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but the following observations may tend a little to illustrate our immediate subject, the gradual extinction of villainage.
If we take what may be considered as the simplest case, that of a manor divided into demesne lands of the lord's occupation, and those in the tenure of his villains, performing all the services of agriculture for him, it is obvious that his interest was to maintain just so many of these as his estate required for its cultivation. Land, the cheapest of articles, was the price of their labor; and though the law did not compel him to pay this or any other price, yet neces. sity, repairing in some degree the law's injustice, made those pretty secure of food and dwelling, who were to give the strength of their arms for his advantage. But in course of time, as alienations of small parcels of manors to free tenants came to prevail, the proprietors of land were placed in a new situation relatively to its cultivators. The tenements in villainage, whether by law or usage, were never separated from the lordship, while its demain was reduced to a smaller extent, through subinfeudations, sales, or demises for valuable rent. The purchasers under these alienations had occasion for laborers; and these would be free servants in respect of such employers, though in villainage to their original lord. As he demanded less of their labor, through the diminution of his domain, they had more to spare for other masters; and, retaining the character of villains and the lands they held by that tenure, became hired laborers in husbandry for the greater part of the year. It is true that all their earnings were at the lord's disposal, and that he might have made a profit of their labor, when he ceased to require it for his own land. But this, which the rapacity of more commercial times would have instantly suggested, might escape a feudal superior, who, wealthy beyond his wants, and guarded by the haughtiness of ancestry against the desire of such pitiful gains, was better pleased to win the affection of his dependants, than to improve his fortune at their expense.
The services of villainage were gradually rendered less onerous and uncertain. Those of husbandry indeed are naturally uniform, and might be anticipated with no small exactness. Lords of generous tempers granted indulgences which were either intended to be or readily became perpetual. And thus, in the time of Edward I.,
we find the tenants in some manors bound only to stated services as recorded in the lord's book. Some of these perhaps might be villains by blood; but free tenants in villainage were much more likely to retain this precision in their services; and from claiming a customary right to be entered in the court-roll upon the same terms as their predecessors, prevailed at length to get copies of it for their security. Proofs of this remarkable transformation from tenants in villainage to copyholders are found in the reign of Henry III. I do not know however that they were protected at so early an epoch in the possession of their estates. But it is said in the year book of the 42d of Edward III. to be “admitted for clear law, that if the customary tenant or copybolder does not perform his services, the lord may seize his land as forfeited.” It seems implied herein that so long as the copyholder did continue to perform the regular stipulations of his tenure, the lord was not at liberty to divest him of his estate ; and this is said to be confirmed by a passage in Britton, which has escaped my search; though Littleton intimates that copyholders could have no remedy against their lords. However, in the reign of Edward IV. this was put out of doubt by the judges, who permitted the copyholder to bring his action of trespass against the lord for dispossession.
While some of the more fortunate villains crept up into property as well as freedom under the copyholders, the greater part enfranchised themselves in a different manner. The law which treated them so harshly, did not take away the means of escape ; nor was this a matter of difficulty in such a country as England. To this, indeed, the unequal progression of agriculture and population in different counties would have naturally contributed. Men emigrated, as they always must, in search of cheapness or employment, according to the tide of human necessities. But the villain who had no additional motive to urge his steps away from his native place, might well hope to be forgotten or undiscovered when he breathed a freer air, and engaged his voluntary labor to a distant master. The lord had indeed an action against him; but there was so little communication between remote parts of the country, that it might be deemed his fault or singular ill fortune if he were compelled to defend himself. Even in that case the law inclined to favor him; and so many obstacles were thrown in the way of these suits to reclaim fugitive villains, that they could not have operated materially to retard their general enfranchisement. In one case, indeed, that of unmolested residence for a year and a day within a walled city or borough, the villain became free, and the lord was absolutely barred of his remedy. This provision is contained even in the laws of William the Conqueror, as contained in Hoveden, and, if it be not an interpolation, may be supposed to have had a view to strengthen the population of those places which were designed for garrisons. This law, whether of Williamı or not, is unequivocally mentioned by Glanvil. Nor was it a mere letter. According to a record in the sixth of Edward II., Sir John Clavering sued eighteen villains of his manor of Cossey, for withdrawing themselves therefrom with their chattels; whereupon a writ was directed to them; but six of the number claimed to be freemen, alleging the Conqueror's charter, and offering to prove that they had lived in Norwich, paying scot and lot, about thirty years; which claim was admitted.
By such means a large proportion of the peasantry before the middle of the fourteenth century had become hired laborers instead of villains. We first hear of them on a grand scale, in an ordinance made by Edward III., in the twenty-third year of his reign. This was just after the dreadful pestilence of 1348, and it recites that, the number of workmen and servants having been greatly reduced by that calamity, the remainder demanded excessive wages from their employers. Such an enhancement in the price of labor, though founded exactly on the same principles as regulate the value of any other commodity, is too frequently treated as a sort of crime by lawgivers, who seem to grudge the poor that transient melioration of their lot, which the progress of population, or other analogous circumstances, will, without any interference, very rapidly take away. This ordinance therefore exacts that every man in England, of whatever condition, bond or free, of able body, and within sixty years of age, not living of his own nor by any
trade, shall be obliged, when required, to serve any master who is willing to hire him at such wages as were usually paid three years since, or for some time preceding; provided that the lords of villains or tenants in villainage shall have the preference of their labor, so that they retain no more than shall be necessary for them. More than these old wages is strictly forbidden to be offered, as well as demanded. No one is permitted, under color of charity, to give alms to a beggar. And to make some compensation to the inferior classes for these severities a clause is inserted, as wise, just and practicable as the rest, for the sale of provisions at reasorable prices.
This ordinance met with so little regard that a statute was made in Parliament two years after, fixing the wages of all artificers and husbandmen, with regard to the nature and season of their labor. From this time it became a frequent complaint of the commons that the statute of laborers was not kept. The king had in this case probably no other reason for leaving their grievances unredressed than his inability to change the order of Providence. A silent alteration had been wrought in the condition and character of the lower classes during the reign of Edward III. This was the effect of increased knowledge and refinement, which had been making a considerable progress for full half a century, though they did not readily permeate the cold region of poverty and igno.
It was natural that the country people, or uplandish folk, as they were called, should repine at the exclusion from that enjoyment of competence, and security for the fruits of their labor, which the inhabitants of towns so fully possessed. The fourteenth century was in many parts of Europe the age when a sense of political servitude was most keenly felt. Thus the insurrection of the Jacquerie in France, about the year 1358, had the same character, and resulted in a great measure from the same causes as that of the English peasants in 1382. And we may account in a similar manner for the democratical tone of the French and Flemish cities, and for the prevalence of a spirit of liberty in Germany and Switzerland.
I do not know whether we should attribute part of this revolutionary concussion to the preaching of Wickliffe's disciples, or look upon both one and the other as phenomena belonging to that particular epoch in the progress of society. New principles, both as to civil rule and religion, broke suddenly upon the uneducated mind, to render it bold, presumptuous and turbulent. But at least I make little doubt, that the dislike of ecclesiastical power, which spread so rapidly among the people at this season, connected itself with a spirit of insubordination and an intolerance of political subjection. Both were nourished by the same teachers, the lower secular clergy; and however distinct we may think a religious reformation from a civil anarchy, there was a good deal common in the language by which the populace were inflamed to either one or the other. Even the scriptural moralities which were then exhibited, and which became the foundation of our theatre, afforded fuel to the spirit of sedition. The common original, and common destination of mankind, with every other lesson of equality which religion supplies to humble or to console, were displayed with coarse and glaring features in these representations. The familiarity of such ideas has deadened their effects upon our minds ; but when a rude peasant, surprisingly destitute of religious instruction during that corrupt age of the church, was led at once to these impressive truths, we cannot be astonished at the intoxication of mind they produced.
Though I believe that, compared at least with the aristocracy of other countries, the English lords were guilty of very little cruelty or injustice, yet there were circumstances belonging to that period which might tempt them to deal more hardly than before with their peasantry. The fourteenth century was an age of greater magnificence than those which had preceded, in dress, in ceremonies, in buildings; foreign luxuries were known enough to excite an eager demand among the higher ranks, and yet so scarce as to yield inordinate prices ; while the land-owners were on the other hand, impoverished by heavy and unceasing taxation. Hence it is probable that avarice, as commonly happens, had given birth to oppression; and if the gentry, as I am inclined to believe, had become more attentive to agricultural improvements, it is reasonable to conjecture that those whose tenure obliged them to unlimited services of husbandry were more harassed than under their wealthy and indolent masters in preceding times.
The storm that almost swept away all bulwarks of civilized and regular society seems to have been long in collecting itself. Perhaps a more sagacious legislature might have contrived to