Feu[dal] and [not] far [enough] between

I know that there are much bigger issues out there at the moment, and that there are even bigger problems with leasehold itself, but, politicians and journalists covering planned leasehold reforms, can we STOP CALLING LEASEHOLD FEUDAL?!. Accepting (as some historians don’t) that ‘feudal is a useful term, the lease isn’t, and never was. Yes, there were leases in the medieval world being referred to in a vague, flabby, days-of-yore, way, but they just didn’t occupy the same position as they have done in more recent times. ‘Medieval serfdom’ did not involve leases in anything much like the 1925 Law of Property Act s. 1 sense. ‘Capitalist’ is the word you are looking for.

I had high hopes that somebody had had a word, when I saw the Observer headline for the story – OK, they were pushing the ‘antiquated’ line, despite the fact that the worst abuses seem to be relatively modern, but ‘unfair’ is appropriate, but reading on, we have the full package of ‘feudal’ and William the Conqueror. How is this, from that piece, for a bit of not-joined-up history:

This is a form of rentier capitalism that dates back to the 11th century, when the feudal system was enshrined in law by William the Conqueror. Before the Second World War, almost all flats were rented rather than owned. The number of properties owned on a leasehold basis expanded hugely from the 1970s onwards as large houses were broken up into smaller flats and buying flats to live in became commonplace.

Nothing much happened in relation to leases, nor to land tenure, nor property practices in general, between 1066 and 1939 … ???

There is, I suppose, a little more justification for the ‘feudal ground rent clauses’ variation, in spirit, if not in letter, if the idea is that they are within the control of one party, and can be varied, in the manner of medieval villein services (though, even here, a decent medievalist could tell us that, while there might not be much in the way of common law control on services at a very early point, custom did rather a lot to curb arbitrary changes). And, usually, the ‘feudal’ label seems to be attached to leasehold in general, rather than this aspect of it. (Forfeiture is also picked out as having feudal associations at times: again, not terribly accurately).

And yes, it matters – both in terms of history and in terms of the present. In terms of history, it is a classic example of contempt for the people of the past.  As others have pointed out with regard to the tedious descriptions of violence or barbarism as ‘medieval’, this chronological ‘othering’ trick is a way to avoid seeing the wrongs and problems of the present. Ludicrous ground rent clauses are not the fault of greedy modern landowners out to exploit those not in a position to refuse, they are all down to medieval legal structures and William the Conqueror. Lazy.

Good to get that out of my system!



Image – in honour of the date, but also, the state of my head when confronted with another ‘leasehold is feudal’ reference. Photo by Jonas Frey on Unsplash