Of The Discouragement Of Agriculture In The Ancient State Of Europe After The Fall Of The Roman Empire

When the German and Scythian nations overran the western provinces of

the Roman empire, the confusions which followed so great a revolution

lasted for several centuries. The rapine and violence which the

barbarians exercised against the ancient inhabitants, interrupted the

commerce between the towns and the country. The towns were deserted, and

the country was left uncultivated; and the western provinces of Europe,

h had enjoyed a considerable degree of opulence under the Roman

empire, sunk into the lowest state of poverty and barbarism. During the

continuance of those confusions, the chiefs and principal leaders of

those nations acquired, or usurped to themselves, the greater part of

the lands of those countries. A great part of them was uncultivated; but

no part of them, whether cultivated or uncultivated, was left without

a proprietor. All of them were engrossed, and the greater part by a few

great proprietors.

This original engrossing of uncultivated lands, though a great, might

have been but a transitory evil. They might soon have been divided

again, and broke into small parcels, either by succession or by

alienation. The law of primogeniture hindered them from being divided by

succession; the introduction of entails prevented their being broke into

small parcels by alienation.

When land, like moveables, is considered as the means only of

subsistence and enjoyment, the natural law of succession divides it,

like them, among all the children of the family; of all of whom the

subsistence and enjoyment may be supposed equally dear to the father.

This natural law of succession, accordingly, took place among the Romans

who made no more distinction between elder and younger, between male and

female, in the inheritance of lands, than we do in the distribution of

moveables. But when land was considered as the means, not of subsistence

merely, but of power and protection, it was thought better that it

should descend undivided to one. In those disorderly times, every great

landlord was a sort of petty prince. His tenants were his subjects.

He was their judge, and in some respects their legislator in peace

and their leader in war. He made war according to his own discretion,

frequently against his neighbours, and sometimes against his sovereign.

The security of a landed estate, therefore, the protection which

its owner could afford to those who dwelt on it, depended upon its

greatness. To divide it was to ruin it, and to expose every part of it

to be oppressed and swallowed up by the incursions of its neighbours.

The law of primogeniture, therefore, came to take place, not immediately

indeed, but in process of time, in the succession of landed estates, for

the same reason that it has generally taken place in that of monarchies,

though not always at their first institution. That the power, and

consequently the security of the monarchy, may not be weakened by

division, it must descend entire to one of the children. To which of

them so important a preference shall be given, must be determined

by some general rule, founded not upon the doubtful distinctions of

personal merit, but upon some plain and evident difference which can

admit of no dispute. Among the children of the same family there can be

no indisputable difference but that of sex, and that of age. The male

sex is universally preferred to the female; and when all other things

are equal, the elder everywhere takes place of the younger. Hence the

origin of the right of primogeniture, and of what is called lineal


Laws frequently continue in force long after the circumstances

which first gave occasion to them, and which could alone render them

reasonable, are no more. In the present state of Europe, the proprietor

of a single acre of land is as perfectly secure in his possession as

the proprietor of 100,000. The right of primogeniture, however, still

continues to be respected; and as of all institutions it is the fittest

to support the pride of family distinctions, it is still likely to

endure for many centuries. In every other respect, nothing can be more

contrary to the real interest of a numerous family, than a right which,

in order to enrich one, beggars all the rest of the children.

Entails are the natural consequences of the law of primogeniture. They

were introduced to preserve a certain lineal succession, of which the

law of primogeniture first gave the idea, and to hinder any part of the

original estate from being carried out of the proposed line, either

by gift, or device, or alienation; either by the folly, or by the

misfortune of any of its successive owners. They were altogether unknown

to the Romans. Neither their substitutions, nor fidei commisses, bear

any resemblance to entails, though some French lawyers have thought

proper to dress the modern institution in the language and garb of those

ancient ones.

When great landed estates were a sort of principalities, entails might

not be unreasonable. Like what are called the fundamental laws of some

monarchies, they might frequently hinder the security of thousands from

being endangered by the caprice or extravagance of one man. But in the

present state of Europe, when small as well as great estates derive

their security from the laws of their country, nothing can be more

completely absurd. They are founded upon the most absurd of all

suppositions, the supposition that every successive generation of men

have not an equal right to the earth, and to all that it possesses; but

that the property of the present generation should be restrained and

regulated according to the fancy of those who died, perhaps five hundred

years ago. Entails, however, are still respected, through the greater

part of Europe; In those countries, particularly, in which noble birth

is a necessary qualification for the enjoyment either of civil or

military honours. Entails are thought necessary for maintaining this

exclusive privilege of the nobility to the great offices and honours of

their country; and that order having usurped one unjust advantage over

the rest of their fellow-citizens, lest their poverty should render it

ridiculous, it is thought reasonable that they should have another. The

common law of England, indeed, is said to abhor perpetuities, and

they are accordingly more restricted there than in any other European

monarchy; though even England is not altogether without them. In

Scotland, more than one fifth, perhaps more than one third part of the

whole lands in the country, are at present supposed to be under strict


Great tracts of uncultivated land were in this manner not only engrossed

by particular families, but the possibility of their being divided again

was as much as possible precluded for ever. It seldom happens, however,

that a great proprietor is a great improver. In the disorderly times

which gave birth to those barbarous institutions, the great proprietor

was sufficiently employed in defending his own territories, or in

extending his jurisdiction and authority over those of his neighbours.

He had no leisure to attend to the cultivation and improvement of land.

When the establishment of law and order afforded him this leisure, he

often wanted the inclination, and almost always the requisite abilities.

If the expense of his house and person either equalled or exceeded his

revenue, as it did very frequently, he had no stock to employ in this

manner. If he was an economist, he generally found it more profitable

to employ his annual savings in new purchases than in the improvement of

his old estate. To improve land with profit, like all other commercial

projects, requires an exact attention to small savings and small gains,

of which a man born to a great fortune, even though naturally frugal, is

very seldom capable. The situation of such a person naturally disposes

him to attend rather to ornament, which pleases his fancy, than to

profit, for which he has so little occasion. The elegance of his dress,

of his equipage, of his house and household furniture, are objects

which, from his infancy, he has been accustomed to have some anxiety

about. The turn of mind which this habit naturally forms, follows him

when he comes to think of the improvement of land. He embellishes,

perhaps, four or five hundred acres in the neighbourhood of his

house, at ten times the expense which the land is worth after all his

improvements; and finds, that if he was to improve his whole estate in

the same manner, and he has little taste for any other, he would be

a bankrupt before he had finished the tenth part of it. There still

remain, in both parts of the united kingdom, some great estates which

have continued, without interruption, in the hands of the same family

since the times of feudal anarchy. Compare the present condition of

those estates with the possessions of the small proprietors in their

neighbourhood, and you will require no other argument to convince you

how unfavourable such extensive property is to improvement.

If little improvement was to be expected from such great proprietors,

still less was to be hoped for from those who occupied the land under

them. In the ancient state of Europe, the occupiers of land were all

tenants at will. They were all, or almost all, slaves, but their slavery

was of a milder kind than that known among the ancient Greeks and

Romans, or even in our West Indian colonies. They were supposed to

belong more directly to the land than to their master. They could,

therefore, be sold with it, but not separately. They could marry,

provided it was with the consent of their master; and he could not

afterwards dissolve the marriage by selling the man and wife to

different persons. If he maimed or murdered any of them, he was liable

to some penalty, though generally but to a small one. They were not,

however, capable of acquiring property. Whatever they acquired was

acquired to their master, and he could take it from them at pleasure.

Whatever cultivation and improvement could be carried on by means of

such slaves, was properly carried on by their master. It was at his

expense. The seed, the cattle, and the instruments of husbandry, were

all his. It was for his benefit. Such slaves could acquire nothing

but their daily maintenance. It was properly the proprietor himself,

therefore, that in this case occupied his own lands, and cultivated them

by his own bondmen. This species of slavery still subsists in Russia,

Poland, Hungary, Bohemia, Moravia, and other parts of Germany. It is

only in the western and south-western provinces of Europe that it has

gradually been abolished altogether.

But if great improvements are seldom to be expected from great

proprietors, they are least of all to be expected when they employ

slaves for their workmen. The experience of all ages and nations, I

believe, demonstrates that the work done by slaves, though it appears to

cost only their maintenance, is in the end the dearest of any. A person

who can acquire no property can have no other interest but to eat as

much and to labour as little as possible. Whatever work he does beyond

what is sufficient to purchase his own maintenance, can be squeezed out

of him by violence only, and not by any interest of his own. In ancient

Italy, how much the cultivation of corn degenerated, how unprofitable

it became to the master, when it fell under the management of slaves, is

remarked both by Pliny and Columella. In the time of Aristotle, it had

not been much better in ancient Greece. Speaking of the ideal republic

described in the laws of Plato, to maintain 5000 idle men (the number of

warriors supposed necessary for its defence), together with their women

and servants, would require, he says, a territory of boundless extent

and fertility, like the plains of Babylon.

The pride of man makes him love to domineer, and nothing mortifies

him so much as to be obliged to condescend to persuade his inferiors.

Wherever the law allows it, and the nature of the work can afford it,

therefore, he will generally prefer the service of slaves to that of

freemen. The planting of sugar and tobacco can afford the expense of

slave cultivation. The raising of corn, it seems, in the present times,

cannot. In the English colonies, of which the principal produce is corn,

the far greater part of the work is done by freemen. The late resolution

of the Quakers in Pennsylvania, to set at liberty all their negro

slaves, may satisfy us that their number cannot be very great. Had they

made any considerable part of their property, such a resolution could

never have been agreed to. In our sugar colonies., on the contrary, the

whole work is done by slaves, and in our tobacco colonies a very great

part of it. The profits of a sugar plantation in any of our West Indian

colonies, are generally much greater than those of any other cultivation

that is known either in Europe or America; and the profits of a tobacco

plantation, though inferior to those of sugar, are superior to those of

corn, as has already been observed. Both can afford the expense of

slave cultivation but sugar can afford it still better than tobacco. The

number of negroes, accordingly, is much greater, in proportion to that

of whites, in our sugar than in our tobacco colonies.

To the slave cultivators of ancient times gradually succeeded a species

of farmers, known at present in France by the name of metayers. They are

called in Latin Coloni Partiarii. They have been so long in disuse in

England, that at present I know no English name for them. The proprietor

furnished them with the seed, cattle, and instruments of husbandry, the

whole stock, in short, necessary for cultivating the farm. The produce

was divided equally between the proprietor and the farmer, after setting

aside what was judged necessary for keeping up the stock, which was

restored to the proprietor, when the farmer either quitted or was turned

out of the farm.

Land occupied by such tenants is properly cultivated at the expense of

the proprietors, as much as that occupied by slaves. There is, however,

one very essential difference between them. Such tenants, being freemen,

are capable of acquiring property; and having a certain proportion

of the produce of the land, they have a plain interest that the

whole produce should be as great as possible, in order that their own

proportion may be so. A slave, on the contrary, who can acquire nothing

but his maintenance, consults his own ease, by making the land produce

as little as possible over and above that maintenance. It is probable

that it was partly upon account of this advantage, and partly upon

account of the encroachments which the sovereigns, always jealous of

the great lords, gradually encouraged their villains to make upon their

authority, and which seem, at least, to have been such as rendered this

species of servitude altogether inconvenient, that tenure in villanage

gradually wore out through the greater part of Europe. The time and

manner, however, in which so important a revolution was brought about,

is one of the most obscure points in modern history. The church of

Rome claims great merit in it; and it is certain, that so early as

the twelfth century, Alexander III. published a bull for the general

emancipation of slaves. It seems, however, to have been rather a pious

exhortation, than a law to which exact obedience was required from the

faithful. Slavery continued to take place almost universally for several

centuries afterwards, till it was gradually abolished by the joint

operation of the two interests above mentioned; that of the proprietor

on the one hand, and that of the sovereign on the other. A villain,

enfranchised, and at the same time allowed to continue in possession of

the land, having no stock of his own, could cultivate it only by means

of what the landlord advanced to him, and must therefore have been what

the French call a metayer.

It could never, however, be the interest even of this last species of

cultivators, to lay out, in the further improvement of the land, any

part of the little stock which they might save from their own share of

the produce; because the landlord, who laid out nothing, was to get one

half of whatever it produced. The tithe, which is but a tenth of the

produce, is found to be a very great hindrance to improvement. A tax,

therefore, which amounted to one half, must have been an effectual bar

to it. It might be the interest of a metayer to make the land produce

as much as could be brought out of it by means of the stock furnished

by the proprietor; but it could never be his interest to mix any part

of his own with it. In France, where five parts out of six of the whole

kingdom are said to be still occupied by this species of cultivators,

the proprietors complain, that their metayers take every opportunity of

employing their master's cattle rather in carriage than in cultivation;

because, in the one case, they get the whole profits to themselves, in

the other they share them with their landlord. This species of tenants

still subsists in some parts of Scotland. They are called steel-bow

tenants. Those ancient English tenants, who are said by Chief-Baron

Gilbert and Dr Blackstone to have been rather bailiffs of the landlord

than farmers, properly so called, were probably of the same kind.

To this species of tenantry succeeded, though by very slow degrees,

farmers, properly so called, who cultivated the land with their own

stock, paying a rent certain to the landlord. When such farmers have a

lease for a term of years, they may sometimes find it for their interest

to lay out part of their capital in the further improvement of the farm;

because they may sometimes expect to recover it, with a large profit,

before the expiration of the lease. The possession, even of such

farmers, however, was long extremely precarious, and still is so in many

parts of Europe. They could, before the expiration of their term, be

legally ousted of their leases by a new purchaser; in England, even,

by the fictitious action of a common recovery. If they were turned out

illegally by the violence of their master, the action by which they

obtained redress was extremely imperfect. It did not always reinstate

them in the possession of the land, but gave them damages, which never

amounted to a real loss. Even in England, the country, perhaps of

Europe, where the yeomanry has always been most respected, it was not

till about the 14th of Henry VII. that the action of ejectment

was invented, by which the tenant recovers, not damages only, but

possession, and in which his claim is not necessarily concluded by the

uncertain decision of a single assize. This action has been found so

effectual a remedy, that, in the modern practice, when the landlord has

occasion to sue for the possession of the land, he seldom makes use

of the actions which properly belong to him as a landlord, the writ of

right or the writ of entry, but sues in the name of his tenant, by the

writ of ejectment. In England, therefore the security of the tenant is

equal to that of the proprietor. In England, besides, a lease for life

of forty shillings a-year value is a freehold, and entitles the lessee

to a vote for a member of parliament; and as a great part of the

yeomanry have freeholds of this kind, the whole order becomes

respectable to their landlords, on account of the political

consideration which this gives them. There is, I believe, nowhere in

Europe, except in England, any instance of the tenant building upon

the land of which he had no lease, and trusting that the honour of his

landlord would take no advantage of so important an improvement.

Those laws and customs, so favourable to the yeomanry, have perhaps

contributed more to the present grandeur of England, than all their

boasted regulations of commerce taken together.

The law which secures the longest leases against successors of every

kind, is, so far as I know, peculiar to Great Britain. It was introduced

into Scotland so early as 1449, by a law of James II. Its beneficial

influence, however, has been much obstructed by entails; the heirs of

entail being generally restrained from letting leases for any long term

of years, frequently for more than one year. A late act of parliament

has, in this respect, somewhat slackened their fetters, though they are

still by much too strait. In Scotland, besides, as no leasehold gives a

vote for a member of parliament, the yeomanry are upon this account less

respectable to their landlords than in England.

In other parts of Europe, after it was found convenient to secure

tenants both against heirs and purchasers, the term of their security

was still limited to a very short period; in France, for example, to

nine years from the commencement of the lease. It has in that country,

indeed, been lately extended to twentyseven, a period still too short

to encourage the tenant to make the most important improvements. The

proprietors of land were anciently the legislators of every part of

Europe. The laws relating to land, therefore, were all calculated

for what they supposed the interest of the proprietor. It was for

his interest, they had imagined, that no lease granted by any of his

predecessors should hinder him from enjoying, during a long term of

years, the full value of his land. Avarice and injustice are always

short-sighted, and they did not foresee how much this regulation must

obstruct improvement, and thereby hurt, in the long-run, the real

interest of the landlord.

The farmers, too, besides paying the rent, were anciently, it was

supposed, bound to perform a great number of services to the landlord,

which were seldom either specified in the lease, or regulated by any

precise rule, but by the use and wont of the manor or barony. These

services, therefore, being almost entirely arbitrary, subjected the

tenant to many vexations. In Scotland the abolition of all services not

precisely stipulated in the lease, has, in the course of a few years,

very much altered for the better the condition of the yeomanry of that


The public services to which the yeomanry were bound, were not less

arbitrary than the private ones. To make and maintain the high roads,

a servitude which still subsists, I believe, everywhere, though with

different degrees of oppression in different countries, was not the only

one. When the king's troops, when his household, or his officers of any

kind, passed through any part of the country, the yeomanry were bound

to provide them with horses, carriages, and provisions, at a price

regulated by the purveyor. Great Britain is, I believe, the only

monarchy in Europe where the oppression of purveyance has been entirely

abolished. It still subsists in France and Germany.

The public taxes, to which they were subject, were as irregular and

oppressive as the services. The ancient lords, though extremely unwilling

to grant, themselves, any pecuniary aid to their sovereign, easily

allowed him to tallage, as they called it, their tenants, and had not

knowledge enough to foresee how much this must, in the end, affect their

own revenue. The taille, as it still subsists in France may serve as an

example of those ancient tallages. It is a tax upon the supposed profits

of the farmer, which they estimate by the stock that he has upon the

farm. It is his interest, therefore, to appear to have as little as

possible, and consequently to employ as little as possible in its

cultivation, and none in its improvement. Should any stock happen to

accumulate in the hands of a French farmer, the taille is almost equal

to a prohibition of its ever being employed upon the land. This tax,

besides, is supposed to dishonour whoever is subject to it, and to

degrade him below, not only the rank of a gentleman, but that of a

burgher; and whoever rents the lands of another becomes subject to it.

No gentleman, nor even any burgher, who has stock, will submit to this

degradation. This tax, therefore, not only hinders the stock which

accumulates upon the land from being employed in its improvement, but

drives away all other stock from it. The ancient tenths and fifteenths,

so usual in England in former times, seem, so far as they affected the

land, to have been taxes of the same nature with the taille.

Under all these discouragements, little improvement could be expected

from the occupiers of land. That order of people, with all the liberty

and security which law can give, must always improve under great

disadvantage. The farmer, compared with the proprietor, is as a merchant

who trades with burrowed money, compared with one who trades with his

own. The stock of both may improve; but that of the one, with only equal

good conduct, must always improve more slowly than that of the other,

on account of the large share of the profits which is consumed by the

interest of the loan. The lands cultivated by the farmer must, in the

same manner, with only equal good conduct, be improved more slowly than

those cultivated by the proprietor, on account of the large share of the

produce which is consumed in the rent, and which, had the farmer been

proprietor, he might have employed in the further improvement of the

land. The station of a farmer, besides, is, from the nature of things,

inferior to that of a proprietor. Through the greater part of Europe,

the yeomanry are regarded as an inferior rank of people, even to the

better sort of tradesmen and mechanics, and in all parts of Europe to

the great merchants and master manufacturers. It can seldom happen,

therefore, that a man of any considerable stock should quit the

superior, in order to place himself in an inferior station. Even in the

present state of Europe, therefore, little stock is likely to go from

any other profession to the improvement of land in the way of farming.

More does, perhaps, in Great Britain than in any other country, though

even there the great stocks which are in some places employed in

farming, have generally been acquired by fanning, the trade, perhaps,

in which, of all others, stock is commonly acquired most slowly. After

small proprietors, however, rich and great farmers are in every country

the principal improvers. There are more such, perhaps, in England

than in any other European monarchy. In the republican governments of

Holland, and of Berne in Switzerland, the farmers are said to be not

inferior to those of England.

The ancient policy of Europe was, over and above all this, unfavourable

to the improvement and cultivation of land, whether carried on by the

proprietor or by the farmer; first, by the general prohibition of the

exportation of corn, without a special licence, which seems to have been

a very universal regulation; and, secondly, by the restraints which were

laid upon the inland commerce, not only of corn, but of almost every

other part of the produce of the farm, by the absurd laws against

engrossers, regraters, and forestallers, and by the privileges of fairs

and markets. It has already been observed in what manner the prohibition

of the exportation of corn, together with some encouragement given to

the importation of foreign corn, obstructed the cultivation of ancient

Italy, naturally the most fertile country in Europe, and at that time

the seat of the greatest empire in the world. To what degree such

restraints upon the inland commerce of this commodity, joined to

the general prohibition of exportation, must have discouraged

the cultivation of countries less fertile, and less favourably

circumstanced, it is not, perhaps, very easy to imagine.