« ZurückWeiter »
THE HISTORICAL BASIS OF SOCIALISM
THE GOLDEN AGE OF THE PEOPLE.
In looking back through the history of our country, there is one period when by common consent men and women who worked with their hands were better off than at
time before or since. It may be doubted indeed whether any European community ever enjoyed such rough plenty as the English yeomen, craftsmen, and labourers of the fifteenth century. These days of well-being for the mass of the people lasted from the end of the fourteenth until the first quarter of the sixteenth century. The period includes in foreign affairs the battles of Cressy and Agincourt, and the other exploits of Henry V.; but it also saw the complete defeat of the English by Joan of Arc, and their expulsion from France. At home, the dethronement of Richard II. led up to the bloody Wars of the Roses, and the crowning victory of Bosworth Field, which seated Henry VII. on the throne. Great risings of the peasantry had obtained or confirmed for the people the freedom from personal slavery, and the security for their own property, which made the English of the fifteenth century the envy of Europe. Merry England it was then in spite of all drawbacks ; and the conditions of life which gave the workers such comfort
and prosperity were not upset by any of the troubles of the time. Defeat abroad and pestilence at home, civil wars, and formidable insurrections did not seriously affect the general welfare. The main body of the workers fought their own fights, and returned peaceably to their towns or homesteads, looking on with the calmest indifference whilst the barons and their retainers cut one another's throats for the cause of York or Lancaster.
Learning in our modern sense the people certainly had not; but the education of the time was wide-spread, the universities have never been so crowded since by all classes, and Piers Ploughman and Chaucer, Wyclif and Caxton, laid the ground-work of that homely English speech which, properly used, is to-day the strongest and the clearest of modern tongues. The homes of the people were filthy,* and much that we now hold to be necessary for health was thought quite useless; nevertheless the finest buildings in these islands are of this date, whilst the stone-carving and woodwork, the stained glass and tapestry which remain, testify to taste and training of a very high order.
As to the labourers, they ate, drank, and worked well, and foreigners gazed in wonder at the rich clothing, sturdy frames, and independent mien of our English common men. The truth, of course, is that below the troubles and disturbances on the surface the great main stream of human life and happiness flowed on unchecked, owing to the steady operation of economical and social causes which were peculiar to this epoch. The king, the nobles, and the clergy were the leaders of a free, and, in the main, prosperous community ; and, although cases of tyranny were not rare, and the upper classes then as ever lost no chance of
* Not worse, however, than the cottages of our agricultural labourers to-day in any respect. See Chapter X.
increasing their wealth and power at the expense of those below, the craftsmen and labourers were nowise behindhand in championing the liberties they had so hardly won.
At the end of the fourteenth century (1381-1400), serfdom and villenage were practically done away in England. The great risings of Wat Tyler and Flannoc (1381), though put down at the moment by treachery and false promises, really secured freedom for the mass of the people. Such an insurrection as the Peasants' War did not arise from the trifling cause commonly put forward.*
The priest John Ball had genuine grievances to point to and definite reforms to propose when he addressed his stirring speeches to tens of thousands of his stalwart countrymen. Thus was he in the habit of addressing Tyler's followers in support of great social and political principles friends, things cannot be well for us in this England of ours, nor ever will, until all things shall be in common ; when there shall be neither lord nor vassal, and all grades shall be levelled ; when the nobles shall be no more masters than we.
How ill have they treated us ! and why do they thus keep us in bondage ? Are not Adam and Eve their ancestors as well as ours ? What can they show, and what
can they give, why they should be more masters than we? except, maybe, because they make us labour and work for them to spend. They are clothed in velvets and rich stuffs, trimmed with ermine and other furs, whilst we are forced to wear coarse cloth. They have wines, spices, and nice bread, whilst we have only rye and straw refuse ; if we drink it must be water. They have grand houses and bomesteads, but we must face wind and rain as we labour in the open ; yet our labour it is which keeps up their luxury. We are called slaves; and if we fail at our tasks we are flogged ; and we have no king to complain to, nor anyone who will hear us and do justice. Let us go to the king, who is young, and remonstrate with him on our slavery, telling him we must have it otherwise, or we ourselves shall find the remedy. If we wait on him in a body, all those who come under the title of slaves, or are held in bondage, will follow us in hope of being free. When the king sees us we shall get a favourable answer, or we must seek ourselves to amend our lot.”*
* Professor Thorold Rogers is undoubtedly right in his remarks as to the effect of the Peasants' War. Though the rising itself was defeated, the people practically won.
Attempts were in fact being made, not only to reduce the wages of day labourers by enforcing anew the statute of King Edward III, in relation to payments to hinds and craftsmen, and to maintain the serfs who still existed in their degraded position, but to bring back the old forced labour, which had been gradually commuted for money payments. Throughout the country districts of England there were now established bundreds of thousands of yeomen and lifeholders, who had freed themselves from the more galling trammels of feudalism, and any such attacks upon their hard-won rights or the rights of the free labourers, met with a stout resistance.
The tenants on the feudal estates, whether small or large, * It is well to show that the idea of socialism is no foreign importation into England. Tyler, Cade, Ball, Kett, More, Bellers, Spence, Owen, read to me like sound English names: not a foreigner in the whole batch. They all held opinions which our capitalist-landlord House of Commons would denounce as direct plagiarisms from “continental revolutionists." We islanders have been revolutionists however, and will be again, ignorant as our capitalists are of the history of the people. Edmund Burke, with his fine sophistical Whiggery, of course sneered at coarse, vigorous John Ball. But then, so far as we know, Ball did not sell himself to the nobles as Burke did.
had also as good a right and title to their lands, subject to the dues which they paid to the lords or the church, as the nobles, the clergy, or the king had to theirs. Competition for farms in our modern sense was unknown. The relations between the various parties interested were in the main personal, and these continued even when the main fabric of feudalism was falling into decay. Such a body of tillers of the soil produced their crops as a whole for the use of their own people. Farming with a view to profit alone was only just beginning. Though England at this time exported its superfluity of grain, wool, and hides after the people had been well fed, well clothed, and well shod, only a few large landed proprietors carried on this business with a direct view to commercial gain. The mass of the small farmers worked on their land in much the same spirit as the early settlers on the eastern coast of North America, or, as
as some farmers do to-day in the Western States, though with even less idea of exchanging the greater part of their crops. Their methods of tillage were rude, but they continued to get out of the soil an excellent subsistence for themselves and their families, as well as for the hinds who ordinarily fed at the yeoman farmer's own table.
Holding the land, having the implements and the produce alike at their disposal, subject only to certain payments whose amount was well established, such people were free in every sense, economical and personal. No man could call upon them to work, none to fight save of their own freewill and consent; they had at hand the means for feeding, clothing, and housing themselves and their families without being beholden to any. All records of the time go to show what a fine, vigorous folk were these independent