Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 September 2013
The key social and economic relationship in agrarian England between the early medieval period and nineteenth century has always been seen as that between lord and tenant, where the lord is typically a member of the gentry or aristocracy, and the tenant a working farmer engaged in agriculture. While Marxists, and socialists such as Tawney, have seen this relationship as inherently one of conflict – the lord seeking to maximise revenue from rent and the tenant seeking retain as much of the profits of their labour as possible; neo-Smithians have characterised it as a contractual relationship, and one in which landlords' demands for higher rent and tighter controls over tenants could encourage greater efficiency in agricultural production and thus economic development. This volume suggests the debate has moved on. In early modern Britain the social and economic relationships regarding rights to land were more complicated than either of these models suggests. From the late fifteenth century onwards, particularly in areas of copyhold of inheritance, gentlemen purchased customary landholdings. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, customary tenants increasingly sublet their land, creating another layer of tenancy below that of the manor. These trends blurred the boundaries between lords and tenants. Tenants of customary land often included gentlemen who were manorial lords elsewhere. Customary tenants often became landlords who had their own tenants paying commercial rack rents.
The consequences of these blurred boundaries are evident in many of the chapters in this volume.