The Law of Civilization and Decay.

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The Law of Civilization and Decay/Chapter IX

Like primitive Rome, England, during the Middle Ages, had an unusually homogeneous population of farmers, who made a remarkable infantry. Not that the cavalry was defective; on the contrary, from top to bottom of society, every man was a soldier, and the aristocracy had excellent fighting qualities. Many of the kings, like Cœur-de-Lion, Edward III., and Henry V., ranked among the ablest commanders of their day; the Black Prince has always been a hero of chivalry; and earls and barons could be named by the score who were famous in the Hundred Years' War.
Yet, although the English knights were a martial body, there is nothing to show that, on the whole, they surpassed the French. The English infantry won Crécy and Poitiers, and this infantry, which was long the terror of Europe, was recruited from among the small farmers who flourished in Great Britain until they were exterminated by the advance of civilization.
As long as the individual could at all withstand the attack of the centralized mass of society, England remained a hot-bed for breeding this species of man. A mediæval king had no means of collecting a regular revenue by taxation; he was only the chief of the free-men, and his estates were supposed to suffice for his expenditure. The revenue the land yielded consisted of men, not money, and to obtain men, the sovereign granted his domains to his nearest friends, who, in their turn, cut their manors into as many farms as possible, and each farmer paid his rent with his body.
A baron's strength lay in the band of spears which followed his banner, and therefore he subdivided his acres as much as possible, having no great need of money. Himself a farmer, he cultivated enough of his fief to supply his wants, to provide his table, and to furnish his castle, but, beyond this, all he kept to himself was loss. Under such a system money contracts played a small part, and economic competition was unknown.
The tenants were free-men, whose estates passed from father to son by a fixed tenure; no one could underbid them with their landlord, and no capitalist could ruin them by depressing wages, for the serfs formed the basis of society, and these serfs were likewise land-owners. In theory, the villains may have held at will; but in fact they were probably the descendants, or at least the representatives, of the coloni of the Empire, and a base tenure could be proved by the roll of the manorial court. Thus even the weakest were protected by custom, and there was no competition in the labour market.
The manor was the social unit, and, as the country was sparsely settled, waste spaces divided the manors from each other, and these wastes came to be considered as commons appurtenant to the domain in which the tenants of the manor had vested rights. The extent of these rights varied from generation to generation, but substantially they amounted to a privilege of pasture, fuel, or the like; aids which, though unimportant to large property owners, were vital when the margin of income was narrow.
During the old imaginative age, before centralization gathered headway, little inducement existed to pilfer these domains, since there was room in plenty, and the population increased slowly, if at all. The moment the form of competition changed, these conditions were reversed. Precisely when a money rent became a more potent force than armed men, may be hard to determine, but certainly that time had come when Henry VIII. mounted the throne, for then capitalistic farming was on the increase, and speculation in real estate already caused sharp distress. At that time the establishment of a police had destroyed the value of the retainer, and competitive rents had generally supplanted military tenures. Instead of tending to subdivide, as in an age of decentralization, land consolidated in the hands of the economically strong, and capitalists systematically enlarged their estates by enclosing the commons, and depriving the yeomen of their immemorial rights.

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