A HISTORY OF OUR EARLY AGRICULTURE AND PRICES.*
Tnose who are not content to repoae in the belief that the four- teenth century was a period only redeemed from uninteresting obscurity by two victories over the French, and by the accidental fact that Chaucer and Wickliffe lived in it, will welcome these volumes as a valuable addition to our knowledge. Professor Rogers is at some pains to let his readers know that he belongs to a school by no means disposed to exalt the Present at the expense of the Past, a school whose prophet found an Argument for dis- paraging the study of Greek literature in the fact that the waters of the Bissus are all too scanty for the needs of modern Athenian laundresses. When, therefore, he speaks decidedly, if not enthu- siastically, of the political importance, the social merits, and the high civilization of that period, his readers are prepared to believe that his conclusions have their foundations on the rock of solid figures, not on the shifting sands of the imagination of a lawlator temporis acti. In fact the work is chiefly composed of tables of figures, collected and elaborately arranged with great care and skill, the comments upon and inferences drawn from them composing only the smaller portion of it. The sources whence Professor Rogers has drawn are the bailiffs' rolls or farm accounts of estates in different parts of the country, and other documents relating to the cost of produce and of carriage from place to place, which have been preserved in the muniment-rooms of some of thd Oxford Colleges and in the Public Record Office. From these he has obtained sufficient materials to enable him to construct tables of the pro- bable average price in every year of wheat, barley, oats, peas, beans, sheep, cattle, live stock, and farming implements ; also of the cost per acre for the labour of reaping and mowing each kind of corn, and of the wages of thatchers, carpenters, masons, tilers, sawyers, &c., besides decennial averages or occasional quotations of the price of cider, beer, wine, apples, dairy produce, metals, building materials, cloth, linen, fur, gloves, pepper, and other things too numerous to mention.
Of the general inferences drawn from these figures perhaps the most remarkable are the large extent of land which was then under cultivation, compared with what was left unenclosed, the frequency and facility of communication between place and place, the prosperous condition of the agricultural labottring class, and the sudden improvement in their condition, with other remarkable social changes, produced by the Plague of 1348. With respect to the first of these inferences, the author goes so far as to assert his belief that the area of arable land under cultivation five hundred years ago was not much less than at the present time ; the en- closures of uncultivated land having been, he considers, nearly balanced by the extent taken up by towns as building land, and— this last surely is an inappreciable quantity—by parks. He reckons that with fourteenth-century farming a grain of corn producedon an average not more than four-fold, instead of, as now, fifteen-frold, and argues that, assuming the consumption of wheat to be then, as now, at the rate of a quarter per head per annum, it would have been impossible to grow enough to feed the population, taking it at from one and a half to two and a half millions, upon a smaller extent of ground. Now, the rate of production of wheat may be arrived at with some approximation to accuracy by comparing in a variety of instances the amount of seed corn debited in a farm- ing account with the produce credited ; but we do not see Bid& dent reason for assuming that the English, singular as they are at the present time for the exceptionally large proportion which wheaten bread bears to their entire diet, consumed the same ex- ceptionally large proportion five hundred years ago, when wheat was so much less easily grown. A sheep was then to be had for about a shilling, so that meat could not have cost more than a farthing a pound, and we know it was much more generally eaten by agricultural labourers than now. Potatoes, turnips, and some other vegetables were, it is true, as yet unknown ; but there are plenty of others of easy growth (who that has taken his nose into
• d History of Agriculture and Prices in England from the rear of er the Oxford Parliament (12691 to the Commencement of the Continental War (1793,. By James E. Thorold Rogers, M.A., Professor of Political Economy in the University of Oxford, &c. Oxford, Clarendon 1",ess ; Loudon, Macmillan and Co.
garlic-eating Spain is not painfully aware of it?) which, if not of a delicate taste or smell, are extremely nourishing. We know, too, that many deserving plants, now degraded to weeds, were once called herbs, and admitted to the dignity of the pot,—compare Macaulay's account of the condition of agriculture in Charles II.'s time. He estimates the amble and pasture lands together at not more than half the area of the kingdom, and adduces contemporaneous mai:is of the country to support this opinion, together with the recorded fact that upwards of ten thousand square miles have been actually enclosed under Enclosure Acts passed since that time. Making due allowance for what was thrown out of cultivation after the dissolution of the monasteries, and possibly also during the Wars of the Roses, it is difficult to reconcile the two accounts. Who will find out for us when, by
whom, and why were dug. the five-feet-deep ditches of Suffolk,
and the equally deep and more useless furrows of Worcestershire and Gloucestershire ?
The communication between different parts of the country was by no means so difficult or so uncommon as one might be misled into supposing, from the regular progress made in that respect for the last two centuries. The clergy, especially the monks and friars, were cosmopolitan in their ideas and habits, and there was frequent intercourse between religious houses. Boys and young men flocked by thousands to the Universities. The large fairs were attended yearly by people from far and near. Above all, the soil was not only owned, but up to the middle of the fourteenth cen- tury farmed, by absentee proprietors, colleges; or corporations, who possessed estates in widely distant parts of the country, and .either travelled themselves, or sent their deputies, to make an
annual visitation.. The details are given of several such journeys from Oxford to the North.. It took from eight to ten days to go
thence to Newcastle. There is also an account of a journey taken
by one John Middleton to Avignon and back, on behalf of the Master and Fellows of Merton. It took him a month to go,
stopping two days at Paris, one at Nivers, and one at Lyons. The return journey to Whitsand in England occupied no more than a fortnight. Carriage was cheap. The cost of carrying corn by cart, two horses and a man, was, one kind of grain with another, about a penny a ton a mile, a proof, it is justly observed, of the goodness of the main roads. A ship, with its complement of sailors, is hired at less than two shillings a day. Prices varied remarkably little in different parts of the country, and rose and fell together. French wine was largely imported from the wine- .growing districts of the south-west of France, then English terri- tory, and sold at the surprisingly cheap rate of fourpence to sixpence a gallon (equivalent, perhaps, to as many shillings in modern value), and once as low as twopence. Even Greek wine found its way into the Merton cellars. Pepper was as highly appreciated then as it was by Alaric and his Goths, when they abstained from sacking Rome for a bribe, one-third of which was to be pepper. But it was very dear. A pepper-corn rent did not originally, it seems, mean a nominal rent.
Labour of all kinds was highly paid, even in the early part of the century. But after the terrible Plague of 1348 had carried off, perhaps, as much as one-half of the population, the scarcity of labour was so great that its value rose greatly, and did not fall again to its old level. Wages rose at least 50 per cent. on an aver- age. " Statutes of Labourers," passed to limit them, proved futile. The old system of farming by bailiff could no longer be profitably carried on, and the land began to pass into the hands of small proprietors, who got their living partly as hired labourers, partly, and increasingly, by the produce of their own land. Thus arose the class of yeomen farmers, which, after five hundred years, is
only just extinct. Professor Rogers estimates the united earnings of a farm labourer, his wife, and one boy, of the lowest class,—
that is to say, a mere labourer, sad not a driver, pig-keeper, or shepherd,—at 2/. 7s. 10d. per annum before, and at 3/. 15s. after, the Plague. To give an idea of the pecuniary condition of the labourer, he compares these amounts with Arthur Young's state- ment of the earnings of a day labourer in 1771 as follows :—
" If we take the wages of a farm hand, exclusive of the earnings of his wife and child, which I have introduced in the calculation, at £L 10s., the agricultural labourer in the last half of the fourteenth Century received one-seventh of the nominal money wages possessed by the labourer in Young's time, while he purchased many of the neces- saries of life at one-twelfth the price of the seventeenth century, and bread at one-eighth ; for taking wheat at 48s. in Young's time, and at 44d. the four-pound loaf, wheat at 5s. 10d. would have made the loaf about a fraction above a halfpenny, or, to be exact, •531 of a penny. The reader, however, will recollect that I have estimated the corn allowances at prices of inferior or mixed grain, and that, therefore, the proportion would be still more in favour of the labourer 500 years ago."
He proceeds to show that the latter had still further advantages in being able to obtain a cottage, &c., for never much more than three shillings a year, and also in possessing rights of turbary, which provided him with abundant fuel almost without cost, and concludes that
" While the price of commodities had risen in Young's time from eight to twelve times, the hired labourer's wages had risen little more than four times over the amount which prevailed after the Plague."
Comparing Young's time with the present, he finds that every- thing, wheat only excepted, is much dearer, while agricultural wages remain about the same. " When the condition of the modern labourer is contrasted with that of his ancestor 500 years ago, the deterioration is still more striking than in 1771."
At this point there is a digression, in which the fact is lamented that at the present time "the English nation is tenant-at-will to a few thousand landowners," which is ascribed to " that device of evil times, a strict settlement." "We are informed," it proceeds, "that the machinery which has gradually changed the whole character of the rural population of England was invented by the subtlety of two lawyers of the Restoration—Palmer and Bridg- man. Now, without having a word to say in favour of a strict law of Settlement, we doubt if one competent person in twenty would assign it as the principal cause, still less as the only one deserving mention, of the laud being in few hands. The digres- sion is wholly out of place. As the author proceeds in his labours and approaches modern times (it is intended to continue it up to the year 1793), the temptation to introduce such digressions as a vent for political feeling will be all the stronger. If he yields to it the weight and authority of his work will be impaired, and he will be open to the imputation, fatal to a statistical work, of writing in a partizan instead of in a scientific spirit. If he is content to make it simply a collection and exposition of statistics it may not be immediately so popular, but it will be far more valuable, and its reputation far more permanent.