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commutable for money payments; and often they were but equal to a moderate fixed rent. If the villains were subject to many restrictions, so were free labourers and craftsmen of the towns, who must obey the ordinances of their guilds, and who were by no means at liberty to practise their trades as they thought fit. “Anything like the extreme theory of villenage,” says Professor Rogers, “was, I am convinced, extinct before the close of the thirteenth century" (c).
Why villenage disappeared so quickly, and, on the whole, so silently as it did is an historical problem which is but partly solved. Economical and political causes exercised much influence. Services were loosely exacted when they were worth little, and payment in money was preferred by nobles who lived at court, or were engaged in wars in France or elsewhere (d). In the years of confusion and turmoil due to the Wars of the Roses, a multitude of villains escaped from thraldom, and others were emancipated in order that they might become soldiers. The law itself in many ways favoured liberty. The cases in the Year Books show that the number of runaways was great, and that lords might easily lose their rights by inadvertence. It was not necessary that they should formally manumit their serfs by putting into their hands swords and lances, the weapons of freemen, or enfranchise them by deed ; the Courts were
(e) History of Prices, vol. i. 70. Of course sales of land with the villains appended took place subsequent to this. In his preface to the Hoveden Chronicles, vol. ii., xl., Professor Stubbs draws attention to the common
exaggerations with respect to the lot of the villains, and remarks that their condition “up to the reign of Edward 111. was one as full of immunity as of service.” “I believe that as the knowledge of the civil and continental systems increased among our lawyers, the hard. ships of villenage increased too, and the definiteness of the theory ; until after the troubles of the fourteenth cen
tury they threatened a social revolu. tion." See also Mr. Toulmin Smith's English Guilds, p. 136 ; and as to the part which villains took in local affairs the remarks of the same author in his work on the Parish, 474. The jury which made the assessment for the property tax imposed in 1198, might be partly composed of villains. There inust, however, have been a great difference in the lot of bondigen in different manors. Those in Durham seem to have given half the year to the service of the Bishop. Boldon Book, Surtees Society, Appendix, Ixxi.
(d) History of Prices, vol. i. 81.
ingenious in finding constructive manumissions. From early times there existed the important rule, which has already been mentioned, that if a villain escaped to a privileged city or royal demesne and dwelt there without let or hindrance for a year and a day, he could not be seized by his master (e). If a bondman served seven years as an apprentice, the fact was proof of his freedom; the lord's writ de nativo habendo—the writ which commanded the sheriff to seize a fugitive villain—was barred. If a serf were enfeoffed of any tenement; if he were acknowledged by his lord in a Court of record to be free; if he could prove that his master had permitted him to be on a jury; if he had brought an action against his lord, or joined with him in suing; if a lord had entered into a contract with his serf—and the readiness with which money rents were accepted in exchange for labour services made this a frequent occurrence (f)—there was an implied manumission, and the villain became free (9). The circumstance that the same labour rent had to be collected from an increasing number of persons may have often helped to destroy this institution (h). But a stronger influence in favour of freedom was a peculiarity of the law upon which all the books insist. Freedom depended not on the nature of a man's tenure, but on the quality of his stock or blood. Many freemen held land on a servile tenure; the tenement, as Bracton observes, “neither confers nor detracts from the status of a person”(i). Besides the serf proper, there was the liber homo tenens in villenagio. A lord who sought to reclaim a runaway had to prove that the ancestors of the man whom he claimed had done service, and it was enough for a fugitive to break one link in the chain and prove that some
remote ancestor had been free. Multitudes probably escaped from thraldorn in consequence of the adherence of the Courts to the principle that time did not run against freedom, and that villenage depended not on tenure, but on descent.
In the time of Edward III., serfdom was distinctly breaking up. A statute passed in the twenty-fifth year of his reign bears testimony to the difficulty experienced by masters in recovering their runaway serfs. When a writ de nativo habendo was sued out by a lord with a view to recover a fugitive, the latter might sue out a writ de libertate probanda (k). The case was then transmitted from the County or Sheriff's Court to the Justices in Eyre or the King's Bench, and the villain was protected in the meantime from seizure. In the interest of the masters the law was altered in 1350 ; and a power of seizing a fugitive serf was given to a master even when a writ de libertate probanda had been purchased (l). A succession of pestilences, culminating in the Great Plague of 1349, which swept over Europe and destroyed about half the population of England, affected in an important way both the serfs and the free labourers who had much increased. Labour became scarce ; wages rose, first among reapers and shepherds, and later generally; vagrancy increased. There was every temptation for bondmen to break away from their thraldom, and for masters to tighten their hold upon their own serfs, and to take fugitives into their service. To arrest the natural rise of wages and to prevent the migration of the labouring classes from place to place—in other words, to restore the substance of villenage, which, it was plain, was fast disappearing—the King and his Council issued in 1349 an ordinance compelling every person able in body and under the age of sixty “not living by merchandise, nor exercising any craft, not having of his own wherewith to live, nor land about whose tillage he might
(k) Pike's History of Criine, i. 487.
(?) Fitzherbert, 77.
employ himself, nor serving any other," to serve at the wages customary six years before the famine. Refusal to enter into
. service, or departure before the end of the term agreed upon, was to be punished with imprisonment. The ordinance seems, to judge from the complaints of the Commons, to have been inoperative; and Parliament passed in the following year the first (m) of a series of statutes, by which it sought to regulate the rate of wages, and to take away the new power of the labourers. Servants were enjoined to be content with the liveries and wages which they had received in the twentieth year of the king's reign. They were to be hired by the year or other usual time, and not by the day. A servant was not to go out of the town where he dwelt in the winter to serve in another town in the summer, if he could get employment in the former. Artisans not specially mentioned in the Act were required to take oaths that they would practise their crafts as they had been wont to do in the twentieth
year of the king's reign. If servants escaped from one county to another, it was the duty of the sheriff to seize them. Throughout the reign of Edward III. this struggle continued. Manumissions were cancelled, and persons who had believed themselves to be free were reduced to bondage (n). Fugitive labourers might be outlawed, and“ in token of falsity” the letter F might be burnt on their foreheads (o). Alliances or confederations of workmen were broken up (p); handicraftsmen were enjoined to practise only one mystery (9); and to preserve the distinction of classes, apparel was regulated by statute (r).
(m) 25 Ed. III., st. 1. See Brentano's account in preface to Mr. Toulmin Smith's English Guilds of the motives actuating Parliament. The contemporary evidence of Finchden, J., (40° Ed. 111., p. 39) is preferable. “The statute was made for the advantage of the Lords that they should not be in want of servants. For enumeration of the laws regulating wages, see Eden's History of the Poor, i. 43.
(11) Green's History of the English People, 242.
(0) 34 Ed. III., c. 10.
(9) 37 Ed. III., c. 6. To promote the execution of the laws, Parliament (36 Ed. III. c. 14), declared that the tines imposed under the Statute of Labourers should not go to the Royal Exchequer but be distributed among the Commons.
(r) 37 Ed. III., c. 8-14.
an attempt to reduce agricultural labourers, and artisans engaged in trades useful to agriculture to a state of villenage. The villains resisted. Frequent mention is made of isolated revolts. The story told in the Chronicon Monasterii de Melsa of the litigation protracted for years between the abhot and serfs of that monastery, and carried from Court to Court with varying success and with obstinacy on either side, is an instance of the perseverance of the villains in contending against their masters (8). We find in the preamble to the 1 Richard II. c. 6 (1377) evidence that they had powerful aiders and abettors in the struggle. “The villains," says Mr. Stubbs, “ignored the statute (of labourers), and the landlords fell back on their demesne rights over the villains. The old rolls were searched, the pedigree of the labourer was tested like the pedigree of a peer, and there was a dread of worse things to come” (t). The imposing of a poll tax, which was vexatiously collected, gave occasion to the peasants' revolt of 1381. The hardships of villenage were not their only grievances, and in fact the strength of the movement was in Kent, where the villains had always held a better position than elsewhere (u). But the chief demand of the insurgents was the abolition of bondage. After about a fortnight of success the outbreak was quelled. The charters of manumission granted by the king to the peasants when in London were cancelled, and many of the leaders were put to death. But in spite of the failure of the insurrection—in spite of the vow of the king “You were and are rustics, and shall remain in bondage; not that of old, but in one infinitely worse"—the work of enfranchisement went on. The efforts made to prevent it were numerous but ineffectual, In 1388 a strict system of passports was established (w). A servant or labourer who left the hundred, rape, or wapen
(s) iii. 129.
Kent, is not quite correct. Furley's (1) Constitutional History, ii. 455. History of the Weald of Kent; Elton's See also Pike's History of Crime, Tenures of Kent, 38; and Lappeni. 330.
berg, ii. 321. See, however, Fitz. (u) The statement, often broadly herbert, 46. made, that there were no serfs in (2) 12 Rich. II. c. 3,