Social Origins of Democracy: Origins of Democracy in England

The fall of the Roman Empire in the West (476 A.D) and barbarian invasions that followed marked the beginning of the Middle Ages in England. Feudalism and Catholicism spread as remedies for the resulting insecurity, fear and poverty. In the absence of a strong protective government, people surrendered their lands and labor to local warlords in return for shelter and support. The quest for physical security resulted in economic subjection and military allegiance to those who could organize defense and agriculture. Wars, famine and plague forced the peasant and serf to accept the suzerainty of temporal and spiritual lords. Every family had a lord to protect or subject it. This gave rise to a landed aristocracy and the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few. Under the feudal system, ownership of land was the principle source of wealth and power.

In the realm of religion, the Papacy reigned supreme. In the Middle Ages, to be literate meant to know Latin, because the Holy Scripture and anything else of importance were written down in that language. Commoners were not taught Latin and were not allowed to read the Bible. The church controlled people’s intellectual horizons through a hierarchy of parish priests, monks and preaching friars and created its influence on all walks of human life. Papal taxation on the land was very high. By 1279, the Church of England had amassed enormous wealth in the form of taxes and land. In order to enhance their power, the Popes themselves used war as an instrument of policy.

Politically, the Divine Right theory of kingship prevailed. According to this doctrine, the king was considered the representative of God on earth. In the early Middle ages, kings were chosen or accepted by the great barons and ecclesiastics. Their direct power was limited to their own feudal domain or manors. The serf and the vassal swore loyalty to the lord who protected them, rarely to the king whose small and distant forces could not reach out to guard the remote areas of his realm. The kings, lacking the machinery for imperial taxation, could not pay for standing armies, so their dependence on the lords further strengthened feudalism. In an age of faith, kings were also compelled to accept the suzerainty of the papacy. Moreover, the monarchs needed the support of the church in their fight against feudal barons. These conditions limited the power of the monarch. The rigid social hierarchy severely restricted human freedom. People lived in a closed society that left little scope for individual advancement.

By the dawn of the 11th century, the cessation of attacks from barbarian invaders and the stability of the feudal system provided a sense of physical security. The energy expended in self-defense was diverted to other walks of life. The rise of a money economy, the revival of commerce, the rise of guild and communes, the decline of feudalism and the accumulation of agricultural surpluses provided the basis for economic recovery and significant material progress. Physical security released aspirations for economic freedom. This economic advancement strengthened the liberalizing forces in the agrarian society.
Source: MSS Research

Seyoum T.