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Brenner debate

  One of the longest-running debates in the social sciences has concerned the causes and geography of the transition from feudalism to capitalism in medieval and early modern Europe (Hilton, 1975; Holton, 1985). In the mid-1970s the \'transition debate\' entered a new phase stimulated by an American historian Robert Brenner (1976, 1982). Brenner reworked an older argument (Dobb, 1946) that the structure of class power and class relations (rather than demographic or commercial change) determined long-run patterns of European economic development, explaining the emergence of capitalism in England. The editors of the journal Past and Present, in which Brenner\'s argument appeared, invited several responses, and a rejoinder from Brenner (all reprinted in Aston and Philpin, 1985). Subsequent debate spilled over into historical, historical geographical and social theory literatures (Tribe, 1981; Heller, 1985).

Brenner rejected the notion that European medieval society underwent an ecological crisis from c.1300, produced by an underlying ecological dynamic (see Postan thesis), reasserting the Marxian position that agrarian crises were socially precipitated. The legally dependent position of feudal tenants enabled lords to exact surplus above that produced by \'market\' forces. Ever-greater surplus extraction from agricultural producers by feudal lords (to finance competition for political status), the Church and the Crown precipitated a crisis of reproduction in peasant agriculture, and threatened peasant subsistence. On this reading, \'the late-medieval crisis in seigneurial revenues was not a mere concomitant of a more general crisis in the economy: it was the very eye of the storm\' (B. Harvey in Campbell, 1991, p. 17).

However, class relations varied across Europe, causing demographic decline to have differing effects. Brenner claims that agrarian capitalism appeared in England because of the particular way in which in English feudal society decayed during the later Middle Ages. Central to his argument are two geographical comparisons of social relations. The first comparison is between western Europe (where lords lost their political control of feudal tenants) and eastern Europe (where manorial lords strengthened their control over land and dependant peasantries). The second comparison is between France (where absolute peasant property rights became entrenched) and England (where peasants failed to establish absolute property rights, but achieved more flexible tenures). English tenants\' initiatives rebounded on them when demographic expansion resumed after 1500; landlords now evicted peasant producers and installed entrepreneurial tenants, thereby producing agrarian capitalism.

The main points of dispute between Brenner and his critics, on both the theoretical right and left, involved the extent to which he treated demographic and social causes of long-run change as mutually exclusive, rather than as interactive; and the extent to which he conflated exogenous and endogenous components of demographic and economic change (Hilton, 1978; Postan and Hatcher, 1978; Aston and Philpin, 1985). Within Marxist approaches, the most noteworthy skirmishing involved Wallerstein\'s world-systems view of the emergent European world economy (Wallerstein, 1974, 1980; Brenner, 1977). Brenner\'s rejoinder (1982) was more a clarified restatement than a sustained response to critics, and failed to problematize the relationship amongst the various components of \'agrarian capitalism\' (Holton, 1985; Glennie, 1987).

Brenner\'s account of emergent agrarian capitalism has fared badly in recent years: \'There is mounting evidence to show that there was not a coordinated relationship between landlord power, tenure, ownership, farm size and capitalistic farming\' (Overton, 1996, p. 205).

Most landlords were much less powerful than Brenner claims, and the law more protective of tenants\' property rights (Searle, 1986). Much economic differentiation occurred amongst tenants, rather than being engineered by landlords exploiting their class power (Glennie, 1988; Poos, 1991). The main pioneers of new farming methods were middling farmers (owner-occupiers as well as tenants) not the great landowners, who showed little interest either in organizing their estates for capitalist tenant farming or in farming innovations (Allen, 1992). The most dramatic advances in output and land productivity came where lordship was relatively weak — the opposite of the pattern envisaged by Brenner, who has himself made further important contributions to debates on politics and commerce (Brenner, 1993, see especially part 3).

Brenner\'s ideas on the decline of feudalism have been more influential (though unfortunately ignored in some key works on medieval agrarian history, see Hallam, 1990). Recent attention to geographies of manorialization, alongside work on medieval commercialization, has produced several new avenues of debate, not least in questioning the Postan thesis, and in stimulating more geographically sensitive accounts of medieval England (Campbell, 1991; Dyer, 1993; Britnell, 1996).

Analogous debates have been amongst the liveliest areas of contemporary agrarian geography and of development studies, and comparative geographical work has much to offer in linking historical and contemporary work. (PDG)

References Allen, R.C. 1992: Enclosure and the yeomen Oxford: Clarendon Press. Aston, T.H. and Philpin, C.E., eds, 1985: The Brenner debate: agrarian class structure and economic development in pre-industrial Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Brenner, R. 1976: Agrarian class structure and economic development in pre-industrial England. Past and Present 70: 30-75. Brenner, R. 1977: The origins of capitalist development: a critique of neo-Smithian Marxism. New Left Review 104: 25-92. Brenner, R. 1982: The agrarian roots of European capitalism. Past and Present 97: 20-97. Brenner, R. 1993: Merchants and revolution: commercial change, political conflict and London\'s overseas traders, 1550-1653. Princeton: Princeton University Press. Britnell, R. 1996: Commercialisation in medieval England, 2nd edn. Manchester: Manchester University Press. Campbell, B.M.S., ed., 1991: Before the Black Death: studies in the \'crisis\' of the early fourteenth century. Manchester: Manchester University Press. Dobb, M. 1946: Studies in the development of capitalism. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. Dyer, C. 1993: Standards of living in the later middle ages: social change in England c.1200-1500, 2nd edn. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Glennie, P.D. 1987: The transition from feudalism to capitalism as a problem for historical geography. Journal of Historical Geography 13: 296-302. Glennie, P.D. 1988: In search of agrarian capitalism: manorial land markets and the acquisition of land in the Lea valley, c.1450-c.1560\'. Continuity and Change 3: 11-40. Hallam, H.E., ed., 1990: The agrarian history of England and Wales, volume II 1042-1348. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Heller, H. 1985: The transition debate in historical perspective. Science and Society 49: 208-13. Hilton, R.H., ed., 1975: The transition from feudalism to capitalism. London: Verso. Hilton, R.H. 1978: A crisis of feudalism. Past and Present 80: 3-19. Holton, R. J. 1985: The transition from feudalism to capitalism. London: Macmillan. Overton, M. 1996: Agricultural revolution in England: the transformation of the agrarian economy 1500-1850, ch. 4. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Poos, L. 1991: A rural society after the Black Death: late-medieval Essex. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Postan, M. and Hatcher, J. 1978: Population and class structure in feudal society. Past and Present 78: 24-37. Searle, C. 1986: Custom, class conflict and agrarian capitalism: the Cumbrian customary economy in the eighteenth century. Past and Present 110: 106-30. Tribe, K. 1981: The problem of transition and the question of origin. Ch. 1 in his Genealogies of Capitalism. London: Routledge. Wallerstein, I. 1974: The modern world system I: capitalist agriculture and the origins of the European world-economy in the sixteenth century. London: Academic Press. Wallerstein, I. 1980: The modern world system II: mercantilism and the consolidation of the European world-economy. London: Academic Press.

Suggested Reading Aston and Philpin, eds (1985). Campbell, B.M.S. 1990: People and land in the middle ages, 1066-1500. In R. Butlin, and R. Dodgshon, eds, An historical geography of England and Wales, 2nd edn. London: Academic Press, 69-122. Dyer (1993). Glennie (1987). Overton (1996).



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