Though both sides agreed on the general population trends between
, they split on the causes and consequences of those shifts.Brenner argued that population change alone could not explain thedecline of serfdom and the beginnings of the agricultural revolution inEngland because the same forces in France and Eastern Europe producedprecisely opposite results. Alan MacFarlane has carved out yet anothertheoretical position, based on the rational choice theory of neo-classicaleconomics, in which individuals acting in the market place were respon-sible for producing capitalism in England.Ideally, therefore, a survey of the economy and society of later medievalEngland should explain these interpretative currents as well as the histor-ical reality on which they are based. Indeed, the two cannot be separated.To his great credit, S.H. Rigby has crafted a lucid and comprehensibleaccount of the theoretical underpinnings of these historical controversiesalongside a comprehensive survey of what is known about the Englishsociety and economy in the later Middle Ages.
As Rigby points out inopening his book, all historical investigations proceed from some theoret-ical base, whether acknowledged or unacknowledged, so that it is impor-tant to make explicit their role in historical explanation. Rigby’ssecondary goal is to demonstrate the nature of historical explanation, aswell as the ability to ascribe causes to historical change, by using thedebates about medieval social change as a prime example.
Marxism Without Liabilities
Rigby does not pretend to be neutral in his exposition. After brieflyexploring the strengths and weakness of both Marxist and Parsonian the-ories of social stratification, which have informed much of the historicalwork in this field, Rigby embraces social closure theory, as defined byParkin and Murphy, to remedy what he sees as the shortcomings of theseother models of social organization. He wants to retain the sense of dichotomous conflict that is so central to Marxist analysis of class rela-tions and the integrative, binding force of functionalism while sheddingtheir liabilities. Rigby’s major complaint with Marxism seems to be thatit is essentially reductionist. Without denying that people were broadlygrouped into large classes, such as lords and peasants, which clashed overproperty rights or access to the means of production, Rigby stresses thatsociety was also divided vertically into groups whose members had acommon set of interests which overlapped with but were not identical tothose of a broader class to which they might belong. Social closure the-ory, derived from Weber, views society as a collection of self-defininggroupssystacts in Runciman’s terminology which compete with oneanother for resources and develop strategies to exclude and dominateother groups based on a variety of characteristics. These subordinategroups then develop strategies of their own, called usurpationary closure,to wrest power from dominant groups or at least to correct the politicalimbalance between them. This conflict did not necessarily push histor-ical change in any particular direction, as Marx predicted of class con-flict. By using closure theory, Rigby argues, historians, on the one hand,
English Society in the Later Middle Ages: Class, Status and Gender