Intellectual history Think Piece

A Very English Story: The Transition between Feudalism and Capitalism in Merrie Olde Englande

by guest contributor Julián González de León

By Julián González de León

This is a story of how the tale of capitalism has been told, and, more specifically, how the narrative of a transition from a feudal mode of production into a capitalist one was forged; it is not an inquiry into the origins of capitalism, nor is it about its nature. While the history of how capitalism began may or may not be global, the history of how the narrative of transition was created was a very English story, until it turned German via the Scots, as this piece demonstrates below. Behind this narrative lies a theoretical presupposition in the form of a false dichotomy—and this will be a Derridean argument: we think of capitalism as a negation of feudalism and vice versa. In other words, feudalism and capitalism are theoretical constructs to describe opposed socioeconomic systems. The specifics of this opposition have varied, but the dichotomy between both remains constant. Therefore, the narrative of the origins of capitalism has to take the form of a transition out of feudalism.

This think piece argues that some Englishmen, at some point in time, introduced the idea that there was a feudal system that transitioned into a capitalist system. Subsequently, in the nineteenth century, and mostly in dialogue with Scottish political economists like Adam Smith or James Steuart, Karl Marx transformed this idea into a whole theory and a coherent narrative. After Marx, every study about the origins of capitalism takes for granted this narrative framework of a transition, whether they ground the analysis on Smith’s political economy or Marx’s critique. Marx is also my point of departure, but instead of going forward in time, I will trace back the trajectory of the story of this transition until I find the answer to the questions of “when did it emerge?” and, maybe, “who introduced it?”

Karl Marx’s Story

Debates about the origins of capitalism that take Marx’s analysis as their starting point vary heavily in perspective, mainly because Marx himself traced multiple interconnected processes thematically rather than chronologically. As a result, scholars tend to focus on the specifics of each process, rather than how these processes were historically interconnected. To clarify this connection, I will first rearrange Marx’s narrative chronologically, as a medieval chronicler under a feudal regime would do.

The umbrella term that Marx used for the genesis of the capitalist mode of production is the “Primitive Accumulation” (Ursprüngliche Akkumulation). The core of the whole process, according to Marx in Capital vol. I, was “[t]he expropriation of the agricultural producer, of the peasant, from the soil” something that “[o]nly in England” happened in “the classic form” (787). It is not that the “Primitive Accumulation” was an English phenomenon but, if we believe Marx, its basis was. This expropriation, done through privatization of land, explains the formation of two social classes, the first being the landed capitalist. By transforming the common lands into capital, this class shifted the purpose and nature of production: a single owner could now alienate reserved land for the subsistence of a whole village with the explicit purpose of accumulating capital. The second social class, the proletariat—the center of Marx’s narrative—constituted the peasants, whose access to common lands was restricted through state-supported enclosure, which Marx described as a “fraudulent alienation,” (805) a quiet confiscation of the “legally guaranteed property of the poorer folk” (793) done through the “disgraceful action of the state” (814). It was due to these enclosures that the peasants were forced to migrate to the cities in search for waged labor.

Marx’s master narrative, again, was the socio-economical history of England. While he traced back the beginnings of the transition to the fourteenth century, “the capitalist era,” he states, “dates from the 16th century” (787). Not only did this expropriation gain momentum with the Tudors and the Reformation, but it also began to involve yet another social class: the industrial capitalist. On the one hand, the landless peasants who migrated to the cities constituted the masses of waged laborers necessary to transform small-scale manufacturing into large-scale industry, and with this “[t]he chevaliers d’industrie” supplanted “the chevaliers of the sword” (787). On the other hand, only this new industrial capital, mounted on the “usurer’s capital and merchant’s capital” (559), was able to respond to “the commercial requirements of the new world market” (822). Here Marx is referring to “[t]he discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginnings of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black skins” (823) This second source of Primitive Accumulation was, therefore, trans-societal, involving multiple European empires as well as the peoples they exploited. Nevertheless, Marx pivots his focal point back to England, where “[t]he different moments of primitive accumulation…at the end of the 17th century…arrive at a systematical combination” (823).

In Search for the “Emergence” of this Story

Marx’s analysis has a particular rhetorical function. He argues that violence carried this overarching process, and so challenged Smith’s idyllic narrative of the “previous accumulation…preceding capitalistic accumulation” (784). Therefore, Marx agrees with Smith’s conceptualization of a period of transition that explained the break-through of the capitalist mode of production; he only critiqued the aesthetics of Smith’s narrative. For Marx, the transition had to be told as a tragic story, while for Smith, it was an uplifting story that allowed the formation of a system based on a division of labor made possible by wages, and therefore, private property. In The Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776), Smith refers to this period of transition as the “accumulation of stock” (327) through the introduction of gold and silver from America, the expansion of the market, and the fall of the feudal system (300).

In the case of England, the protection of private property over land by English common law, beginning with Henry VII (1485–1509), which allowed a steady increase of agricultural production and labor power, was the precondition for the interconnectedness of these three phenomena. Smith’s political agenda—he made no effort to hide it—was not only to push against mercantilist policies and laws, but to advance the restriction of entails. These were a legal restraint of land alienation, which Smith regarded as anachronical and hindering the enhancement of agricultural production for the market. Entails, therefore, end up being framed as vestiges of an “early and rude state of society which precedes both the accumulation of stock and the appropriation of land” (36). Unlike Marx, Smith does not create a clear dichotomy between feudal and capitalist modes of production, but pre- and post-accumulation of stock, the precondition for the division of labor (328).

Smith was not alone in thinking about this dichotomy during the second half of the eighteenth century. James Steuart, against whom Smith wrote (although not openly), framed this dichotomy, in his Inquiry into the Principles of Political Economy (1767), as a transition from a “feudal and military” into a “free and commercial” society that began with “the discovery of America and the Indies” (10). Their fellow Scot, David Hume, agreed with this assertion, but, in the third volume of The History of England (1759), he traced the beginning of the transition to Henry VII, who passed a law “by which the nobility and gentry acquired a power of breaking the ancient entails, and of alienating their estates” (72). Hume framed this as part of Henry’s political strategy against the high nobility, an idea that the English Tory MP and judge William Blackstone shared (118). All these people regarded the feudal system of land property as oppressive and outdated. Blackstone, in the second volume of The Commentaries of the Laws of England (1766), even characterized it as “the fiction of the feudal tenure” imposed by the Norman Crown to subject the English (52). By doing this, he framed English common law as the tool through which the English could preserve their liberties. In terms of regimens of tenure, this is reflected by the principle of alienation, which, as Blackstone argues, worn off “feudal severity” (288). He then explains that “experience had shown, that property best answers the purposes of civil life, especially in commercial countries, when its transfer, and circulation are totally free and unrestrained” (288).

Blackstone insisted elsewhere on this contradiction between “the fiction of the feudal tenure” and commerce, specifically regarding the perpetuity (or inalienability) of estates. As he explained, “by perpetuities…estates are made incapable of answering those ends, of social commerce, and providing for the sudden contingencies of private life, for which property was at first established” (174). This is a reference to the resolution and echoes the language of the “Norfolk’s Case” of 1677, also known as “The Rule Against Perpetuities.”

In his report of the “Norfolk’s Case, John Browne, the Clerk of the Parliament, states that regarding entails (or fees tail), they “do fight against God…and they are against the Reason and the policy of the Law, and therefore not to be endured” (6). In contrast, regarding Freehold-Estates (or fees simple), he explained, citing a resolution from the reign of Henry VIII (1509-1547), that they follow “the nature of things, and the necessity of commerce between Man and Man” (7). Here exists another version of the same dichotomy, this one between fee tail, or inalienable property held in perpetuity in exchange of feudal services, and fee simple, or alienable property held privately. While the first is regarded as unreasonable and unnatural, the second follows the nature of things. Most importantly, the fee simple is described as oriented towards a market economy. This is the privatization of land Marx told us about, and which he found as the origin of the Primitive Accumulation.

In the introduction, I set forth the purpose of finding when the dichotomy between feudalism and capitalism had emerged and who was the first to think in these terms. To some extent I failed, for this dichotomy was not introduced in the 1677 Norfolk’s Case. However, with this case, it becomes clear that the dichotomy was not an intellectual construction made by an individual in hindsight. As such, the story of how this dichotomy between a feudal form of production and a capitalist one was first conceptualized cannot be told simply as an idea transmitted by a chain of intellectuals.

Before intellectuals (who, and this is extremely important to keep in mind, also had very explicit agendas regarding the privatization of land) began talking about this dichotomy, it existed in a legal space, introduced by people with specific interests. While their arguments, framing feudal property as being unreasonable and antithetical to commerce, could be true or false, they were put forward to create a legal space for private property to exist and slowly replace previous regimes of land property. It is, therefore, methodologically absurd to use a dichotomy used in the legal battles for land property in England, which was uncritically adapted to think about economic systems and given a historical narrative, as a framework to analyze socioeconomic transformations. This is true for every non-English society as it is for England itself. While Norfolk’s Case took place in 1677, the legal battle for property regimes takes us back to, at least, the twelfth century and the aftermath of the Norman conquest. It is, thus, another very English story yet to be told.

Julián González de León obtained his PhD in History in 2022 from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He specialized in Early Modern Europe and subspecialized in Historical Anthropology, Global Early Modern Studies, and Critical Theory. His work centers on the role of narratives in the formation of imperial structures of power.

Edited by Tamara Maatouk.

Featured Image: Arundel Castle and Town in 1644, property of the Dukes of Norfolk

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