Protests Against Medieval Land Tenure

Protests Against Medieval Land Tenure

With the breakup of Feudalism, two conflicting strains of thought were born. Out of the misery of the common people and the extravagance of the court came a protest against private property, especially private property in land. But because of the continued dabbling of the kings into the financial affairs of their subjects, and the hampering effect of feudal bonds, a movement to free private property from all restrictions also arose and ulti­mately carried the day.

Perhaps the most important of the protests was written by Sir Thomas More (i478-1535). He lived at a time when the land problem in England was acute. To gain adequate land for sheep raising—which was more lucrative than tenants' fees— the tenants were excluded from the lands. His Utopia (1516) described a society in which lands would be held in common and production and distribution would proceed on a basis of equality.

The Digger movement of the late 1640's of which Gerrard Winstanley was the intellectual and political leader was essen­tially a protest against private property. In 1649 the members of the group took possession of some untilled land outside of Lon­don to cultivate; but the leaders were soon arrested and, although Winstanley wrote in later years advocating the abolition of pri­vate property and proposed an advanced type of communal society, the movement never became active again.
Quite in contrast to these reformers were the ardent advocates of individually owned property free from external control. Hugo Grotius (1583-1645), Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), and John Locke (1632-1704) originated this policy which has since become one of the dominant aspects and most important issues of modern society. Grotius discussed the evolution of society and showed how private property was an inherent feature of the first contracts made by men to give order to social living. Any inter­ference with private property by the sovereign power must be justly paid for, he believed. Hobbes, while emphasizing the neces­sity for individual rights in property, made them conditional upon the power of the king to change or alter them at his will without restriction or compensation. Locke, however, raised serious ob­jection to any control by the king, saying that labor was responsible for the first private ownership. Private property should only arise where there was enough left in common for others, and where the owners could adequately put such property to use. Thus Locke claimed that private property was a condition of the earliest existence (which, as later research has shown, is quite un­founded) and became a matter of contract when societies were formed.

Strong support of Locke's theories came from the Physiocrats, the school of economists in France, headed by Quesnay. Their theories were posited on the existence of a natural order which was not necessarily the early state of man described by Grotius and Locke; but it was an order, based upon inherent laws of nature which man could understand. Property and authority seemed to them to be the very foundation of the natural order. Property especially, because it stimulated the production and accumulation of wealth. Quesnay thought of private property as the real basis of the economic order of society, and other Physiocrats looked upon it as the tree out of which grew all other social institutions. In a violent reaction to the Mercantilists, Quesnay and Turgot claimed that all value was derived from land. Labor on land produced a surplus (produit net); labor applied in other areas created nothing, but shared in the surplus derived from land. This emphasis upon land, coupled with a firm conviction of the sanctity of private property and the rejection of royal interference as an economic principle, fostered profound changes in the economic and political life of France which reached their climax in the French Revolution.

Rousseau (1712-1778) looked upon property as a violation of natural rights to which most of the ills of mankind could be traced. By means of acquiring property, certain individuals were able to increase their wealth and gain control over their fellows. To Rousseau the established order of society was an evil which perpetuated unnatural and man-made injustices and inequalities.