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Foreword

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 September 2013

Keith Wrightson
Affiliation:
Yale University
Jane Whittle
Affiliation:
Professor of rural history at Exeter University
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Summary

Early in my undergraduate career, my Cambridge supervisor in Economic History set two of us an essay on the agrarian problem of the sixteenth century: ‘was it less a problem of enclosures than of rents?’ (a good question). In trying to answer it we were not required to read Tawney's great book. We read about Tawney; not Tawney himself. That did not matter, because we were advised that Tawney was ‘an old sentimentalist’ who had failed to recognise that England was already a ruthless and competitive contract society in the sixteenth century, a society of which our supervisor clearly approved. Much later, I learned from another Cambridge economic historian that the trouble with Tawney was that, along with other ‘reformist’ economic historians, he suffered from ‘middle-class guilt’. Worse, he wrote ‘Mandarin’ prose.

When I actually read Tawney's Agrarian Problem for myself, shamefully late, I expected to find it a work with which I would have some sympathy, but which would inevitably be dated in both content and style. What a surprise, then, to find that Tawney's tone was predominantly cool, authoritative, and not at all sentimental; I thought him rather tough-minded. His purplish passages were justified in context and seemed to spring from indignation rather than guilt. His dominant manner was a sustained effort to explain, in a multi-faceted and at times distinctly distanced way, a set of profound and complex changes. If his sympathies were clearly with the losers in that process, he did not wallow in the celebration of victimhood.

Type
Chapter
Information
Landlords and Tenants in Britain, 1440-1660
Tawney's 'Agrarian Problem' Revisited
, pp. xiii - xvi
Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2013

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