Central to distributism is decentralization. Instead of few owning much, many should own little, especially regarding land. Private property provides a “stable condition of things [man] finds solely in the earth and its fruits.“ The land’s produce can be consumed or sold, providing sustenance and potentially income. “Hence, man not only should possess the fruits of the earth, but also the very soil…” This is very different from the large agricultural system today where immense tracts of land are privately owned and in production of a few crops like corn or soybeans. Many men with small acreage working in a local economy would generate a greater variety in each farm. This image of a community of small farms is idealized in the village. If land ownership, however, is not a reality for many, private agreements may help to create stable rights to land that will reach the same ends as ownership, perhaps even the creation of village-like communities. In fact, firm contracts between farmers and landowners would mirror the village systems of the Middle Ages more than each farmer owning the land. Looking to the slow rise of medieval villages (and considering their lasting grip on the imagination) can provide individuals with direction and lessons for moving to the land in a lasting arrangement, overcoming the property barrier.
Why The Village?
The medieval village carries with it a caricature of savagery and superstition. The truth, however, is even more fantastic than the caricature. The villages of the Middles Ages are the richest example thriving culture rooted in land, tradition and faith that peaked in the thirteenth century, the “culmination of the middle ages.” The fruits defend this truth: The thirteenth century birthed representative governments, guilds of master craftsmen (from where we still retain the word “mister,” or master); there were saintly kings like St. Louis of France and St. Ferdinand of Spain; saints like Francis and Dominic; theologians like Aquinas, Scotus and Bonaventure; masters of the arts like Giotto and Dante. Some testaments, perhaps the most amazing, are carved in stone: the gothic Cathedral.
Faith was literally central in the village hub, the parish church, and in the thirteenth century alone twenty Cathedrals were erected in England. Modern man, master of useful and tall office space, conceives an awe in his heart at the site of these testaments of a culture. Yet it was not a traveling team of experts and officials erecting them, but each village and its inhabitants. “The men who worked around the Cathedrals were given opportunities to express themselves and the best that was in them as no class of workmen before or since have ever had the opportunity.” From the intricate ironwork of door handles to the sacred art to the bells in the tallest tower to the sea of hand made tiles on the floor – each piece was crafted locally. To duplicate one today would necessitate experts the world over.
Cathedrals were possible because small villages were teaming with craftsman, artists and farmers. Village harmony did not merely produce a reasonable and sustainable economy, but joyful men. This was a time when rainy England was “Merrie England.” James J. Walsh, commenting on the men that build the Cathedrals, compares the workman of a medieval village with those of today, and considers what made them so merry:
“It is easy to understand that workman would be profoundly merry at heart when they had the consciousness of accomplishing such good work. Men must have almost tardily quitted their labor in the evening while they hoped and strove to accomplish something that would be worthy of the magnificent building in which so many of their fellow workman were achieving triumphs of handcraftsmanship. Each went home to rest for the night, but also to dream over what he might be able to do and awoke in the morning with the thought that possibly to-day would see some noteworthy result. This represents the ideal of the workman’s life. He has an interest quite apart from the mere making of money. The picture of the modern workman by contrast looks vain and sordid. The vast majority of our workmen labor merely because they must make enough money to-day, in order that they may be able to buy food enough so as to get strength for work to-morrow. Of interest there is very little. Day after day there is the task of providing for self and others. Only this and nothing more. Is it any wonder that there should be social unrest and discontentment? How can workmen be merry unless with the artificial stimulus of strong drink, when there is nothing for them to look forward to except days and weeks and years of labor succeeding one another remorselessly, and with not surcease until Nature puts in her effective demand for rest, or the inevitable comes.”
Some may claim the village is romanticized – that romance clouds truth; that they were superstitious, fearful and filthy. But these accomplishments and the social memory of the village proves that, like the love of a marriage, the romantic was the true and the trepidation is the exception. Those who dismiss medieval villagers as superstitious serfs “know nothing at all of the lives of the towns of the Middles Ages and are able to appreciate not even the slightest degree the wonderful system … that made life so much fuller of possibilities … for all classes and for happiness in life, than any other period of which we know. This phase … is at once the most interesting, the most significant for future generations, and the most important in its lessons for all time.”
Steps towards a cultural renewal, however, cannot start with merely founding a village. The founding of anything great is the end of many steps, not the first. Thus, in reality the village is not a pattern to be mimicked, but a sign of hope, a testament to what man does when man thrives as man. A true distributist is not placing his hope in villages made by men, but in men that make villages:
“So if I am told at the start: ‘You do not think Socialism or reformed Capitalism will save England; do you really think Distributism will save England?’ I answer, ‘No, I think Englishmen will save England, if they begin to have half a chance.’”
It is right, therefore, to say that what is described below is a looking to the wisdom of ages past, and knowing that men of today are men of at least similar substance, and therefore capable of learning from their fathers.
Wake again, Teutonic Father-ages,
Speak again, beloved primeval creeds;
Flash ancestral spirit from your pages,
Wake the greedy age to noble deeds. (Epmietheus.)
There will we find laws which shall interpret,
Through the simpler past, existing life;
Delving up from mines and fairy caverns
Charmed blades to cut the age’s strife. (Rev. Charles Kingsley)
The Fall of Rome and Rise of the Village
With the image of the village in mind, with its craftsmen and small farms, considering the history of its creation is in order. Moving forward, it must again be noted that what is sought in learning about the village is the ends that property provides: free cultivation of the fruits of the earth in an economic and social arrangement lasting enough to produce culture.
A fact often missed in discussions about private property and villages is that most of the property that was cultivated in places like England was not actually owned by the farmers. Their arrangement with landowners was, however, mutually enriching and as rooted as an ancient vineyard. Though today all social and economic systems of the Middle Ages are swept into the definition of “feudalism,” this fails to acknowledge the variety of arrangements and the clear benefit this afforded the peasants, as these arrangements between classes were the basis of the village. This mutual agreement, however, was born from a much less mutual though somewhat agreed arrangement: slavery.
In fact, the word village is derived from the Latin word villae, which was a Roman system that remained in place even after the fall of Rome and the rise of Byzantium between the fourth and sixth centuries. Villas (the English version of the word) were large estates owned by a sole proprietor (a dominus, or “lord”) and worked by slaves. The agrarian life, however, was not primarily for local sustainability, but for export and the general wealth of the lord. What was given the slaves was given so that they might produce more, not thrive as men. Slavery and other forms of servitude were often undesirable, but they afforded a certain sense of stability in the world of constant war and invasion that follows the fall of Rome. The peasant class was “at once exploited and protected,” but their stability was lasting enough for culture to develop and they helped build the foundation of Christendom itself. Slavery prior to the rise of Christianity was an assumed part of life. Few questioned it. Jesus freely speaks of slavery as a matter-of-fact human institution (Matthew 25:45-51). St. Paul even provides moral guidelines for those living in this state.
As Rome declined the Church’s influence grew. This influence reached deep into rural life as the sees of bishops became less centered around cities and more of a countryside reality, with monasteries gaining significant sway. In fact, if cities remained at all after the fall of Rome it was because the bishop was there. Western Europe was transforming as monastic influences from Ireland, but even more so from Benedictine Italy, compounded in places like England. The Church’s anthropological philosophies grew roots in more and more minds. Rulers and inhabitants tasted the grace of sacraments, and traditional slavery became distasteful. Landowners did not have to free their slaves, but they had to answer for their treatment and acknowledge they were indeed men like themselves, and that for Christians the deepest reality (deeper than the economic system of the time) was that there was “no more slave and freemen” even when their was.
The second move towards freeing the slaves of the giant estate was more pragmatic. As Rome fell and Moslem imperialism cut off the Mediterranean (the main trade route from West to East), economies became more localized and dependent upon themselves. From this came a more communal agrarian state. Replacing international trade as a source of wealth for estate owners, land became “the sole source of subsistence and the sole condition of wealth,” and all relied on what could be produced and traded locally, as opposed to produced in large quantities by slaves and shipped to Byzantium. Lords of the land became dependant on the slaves and a more closed economy developed, requiring more sustainable and mutually enriching practices for men and the land. Merchant traders became husbands (“house-bounds”) of the land and estate owners, cutoff from international trade, did the same. “[They] did not do so because of choice but from necessity…” No longer could proprietors keep slaves in production for the sake of export, but he became, in a sense, enslaved to his slaves. He needed them to reap the fruits of the land and they needed him for protection from foreign invaders.
“By the ninth century, when this process had been gradually at work for … three hundred years, one fixed form of productive unit began to be apparent throughout Western Christendom.” This unit was the village. The lord still owned the land, but the inhabitants were no longer slaves. In fact, the dependence of the lord on his people gave rise to the people themselves having permanent rights to cultivate the land and later even owning small parts of it. The lands had distinct divisions of rights and customs that ensured that the lord of the land and the peasants had sufficient produce and that the land itself was cared for and not worked as to deplete its fruitfulness.
The first of three divisions was the domain (the lord’s land), which was privately reserved to the landowner, though still often worked by the peasants in a form of employment. The second division, though still legally the lord’s, was reserved in apparent perpetuity for the villagers, who had now worked the land for generations. The land reserved for them was completely for their own private cultivation and sustenance. Modern equivalents would call them “homesteads,” though there is still remnants of the tradition in the English word “yard,” derived from name of these lands: “yardlands.” The yardlands were essentially small farms set aside for support of the family. A third division of land was the “common lands” where both the lord and the people had rights. These lands helped sustain villages and the lord and had specific guidelines for what could be produced on it. “For instance, in a certain village, if there was a beech pasture for three hundred swine, the lord might put in but fifty: two hundred and fifty were the rights of the ‘village.’” Overgrazing or mistreating the land was a direct threat to food security and was not tolerated.
Thus the villae became a village, and the slave a yeoman. To this day the word village brings to mind images of harmony and simplicity. The community was strong and vibrant and the sustainable agrarian culture grew other needs that were filled locally: metal-working, clothing, construction, etc. This came about in stages, the most important of which was the rights to farm the land. Even if later land was purchased and privately owned by the farmer, while this was of course better, it was of little change. What was important was the ability to cultivate the fruits of the earth freely.
The dismantling of this culture took much less time than building. There were a succession of revolutions that took apart each key piece: The Protestant Reformation removed the deep religious unity and in some cases removed the land and power from villages and guilds; the French revolution further removed religion from the public square and moved man into a spirit of contempt for the past (rejection of tradition); the industrial revolution took men from their homes and crafts, hurting the family deeply; the sexual revolution completed the breakdown of the family and healthy sexuality.
How to Build a Village
The Church now continues to insist that revivals of culture depend completely on the revival of families, and even the rural character of the past. “The rural family,” said Pope Benedict, “needs to regain its rightful place at the heart of society.” Culture based on families can be developed by following the process of building that brought us to places like Merrie England. This process can be divided and turned into four guiding principles. The first principle is the most critical, because it answers the problem of land ownership, but the second two are integral to thriving on the land after families arrive.
The first principle is the development of landowner and farmer relationships. Land is the critical ingredient to regaining a culture of rural families, but it is also the biggest hurdle. When economies closed after the rise of Islam in the seventh century, those who owned the land and those who were formerly slaves (and sometimes still) created the mutually enriching relationship that became villages. Today, as economic conditions worsen, a return to the land for many of the masses that work in the industrialized system seems viable and almost inevitable. Large estate owners may be very interested in having small farms checker their land. This principle also assumes that the recovery of agrarian culture is necessary. Just as the village had its start in farming, the same is true today for cultural renewal. Traditions of leasing land are already present in the US, but much more creative leases may be needed to help answer other issues. However, this approach does not require any legal or political adjustment in many rural settings where codes and ordinances already favor agriculture.
The nascent village of medieval times and the rights they worked out can serve as a model. A landowner can retain certain land for himself alone (which could perhaps be worked in a part-time employment of those living on the land). The other divisions would be the “common lands” where a percentage of produce is given to the landowner (perhaps the lease agreement is a cash value, but is paid with produce at market price). Then those living on the land could have permanent homes and yardlands for their own “homesteading.” In essence, the landowner would be keeping the land, but giving part of it away in the form of farming rights to the permanent families (and the agreement would need to be able to survive if the land was sold). Along with permanent families there could easily be programs of apprenticeships and interns that would help cultivate the land in exchange for food and experience.
Legal and contractual foundations will need building, but the hope present in these arrangements is truly exciting. Despite Marxist and politically motivated assertions of class warfare, history shows that these relationships can prove fruitful for all. In fact, there are already examples of a coop approach (between farmer and owner) to land in place in the West, and the ideas should be more circulated amongst ditributist circles. The Church has "has always supported the model of cooperatives" and since land is the biggest hurdle, creative methods are in order. In the UK there is a program called Landshare, which links up landowners and small farmers for this very idea. Another example is the Community Land Trusts of the New Economic Institute which are forms “of common land ownership with a charter based on the principles of sustainable and ecologically-sound stewardship and use... Individual leaseholders own the buildings and other improvements on the land created by their labor and investment, but do not own the land itself." Farmers assume all liability for the operations and the lease is even transferable to heirs. By living in the home they are guaranteed the rights to farm the land, even if they do not technically own it. This arrangement of a trust or lease with a proprietor is very reminiscent of medieval villages and their legal and customary divisions of land.
The second principle is the emphasis on local economy. The relationship of landowners and workmen (and other landowners and other workmen), especially if seperated from other economies for imposed or chosen reasons, will naturally create local economy. Because “every economic decision has a moral consequence,” local systems must have consistent moral foundations, and “the canons of justice must be respected from the outset, as the economic process unfolds, and not just afterwards or incidentally.” As they did for the process of transforming slaves into yeoman, local economies of this sort can transform factory workers to agrarian craftsmen provided there is consistent and compatible philosophy and theology, though the religious uniformity of the villages of the Middle Ages would prove difficult. Yet medieval principles of the “common good” (another extract from the vocabulary of “common lands”) are very important as well as belief in men of good will.
This economy depends on the land being in sustainable use, and this is the third principle. Though environmentalist demand ecological stewardship for the sake of nature, sustainable stewardship in this discussion is primarily for the sake of man. In harmony with nature, as part of creation himself, man is at peace. Again, sustainable agriculture can help to bring men into harmony if they agree that the land is a treasure to be cultivated virtuously.
For this to happen, there must be a firm establishment of the workmen on the land, and that is the fourth principle: permanency. Even if this permanency varies in the future, there must be at least long-term agreements (in the case of a workman working a landowners land) that maintain a dependency on the land. This permanency will help to create sustainable attitudes, even in those who lack virtue because, as the medieval philosopher Duns Scouts pointed out: “a distinction of property is decidedly in accord with a peaceful social life. For the wicked take care only of what is their own…” He was speaking, of course, about the very villages and divisions of rights described above. If a man is permanent, and needs the land healthy so it will produce, he will be more likely to use sustainable practices.
The villages of the Middle Ages are not repeatable, but the events and circumstances that gave them birth have many parallels today. Like Rome, there are large world powers that appear increasingly unstable (the economic collapses of 2008 seem very repeatable, even likely so). Like the huge land estates during the fall of Rome, there are giant pieces of property that are not able to be fully realized by the landowner alone. Like the closing of the Mediterranean, there is even the parallel of a surge in Islamic power that creates instability in global markets.
Centralized power and wealth has proven unworkable, but as they fall men may cheerfully pick up the tools of their fathers and realize that they really don’t need banks that cannot fail and giant governments that wont admit failure. In other words, the fall of the giants may be the rise of the lowly. Men are creative, need friendship, and men need to eat - and in this are the basic ingredients of the village. These ingredients, like the fruits of the earth, simply need to be cultivated and harvested. Current economic disasters may be just the catalyst to this cultivation. The decline of the dollar may see to the raising of more barns. And herein is the most exhilarating hope: the associating of men for the common good. This “habit of cooperation” is part of the nature of man as a relational and communal creature.
Sadly, cooperation it is often coerced by the grace of disaster, as in the case of a hurricane (or flood or terrorist attack, etc.) when power goes off and screens don’t project anymore and men are forced to go outside to live and serve. The hurricane honeymoon of community seems to wane as fast as it waxes. However, the slow cultivation of the village ideal is not a honeymoon, but a cultural renewal. Workmen will associate with landowners to find land to cultivate; workmen will associate together to share costs of equipment and production; families will associate in leisure and festivity. When the big entities fall and can no longer hand out what is wanting or enslave men to wanting, men will hold hand out to neighbor and not to the distributer. Many speak today of answering needs, of ending the loneliness of suburbia and the boredom of the machine. But the need might actually be to simply need a neighbor again. The village is essentially an association of men that need each other, not merely for raising barns, but also to inhabit the pubs together.
Benedict. Charity in Truth: Caritas in Veritate. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2009.
Benedict, Pope. “Message to UN Director General of Food and Agriculture.” Lecture, United Nations, Rome, 2012.
Chesterton, G.K. Outline of Sanity. Norfolk: IHS Press, 2002. Amazon Kindle edition.
Hilaire Belloc. The Serville State. Central: Forgotten Books, 2012.
Jerret, Bede. Social Theories of the Middle Ages. Tacoma: Angelico Press, 2012.
Pirenne, Henri. Economic and Social History of Europe. New York: Harvest Books, 1933.
Pirenne, Henri. Medieval Cities: Their Origins and the Revival of Trade. New York: Princeton University Press, 1969.
“Community Land Trusts.” New Economics Institute. http://neweconomicsinstitute.org/content/community-land-trusts (accessed November 4, 2012).
Walsh, James J. The Thirteenth: Greatest of Centuries. New York: Catholic Summer School Press, 1913.
 Pope Leo XIII, “Rerum Novarum” (encyclical, Rome), 7.
 RN 7
 James J. Walsh, The Thirteenth: Greatest of Centuries (New York: Catholic Summer School Press, 1913), 5.
 Walsh, 4
 The Cathedral is the chief church of a diocese, where the bishops chair (the cathedra) is. Thus, this does not even account for mere parish churches.
 Walsh, 125
 Walsh, 127
 G.K. Chesterton, Outline of Sanity (Norfolk: IHS Press, 2002), under “chapter 1,” Amazon Kindle edition.
 Both excerpts were found in the proem of The Thirteenth: Greatest of Centuries
 Hilaire Belloc, The Serville State (Central: Forgotten Books, 2012), 42.
 Henri Pirenne, Economic and Social History of Europe (New York: Harvest Books, 1933), 12.
 Belloc, 32
 That is to say it was an accepted reality, not a condoned or promoted system.
 Henri Pirenne, Medieval Cities: Their Origins and the Revival of Trade (New York: Princeton University Press, 1969), 60.
 Dawson, 181-184
 Belloc, 45
 Galatians 3:28, Knox
 Pirenne. 10
 Pirenne ,9-14
 Pirenne, 11
 Belloc, 44
 Pirenne, 60
 Belloc, 45
 Pope Benedict, “Message to UN Director General of Food and Agriculture” (lecture, United Nations), emphasis added.
 Pope Benedict, “Message to UN Director General of Food and Agriculture” (lecture, United Nations).
 “Community Land Trusts,” New Economics Institute, http://neweconomicsinstitute.org/content/community-land-trusts (accessed November 4, 2012).
 Benedict, Charity in Truth: Caritas in Veritate (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2009), 37.
 Bede Jerret, Social Theories of the Middle Ages (Tacoma: Angelico Press, 2012), 125.
 Pirenne, Medieval Cities, 120.