In the last fifty years, the basic features of the economy and society of medieval England have become more and more distinct as historians, excavating a mass of sources have steadily reconstructed social institutions and charted the changes they underwent in the five centuries after the Norman Conquest. The record-keeping of the English medieval government and other institutions has provided the foundation for studies of individual manors, villages, estates, regions, towns, and families, to the point that the English countryside and population are perhaps better known than any other region in Europe during the same period. As techniques used to analyze the historical data have improved, a deeper understanding of different groups and individuals has emerged. Perhaps the best known example of this refinement has been the use of manorial court rolls. Once used simply to reconstruct manorial organization, they have now been made to yield information regarding the demography of peasant families, the structure of village society, and the place of women in the peasant family and community. The transformation of social institutions has also become clearer. The rise and catastrophic drop in population, the shifting nature of overseas trade in wool and cloth, the flow of specie into and out of England, the increasing differentiation within all ranks of society, and the place of women, clergy, and merchants in a world largely dominated by agrarian pursuits have all been intensely scrutinized and specified to the point that their broad outlines are widely accepted by historians.
Much of this social history has been empirical, constructed out of the documentation relating to particular institutions, such as a manor or estate, using previous studies of similar organizations as a blueprint. Nevertheless, various social or economic theories have informed debates about the overall course of English social history in the later Middle Ages and the causes of particular changes. Sweeny, Dobb, Hilton and other historians used a Marxist framework to analyze the transition from feudalism to capitalism, viewing lord-peasant relations as exploitative and eventually producing resistance and rebellion. Brenner has built on this tradition to fashion a comprehensive explanation of English social and economic development based on class structure and its attendant contradictions, tensions, and conflict. His work was, in part, a response to the Malthusian-Ricardian argument put forward by M.M. Postan and John Hatcher, in which the motor for change was the fluctuation of the population within a technologically stagnant agricultural system.
Though both sides agreed on the general population trends between 1000 and 1500, they split on the causes and consequences of those shifts. Brenner argued that population change alone could not explain the decline of serfdom and the beginnings of the agricultural revolution in England because the same forces in France and Eastern Europe produced precisely opposite results. Alan MacFarlane has carved out yet another theoretical position, based on the rational choice theory of neoclassical economics, in which individuals acting in the market place were responsible for producing capitalism in England.
Ideally, therefore, a survey of the economy and society of later medieval England should explain these interpretative currents as well as the historical reality on which they are based. Indeed, the two cannot be separated. To his great credit, S.H. Rigby has crafted a lucid and comprehensible account of the theoretical underpinnings of these historical controversies alongside a comprehensive survey of what is known about the English society and economy in the later Middle Ages.footnote1 As Rigby points out in opening his book, all historical investigations proceed from some theoretical base, whether acknowledged or unacknowledged, so that it is important to make explicit their role in historical explanation. Rigby’s secondary goal is to demonstrate the nature of historical explanation, as well as the ability to ascribe causes to historical change, by using the debates about medieval social change as a prime example.
Rigby does not pretend to be neutral in his exposition. After briefly exploring the strengths and weakness of both Marxist and Parsonian theories of social stratification, which have informed much of the historical work in this field, Rigby embraces social closure theory, as defined by Parkin and Murphy, to remedy what he sees as the shortcomings of these other models of social organization. He wants to retain the sense of dichotomous conflict that is so central to Marxist analysis of class relations and the integrative, binding force of functionalism while shedding their liabilities. Rigby’s major complaint with Marxism seems to be that it is essentially reductionist. Without denying that people were broadly grouped into large classes, such as lords and peasants, which clashed over property rights or access to the means of production, Rigby stresses that society was also divided vertically into groups whose members had a common set of interests which overlapped with but were not identical to those of a broader class to which they might belong. Social closure theory, derived from Weber, views society as a collection of self-defining groupssystacts in Runciman’s terminology which compete with one another for resources and develop strategies to exclude and dominate other groups based on a variety of characteristics. These subordinate groups then develop strategies of their own, called usurpationary closure, to wrest power from dominant groups or at least to correct the political imbalance between them. This conflict did not necessarily push historical change in any particular direction, as Marx predicted of class conflict. By using closure theory, Rigby argues, historians, on the one hand,
Armed with this theory, Rigby moves across the landscape of medieval England, re-examining familiar historical and theoretical landmarks in the light of social closure. He begins with relations of production and the distribution of property rights in the countryside and towns before looking at the principles of closure in relation to the nobility, clergy, women, and Jews. Along the way, Rigby quite usefully tests the theoretical assumptions of historians who have debated various topics. The battles over the nature of economic expansion and decline in the later Middle Ages have been fought out among three groups: followers of Adam Smith, Malthus, and Ricardo who see population as the prime mover; monetarists who claim that the economic data on prices can be better explained by monetary shifts than by population change; and Marxists, notably Brenner, who base their explanation on the dynamic of class relations between lords and peasants. Rigby’s explanations of these theoretical viewpoints are lucid and his criticisms of each trenchant and informative. For someone new to the field, they provide a secure foundation for understanding how historical interpretations of the transformation of medieval English society have been shaped. In addition, Rigby supports his analysis of the theoretical underpinnings of those debates with a remarkable array of data culled from the vast literature of historical findings about every sort of institution and social grouping in medieval England, as well as with a broad selection of contemporary writings. His inclusion of lengthy explanations of the place of women and Jews in medieval society, along with his discussion of social ideology, is both welcome and novel. What is refreshing in his reportage is the way in which he fits interesting details together to construct a reliable yet sophisticated understanding of English medieval society.
The question, which Rigby poses in regard to the Marxist concept of the ‘feudal relations of production,’ is whether the theory of social closure tells us anything ‘which we did not know already’.footnote2 Put another way, can closure theory explain medieval social relations and social change in a more satisfying manner than other theories? Rigby’s proposition is that the terms of closure theory, such as exclusion, usurpation, or dual-closure, ‘help us to classify and to make sense of natural phenomena,’ meaning the features and changes of English medieval society.footnote3 Is this taxonomy preferable to Marxist or functionalist terminology, in the sense of either being truer to the historical record or clearer in explicating medieval phenomena?