Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (M.A.) in History



Physical Description

1 online resource (145 p.)




One of the problems which has intrigued English historians for over a hundred years is that of the position of the common man in early England. Was he a freeman working land held communally by the village, or was he a serf laboring upon the land of an overlord? Since this question of freedom is inextricably interwoven with landholding concepts the problem may also be stated another way: Did private property in land exist from the earliest times, or is that institution the result of centuries of appropriation by individuals of land originally belonging to the commmunity as a whole?

In the late 19th century a group of English historians devoted themselves to the study of this problem. The conclusions they reached varied considerably. The purpose of this essay is to examine some of those conclusions and the suppositions upon which they rest and to attempt to find methodological and ideological differences which may account for the varied results. The study will focus upon Paul Vinogradoff (1854-1925), legal historian and jurisprudential scholar, whose best known works are concerned with this subject.

Toward the end of the 18th century there developed in Germany a theory of the beginnings of society, known as the Mark theory, which described those beginnings as an idyllic period when mankind lived together in free communities. English historians found this thesis much to their liking: it fitted well with English ideals of freedom and democracy, and it supported popular belief in a strong Germanic, rather than Roman, influence in the development of English institutions.

Beginning with John M. Kemble' s Saxons in England in 1849, English historians almost to a man accepted the theory without critical examination of the authorities upon which it rested. In 1883 however, an amateur historian, Frederic Seebohm, in The English Villa Community challenged the Mark theory and asserted that the English common man was originally a serf laboring on an estate which strongly resembled the Roman villa. Paul Vinogradoff, a talented Russian working in England on early agrarian history, sought new proof to sustain the cause of the common free man. In Villainage in England (1892) he attempted to prove that the early villein was free both legally and economically. He was supported by Frederic Maitland in Domesday Book and Beyond (1897), who found in the Domesday survey proof of vestigial freedom, which he held could only mean that the once free villein had lost much of his liberty during the late Anglo-Saxon period, and that his subjection was completed by the Norman conquerors. William Ashley, in several works, supported Seebohm' s position, but did not always agree with him.

All four historians were products of conservative background. There were, however, differences in the more intimate details of their social surroundings, differences of family, education, religion, and in the case of Vinogradoff, of national origin. Vinogradoff and Maitland came from economically secure families, who provided for them the best education available; they were religious agnostics; both were legal historians. Seebohm’s and Ashleys families were not affluent, and the education they obtained came primarily from their own efforts; both were devout members of evangelical faiths; Ashley was an economic historian and Seebohm's best works were in the field of early agrarian history.

Each of these men read the sparse evidence available on the subject from a particular point of view. Vinogradoff and Maitland concluded that the early English peasant was free and that his fall from freedom to serfdom during the late Anglo-Saxon and early Norman periods was due to a large extent to a misinterpretation of his legal status. Seebohm and Ashley held he had been a serf from the time of the Teutonic settlements, and that his legal rights were never as important as his economic position.

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