Saturday, December 1, 2012

Origins of English individualism

Did the end of the Middle Ages bring a rapid shift to individualism in English society? Or was something already going on beforehand?

For most of human history and prehistory, our lives were based on kinship—economically, socially and even spiritually. Kinship determined who provided whom with the basics of life: food, shelter, and clothing. And kinship decided whom we trusted and whom we didn’t, who was “us” and who was “them.”

That worldview lingers on in our language. We still talk about “family,” “brotherhood” and “nation” but these words have lost their original meanings. A nation, for instance, is no longer an ethnic community with a shared historical and cultural heritage. It’s now an administrative unit. The word itself has become more or less synonymous with “country.”

As for “family,” even that final holdout seems increasingly irrelevant.

One of my aunts died recently, and my brother phoned her sister to break the bad news. She appreciated the phone call but said it wasn’t necessary. She hadn’t seen her sister in decades! I first thought there had been a conflict between the two of them. But, no, they had merely lost touch with each other. Each had gone her own way.

Our modern kin-free society would have been unthinkable to our ancestors and still is to most people on this planet. Ours is a society where you should treat strangers as you would your own kith and kin. To act otherwise is to break the rules. 

How did this revolution come about? A long line of historians, going back to Marx and Weber, have argued that it all began in late medieval England. As summarized by Macfarlane (1978a), this view holds that England had previously been a kinship-based peasant society:

The basic element of society is not the individual, but the family, which acts as a unit of ownership, production and consumption. Parents and children are also co-owners and co-workers. The separation between the household and the economy which Weber thought to be a pre-requisite for the growth of capitalism has not occurred. For our purposes, the central feature is that ownership is not individualized. It was not the single individual who exclusively owned the productive resources, but rather the household.

[…] In this situation, farm labor is family labor. Hired labor is almost totally absent. Production is mainly for use, rather than for exchange in the market. Cash is only occasionally used within the local community. Land is not viewed as a commodity which can be easily bought and sold. There is a strong emotional identification with a particular geographical area.

Then, very quickly, kinship became much less central to English life:

[…] this totally different social and economic system was destroyed, above all in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, by a number of factors. Some lay stress on the expropriation of the peasantry, who then became a landless laboring force, others suggest that the growth of world trade and markets, encouraging the use of cash, severed the old face-to-face relationships. Others again stress the rise of a new acquisitive ethic which paralleled the rise of protestantism.

Whatever the cause, the basics of life were no longer being produced, exchanged, and consumed primarily among close kin. Markets had largely taken over this task. And they were no longer just marketplaces—discrete points of activity localized in space and time. These scattered points were growing and coalescing to form a true market economy. A web of production, exchange, and consumption was developing between people who were neither kith nor kin and, often, strangers to each other.

This view is challenged, however, by Alan Macfarlane in his book The Origins of English Individualism. He agrees that the end of the Middle Ages brought momentous changes to England—the expansion of the market economy, the rise of parliamentary government, the beginnings of the scientific revolution, the advent of Protestantism, and the establishment of a colonial empire—but these were consequences, and not causes, of a mindset that had been developing for some time. As early as the 13th century, individualism was already trumping kinship in England:

Recent work on thirteenth century manorial documents has uncovered a very extensive land market from at least the middle of the thirteenth century. There is rapidly accumulating evidence of the buying and selling of pieces of land by non-kin; the idea that land passed down in the family is now increasingly regarded as a fiction. Whether in Suffolk, Huntingdonshire, the Eastern Midlands, Berkshire or elsewhere, the evidence suggests that the supposedly free and the unfree were buying and selling land.

[…] It appears probable that in many areas of England in the period before the Black Death up to half of the adult population were primarily hired laborers. It was not parents and children who formed the basic unit of production, but parents with or without hired labor. This was only made possible by the widespread use of money. The work of Kosminsky and Postan has shown that commutation of labor services for cash was widespread by the middle of the twelfth century. Cash penetrated almost every relationship; selling, mortgaging and lending are apparent in many of the documents. Most objects, from labor to rights in all kinds of property, were marketable and had a price. Production was often for exchange rather than for use. (Macfarlane, 1978a)

Today, the consensus seems to be that Macfarlane is half-right. In the Middle Ages, England had already gone further toward social atomization than the rest of Europe. But loyalty to family—in the sense of lineage—still reigned supreme well into the post-medieval period. A study of an Essex manor between 1550 and 1750 found that most land holdings were still being passed down within the family:

In any one decade, around 63 per cent of the area of the copyhold land of the manor passed through the court. Of this about two-thirds was land conveyed within the family and a third by extra-familial transaction. As we found at Slaidburn, extra-familial transactions were, on average, of smaller units of land. Whilst 57 per cent of transactions over the 200 years were familial, they conveyed 67 per cent of the land. (French & Hoyle, 2003)

English individualism seems to have developed gradually over a lengthy time span that began long before the end of the Middle Ages and continued long after. In particular, it was not a product of major events like the Black Death or the break with Roman Catholicism. It was instead driven by rather subtle behavioral and attitudinal changes that have eluded standard historical analysis.

In this, Alan Macfarlane is on the same page as Gregory Clark (2007; 2009a; 2009b), who argues that historical change in England was fueled by incremental changes in behavior and attitude from one generation to the next, which in turn reflected an incremental process of demographic, cultural, and even genetic change.

This process began with the imposition of Norman rule in the 11th century. England became a unified, pacified country and would remain so for the next millennium to a greater extent than elsewhere. This pacification extended to the local level, with the State now enforcing court rulings (previously the job of the aggrieved party and his kin). The violent young male went from hero to zero, his place now taken by the law-abiding man who bettered himself not through plunder but through work and trade. This was particularly so within the nascent middle class, whose descendants steadily grew in number and replaced the lower classes through downward mobility. Their class values—thrift, foresight, self-control, and sobriety—eventually became national values.

Meanwhile, the State and the market economy were increasingly taking the place of close kin. People looked to the State for protection, and the State could provide it much more effectively and over a larger land area than blood relations ever could have. This freer environment also enabled the market economy to expand out of the marketplace and into every nook and cranny of society. People were no longer confined to dealing with close kin or long-time friends. They could trust total strangers. Blood relations thus became of minor importance, even obsolete.

Macfarlane is less willing than Clark to dwell on initial causes: “Where this [behavioral] structure came from and hence its causes are problems for further investigation.” But he does spell out some consequences of not seeing English history clearly:

[…] to draw parallels between England and currently developing Third World peasantries without realizing the enormous differences which flow not merely from a disparity in wealth, but in the social, political and psychological sphere, is a recipe for disaster. If most contemporary countries are trying to move from "peasantry" to "urban-industrial" within a generation, whereas England moved from non-industrial but largely "capitalist" to "urban-industrial" over a period of at least six hundred years, it will be obvious that the trauma and difficulties will not only be very different but probably far more intense. Furthermore, if such countries absorb any form of western industrial technology, they are not merely incorporating a physical or economic product, but a vast set of individualistic attitudes and rights, family structure, patterns of geographical and social mobility which are very old, very durable, and highly idiosyncratic. They therefore need to consider whether the costs in terms of the loneliness, insecurity and family tensions which are associated with the English structure outweigh the economic benefits. (Macfarlane, 1978a)


Clark, G. (2009a). The indicted and the wealthy: surnames, reproductive success, genetic selection and social class in pre-industrial England.
Clark, G. (2009b). The domestication of Man: The social implications of Darwin. ArtefaCTos 2(1): 64-80. 

Clark, G. (2007). A Farewell to Alms. A Brief Economic History of the World. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.

French, H.R. & R.W. Hoyle. (2003). English Individualism refuted – and reasserted: the land market of Earls Colne (Essex), 1550-1750, The Economic History Review, 56, 595–622.

Macfarlane, A. (1978a). The origins of English individualism: Some surprises, Theory and society: renewal and critique in social theory, 6, 255-277.

Macfarlane, A. (1978b). The Origins of English Individualism: The Family, Property and Social Transition, Oxford: Blackwell


Anonymous said...

In the Middle Ages, England had already gone further toward social atomization than the rest of Europe. But loyalty to family—in the sense of lineage—still reigned supreme well into the post-medieval period. A study of an Essex manor between 1550 and 1750 found that most land holdings were still being passed down within the family:

The English land clearances would have quite literally deracinated the yeomen, cutting them off from the land and kin. The landlords who were able to centralize property and land would have been secure and in a better position to look after their families and lineages.

Anonymous said...


"Much as King Henry VIII would have liked to keep their vast estates in his own hands, he was unable to do so. To the powerful and unscrupulous there was offered such an opportunity of getting rich quickly as had never been offered since the Conqueror parcelled out the manors of England among his Norman followers, if then. A mighty scramble took place. Nearly all the monastic lands fell into the hands of private owners, men of the type least likely to allow humanitarian scruples to hinder them in the pursuit of wealth.

Whatever the Tudor agrarian code did for the rural labourer and the peasant it did not alter the main result of the agrarian revolution. That revolution enormously increased the wealth of the landed aristocracy. It altered the distribution of the wealth won from the soil in such a way that the cultivator received a relatively much smaller share, and the rent-receiver a much larger share; while the personal services rendered by the latter to the State disappeared, and the taxation paid by him became relatively trifling."

Beyond Anon said...

Genetics rules

sykes.1 said...

hbd chick has a large number of postings on how marriage patterns influence social structure. Her main point is that English (northwestern European) social structure, in particular the nuclear family, is due to suppression of cousin marriage by the Catholic Church.

Cousin marriage, in particular men marrying an uncle's daughter is the standard in the Arab world.

Sean said...

Going by what she says about Highland clans, I'm afraid that HBD Chic is confusing the consanguineous practices of the aristocracy (rivals to Church power and hence targets of the Church which prevented aristocratic families from consolidating their influence by a church prohibition on consanguinity) with the mass of the people. HERE.

I don't know about tracing pacification to the Norman Conquest , sure they introduced a careful accounting of the county's wealth, but they didn't create it. The Year 1000: What Life Was Like at the Turn of the First Millennium says that in the year 1000 10% of people lived in towns, and that England was already the most commercially sophisticated country in northern Europe, paying for luxury imports by exporting earnings from wool as it had been doing for hundreds of years. The Saxons payed a hundred tonnes of silver in Dangeld MacFarlane says that East Anglia was famous as a center of the wool industry. here

According to TY1000 at 12 years old every Saxon male had to swear an fealty oath ('frank pledge') to obey his local lord "without disputation or dissension, openly or in secret, discountenancing what he discountenances and countenancing what he countenances." Part of the oath said that "no one shall conceal a breach of [the oath] on the part of a brother or family relative, and more than in a stranger"

Gregory Clark says that East Anglia was the most economically advanced part of England (cloth production) by a long way. HERE.

So Saxon (ethnic Danes with low2d:4d) England was already well down the road to pacification. Personally I think that Danish ancestry gave Enga-londe a head start. And heavily Danish east Anglia benefited accordingly.

Anonymous said...

The Year 1000: What Life Was Like at the Turn of the First Millennium says that in the year 1000 10% of people lived in towns, and that England was already the most commercially sophisticated country in northern Europe

I wonder what the definition of Northern Europe is here.

More commercially sophisticated than the savage Danes, Ireland, the other Scando-wegie countries, the heathen Finn and the great mass of the Balto-Slav lands, yes (and I'll even allow Germany, perhaps).

More commercially sophisticated than the Low Countries and the contemporary Novgorod Republic? To me it seems unlikely.

hbd chick said...

@sean - "I'm afraid that HBD Chic [sic] is confusing the consanguineous practices of the aristocracy (rivals to Church power and hence targets of the Church which prevented aristocratic families from consolidating their influence by a church prohibition on consanguinity) with the mass of the people."

no, this is incorrect (as i've already mentioned to you). please see jack goody's The Development of the Family and Marriage in Europe for starters. and, for one more specific example (there are many more in addition), giorgio ausenda's "Kinship and marriage among the Visigoths."

Mitchell said...

Didn't read... but I believe Mitchell Heisman has ideas on this topic.

Sean said...

Rejoinder to hbd chick

Anonymous said...

Well, Japan jumped from the middle ages to modernity in a short period of time. Also think about the more recent Asian phenomena of Singapore and China.

Chris Crawford said...

You might want to read Chapter 16 of Francis Fukuyama's "The Origins of Political Order". He comes at the topic from a different angle. His primary concern is with the struggle that all states had in preventing kinship considerations from undermining the state.

The Chinese resorted to a massive bureaucracy relying on standard tests for admission; this reduced the ability of individuals to twist state power to their kin's benefit, but failed to eliminate the problem.

The Islamic Egyptian state came up with the Mamluks, an army of slaves devoid of kin. That worked for a while, but eventually the state was taken over by the Mamluks, and restrictions against marriage were relaxed, resulting in the collapse of the system.

The Ottomans used a similar system, enforced more rigorously, and it worked well for several centuries, but again, the strictures against marriage eroded and again kinship favoritism sucked the energy out of the state.

Fukuyama attributes the European shift to the Church, which for economic reasons forbade a number of practices that tended to keep land within the family. In particular, the Church pushed the right of women to own land. The upshot of these policies was the donation of large amounts of land to the Church upon the deaths of landowners with no close kin.

This process started with the conversion of the Germanic tribes to Christianity; by the time of Charlemagne, the Church already owned vast tracts of land.

Fukuyama discusses a variety of other social mechanisms at work; again, I recommend you consult his book for a fuller appreciation of what strikes me as a well-developed analysis.

Davani said...

I commented on this post in my new blog.

The thing that puzzles me is that the wish to return to traditional values, such as stronger family ties (expressed here and in other HBD blogs) actually conflicts with the Anglo-Saxon DNA which has led to the world in which we find ourselves today.

If we regret diversity, individualism, and multiculturalism, these things didn't happen by accident. They happened because they were *encouraged* by the Anglo-Saxon genetic pool where they had a chance to occur. Regretting the rise of democracy (and hence feminism), of market economies (and hence immigration), is like regretting the Anglo-Saxon DNA, in my opinion.

Luke Lea said...

No credit to Hbd*chick?

Sean said...

The Normans pauperized the English population, they don't deserve the credit.

What was it that overturned the powerful established kinship- based society? According to Kevin MacDonald it was romantic love. “The idealization of romantic love as the basis of monogamous marriage has also periodically characterized Western secular intellectual movements, such as the Stoics of late antiquity “.

Alan Macfarlane: LOVE AND CAPITALISM "Indeed, it is difficult to imagine how western civilization, and consequently the world as it is, could have developed without the ideology and practice of romantic love. If love can exist without capitalism, it is more questionable as to whether capitalism could have existed, or could continue to exist, without love.”

Why are tender emotions felt by European men ? Because of sexual selection in the Ice Age. Surely there must have been an inherent tendency toward marriage based on personal attraction for Europeans to de-emphasize kinship and move to personal attraction as the basis for marriage. In kinship based societies consanguinity rather than personal choice is stressed. Europe was once like that. But an established kinship based marriage system was overcome in Europe.

The Church was important, but its ideas took root because they were conducive to a pre-existing genetic tendency to romantic love in Europeans, especially among north Europeans such as the Saxons.

Ian R said...

Not sure about all of Macfarlane's conclusions, but it's good to see someone at least acknowledging that there is such a thing as an English culture and that is has features which are worth appreciating.