This detailed and original study of early-modern agrarian society in the Somerset Levels examines the small landholders in a group of sixteen contiguous parishes in the area known as Brent Marsh. These were farmers with lifehold tenures and a mixed agricultural production whose activities and outlook are shown to be very different from that of the small 'peasant' farmers of so many general histories. Patricia Croot challenges the idea that small farmers failed to contribute to the productivity and commercialisation of the early-modern economy. While the emergence of large capitalist farms was an important development, these added to the production of existing small cultivators, rather than replacing them. The idea that only large-scale, specialized farmers were involved in agricultural progress, or that their contribution alone was enough to account for the great increase in food production by the late 17th century is questioned; small farmers continued to make a living, contributed to the market, and survived alongside the new, bigger farms.
Croot's in-depth study not only adds to our knowledge of agrarian society generally, but shows that far from being backward and interested primarily in subsistence farming, small producers in this area sought profit in making the best use of their resources, however limited, being flexible in their production and growing new or unusual crops. The main land tenures, copy and lease for lives, are also covered in detail, contributing to current debates on landholding and sub-tenancy. The author shows the uses to which lifehold tenures could be put, resulting in the increasing financial strength of copyholders and their dominance in local society. The effects of the tenure and profits of farming can be seen in the way that families were provided for, as well as in the roles that women played and the responsibility they had in economic and social life, while the wider interests of the inhabitants are shown in their religious and political engagement in events of the 17th century.
Patricia Croot's meticulous study is a valuable contribution to English agrarian history, and in particular to the history of this under-researched region.
Patricia Croot is a Senior Research Fellow of the IHR with a PhD from Leeds University. She has also worked for the Victoria County History of Middlesex, as both County and Consultant Editor.
ISBN 978-1-909291-86-7, May 2017, 240pp Hardback