Primogeniture and Protestant Entry

As a preliminary test of this proposition, we gathered data on the principal entry points of Protestantism and compared the acceptance of the new religion with the conditions most likely to encourage its success or failure. Our stylized theory predicts that societies enforcing primogeniture would be most likely to remain Catholic, whereas those societies with more fluid property laws (and hence more opportunities for wealth enhancement by a larger strata of society) would find Protestantism more palatable. One possible drawback of this theory is that it treats primogeniture as exogenous, which may not have been the case. At this point, however, we do not have the historical wherewithal to construct a model that makes primogeniture fully endogenous.

Table 5.2 is replicated from a sociological study undertaken by Guy Swanson.32 It shows the pattern of primogeniture in various European countries where Protestantism competed with Catholicism in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Civil governments, religious choice and primogeniture

Final

Regime

Primo-

Society

Religion

settlement

established

geniture

Austria

Catholic

1620

1521

Yes

Bavaria

Catholic

1564

1505

Yes

Berg-JUlich

Catholic

1614

1423

Florence

Catholic

1282-1366

Yes

France

Catholic

1685

1460

Yes

Ireland

Catholic

1350

Yes

Poland

Catholic

1607

1490-1573

Yes

Portugal

Catholic

1490

Yes

Scottish Highlands

Catholic

Before 1400

Yes

Spain

Catholic

1492

Yes

Venice

Catholic

1297

Yes

Swiss Confederation

Fribourg

Catholic

1469

No

Lucerne

Catholic

1424

No

Schwyz

Catholic

1353

Solothurn

Catholic

1533

1533

No

Unterwalden

Catholic

Before 1400

Uri

Catholic

1373

Zug

Catholic

1415

Bohemia

Protestant

1593

1500

Brandenburg-Prussia

Protestant

1613

1450-1500

No

Cleves-Mark

Protestant

1569

1480-1490

No

Denmark

Protestant

1536

1523

No

England

Protestant

1553

1400-1485

No

Geneva

Protestant

1536

1530

Hesse

Protestant

1605

1500

No

Hungary

Protestant

1540

1500

No

Saxony

Protestant

1539

1425

No

Scottish Lowlands

Protestant

1560

1470-1490

Yes

Sweden

Protestant

1536

1523

No

Swiss Confederation

Appenzell

Protestant

1524

1513

No

Basle

Protestant

1528

1521

No

Bern

Protestant

1528

1500

No

Glarus

Protestant

1532

1387-1450

No

Schaffhausen

Protestant

1530

1411

Zurich

Protestant

1525

1444-1519

Transylvania

Protestant

1557

1541

United Provinces

Protestant

1579

1579

WUrtemberg

Protestant

1535

1514

No

Source: Guy E. Swanson, Religion and Regime (Ann Arbor, Mich.: University of Michigan Press, 1967), 233-241.

The first column in table 5.2 shows the geopolitical divisions common to western Europe at about the time Protestantism emerged. Certain countries existing today were not united prior to 1700. Hence, Florence and Venice appear in table 5.2, but Italy does not. Likewise, Switzerland was not a unified country. It consisted of Geneva, on the one hand, and thirteen loosely confederated cantons, on the other. Certain Germanic principalities appear, but no unified Germany yet existed. The second column indicates whether each society remained Catholic or became Protestant. The date of final settlement is the year given by Swanson as the point at which the issue of religious choice was decided once and for all. The fourth column indicates the establishment date of the political regime in place at the time of final settlement. The final column indicates whether or not the regime enforced primogeniture or similar laws of entail.

It is difficult to get accurate data on all of the principalities involved, partly because controlling legislation is relevant only to a specific and limited time frame, and partly because the autonomy of several principalities eroded over time, and with it their geopolitical identities disappeared. Of the thirty-eight principalities in Swanson's study, we have been able to verify institutional practice on partible inheritance for roughly 70 percent of the regimes. We have been unable to find conclusive data on the rest. Nevertheless, these preliminary findings are interesting from several different perspectives. Among other things, they provide reasonable support for our thesis. They show that, by and large, those societies ruled by primogeniture remained Catholic, whereas those with partible inheritance laws embraced Protestantism.

The principalities that remained Catholic against the Protestant threat shared certain characteristics. For the most part, they were semi-feudal and tradition-bound. Austria, Bavaria, France, Spain, Portugal, Ireland, and the Italian city-states were rent-seeking societies, intent on preserving existing wealth, but hostile to the creation of new wealth because they limited access to land and to emergent market opportunities. The nobility in these societies was essentially parasitic, deriving their patronage from the monarch, who kept their powers in check. In some respects, Italy is a special case. Clearly, Venice and the other city-states, especially

Florence, prospered before and during the Renaissance. Nevertheless, because these cities, their governments, and their regulations were inextricably intertwined with papal interests, we categorize them as rent seeking in nature. The leading families of the Italian city-states had, for centuries, stood in a close financial position with the Church. Some families, like the Medicis, effectively inherited high offices of the Church, including the papacy itself. Italian business interests engaged in provisioning for the Crusades, banking for the Vatican,33 and management of the papal cartel over Italy's alum mines.34 It should be noted also that in Italy, as in France, a large number of nobles entered the Church, giving the landed interests disproportionate representation among the clergy. British historian John M. Roberts observed, "So large was the number of Lombard nobles entering the Church that it was inevitable that the Lombard families should be well represented in the higher ranks of the clergy.''35 And historian John McManners added, "For younger sons especially, the Church could serve as a system of luxurious outdoor relief.''36

Austria and Bavaria were part of the far-flung Habsburg Empire, in which the Ottoman menace generated a strong desire to keep family estates intact. Unlike England, moreover, the Austrian nobility did not supplement their income by commercial or industrial ventures.37 The gulf between the rich and the poor was perhaps widest in France, where the wealth of the nobility depended on the near-absolute power of the monarch. Spain and Portugal maintained centralized monarchies on the French pattern. Ireland's rigid land-tenure system worked to keep fortunes concentrated in few, mostly absentee, hands. Separate nobility classes existed in each of the Italian city-states, but all derived their wealth from land, which was preserved by the institution of primogeniture.

The lower half of table 5.2 shows the principalities that embraced Protestantism. In Bohemia the nobility had expelled the clergy from the Diet, and appropriated most of the wealth of the Church before the advent of Protestantism so that the Church was powerless in the face of the new religion.38 Bohemia was the center of the Hussites, a sect devoted to the principle of Utraquism, the communion of the laity under the species of wine as well as bread, which in medieval times was officially reserved only for the Catholic clergy. In terms of heretical belief, it was a conservative movement. Nevertheless, in its desire to subordinate papal and conciliar authority to that of the Bible, it was recognized by Martin Luther as a significant prelude to the Protestant Reformation.

In Prussia and the German territories, as elsewhere in medieval times, the wealth of the nobility was based on land, but ancient custom sanctioned the right of each noble to apportion his private holdings at will among his sons, regardless of their order of birth. In the Middle Ages German principalities were characterized by weak emperors and fragmented politics. Germany was, moreover, distinctive for its developed urban life. Its land mass was covered by a dense network of almost two thousand towns, spread more or less uniformly across the countryside. These towns enjoyed a high degree of economic and political autonomy, and offered freer access to business opportunities than their counterparts in France or Italy.39

Scandinavia had a longstanding constitutional tradition that limited the power of the monarch. Land was valuable there not so much for the crops or livestock it could support but for the minerals that lay below ground. Land was not entailed, and there were few impediments to the transfer of lands held by the nobility. Moreover, it was extremely rare for the Swedish nobility to enter the Church. The Swedish aristocracy was mostly a working aristocracy of bureaucrats, soldiers, and sailors, whose livelihood depended on a good job and a fair promotion.40

England's experience with the Reformation was complex and atypical. So was its experience with primogeniture. Despite suggestions to the contrary,41 modern historical research presents strong evidence that the institution of primogeniture was regularly thwarted from the time laws were first introduced by the Normans in the eleventh century.42 (Neither Anglo-Saxon nor Germanic practices in England included primogeniture.) In the second half of the twelfth century, Henry II created a substantive land law with tenant rights reviewed by juries. Monarchical rent seeking, which produced fees for adjudication and returns from patronage, produced unforeseen consequences—the creation of property rights for tenants. Prior to King Henry's innovation, the lords were a party to the disputes over property, acting as both judge and jury. Henry separated title from lordly acceptance.43 Even under feudal practice be fore Henry's reign, however, means of transferring property to another by tenant were underway; property transactions were merely disguised in feudal lingo.

A number of devices were developed throughout the Tudor era to avoid the effects of primogeniture. The English law, which eventually applied only in cases of intestacy and then only for real property,44 could be at least partially avoided as early as the twelfth century through family arrangements that included planned marriages, intervivos gifts, and, most importantly, the use of wills. Studies explain how family wealth, minor children, and collaterals were protected through primogeniture-avoidance devices in the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries.45 In fact, the legal history of English proprietors consists of a prolonged, multi-faceted struggle between the common law rules of inheritance, which allowed for female inheritance in the absence of male heirs, and entails that (in part) opposed these rights. The English entail originated as a provision for younger children, providing a grant of land to a younger child upon his or her marriage, provided the marriage produced heirs. Many historians ignore this fact, and many more disregard its ambiguous character. Because entails specified the sex of those who stood to inherit, they provided a means of favoring one sex over the other. The statute of De donis (1285) gave permanence to entails that had formerly been temporary. Thus, entails could be used for two different, even contradictory, purposes. On the one hand, they could be used to distribute land to younger children. This supports our theory that entry occurred in areas where inheritance was partible. On the other hand, they could be used to keep land in the hands of male descendants, if not indefinitely, then through several generations. There is no comprehensive statistical evidence as to how entails were actually used, but as Adam Smith noted: "The common law of England ...is said to abhor perpetuities, and they are accordingly more restricted there than in any other European country.''46

Many legal artifices, such as the extremely complex doctrine of "uses," were developed to get around Norman feudal laws involving primogeniture, eventually culminating in the Statute of Wills (1540), which permitted all feudal tenants of the King or mense lords to transfer two-thirds of their lands by will.47 Although Adam Smith recognized

England's ancient form of primogeniture as a reasonable policy for the lords' defense, he decried its effects in the Europe of his day. When he noted (as does economist Gary M. Becker48) that primogeniture "continues to be respected'' and is "still likely to endure for many centuries,'' it is clear that he was speaking of continental Europe and not England.49 By Smith's time, the rules of primogeniture were only applicable in intestacy and governed only a tiny portion of inheritances.50 Historian Eileen Spring states: "With the Statute of Wills (in 1540) the common law rules of succession, long evaded in practice, were officially on the way to becoming default rules, rules that would apply only upon intestacy.''51 The growth of the use of wills and other devices, from the very beginnings of Norman rule, ensured that all children (including females) were generally included in inheritance and that wealth was being more widely dispersed than under strict observance of primogeniture.

The traditional view is that Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Church in response to a dynastic problem and, because of this, the English Reformation was more an act of state than in any other part of Europe apart from Scandinavia—the result of one man's obsessive quest for a male heir.52 While this view and the probability that Henry wanted to expropriate the wealth of the church are certainly supported by the weight of history, the idea that religious entry was encouraged by high information costs imposed by ineffective primogeniture laws and resulting instability of wealth distribution is complementary. Despite the peculiarities of the English case, it nevertheless conforms to the general contours of our theory. By 1530, the Church of England was ripe for takeover and, in all likelihood, Henry VIII recognized this fact. Furthermore, there is evidence that Henry's confiscations of church property were made with relish. According to historian Alan Simpson, "Every class in England was involved in the immense exciting scramble for the confiscated property of the church.''53 In the end, the Reformation came to England for the same basic reason that it came to other parts of Europe: The Church's ability to maintain its discriminatory pricing system was being steadily eroded by the dispersion of wealth.

Finally, we note the bifurcated cases of Scotland and Switzerland. Scottish historian Julian Goodare attributes the success of the Reformation in the Scottish Lowlands to the ruinous taxation policies of James V, which forced bishops and monasteries to raise cash by alienating land through feuing, a method by which existing tenant farmers or other third parties could purchase the heritable rights to land, leaving the benefice holder with only the right to collect feudal dues fixed in perpetuity.54 The heavy inflation of the sixteenth century left the benefice holders with ever-shrinking long-term revenues. After 1530, nobles and rulers imposed their kinsmen as commendators of the monasteries—secular heads that drew revenues from monastic enterprises without taking monastic vows. The monks were powerless to resist feuing and the creeping secularization that accompanied it. Thus, unlike in England, there was no dissolution of the monasteries in Scotland. They merely faded away, victims of the feuing movement which essentially revolutionized land tenure and launched a new class of small, independent proprietors.

In the Swiss Confederacy, a natural division of sorts existed between the rural and the urban cantons. The rural states were Appenzell, Glarus, Schwyz, Unterwalden, Uri, and Zug. The urban states were Basle, Bern, Fribourg, Lucerne, Schaffhausen, Solothurn, and Zurich. Geneva did not become part of the confederation until the nineteenth century, but its actions were affected during the Middle Ages by its Swiss neighbors. The strongest opposition to the Reformation came from Lucerne and the inner rural states, especially Schwyz, Unterwalden, Uri, and Zug. In the sixteenth century, Switzerland was within the orbit of what we now call South Germany, a region in which towns gained extensive rights of self-government, either as "imperial cities,'' which possessed liberties granted by the monarch, or "free cities,'' which possessed liberties granted by the bishops or other lords. The cities were centers of trade and manufacture, communication, and learned culture. They were treated with hostility by the nobles, who rightly saw the spread of confederation as a threat to their power. Largely infiltrated by the nobility, the Church allied itself with the nobles in seeking to repress confederation.55 Hence, the cities were more likely to embrace Protestantism than the rural cantons, a pattern that eventually emerged, with one or two exceptions. During this time the political distinction in Switzerland between lay and ecclesiastical princes grew weaker because the major sees were becoming dependencies of the great families, giving rise to the complaint that the bishops were the cities' greatest foes. Historian Thomas A. Brady Jr.

wrote, "The forty-six bishops who sat in the Diet were commonly the cousins, uncles, nephews, and brothers of the lay princes in this great age of princely pluralists. No less than four sons of the Elector Palatine Philip (d. 1508), for example, became bishops, a record that their Bavarian cousins, the Margraves of Baden, the Wettins of Saxony, and the Hohenzollerns strove with considerable success to match.''56

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