‘Subtenancy uncovered: A new approach to agrarian capitalism in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century England’

Studies of agrarian capitalism have tended to employ ‘single strand’ definitions of capitalist farming that preference either the tenure of a farm, its scale, the labour it employed, or the degree to which its produce was sold to the market.1 This paper synthesises the limitations of existing approaches and presents a new, more nuanced methodology to define, measure, and understand the development of agrarian capitalism in England. A central aim of this methodology is to establish who actually cultivated land in seventeenth- and eighteenth century England. Many historians have used manorial records to address questions about the emergence of agrarian capitalism, but manorial documents recorded the owners of land, who often did not cultivate the land themselves. Rather, many owners sublet their land to subtenants at market-level rents.2 Direct documentary evidence of subtenants is rare but records of taxes levied on the occupiers of land allow us to reconstruct subtenancy patterns. This paper outlines a methodology for cross-referencing manorial records (records of owners), poor rates (a tax on occupiers), and geo-referenced maps to produce datasets on subletting activity spanning the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that can be interrogated spatially and temporally.
The data show that the engrossment of farms was driven by occupiers and that subletting was the means by which this was achieved. Situating subletting within its spatial context
demonstrates that subtenants engrossed holdings by taking up leases of fields and farms that lay adjacent or near their existing holdings in order to produce consolidated farms. Subletting also enabled owners and occupiers to quickly adapt to changing personal or family circumstances and prevailing economic conditions. Finally, subletting blurs the divide between landlord and tenant since many cultivators simultaneously leased out their own land and rented land as subtenants, which challenges the clear distinctions in the landlord-tenant farmer model of agrarian capitalism. Overall, the paper proposes a need to revise our current understanding of capitalist agrarian development to account for the complexities and dynamics of formal and informal inter-tenant leasing, which can only be uncovered through detailed, systematic study of subletting.