In the Middle Ages, rents tended to be low, as the properties were administered by the monks. Even the manor houses tended to be kinder landlords than is generally considered. In The Common Stream, Rowland Parker’s history of the Cambridgeshire village of Foxton, we read of annual rents of one penny for a twenty-seven-acre smallholding, a sum which could be a hundredth of the peasant’s annual income. Imagine paying £300 a year today for a ten-acre farm.
Land was more evenly shared: in Foxton, 27 families shared 840 acres. Manor house owners and monks weren’t like today’s property developers; they did not buy and sell properties in the hope of making vast capital profits. They were long-term stewards of the properties and the lands that went with them. The institution -whether family or monastery - was bound to outlive any individual. Therefore, sustainability was built into the programme.
Rowland Parker finds examples of rents unchanged for five hundred years; there were also peppercorn rents, meaning, nothing. As in other areas of life, the maintenance of a healthy community, a commune, was more important than money-getting, and low rents with long leases tended to promote local harmony.
Before 1600, the average peasant was living very well. He was more free than is generally thought. He was living exactly the life to which today’s stockbrokers aspire: a big house in the country with horses, animals and land. It’s just that the peasant didn’t have to slave in the city from 7 a.m. every weekday to get it: he just had to work for a day or two each week on the manorial land. Every tenant peasant had his own arrangement with the manor house. Here are two thirteenth-century examples from Rowland Parker:
Thomas Vaccarius holds 9 acres of land with a house, and he must do each year 100 days work, plough one acre and do carting service when required. He shall receive one hen, and shall mow and stack. His services are valued at 10s a year, and he pays a rent of 3d.
John Aubrey holds 18 acres of land with a house, and he must do 52 days work a year, must plough for 2 days, do 2 boon-works at harvest, mow the meadow for 2 days, cart the hay, repair the roof of the hall, harrow the oat-land along with his fellows, and he shall receive one hen and 16 eggs. His services are valued at 9s 8d and he pays a rent of 2s 6d.
Thomas Vaccarius paid a tiny fraction of his wages in rent for his nine-acre holding. He worked just two days a week. John Aubrey had eighteen acres of land and a job which only required him to work one day a week and which, in today’s values, pays him thirty grand a year (putting his rent at £7,000, a modest amount for such a considerable property). The rest of the time, John and Thomas would be working on their smallholdings and practising a craft or several crafts by which they earned more money.