the gentry as caste and class

I recently read Brat Farrar, a good old mystery by Josephine Tey. I suspect she had very strong class prejudices, but that didn’t prevent me from enjoying the novel. It did make me think about why people who make their living from renting land should have higher status than everyone else–at least in the England of 1950, and perhaps even today. Renting agricultural land doesn’t seem like a particularly distinguished or refined way of life.

I think this is the reason. In the early middle ages, land wasn’t really owned. It wasn’t a commodity. Instead, some people were assigned to work certain parcels of land, and others were supposed to guard it. King Alfred, in his very loose translation of Boethius (book 2, xvii), wrote that the King “must have men of prayer, men of war, and men of work.” The men who worked were peasants, expected to toil on the land that their fathers’ had tilled. The men who fought were equestrian soldiers–knights. The local knight was the lord of the manor. He had a lord who was a noble, and that noble had a lord who was the king. Each had different roles in wartime. The best analogy is a modern military structure, not a system of private property. This made sense because the peoples of Europe had been nomadic: mobile fighting groups rather than property-owners.

As the middle ages progressed, a new class silently arose: people who made their living from trade. They became wealthy and powerful, but they didn’t fit the social theory of feudalism that King Alfred had presumed. In the 15th-century chronicles (e.g., Froissart), all non-nobles are “villains,” even though the most powerful people of his day, arguably, were the merchants.

Between the 15th and the 19th century, the feudal system of agriculture transformed into a system of private property. The lord of the manor became its owner, and his title to his land was just like the title to his townhouse or his horse. He could sell it at will. The peasant became a renter. The greater nobility lost its special function and became large landowners. Only the monarch retained his traditional role as the lord and protector, but not owner, of the land.

But the traditional social scheme lingered remarkably–it may even linger today. Contemporaries of Shakespeare and Jane Austen could take money that they earned in trade and buy land to rent out. Their children, who grew up only on the proceeds of rent, were gentry. They were “men of war” instead of “men of work,” except that no fighting was really necessary any more.

In Brat Farrar, the family occupies a manor house that they have inherited from centuries of direct ancestors. They cannot afford to live their comfortably middle-class life on their rent alone. They seem not much wealthier than their tenants, one of whom buys a better horse than they can afford. They supplement their income with a small business. But still, even in 1950, they are fully respectable because some of their cash comes from renting land.