Tag Archives: Samuel Johnson A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland





… Lecture 7 [in A Course of Lectures on the English Law: Delivered at the University of Oxford, 1767-1773 by Sir Robert Chambers] deftly capsulizes the complicated economic history behind the conversion of villenage from the yoke of abject slavery to the privilege of landholding. Villenage arose in early feudal Europe not because foreign invaders made slaves of conquered people but because the inherently primitive circumstances of agrarian societies produced a lower class in economic bondage. [italics added] Opposed to theoretical notions of an original human equality was the stark historical situation of an unequal distribution of property and an overabundance of laborers to farm a limited number of estates. Since Europe lacked commercial diversity and economic opportunities for social advancement and ownership found in a civilized milieu, most of the populace faced either dire poverty or cruel servitude under a feudal lord:


When the accommodations of life were few, but few arts were necessary to produce them. One man was therefore less necessary to another, and the numerous wants and ready supplies by which the system of polished life is held together, were not yet known to the world. Men held commerce with men but as givers and receivers; where there was little traffic there was little money, and all the products of the earth which are now circulated through a wide range of buyers and sellers, then passed immediately, if they passed at all, from him that raised them to him that consumed them. He only was rich who was the owner of land, and he that had no land was necessarily poor. And the poverty of those days was not want of splendour but want of food …. Yet this was undoubtedly the state of the first feudal communities: of which the traces still remain in some parts of the world. (Sir Robert Chambers, “Of the Feudal Law, Strictly So Called, and of the Effects of That Law on Our Constitution and Government. IN A Course of Lectures on The English Law; Contained in Four Lectures, Volume I; one of a series of lectures delivered at Oxford University 1767-1773; manuscript in British Library)


[Samuel] Johnson would observe numerous traces of such a backward feudal economy in Scotland and contemplate measures for alleviating the widespread poverty upon his return to England. What Lecture 7 sets forth as historical remedies for the end of serfdom might have offered Johnson some pertinent lessons for evaluating the Highlands. According to the lecture, the emancipation of villeins coincided with the spread of peace, religion, law, and economic mobility, as more of the peasants shared in the ownership of lands by copyhold tenure. Alarmed by the spectacle of mass emigration from Scotland, Johnson would have welcomed some curtailment of “the inequalities of life” in northern Britain to stabilize a region caught between a medieval heritage and modern progress.


— Thomas M. Curley, “Editor’s Introduction,” A Course of Lectures on the English Law: Delivered at the University of Oxford, 1767-1773, by Sir Robert Chambers, Second Vinerian Professor of English Law; And Composed in Association with Samuel Johnson, Volume I, Edited by Thomas M. Curley (The University of Wisconsin Press, 1986), pp. 64-66


In his A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland, Samuel Johnson, who is known to have collaborated to an undetermined extent with Sir Robert Chambers on his Oxford lectures, wrote:

Where there is no commerce nor manufacture, he that is born poor can scarcely become rich …. The laird is the original owner of the land, whose natural power must be very great, where no man lives but by agriculture; and where the produce of the land is not conveyed /through the labyrinths of traffic, but passes directly from the hand that gathers it to the mouth that eats it …. Among manufacturers, men that have no property may have art and industry, which make them necessary, and therefore valuable. But where flocks and corn are the only wealth, there are always more hands than work …. He therefore who is born poor never can be rich.”






Feudalism has always fascinated me, ever since I majored in history at Brandeis University and took almost half of the courses in my major in medieval history.

The above excerpts from works I was recently reading — my interest in Sir Robert Chambers was spurred by my knowledge of his relationship with Samuel Johnson — seem to provide an excellent and succinct explanation (which I shared with my wife, who agreed) of the workings of pre-capitalist economies in Europe.

— posted by Roger W. Smith

    January 2020




I have kept and treasure the books from my medieval history courses.