H. N. Hyndman in To-day July 1884

Six Centuries of Work and Wages

Source: To-day, July 1884, pp. 100-104;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

This is a curious book indeed. To begin with, the publisher has cut it in half in the middle of a chapter, so that two volumes are made out of one in the most hap-hazard way; next, it is almost impossible to tell of what period the author is specially writing at any particular page, references to all the centuries being jumbled together in hopeless confusion; thirdly, the book has no guiding theory whatsoever, no attempt being made to explain how or why the labourers held such different relations to landlords and employers at different periods; fourthly, the author presumes upon the ignorance of his readers, and gives credit for originality to himself and his friends to an extent almost inconceivable. What has been done by other Englishmen and foreigners in the same field he coolly ignores. Thus, at p.522, we have the following ridiculous passage with reference to that most commonplace writer the late Mr. Newmarch: “My late friend Mr. Newmarch discovered and announced in the last volume of the ‘History of Prices,’ that the best condition of the English workman was during the fifteenth century and subsequently, but in a less degree, in the first half of the eighteenth.” “Discovered,” “announced!” why these have been the stock statements of every economist since Eden and Cobbett, to say nothing of Thornton and others. The truth is, that Mr. Thorold Rogers has imagined that because he has done some good work – and his larger book on the history of prices contains a great deal of useful matter rather clumsily put together – therefore he can lay down the law on all points as an “authority.” This assumption is, as might be expected, most apparent in the last part of the book, where Mr. Rogers’ incapacity to deal with the complications arising out of the complete capitalist system of production, with its world-market and constantly recurring industrial crises, renders his dogmatic, supercilious tone nothing short of ridiculous. Here and there he seems himself to have a consciousness of his own doubtful position, as at p.74, when he says “It is not clear that the man who gets wealth does not destroy at least as much as he gets, and sometimes more – a thief does so plainly as society concludes. A speculator often does, as those who have to purchase the materials of industry discover.” That surely leads, if followed out, very far away from the third-rate buy-cheap-and-sell-dear economy of which Professor Rogers is one of the chief champions. Shade of Richard Cobden, a middle-man likened unto a thief and by a prominent member of the Cobden Club!

Again, at p.557, we read that “it is possible that the struggle for existence, unless controlled and elevated, may be the degradation of all.” Not only possible but certain. It is so to-day. Yet our Professor never loses a chance of sneering at Socialism, of which he knows no more than is to be found in that very weak book of M. Emile de Laveleye’s Le Socialisme Contemporain. Socialism, however, not only explains this anarchical struggle for existence, but shows how alone it can be “controlled and elevated,” by taking account of that very, development of the power of man over nature, resulting in the class struggle of to-day, between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, which Professor Thorold Rogers systematically ignores. In short, but that Professor Rogers has succeeded in doing it, we should have said it was quite impossible for any man to write a work on English labour which covers the period of the great industrial revolution at the end of the eighteenth century, and the vast development of colonisation and emigration in the middle of the nineteenth, without throwing one single ray of light upon these two great social and economical changes. That he should have done this shows how a long course of bourgeois economy must have weakened the intelligence of a naturally clever man. Trade Unions and Co-operative Societies are his ideas of the extreme remedies for our present anarchical state of society. He is persuaded “that an attempt to relieve distress, provide proper lodging, and find work for the inhabitants of large towns, would in the end produce even worse evils than that condition which the expedients would seek to relieve.” It is, therefore, in Professor Rogers’ opinion, “natural,” and in accordance with the eternal fitness of things, that capitalists who never labour should live in luxury beyond all reason, and that those who provide the wealth should go starved and in rags. Landlords our Professor looks upon with a much less favourable eye; but his favourite capitalists – notwithstanding the passage quoted above – may rob labourers under existing economical forms as much as they please. Neither is any class war necessary; though we read with some satisfaction the following passage in the preface: “The charge of setting class against class has always been made use of by those who wish to disguise their own indefensible advantages by calumniating the efforts of those who discover abuses and strive to rectify them.”

We gladly pass from the puerilities and irrelevancies of the later period to say a few words on that portion of the book which alone is of any value.

Thus Professor Rogers tells us, that even as early as the thirteenth century almost everyone in England not only possessed land but cultivated it, and the production of clothes and hosiery was mostly a home industry. “There can be no doubt,” says Professor Rogers (p.83), “that in the thirteenth century every peasant had his pig in the stye. It is even more certain that he had his fowl in the pot.” They lived in short in rude plenty, though there were plenty of shortcomings. Adulteration was kept down with a strong hand, however, and regulated prices – which Professor Rogers thinks may even yet be extended greatly! – were common. “The mass of men had that interest in public affairs which is bred by the possession of property,” and most of the people were also far better educated than is commonly supposed. Now all this from Mr. Rogers is very important. Not because we can put the clock back, or wish to do so, to those days of small but not altogether unpleasant things; but because such facts make it quite clear that the system of unregulated competition has relatively greatly degraded the mass of the people; though the power of man over nature and the wealth of the country have almost infinitely increased since the Middle Ages. For “the Englishman of the Middle Ages disliked intermediaries in trade and strove to dispense with them as far as possible.” Further, he took a view of contracts most revolting to the middle class economist; for he did his very best to prevent the rigid enforcement of usurious claims, and, looking to the position of the two parties to a contract, took care to see that “freedom of contract” should not be wholly illusory as it is to-day. Possibly for these reasons we find that not only had the people plenty to eat and drink and good clothes to wear, but – think of this, you wage-slaves of the nineteenth century – “The poorest and meanest man had no absolute and insurmountable impediment put on his career if he would seize his opportunity and use it” (p.184). These were the days of personal relations and individualism in short; much oppression, much brutality existed, but good food and moderate labour made hardy, independent people of the English of the Middle Ages.

Professor Rogers’ account of the Peasants’ War, though not so long as in his larger work, is important; and his account of the function of the “hedge-priests” is really admirable. This is the best, portion of his book and well worth any man’s reading. To the Catholic Church Professor Rogers seems afraid to be just. These very revolutionary hedge-priests – answering by the way almost exactly to such men as Stevens and Bull in the Chartist movement – were sons of the Church, though no doubt, and very rightly, they were opposed to the domination of Rome, corrupt and altogether abominable as the Papal Court had become. The fifteenth century also Professor Rogers treats satisfactorily showing clearly the reasons for the exceptional prosperity of the labouring class at that period and their indifference to the faction fights of the barons.

Thenceforward we have reason to complain. Too much stress is laid upon Henry VIII’s debasement of the currency as a cause of the impoverishment of the people; too little upon the destruction of the monasteries and the uprooting of the people from the soil. The seventeenth century also is not well done. It seems to us, we confess, as if Professor Rogers had been forced by the recent agitations and publications of Socialists to write a hasty work quite ahead of his researches. This is the impression produced by the extraordinary falling off both in matter and in style after the period of the middle ages. Possibly he may remedy this serious blunder later.

As it is, the book though it contains a few good points, is as a whole an unsatisfactory and superficial jumble, very unpleasant to the ordinary reader from its deficiencies in style, and almost useless to the student owing to its extraordinary shortcomings at the most important periods.


1. Six Centuries of Work and Wages: A History of English Labour. By James E. Thorold Rogers, M.P. Swan Sonnenschein & Co., Paternoster Square, London.