Friday, 2 August 2013


We don't own our house, and periodically, we think that we might be missing out and visit some properties for sale.  
Blenheim Palace, image Magnus Mansuke.  Not for sale.

The whole process, and the values that drive it, seem to me so odd, that I thought I would look into notions of property in the Middle Ages.  Apart from anything else, it's a good way of thinking about my own motivation...

A rather inspiring starting point is the anthropologist-cum-historian Alan Macfarlane's The Origins of English Individualism (1978).  He argues that, contrary to the established narrative, the ownership of property and accompanying sense of individualism date back to the thirteenth century:

'the majority of ordinary people in England from at least the thirteenth century were rampant individualists, highly mobile both geographically and socially, economically 'rational', market-oriented and acquisitive, ego-centred in kinship and social life.' (p. 163)

Macfarlane's characterisation of a peasant society in the later medieval period (which he is arguing against) is controversial - he obscures much of the kin-centred nature of peasant society in the Middle Ages, and includes some problematic readings of common law on property.

Be that as it may though, my objections to this narrative are concerned with the notion that individualism is necessarily connected to ownership.  If we look to medieval notions of ownership, the most obvious place to turn is Aristotle, who argued that private property is not only justifiable, but desirable for a peaceful society.  He uses three main arguments: that private property reduces resentment since it corresponds more fairly to what the owner deserves (basically an argument for inequality), that it increases productivity (motivation and all that), and that it brings pleasure to the owner.  The latter is perhaps the most interesting idea - he seems to be suggesting not just that it's a nice feeling to own something, but that it contributes to a sense of self and facilitates proper judgement (cf. Rhetoric 1371b12-23; Nicomachean Ethics, 9.8.1168b34).  In this interpretation of Aristotle, it's ownership which gives us the possibility of self esteem in the true sense of the word.

But medieval thinking was considerably more sophisticated than this.  We find notions of individuality emerging as early as the twelfth century (much earlier, some would argue), and these are based on very nuanced ideas about the self, about emotions, intentions, and relations to others. Individualism is, itself, of course, a highly changeable concept, and medieval ideas of the individual carefully situated the self in society, acknowledging the complex and changing relations between a single person and the various communities of which they formed a part: and this was articulated not necessarily in economic, but in legal, moral, religious and political terms. One has only to look to the work of Peter Abelard to have a sense of the subtlety of his understanding of his trajectory as a single human being through a life shaped by the communities and relationships of which he formed a part.

This notion of individuality, a series of nuanced and reflective responses to one's surroundings, seems so much more satisfying to me.  And, ultimately, it seems far more morally fulfilling.

But there's another dimension which has arisen in recent years.  We're not just encouraged to buy a house nowadays so that we can feel we've 'made it' - it's also about getting a foot on the so-called housing ladder, a particularly British institution, and one of which, given recent events, there seems little reason to be proud.  I'd love to know more about the anthropology of this development - the notion that one must buy into the housing market as quickly as possible for fear of being left behind. This is individualism of a sort, but it's also surely a sort of abnegation of individual choice in favour of a lemming-like desperation to join everyone else.

Anyway - I think that before I climb the housing ladder (and who knows, I may soon become a monumental hypocrite), I'll think more carefully about its implications and risk my bad luck by walking underneath it.

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