« PreviousContinue »
The mitigation and finalextinction of English slavery was a work of gradual and lengthened operation. The first blow the system sustained was in the disuse of the ancient practice of converting prisoners of war into bondmen. The diffusion of Christianity, by teaching mankind that they were equal, early awakened men to the injustice of a practice which made one man the property of another. Frequently, at the intercession of their confessors, the feudal lords were induced to enfranchise their slaves; and from the ignorance of the times, the administration of justice devolving into the hands of the clergy, opportunities occurred of showing particular indulgence to this unfortunate class of society. In the eleventh centựry the Pope formally issued a bull for the emancipation of slaves; and in 1102 it was declared in the great council of the nation, held at Westminster, unlawful for any man to sell slaves openly in the market, which before had been the common custom of the country.
It would, however, be a mistake to infer from this that slavery ceased in the land, or that men did not long after continue a vendible article. In both Magna Charta, and the charters of Henry III., obtained in 1225, a class of men are mentioned, who appear to have been treated as chattel property. The prohibition to guardians from wasting the men or cattle on the estates of minors is a clear proof that villains who held by servile tenures were looked upon
in the light of negroes on a rice or sugar plantation. Long after this period they were considered a
saleable commodity, of which Sir F. Eden cites several instances from ancient authorities. In 1283 a slave and his family were sold by the abbot of Dunstable for 13s. 4d.; in 1333 a lord granted to a chantry several messuages, together with the bodies of eight natives dwelling there, with all their chattels and offspring; and in 1339 is an instance of a gift of a nief (female slave), with all her family and all that she possessed or might subsequently acquire. It was not till the reign of Charles II. that slavery was wholly abolished in England by statute; it was attempted in vain to be abolished in 1526. So late even as 1775 the colliers of Scotland were bondmen; and in case they left the ground of the farm to which they belonged, and as pertaining to which their services were bought or sold, they were liable to be brought back by summary procedure before a magistrate. The existence of this sort of slavery being deemed irreconcilable with personal freedom, colliers were declared free and put on the same footing as other servants, by the act 15 Geo.III.
In the reign of Edward I. the condition of the villains was so far ameliorated, that instead of being obliged to perform every mean and servile office that the arbitrary will of the lord demanded, they had acquired a tenure in lands on condition of rendering services which were either certain in their nature, as to reap the lord's corn, or cleanse his fishpond; or limited in duration, as to barrow two days in the year, or to employ three days in carting the lord's timber. As early as the year 1257, a servile tenant, if employed before midsummer, received wages; and he was permitted, instead of working himself, to provide a labourer for the lord; from which it is obvious he must have possessed the means of hiring one; and secondly, that a class of free labourers, at liberty to barter their services to the best bidder, had begun to exist.
These were important transitions, indicating the rise of a middle class and independent race of workmen. By granting to the vassals a right to property, they received a stimulus to acquire more; and, by conceding to them a part of the immunities of freemen, they were raised one step in the social scale, and put in a state to treat and contend with their oppressors for the remainder. Whatever advances were subsequently made, may be considered as an extension and improvement of these first concessions.
While the people were in a state of slavery, it may be readily conjectured, that their diet would be the mere offal and refuse of their masters; and no more of it than was necessary to enable them to support their daily toil. At this period, the food of labourers consisted principally of fish, chiefly herrings, and a small quantity of bread and beer. Mutton and cheese were considered articles of luxury, which formed the harvest-home, of so much importance in ancient times. Wages were a penny a day in harvest, and a halfpenny at other seasons: the average price of wheat was 61. 8s. a quarter, which last clearly shows the small progress made in tillage husbandry, and how little the present staff of life entered into the general consumption of the community. Their habitations were without chimneys, and their principal furniture consisted of a brass pot, valued from one to three shillings: and a bed valued from three to six shillings.
The variations in the prices of commodities were great and sudden, arising from the absence of commercial middlemen, whose pursuits, though often viewed with prejudice, tend to produce a regular and equable supply of the most essential articles of consumption throughout the year. The trade of a corn-dealer seems to have been unknown; nor except in the Abbey-Granges do we meet with instances of corn being collected in large quantities. * The natural consequence must have been, that the farmers, without capital, disposed of their crops at moderate prices, soon after the harvest : purchasers who only looked to their immediate wants, having corn cheap, were naturally wasteful and improvident in the consumption: the price, therefore, almost invariably rose as the year advanced, and was frequently at an enormous height just before harvest, when the supply of the preceding season was nearly or entirely exhausted.
Stow relates, that in 1317 the harvest was all got in before the 1st of September; and that wheat which had before been at 41. the quarter fell to 6s. 8d., a twelfth part of the price. A reference to tables of prices furnish abundant proof of the extreme misery of these times, in which, the only buyers of corn were the consumers : and no monopolists, as they are termed, interfered, who by the aid of superior capital, purchasing the redundant produce of one year, made a provision for the scarcity of another.
* Sir F. Eden's State of the Poor, vol. i. p. 18.
The progress of manufacturing industry and of town population operated favourably on the condition of the labouring classes. The woollen manufacture had been known so early as the Conquest, and for greater security during a barbarous age had been chiefly established in boroughs and cities. As it was at first carried on principally by the Flemings, who were exposed to the jealousy of an unenlightened nation, it is probable that the privileges conferred by the sovereign on weavers, fullers, and clothiers, in allowing them to carry on their occupations in walled towns, and form themselves into guilds and companies, governed by corporate laws, were not more intended for the advancement of their art than to protect their persons from popular outrage and their property from depredation. Such was the want of police during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, that robbers formed themselves into bands under the protection of powerful barons, who employed them in acts of violence and plunder, justified their conduct, and partook of their booty. The king's retinue was often beset and pillaged by banditti; even towns during times of fairs were assaulted and ransacked, and men of rank carried off and confined in the castle of some lawless chieftain till their ransom was paid. In so general a state of