Friday, January 23, 2009

Serfdom - 1215 and 1961

One of the bonuses of recovering from an appendix op is that I'm getting lots of reading done. This week I've been reading 1215 - The Year of Magna Carta by Danny Danziger & John Gillingham.

They make the point, in discussing the status of people at that time, that slavery in Britain was ended not long after the Norman conquest in 1066 and "by the 1120s Englishmen looked upon slavery as a barbarous custom happily no longer practised in their modern and civilised society".

Fast forward to 1215, when "Although a serf and his family were in effect bought and sold when the land on which he lived, his villein tenancy, was bought and sold, no individual serf was separated from his or her family and taken to market to be sold in the way that slaves - human cattle - had been. Serfs were not slaves. But they felt unfree and with reason. A long struggle lay ahead, in which the great rebellion of 1381, the Peasants Revolt, was the principal landmark, before serfdom was at last ended, although it has never been formally abolished."

Now fast forward again to 1961, at which point I am 11 years old. My father was a farm labourer living in a tied cottage which went with the job; no job = no house. The farmer, who was my mother's cousin (or perhaps uncle), decided to retire and sell the farm. He didn't trouble himself to inform or consult my mother or my father (his only employee). They found out only when they saw the farm sale advertised in the local newspaper.

The sale went ahead and my father's employment duly transferred to the new owner, who promptly decided he didn't want my father. He sacked him and moved to evict us from the house; no job = no house.

Arguably, my father could have resolved this much earlier by seeking other work. After all everyone has a common law right to choose who they work for. But no job (or perhaps different job) = no house and that's a hard decision to take when you're supporting a family.

This whole farm labourer & tied cottage arrangement for the rural poor seems to me uncomfortably close to serfdom, alive and well in 1961. I believe my father's employment status then was little better than a serf, and wonder whether I was then, almost 750 years after Magna Carta, the son of a serf?

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