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who followed their standard in war. Under the lords of manors, again, small freeholds and copy holds were held of various extent, often forty-shilling and twenty-shilling value, occupied by peasant occupiers, who thus, on their own land, lived as free Englishmen, maintaining by their own free labor themselves and their families. There was thus a descending scale of owners, each of whom possessed his separate right, which the law guarded and none might violate; yet no one of whom, again, was independent of an authority higher than himself; and the entire body of the English free possessors of the soil was interpenetrated by a coherent organization which converted them into a perpetually subsisting army of soldiers. The extent of land which was held by the petty freeholders was very large, and the possession of it was jealously treasured; the private estates of the nobles and gentlemen were either cultivated by their own servants, or let out, as at present, to free tenants; or (in earlier times) were occupied by villeins, a class who, without being bondmen, were expected to furnish further services than those of the field, services which were limited by the law, and recognized by an outward ceremony, a solemn oath and promise from the villein to his lord. Villeinage, in the reign of Henry VIII., had for some time ceased. The name of it last appears upon the statute book in the early years of the reign of Richard II., when the disputes between villeins and their liege lords on their relative rights had furnished matter for cumbrous lawsuits, and by general consent the relation had merged of itself into a more liberal form. Thus serfdom had merged or was rapidly merging into free servitude ; but it did not so merge that laboring men, if they pleased, were allowed to live in idleness. Every man was regimented somewhere ; and
; although the peasantry, when at full age, were allowed, under restrictions, their own choice of masters, yet the restrictions both on masters and servants were so severe as to prevent either from taking advantage of the necessities of the other, or from terminating through caprice or levity, or for any insufficient reason, a connection presumed to be permanent.
Through all these arrangements a single aim is visible, that every man in England should have his definite place and definite duty assigned to him, and that no human being should be at liberty to lead at his own pleasure an unaccountable existence. The discipline of an army was transferred to the details of social life, and it issued in a chivalrous perception of
the meaning of the word “duty,” and in the old characteristic spirit of English loyalty.
From the regulations with respect to land, a coarser advantage was also derived, of a kind which at the present time will be effectively appreciated. It is a common matter of dispute whether landed estates should be large or small; whether it is better that the land should be divided among small proprietors, cultivating their own ground, or that it should follow its present tendency, and be shared by a limited and constantly diminishing number of wealthy landlords. The advocates for a peasant proprietary tell us truly that a landed monopoly is dangerous; that the possession of a spot of ground, though it be but a few acres, is the best security for loyalty, giving the State a pledge for its owner, and creating in the body of the nation a free, vigorous, and manly spirit. The advocates for the large estates tell us that the masses are too‘ill educated to be trusted with independence; that without authority over them these small proprietors become wasteful, careless, improvident; that the free spirit becomes a democratic and dangerous spirit; and finally, that the resources of the land cannot properly be brought out by men without capital to cultivate it. Either theory is plausible. The advocates of both can support their arguments with an appeal to experience; and the verdict of fact has not as yet been pronounced emphatically.
The problem will be resolved in the future history of this country. It was also nobly and skillfully resolved in the past. The knights and nobles retained the authority and power which was attached to the lordships of the fees. They retained extensive estates in their own hands or in the occupation of their immediate tenants; but the large proportion of the lands was granted out by them to smaller owners, and the expenditure of their own incomes in the wages and maintenance of their vast retinues left but a small margin for indulgence in luxuries. The necessities of their position obliged them to regard their property rather as a revenue to be administered in trust, than as “a fortune” to be expended in indulgence. Before the Reformation, while the differences of social degree were enormous, the differences in habits of life were comparatively slight, and the practice of men in these things was curiously the reverse of our own. Dress, which now scarcely suffices to distinguish the master from his servant, was then the symbol of rank, prescribed by statute to the various orders of society as strictly as the regimental uniform to officers and privates; diet also was prescribed, and with equal strictness; but the diet of the nobleman was ordered down to a level which was then within the reach of the poorest laborer. In 1336, the following law was enacted by the Parliament of Edward III. : “Whereas, heretofore through the excessive and over-many sorts of costly meats which the people of this Realm have used more than elsewhere, many mischiefs have happened to the people of this Realm ; for the great men by these excesses have been sore grieved, and the lesser people, who only endeavor to imitate the great ones in such sort of meats, are much impoverished, whereby they are not able to aid themselves, nor their liege lord, in time of need, as they ought; and many other evils have happened, as well to their souls as their bodies; our Lord the King, desiring the common profit as well of the great men as of the common people of his Realm, and considering the evils, grievances, and mischiefs aforesaid, by the common assent of the prelates, earls, barons, and other nobles of his said Realm, and of the commons of the same Realm, hath ordained and established that no man, of what estate or condition soever he be, shall cause himself to be served, in his house or elsewhere, at dinner, meal, or supper, or at any other time, with more than two courses, and each mess of two sorts of victuals at the utmost, be it of flesh or fish, with the common sorts of pottage, without sauce or any other sort of victuals. And if any man choose to have sauce for his mess, he may, provided it be not made at great cost; and if fish or flesh be to be mixed therein, it shall be of two sorts only at the utmost, either fish or flesh, and shall stand instead of a mess, except only on the principal feasts of the year, on which days every man may be served with three courses at the utmost, after the manner aforesaid.”
Sumptuary laws are among the exploded fallacies which we have outgrown, and we smile at the unwisdom which could expect to regulate private habits and manners by statute. Yet some statutes may be of moral authority when they cannot be actually enforced, and may have been regarded, even at the time at which they were issued, rather as an authoritative declaration of what wise and good men considered to be right, than as laws to which obedience could be compelled. This act, at any rate, witnesses to what was then thought to be right by " the great persons” of the English realm ; and when great