the coal trade was increasing so there could have been the incentives to “modernise” by enclosures and dispossession of peasant farmers traced elsewhere. What actually happened was very different.

There was no violent disruption. In fact, Larson presents considerable stability of landholding by large tenant farmers. In the villages there was a strong tendency to keep the names of holdings, even when one famer held two of them. Custom continued to play a large part in a strong village life. The same tenant families continued to farm in the same area over several generations taking over from father to son, or sometimes from widow to son (widow right is discussed in an interesting section). The families did not always continue with the same holdings but there was a tendency to stay in the area.

The suggestion is that farming certainly became more productive and was certainly commercial as can be seen by the author’s careful analysis of the possessions of the livestock and consumer goods of these prosperous peasants/yeomen. He points out also, however, that many tenants seem to have been content to hold a larger farm of “ideal size” without trying to expand further. He discusses the evidence for increasing building of cottages without a holding, which suggests that some of the growing population was being employed on these larger farms. Of course, it is not possible to discover how far the population increased, but clearly it did grow.

For the non-specialist reader there are interesting surveys of the ways in which, apart from farming, money could be made by these villagers. Linen, wool, lime, leather, brewing, and smithing are all discussed briefly. The author also considers the effect on the villages of the two most disruptive episodes in the local history of the period in question: the Reformation and the Civil War. Land-holding on the bishopric estates might have been affected by the 1569 Northern Rising, but in practice only gentlemen lost lands as a result. In the villages conformity prevailed. During the Civil War, Roman Catholics lost lands but Larson considers that the status quo was restored after 1660. This is not an in-depth discussion of these events but it relies on a very good understanding of the evidence for these villages. It is clear that Catholicism did not disappear but that it largely went underground or relied on local respectability. He discusses the market in sequestered lands during the Civil War and the raising of mortgages to finance some transactions. Again, this is not an in-depth discussion but reveals that much of the raising of mortgages seems to have been for buying extra property, not because of debts.

The important points arising from this study are that the prosperity of the villages relied on agriculture and not on their industry. Coal-mining did not come to this part of Durham until the nineteenth century. Coal was expanding in the North in the seventeenth century and Newcastle was booming already but the areas studied here did not share in that kind of development. They also contained a growing poor and landless population. It would appear that the bishops were more concerned with stability than with change and that the slowly changing systems suited the upper peasants better than revolutionary capitalism.

This is a very well-researched book based firmly in the author’s extensive research into the local Durham archives as well as offering a good account of the many and varied studies of the model he is questioning. It will be of interest to economic history specialists but could also benefit interested undergraduates prepared to tackle some very technical discussions. It is supplied with ample maps, figures and diagrams with a comprehensive bibliography and a somewhat sparse index.