Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 September 2013
One hundred years ago, in 1912, R. H. Tawney published his first book, The Agrarian Problem in the Sixteenth Century. Tawney became famous as a socialist thinker and campaigner; his reputation as a historian rests largely on his best-known book, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (1926), and his later contribution to the debate on the causes of the English Civil War. Yet The Agrarian Problem has been deeply influential in the economic history of late medieval and early modern England and is still a regular feature on undergraduate reading lists. It remains readable, lively and relevant. Its importance stretches well beyond the history of rural England in the sixteenth century. From at least Marx's Capital onwards, changes in the property rights and class relations of rural England between 1440 and 1660 – particularly the enclosure of land and increased landlessness – have been highlighted as a turning point in the development of capitalism, crucial in explaining why England became the ‘first industrial nation’. To quote Marx,
The prelude of the revolution that laid the foundation of the capitalist mode of production, was played out in the last third of the 15th, and the first decade of the 16th century … the great feudal lords created an incomparably larger proletariat by the forcible driving of the peasantry from the land.
Tawney was not a Marxist and did not cite Marx in The Agrarian Problem.