The act of the English Parliament, passed in the year 1290
, that officially ended feudalism in England.
I say ‘officially’ ended because it would be hyperbolic to say that one piece of legislation alone could end a centuries old economic system. Still, Quia Emptores was much more than a mere formality.
The system of feudalism as practiced in England and medieval northern Europe in general was based on a pyramid of power and land ownership, where peasant serfs worked land and owed allegiance to a local lord who oversaw them, while this local lord and several others of similar position owed allegiance to a still more powerful lord, who himself might be one of or subservient to one of the great lords of the nobility, who formally owed allegiance to the king. In an economy that was overwhelmingly agricultural, property, status, wealth, and power were therefore synonymous. Property titles and with them rank, wealth, and power were either inherited or bestowed, and were subject to the prerogative of anyone up the chain of command. Obviously, this system had no role for transacting land or investing in it, and no way around the social rigidity.
By the thirteenth century, however, the lords under the nobility, the so called ‘gentry,’ had obtained additional power and land holdings. Among the reasons were lands bestowed to families by the crown for military service, such as in the crusades, and the rise of some non-agricultural activity in the economy, such as shipping, which allowed some wealth to arise that did not derive from the land. In any case, the gentry were now growing in wealth and power and in a position to challenge the existing order.
With the increasing wealth of the gentry and nascent merchant classes, their support was crucial to the crown, if for no other reason than that they were now much of the tax base, and so they began to be included in the parliaments that were summoned by the king. This group would eventually become the House of Commons as opposed to the House of Lords, which was the nobility who had always been called to parliament. In any case, they used their new found parliamentary power to advance their class interests.
The culmination of this effort was the Quia Emptores statute, which took its name from the first two Latin words of first phrase of the text – “Because buyers (want land)…” The statute said that:
“It is lawful for each free man to sell at will his land or tenement or part thereof ”
With this statute, all land in England became, in legal jargon, “fee simple,’ meaning it could be bought or disposed of at will, unless the crown objected. There statute paid some lip service to ‘insuring the ancient rights of the top lord,’ but this was designed to be ignored, and since many of the nobility were actually eager to be able to sell their land for cash, they did not resist the bill as vehimently as one might think. With land on the open market, the livelihood of the gentry was no longer at the behest of the nobility, and the feudal social order broke down. The nobility were still large land owners, but so were the gentry, and all landowning families were potentially independent.
In so establishing capitalism, Quia Emptores also redefined the monarchy. The king was now not just the most powerful noble, but had a legally enshrined unique position as the only person anyone owed allegiance to.
Incidentally, the breakdown of the feudal order did not improve the lot of the peasants. Whereas previously they were locked into the bottom of a rigid social system, at least it was one that ensured their protection and basic survival. With the new money economy, they were forced to sell their labor in a labor market that was stacked against them. Further, as the gentry class grew even more powerful, legal maneuvering such as the enclosure movement expanded the rights of landowners at the expense of their employees.
The passage of Quia Emptores is regarded as a very significant event in the history of the Common Law. In France and in the Spanish Monarchy, for instance, vestiges of the feudal legal order lasted for centuries more.
help from Imagining the Law by Norman F. Cantor (New York, Harper Collins, 1997) and a college course taught by said author.