Spent an hour yesterday trying to understand when the yeoman class disappeared in England

Hello friends, just came back from a trip to Los Angeles. Like all trips with toddlers it was very tiring. I have no idea what I am supposed to do today, but I haven’t done it. On the other hand, I spent an hour yesterday trying to research when exactly the yeoman class in England disappeared.

This is because I’m nearing the end of the first volume of Marx’s Capital, where he gets into the idea of where the original capital came from. How did the first manufacturers get their capital? And to this end he traces the history of wealth in England.

Now if you know England, you know they’re big into the concept of their yeomanry, which was their historical proto-middle-class. These were essentially small landholders who worked their own land. They were the backbone of the English army and of its identity and of its proto-democratic values.

But Marx was like, when the great landlords started enclosing the commons and kicking tenants off their estates so they could turn farm land into pasture land, that is when the yeomanry disappeared. And my question was, “How is that possible? If the yeomanry owned their own land, how could anyone kick them off of it?”

To this end, I did a lot of research, and in the process I found that there’s not an exact definition of what a yeoman is. What many people point to is the “forty shilling freeholder”, which is the person who was entitled to vote for representatives for the House of Commons. This requirement, enacted in 1440ish, limited the franchise to people who derived at least forty shillings a year of income from, essentially, rents. Although rents was widely defined. If you owned and worked land that would be worth forty shillings if rented out, that still counted, but you had to actually own the land. It had to belong to you by right, indefinitely–you couldn’t simply have a lease on it.

This is where the problem comes in. Many of the people commonly referred to as yeomen were not actually freeholders (i.e. they didn’t own their land outright, w/ no lord other than the king). Many were copyholders. These were people who farmed large plots of land on very long leases and who did not owe anything other than a cash rent on the land (i.e. they didn’t owe payment in service or in shares to their landlord). These people would not have been eligible to vote.

In practice, people often didn’t want to be eligible to vote, because people who met the property requirements for voting also met the requirements to serve on juries, which was a hassle.

The term “farmer” by the way, originally referred exclusively to people who rented land from a landlord in return for an annual payments. So a farmer could not be a forty shilling freeholder. But farmers were often very influential men in their communities. They employed labor, kept large houses, improved their properties, and exercised some influence over local affairs.

(This by the way is all separate from serfdom, which had largely died out by the 15th century, as most land w service obligations was converted to land where you only needed to pay a cash rent to the lord. However at roughly the same time, the poor laws were enacted, which made it VERY difficult to change the district where you resided, because your home district was responsible for taking care of you if you became poor, so in practice people were still unfree in that they couldn’t move from place to place in search of better wages and opportunities).

Anyway, to get back to enclosure, this process was disastrous for any form of leaseholder (except, sometimes, the largest farmers), because it entailed reducing an estate’s labor needs. You simply didn’t need tenants anymore, so you kicked them out (tenancy protections weren’t that strong in many parts of England). By walling off the commons, you also hurt small yeomen, because by this point in history a forty shilling freehold was relatively small (four acres or so would meet the requirement) and to make ends meet many freeholders also pastured animals in the commons. So walling off the commons made it difficult for them to make ends meets and resulted in them selling their land, which led to land consolidation.

But I also read an article saying the major decline in the yeoman class came in the years after the black death, when rural populations declined permanently, and that decline after 1750 wasn’t significant. But the article was also from 1910, so who knows.

Which is to say, colloquially, the term ‘yeoman’ referred to relatively well-off peasants (say, those who farmed more than thirty acres). Or what in Soviet Russia would’ve been called a kulak. But this class was divided into richer yeoman and poorer ones. The poorer ones were the ones Marx talked about who were destroyed by enclosure. The richer ones actually made lots of money and became, in Marx’s opinion, the foundation of the bourgeoisie.

Marx doesn’t care about the distinction between copyholders and freeholders, because he doesn’t see voting as a meaningful right, but many people colloquially called yeomen were actually copyholders, who simply leased lands on very long rents. These people actually had the potential to make a lot of money during the enclosure period bc their rents were fixed, there was general inflation, and the price of rural labor dropped. Thus, their obligations and costs decreased, while the price of their produce increased.

I’m just writing this blog post because I spent hours searching for this information last night and found it all over the place in bits and pieces. You know, for an economist that was at one point the basis for the economic system that governed half the world, Marx is kind of underexplained, at least in English. But I am sure someone else will try to google “Marx yeoman disappeared Capital” and will come across this entry and get some clarity.

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