Home  »  Volume IV: English PROSE AND POETRY SIR THOMAS NORTH TO MICHAEL DRAYTON  »  § 6. Medieval Works on Estates Management

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

XV. Early Writings on Politics and Economics

§ 6. Medieval Works on Estates Management

The century is remarkable in the history of economic thought, since the close connection between political well-being and economic activities was more generally recognised than had ever been the case before. So soon as the king came to be dependent for a substantial part of his income not on his own estates, but on the money regularly raised by taxation, it was obviously important to him that the sources from which taxation was drawn—whether landed property or commercial profit—should be well supplied. Hence, in the writings of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, there was a new concern for the material resources of the realm as contributing not merely to the wealth of private persons, but, indirectly, to the power and dignity of the realm as a whole. The few medieval treatises which have survived may be regarded as prudent maxims about private affairs—such are Robert Grosseteste’s rules for the management of a household, Walter of Henley’s paternal advice on the management of an estate and the ancient treatises on the duties of a seneschal. Even Fitzherbert and Tusser, in the sixteenth century, hardly pass beyond this point of view. A new note is set in John Hales’s Discourse of the commonweal of this realm in England, which was written in 1549 and published in 1581. In no previous work had the interconnection of private business concerns and the public weal been so clearly recognised, and no writer has put more forcibly the fact that the pursuit of private interest is not necessarily inimical to, but may often be for the good of, the state. In modern times, when the government has been largely dependent for its revenue upon taxation, the promotion of the harmony between public and private interests became more apparent. Unless subjects were prosperous, there was no fund from which revenue could be drawn, and, hence, it came to be a matter of definite importance to develop the resources of the realm and to give private enterprise free play, or to guide it into those directions in which it could contribute most effectively to the maintenance of the power of the realm. This doctrine was clearly grasped by Burghley, who set himself to build up the industrial and maritime greatness of England as the foundation of her power. As the Elizabethan monarchy presented the type of polity which was accepted as normal in English literature, so the Elizabethan organisation gave a concrete economic system, which the economic writers of the period accepted as typical, and in regard to which they endeavoured to suggest improvements.