Page:The Economic Journal Volume 1.djvu/80

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freedom. The Revolution left the peasantry theoretically and politically free. That may have been nearly all that was aimed at. But it is remarkable how little change it accomplished for the peasant in the direction of individual freedom. It did not break up the solidarity of the peasant communities, because it did not succeed in setting free the individual peasant from the powerful restraints upon individual action imposed upon the whole body of the peasantry of each commune by the system of agriculture which had come down from ancient times and was perpetuated by the powerful sanction of immemorial custom.

I am not sure how far it has been recognized by either French or English economic students since Arthur Young, that the morcellement of which they complain, and which has no doubt been greatly increased by the division of holdings among heirs, had its root in the open field system of husbandry once so widely spread over Europe. I doubt whether any historian has ever seriously set himself to examine whether it was so. It may therefore be of some economic interest and importance to show, if it can be shown, that the typical French peasant holding, like the virgate or yardland of the English villanus, was from time immemorial a bundle of scattered acres, that the greater part of French arable land has always been tilled, and is tilled now, under substantially the same open field system as that which so long subsisted in England as the shell of the village community in serfdom, and that the exaggerated morcellement of modern times grew out of the scattered ownership which was one of the traits of the system.

The legislation of the French Revolution, it is true, recognized the open field system, and at the same time gave to every holder the right to sell or exchange his strips and to enclose them at his pleasure. It gave to the holder, in other words, the power to withdraw his strips from the open field system, and to till his land at his pleasure as his own absolute property should he choose to enclose it. But so long as he abstained from doing so his land—his scattered strips—remained subject to the usages locaux of the open field system. These had come down from time immemorial as ancient custom. They were not abolished, though the door of escape from them was thus opened wide to the peasant. They were, in fact, so deeply engrained in the minds and habits of the peasant communities, and supported by so powerful a sanction of common feeling in each community, that the liberty given to the individual by the open door has not to any very great extent been used.