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CHAPTER VIII.: THE EARLY HISTORY OF PROPERTY. - Sir Henry Sumner Maine, Ancient Law, its connection with the early history of society and its relation to modern ideas 
Ancient Law, its connection with the early history of society and its relation to modern ideas, with an introduction and notes by Sir Frederick Pollock. 4th American from the 10th London edition (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1906).
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THE EARLY HISTORY OF PROPERTY.
The Roman Institutional Treatises, after giving their definition of the various forms and modifications of ownership, proceed to discuss the Natural Modes of Acquiring Property. Those who are unfamiliar with the history of jurisprudence are not likely to look upon these “natural modes” of acquisition as possessing, at first sight, either much speculative or much practical interest. The wild animal which is snared or killed by the hunter, the soil which is added to our field by the imperceptible deposits of a river, the tree which strikes its roots into our ground, are each said by the Roman lawyers to be acquired by us naturally. The older jurisconsults had doubtless observed that such acquisitions were universally sanctioned by the usages of the little societies around them, and thus the lawyers of a later age, finding them classed in the ancient Jus Gentium, and perceiving them to be of the simplest description, allotted them a place among the ordinances of Nature. The dignity with which they were invested has gone on increasing in modern times till it is quite out of proportion to their original importance. Theory has made them its favourite food, and has enabled them to exercise the most serious influence on practice.
It will be necessary for us to attend to one only among these “natural modes of acquisition,” Occupatio or Occupancy. Occupancy is the advisedly taking possession of that which at the moment is the property of no man, with the view (adds the technical definition) of acquiring property in it for yourself. The objects which the Roman lawyers called res nullius—things which have not or have never had an owner—can only be ascertained by enumerating them. Among things which never had an owner are wild animals, fishes, wild fowl, jewels disinterred for the first time, and land newly discovered or never before cultivated. Among things which have not an owner are moveables which have been abandoned, lands which have been deserted, and (an anomalous but most formidable item) the property of an enemy. In all these objects the full rights of dominion were acquired by the Occupant, who first took possession of them with the intention of keeping them as his own—an intention which, in certain cases, had to be manifested by specific acts It is not difficult, I think, to understand the universality which caused the practice of Occupancy to be placed by one generation of Roman lawyers in the Law common to all Nations, and the simplicity which occasioned its being attributed by another to the Law of Nature. But for its fortunes in modern legal history we are less prepared by à priori considerations. The Roman principle of Occupancy, and the rules into which the jurisconsults expanded it, are the source of all modern International Law on the subject of Capture in War and of the acquisition of sovereign rights in newly discovered countries. They have also supplied a theory of the Origin of Property, which is at once the popular theory, and the theory which, in one form or another, is acquiesced in by the great majority of speculative jurists.
I have said that the Roman principle of Occupancy has determined the tenor of that chapter of International Law which is concerned with Capture in War. The Law of Warlike Capture derives its rules from the assumption that communities are remitted to a state of nature by the outbreak of hostilities, and that, in the artificial natural condition thus produced, the institution of private property falls into abeyance so far as concerns the belligerents. As the later writers on the Law of Nature have always been anxious to maintain that private property was in some sense sanctioned by the system which they were expounding, the hypothesis that an enemy’s property is res nullius has seemed to them perverse and shocking, and they were careful to stigmatise it as a mere fiction of jurisprudence. But, as soon as the Law of Nature is traced to its source in the Jus Gentium, we see at once how the goods of an enemy came to be looked upon as nobody’s property, and therefore as capable of being acquired by the first occupant. The idea would occur spontaneously to persons practising the ancient forms of Warfare, when victory dissolved the organisation of the conquering army and dismissed the soldiers to indiscriminate plunder. It is probable, however, that originally it was only moveable property which was thus permitted to be acquired by the Captor. We know on independent authority that a very different rule prevailed in ancient Italy as to the acquisition of ownership in the soil of a conquered country, and we may therefore suspect that the application of the principle of occupancy to land (always a matter of difficulty) dates from the period when the Jus Gentium was becoming the Code of Nature, and that it is the result of a generalisation effected by the jurisconsults of the golden age. Their dogmas on the point are preserved in the Pandects of Justinian, and amount to an unqualified assertion that enemy’s property of every sort is res nullius to the other belligerent, and that Occupancy, by which the Captor makes it his own, is an institution of Natural Law. The rules which International jurisprudence derives from these positions have sometimes been stigmatised as needlessly indulgent to the ferocity and cupidity of combatants, but the charge has been made, I think, by persons who are unacquainted with the history of wars, and who are consequently ignorant how great an exploit it is to command obedience for a rule of any kind. The Roman principle of Occupancy, when it was admitted into the modern law of Capture in War, drew with it a number of subordinate canons, limiting and giving precision to its operation, and if the contests which have been waged since the treatise of Grotius became an authority, are compared with those of an earlier date, it will be seen that, as soon as the Roman maxims were received, Warfare instantly assumed a more tolerable complexion. If the Roman law of Occupancy is to be taxed with having had pernicious influence on any part of the modern Law of Nations, there is another chapter in it which may be said, with some reason, to have been injuriously affected. In applying to the discovery of new countries the same principles which the Romans had applied to the finding of a jewel, the Publicists forced into their service a doctrine altogether unequal to the task expected from it. Elevated into extreme importance by the discoveries of the great navigators of the 15th and 16th centuries, it raised more disputes than it solved. The greatest uncertainty was very shortly found to exist on the very two points on which certainty was most required, the extent of the territory which was acquired for his sovereign by the discoverer, and the nature of the acts which were necessary to complete the apprehensio or assumption of sovereign possession. Moreover, the principle itself, conferring as it did such enormous advantages as the consequence of a piece of good luck, was instinctively mutinied against by some of the most adventurous nations in Europe, the Dutch, the English, and the Portuguese. Our own countrymen, without expressly denying the rule of International Law, never did, in practice, admit the claim of the Spaniards to engross the whole of America south of the Gulf of Mexico, or that of the King of France to monopolise the valleys of the Ohio and the Mississippi. From the accession of Elizabeth to the accession of Charles the Second, it cannot be said that there was at any time thorough peace in the American waters, and the encroachments of the New England Colonists on the territory of the French King continued for almost a century longer. Bentham was so struck with the confusion attending the application of the legal principle, that he went out of his way to eulogise the famous Bull of Pope Alexander the Sixth, dividing the undiscovered countries of the world between the Spaniards and the Portuguese by a line drawn one hundred leagues West of the Azores; and, grotesque as his praises may appear at first sight, it may be doubted whether the arrangement of Pope Alexander is absurder in principle than the rule of Public law, which gave half a continent to the monarch whose servants had fulfilled the conditions required by Roman jurisprudence for the acquisition of property in a valuable object which could be covered by the hand.
To all who pursue the inquiries which are the subject of this volume, Occupancy is pre-eminently interesting on the score of the service it has been made to perform for speculative jurisprudence, in furnishing a supposed explanation of the origin of private property. It was once universally believed that the proceeding implied in Occupancy was identical with the process by which the earth and its fruits, which were at first in common, became the allowed property of individuals. The course of thought which led to this assumption is not difficult to understand, if we seize the shade of difference which separates the ancient from the modern conception of Natural Law. The Roman lawyers had laid down that Occupancy was one of the Natural modes of acquiring property, and they undoubtedly believed that, were mankind living under the institutions of Nature, Occupancy would be one of their practices. How far they persuaded themselves that such a condition of the race had ever existed, is a point, as I have already stated, which their language leaves in much uncertainty; but they certainly do seem to have made the conjecture, which has at all times possessed much plausibility, that the institution of property was not so old as the existence of mankind. Modern jurisprudence, accepting all their dogmas without reservation, went far beyond them in the eager curiosity with which it dwelt on the supposed state of Nature. Since then it had received the position that the earth and its fruits were once res nullius, and since its peculiar view of Nature led it to assume without hesitation that the human race had actually practised the Occupancy of res nullius long before the organisation of civil societies, the inference immediately suggested itself that Occupancy was the process by which the “no man’s goods” of the primitive world became the private property of individuals in the world of history. It would be wearisome to enumerate the jurists who have subscribed to this theory in one shape or another, and it is the less necessary to attempt it because Blackstone, who is always a faithful index of the average opinions of his day, has summed them up in his 2d book and 1st chapter.
“The earth,” he writes, “and all things therein were the general property of mankind from the immediate gift of the Creator. Not that the communion of goods seems ever to have been applicable, even in the earliest ages, to aught but the substance of the thing; nor could be extended to the use of it. For, by the law of nature and reason, he who first began to use it acquired therein a kind of transient property that lasted so long as he was using it, and no longer; or to speak with greater precision, the right of possession continued for the same time only that the act of possession lasted. Thus the ground was in common, and no part was the permanent property of any man in particular; yet whoever was in the occupation of any determined spot of it, for rest, for shade, or the like, acquired for the time a sort of ownership, from which it would have been unjust and contrary to the law of nature to have driven him by force, but the instant that he quitted the use of occupation of it, another might seize it without injustice.” He then proceeds to argue that “when mankind increased in number, it became necessary to entertain conceptions of more permanent dominion, and to appropriate to individuals not the immediate use only, but the very substance of the thing to be used.”
Some ambiguities of expression in this passage lead to the suspicion that Blackstone did not quite understand the meaning of the proposition which he found in his authorities, that property in the earth’s surface was first acquired, under the law of Nature, by the occupant; but the limitation which designedly or through misapprehension he has imposed on the theory brings it into a form which it has not infrequently assumed. Many writers more famous than Blackstone for precision of language have laid down that, in the beginning of things, Occupancy first gave a right against the world to an exclusive but temporary enjoyment, and that afterwards this right, while it remained exclusive, became perpetual. Their object in so stating their theory was to reconcile the doctrine that in the state of Nature res nullius became property through Occupancy, with the inference which they drew from the Scriptural history that the Patriarchs did not at first permanently appropriate the soil which had been grazed over by their flocks and herds.
The only criticism which could be directly applied to the theory of Blackstone would consist in inquiring whether the circumstances which make up his picture of a primitive society are more or less probable than other incidents which could be imagined with equal readiness. Pursuing this method of examination, we might fairly ask whether the man who had occupied (Blackstone evidently uses this word with its ordinary English meaning) a particular spot of ground for rest or shade would be permitted to retain it without disturbance. The chances surely are that his right to possession would be exactly coextensive with his power to keep it, and that he would be constantly liable to disturbance by the first comer who coveted the spot and thought himself strong enough to drive away the possessor. But the truth is that all such cavil at these positions is perfectly idle from the very baselessness of the positions themselves. What mankind did in the primitive state may not be a hopeless subject of inquiry, but of their motives for doing it it is impossible to know anything. These sketches of the plight of human beings in the first ages of the world are effected by first supposing mankind to be divested of a great part of the circumstances by which they are now surrounded, and by then assuming that, in the condition thus imagined, they would preserve the same sentiments and prejudices by which they are now actuated,—although, in fact, these sentiments may have been created and engendered by those very circumstances of which, by the hypothesis, they are to be stripped.
There is an aphorism of Savigny which has been sometimes thought to countenance a view of the origin of property somewhat similar to the theories epitomised by Blackstone. The great German jurist has laid down that all Property is founded on Adverse Possession ripened by Prescription. It is only with respect to Roman law that Savigny makes this statement, and before it can be fully appreciated much labour must be expended in explaining and defining the expressions employed. His meaning will, however, be indicated with sufficient accuracy if we consider him to assert that, how far soever we carry our inquiry into the ideas of property received among the Romans, however closely we approach in tracing them to the infancy of law, we can get no farther than a conception of ownership involving the three elements in the canon—Possession, Adverseness of Possession, that is, a holding not permissive or subordinate, but exclusive against the world, and Prescription, or a period of time during which the Adverse Possession has uninterruptedly continued. It is exceedingly probable that this maxim might be enunciated with more generality than was allowed to it by its author, and that no sound or safe conclusion can be looked for from investigations into any system of laws which are pushed farther back than the point at which these combined ideas constitute the notion of proprietary right. Meantime, so far from bearing out the popular theory of the origin of property, Savigny’s canon is particularly valuable as directing our attention to its weakest point. In the view of Blackstone and those whom he follows, it was the mode of assuming the exclusive enjoyment which mysteriously affected the minds of the fathers of our race. But the mystery does not reside here. It is not wonderful that property began in adverse possession. It is not surprising that the first proprietor should have been the strong man armed who kept his goods in peace. But why it was that lapse of time created a sentiment of respect for his possession—which is the exact source of the universal reverence of mankind for that which has for a long period de facto existed—are questions really deserving the profoundest examination, but lying far beyond the boundary of our present inquiries.
Before pointing out the quarter in which we may hope to glean some information, scanty and uncertain at best, concerning the early history of proprietary right, I venture to state my opinion that the popular impression in reference to the part played by Occupancy in the first stages of civilisation directly reverses the truth. Occupancy is the advised assumption of physical possession; and the notion that an act of this description confers a title to “resnullius,” so far from being characteristic of very early societies, is in all probability the growth of a refined jurisprudence and of a settled condition of the laws. It is only when the rights of property have gained a sanction from long practical inviolability, and when the vast majority of the objects of enjoyment have been subjected to private ownership, that mere possession is allowed to invest the first possessor with dominion over commodities in which no prior proprietorship has been asserted. The sentiment in which this doctrine originated is absolutely irreconcilable with that infrequency and uncertainty of proprietary rights which distinguish the beginnings of civilisation. Its true basis seems to be, not an instinctive bias towards the institution of Property, but a presumption, arising out of the long continuance of that institution, that everything ought to have an owner. When possession is taken of a “res nullius,” that is, of an object which is not, or has never been, reduced to dominion, the possessor is permitted to become proprietor from a feeling that all valuable things are naturally the subjects of an exclusive enjoyment, and that in the given case there is no one to invest with the right of property except the Occupant. The Occupant, in short, becomes the owner, because all things are presumed to be somebody’s property and because no one can be pointed out as having a better right than he to the proprietorship of this particular thing.
Even were there no other objection to the descriptions of mankind in their natural state which we have been discussing, there is one particular in which they are fatally at variance with the authentic evidence possessed by us. It will be observed, that the acts and motives which these theories suppose are the acts and motives of Individuals. It is each Individual who for himself subscribes the Social Compact. It is some shifting sandbank in which the grains are Individual men, that according to the theory of Hobbes is hardened into the social rock by the wholesome discipline of force. It is an Individual who, in the picture drawn by Blackstone, “is in the occupation of a determined spot of ground for rest, for shade, or the like.” The vice is one which necessarily afflicts all the theories descended from the Natural Law of the Romans, which differed principally from their Civil Law in the account which it took of Individuals, and which has rendered precisely its greatest service to civilisation in enfranchising the individual from the authority of archaic society. But Ancient Law, it must again be repeated, knows next to nothing of Individuals. It is concerned not with Individuals, but with Families, not with single human beings, but groups. Even when the law of the State has succeeded in permeating the small circles of kindred into which it had originally no means of penetrating, the view it takes of Individuals is curiously different from that taken by jurisprudence in its maturest stage. The life of each citizen is not regarded as limited by birth and death; it is but a continuation of the existence of his forefathers, and it will be prolonged in the existence of his descendants.
The Roman distinction between the Law of Persons and the Law of Things, which though extremely convenient is entirely artificial, has evidently done much to divert inquiry on the subject before us from the true direction. The lessons learned in discussing the Jus Personarum have been forgotten where the Jus Rerum is reached, and Property, Contract, and Delict, have been considered as if no hints concerning their original nature were to be gained from the facts ascertained respecting the original condition of Persons. The futility of this method would be manifest if a system of pure archaic law could be brought before us, and if the experiment could be tried of applying to it the Roman classifications. It would soon be seen that the separation of the Law of Persons from that of Things has no meaning in the infancy of law, that the rules belonging to the two departments are inextricably mingled together, and that the distinctions of the later jurists are appropriate only to the later jurisprudence. From what has been said in the earlier portions of this treatise, it will be gathered that there is a strong à priori improbability of our obtaining any clue to the early history of property, if we confine our notice to the proprietary rights of individuals. It is more than likely that joint-ownership, and not separate ownership, is the really archaic institution, and that the forms of property which will afford us instruction will be those which are associated with the rights of families and of groups of kindred. The Roman jurisprudence will not here assist in enlightening us, for it is exactly the Roman jurisprudence which, transformed by the theory of Natural Law, has bequeathed to the moderns the impression that individual ownership is the normal state of proprietary right, and that ownership in common by groups of men is only the exception to a general rule. There is, however, one community which will always be carefully examined by the inquirer who is in quest of any lost institution of primeval society. How far soever any such institution may have undergone change among the branch of the Indo-European family which has been settled for ages in India, it will seldom be found to have entirely cast aside the shell in which it was originally reared. It happens that, among the Hindoos, we do find a form of ownership which ought at once to rivet our attention from its exactly fitting in with the ideas which our studies in the Law of Persons would lead us to entertain respecting the original condition of property. The Village Community of India is at once an organised patriarchal society and an assemblage of co-proprietors. The personal relations to each other of the men who compose it are indistinguishably confounded with their proprietary rights, and to the attempts of English functionaries to separate the two may be assigned some of the most formidable miscarriages of Anglo-Indian administration. The Village Community is known to be of immense antiquity. In whatever direction research has been pushed into Indian history, general or local, it has always found the Community in existence at the farthest point of its progress. A great number of intelligent and observant writers, most of whom had no theory of any sort to support concerning its nature and origin, agree in considering it the least destructible institution of a society which never willingly surrenders any one of its usages to innovation. Conquests and revolutions seem to have swept over it without disturbing or displacing it, and the most beneficent systems of government in India have always been those which have recognised it as the basis of administration.
The mature Roman law, and modern jurisprudence following in its wake, look upon co-ownership as an exceptional and momentary condition of the rights of property. This view is clearly indicated in the maxim which obtains universally in Western Europe, Nemo in communione potest invitus detineri (“No one can be kept in co-proprietorship against his will”). But in India this order of ideas is reversed, and it may be said that separate proprietorship is always on its way to become proprietorship in common. The process has been adverted to already. As soon as a son is born, he acquires a vested interest in his father’s substance, and on attaining years of discretion he is even, in certain contingencies, permitted by the letter of the law to call for a partition of the family estate. As a fact, however, a division rarely takes place even at the death of the father, and the property constantly remains undivided for several generations, though every member of every generation has a legal right to an undivided share in it. The domain thus held in common is sometimes administered by an elected manager, but more generally, and in some provinces always, it is managed by the eldest agnate, by the eldest representative of the eldest line of the stock. Such an assemblage of joint proprietors, a body of kindred holding a domain in common, is the simplest form of an Indian Village Community, but the Community is more than a brotherhood of relatives and more than an association of partners. It is an organised society, and besides providing for the management of the common fund, it seldom fails to provide, by a complete staff of functionaries, for internal government, for police, for the administration of justice, and for the apportionment of taxes and public duties.
The process which I have described as that under which a Village Community is formed, may be regarded as typical. Yet it is not to be supposed that every Village Community in India drew together in so simple a manner. Although, in the North of India, the archives, as I am informed, almost invariably show that the Community was founded by a single assemblage of blood-relations, they also supply information that men of alien extraction have always, from time to time, been engrafted on it, and a mere purchaser of a share may generally, under certain conditions, be admitted to the brotherhood. In the South of the Peninsula there are often Communities which appear to have sprung not from one but from two or more families; and there are some whose composition is known to be entirely artificial, indeed, the occasional aggregation of men of different castes in the same society is fatal to the hypothesis of a common descent. Yet in all these brotherhoods either the tradition is preserved, or the assumption made, of an original common parentage. Mountstuart Elphinstone, who writes more particularly of the Southern Village Communities, observes of them (History of India, p. 71, 1905 edn.): “The popular notion is that the Village landholders are all descended from one or more individuals who settled the Village; and that the only exceptions are formed by persons who have derived their rights by purchase or otherwise from members of the original stock. The supposition is confirmed by the fact that, to this day, there are only single families of landholders in small villages and not many in large ones; but each has branched out into so many members that it is not uncommon for the whole agricultural labour to be done by the landholders, without the aid either of tenants or of labourers. The rights of the landholders are theirs collectively, and, though they almost always have a more or less perfect partition of them, they never have an entire separation. A landholder, for instance, can sell or mortgage his rights; but he must first have the consent of the Village, and the purchaser steps exactly into his place and takes up all his obligations. If a family becomes extinct, its share returns to the common stock.”
Some considerations which have been offered in the fifth chapter of this volume will assist the reader, I trust, in appreciating the significance of Elphinstone’s language. No institution of the primitive world is likely to have been preserved to our day, unless it has acquired an elasticity foreign to its original nature through some vivifying legal fiction. The Village Community then is not necessarily an assemblage of blood-relations, but it is either such an assemblage or a body of co-proprietors formed on the model of an association of kinsmen. The type with which it should be compared is evidently not the Roman Family, but the Roman Gens or House. The Gens was also a group on the model of the family; it was the family extended by a variety of fictions of which the exact nature was lost in antiquity. In historical times, its leading characteristics were the very two which Elphinstone remarks in the Village Community. There was always the assumption of a common origin, an assumption sometimes notoriously at variance with fact; and, to repeat the historian’s words, “if a family became extinct, its share returned to the common stock.” In old Roman law, unclaimed inheritances escheated to the Gentiles. It is further suspected by all who have examined their history that the Communities, like the Gentes, have been very generally adulterated by the admission of strangers, but the exact mode of absorption cannot now be ascertained. At present, they are recruited, as Elphinstone tells us, by the admission of purchasers, with the consent of the brotherhood. The acquisition of the adopted member is, however, of the nature of a universal succession; together with the share he has bought, he succeeds to the liabilities which the vendor had incurred towards the aggregate group. He is an Emptor Familiæ, and inherits the legal clothing of the person whose place he begins to fill. The consent of the whole brotherhood required for his admission may remind us of the consent which the Comitia Curiata, the Parliament of that larger brotherhood of self-styled kinsmen, the ancient Roman commonwealth, so strenuously insisted on as essential to the legalisation of an Adoption or the confirmation of a Will.
The tokens of an extreme antiquity are discoverable in almost every single feature of the Indian Village Communities. We have so many independent reasons for suspecting that the infancy of law is distinguished by the prevalence of co-ownership, by the intermixture of personal with proprietary rights, and by the confusion of public with private duties, that we should be justified in deducing many important conclusions from our observation of these proprietary brotherhoods, even if no similarly compounded societies could be detected in any other part of the world. It happens, however, that much earnest curiosity has been very recently attracted to a similar set of phenomena in those parts of Europe which have been most slightly affected by the feudal transformation of property, and which in many important particulars have as close an affinity with the Eastern as with the Western world. The researches of M. de Haxthausen, M. Tengoborski, and others, have shown us that the Russian villages are not fortuitous assemblages of men, nor are they unions founded on contract; they are naturally organised communities like those of India. It is true that these villages are always in theory the patrimony of some noble proprietor, and the peasants have within historical times been converted into the predial, and to a great extent into the personal, serfs of the seignior. But the pressure of this superior ownership has never crushed the ancient organisation of the village, and it is probable that the enactment of the Czar of Russia, who is supposed to have introduced serfdom, was really intended to prevent the peasants from abandoning that co-operation without which the old social order could not long be maintained. In the assumption of an agnatic connection between the villagers, in the blending of personal rights with privileges of ownership, and in a variety of spontaneous provisions for internal administration, the Russian village appears to be a nearly exact repetition of the Indian Community; but there is one important difference which we note with the greatest interest. The co-owners of an Indian village, though their property is blended, have their rights distinct, and this separation of rights is complete and continues indefinitely. The severance of rights is also theoretically complete in a Russian village, but there it is only temporary. After the expiration of a given, but not in all cases of the same, period, separate ownerships are extinguished, the land of the village is thrown into a mass, and then it is re-distributed among the families composing the community, according to their number. This repartition having been effected, the rights of families and of individuals are again allowed to branch out into various lines, which they continue to follow till another period of division comes round. An even more curious variation from this type of ownership occurs in some of those countries which long formed a debateable land between the Turkish Empire and the possessions of the House of Austria. In Servia, in Croatia, and the Austrian Sclavonia, the villages are also brotherhoods of persons who are at once co-owners and kinsmen; but there the internal arrangements of the community differ from those adverted to in the last two examples. The substance of the common property is in this case neither divided in practice nor considered in theory as divisible, but the entire land is cultivated by the combined labour of all the villagers, and the produce is annually distributed among the households, sometimes according to their supposed wants, sometimes according to rules which give to particular persons a fixed share of the usufruct. All these practices are traced by the jurists of the East of Europe to a principle which is asserted to be found in the earliest Sclavonian laws, the principle that the property of families cannot be divided for a perpetuity.
The great interest of these phenomena in an inquiry like the present arises from the light they throw on the development of distinct proprietary rights inside the groups by which property seems to have been originally held. We have the strongest reason for thinking that property once belonged not to individuals nor even to isolated families, but to larger societies composed on the patriarchal model; but the mode of transition from ancient to modern ownerships, obscure at best, would have been infinitely obscurer if several distinguishable forms of Village Communities had not been discovered and examined. It is worth while to attend to the varieties of internal arrangement within the patriarchal groups which are, or were till recently, observable among races of Indo-European blood. The chiefs of the ruder Highland clans used, it is said, to dole out food to the heads of the households under their jurisdiction at the very shortest intervals, and sometimes day by day. A periodical distribution is also made to the Sclavonian villagers of the Austrian and Turkish provinces by the elders of their body, but then it is a distribution once for all of the total produce of the year. In the Russian villages, however, the substance of the property ceases to be looked upon as indivisible, and separate proprietary claims are allowed freely to grow up, but then the progress of separation is peremptorily arrested after it has continued a certain time. In India, not only is there no indivisibility of the common fund, but separate proprietorship in parts of it may be indefinitely prolonged and may branch out into any number of derivative ownerships, the de facto partition of the stock being, however, checked by inveterate usage, and by the rule against the admission of strangers without the consent of the brotherhood. It is not of course intended to insist that these different forms of the Village Community represent distinct stages in a process of transmutation which has been everywhere accomplished in the same manner. But, though the evidence does not warrant our going so far as this, it renders less presumptuous the conjecture that private property, in the shape in which we know it, was chiefly formed by the gradual disentanglement of the separate rights of individuals from the blended rights of a community. Our studies in the Law of Persons seemed to show us the Family expanding into the Agnatic group of kinsmen, then the Agnatic group dissolving into separate households; lastly, the household supplanted by the individual; and it is now suggested that each step in the change corresponds to an analogous alteration in the nature of Ownership. If there be any truth in the suggestion, it is to be observed that it materially affects the problem which theorists on the origin of Property have generally proposed to themselves The question—perhaps an insoluble one—which they have mostly agitated is, what were the motives which first induced men to respect each other’s possessions? It may still be put, without much hope of finding an answer to it, in the form of an inquiry into the reasons which led one composite group to keep aloof from the domain of another. But, if it be true that far the most important passage in the history of Private Property is its gradual separation from the co-ownership of kinsmen, then the great point of inquiry is identical with that which lies on the threshold of all historical law—what were the motives which originally prompted men to hold together in the family union? To such a question, Jurisprudence, unassisted by other sciences, is not competent to give a reply. The fact can only be noted.
The undivided state of property in ancient societies is consistent with a peculiar sharpness of division, which shows itself as soon as any single share is completely separated from the patrimony of the group. This phenomenon springs, doubtless, from the circumstance that the property is supposed to become the domain of a new group, so that any dealing with it, in its divided state, is a transaction between two highly complex bodies. I have already compared Ancient Law to Modern International Law, in respect of the size of the corporate associations, whose rights and duties it settles. As the contracts and conveyances known to ancient law are contracts and conveyances to which not single individuals, but organised companies of men, are parties, they are in the highest degree ceremonious; they require a variety of symbolical acts and words intended to impress the business on the memory of all who take part in it; and they demand the presence of an inordinate number of witnesses. From these peculiarities, and others allied to them, springs the universally unmalleable character of the ancient forms of property. Sometimes the patrimony of the family is absolutely inalienable, as was the case with the Sclavonians, and still oftener, though alienations may not be entirely illegitimate, they are virtually impracticable, as among most of the Germanic tribes, from the necessity of having the consent of a large number of persons to the transfer. Where these impediments do not exist, or can be surmounted, the act of conveyance itself is generally burdened with a perfect load of ceremony, in which not one iota can be safely neglected. Ancient law uniformly refuses to dispense with a single gesture, however grotesque; with a single syllable, however its meaning may have been forgotten; with a single witness, however superfluous may be his testimony. The entire solemnities must be scrupulously completed by persons legally entitled to take part in it, or else the conveyance is null, and the seller is re-established in the rights of which he had vainly attempted to divest himself.
These various obstacles to the free circulation of the objects of use and enjoyment, begin of course to make themselves felt as soon as society has acquired even a slight degree of activity, and the expedients by which advancing communities endeavour to overcome them form the staple of the history of Property. Of such expedients there is one which takes precedence of the rest from its antiquity and universality. The idea seems to have spontaneously suggested itself to a great number of early societies, to classify property into kinds. One kind or sort of property is placed on a lower footing of dignity than the others, but at the same time is relieved from the fetters which antiquity has imposed on them. Subsequently, the superior convenience of the rules governing the transfer and descent of the lower order of property becomes generally recognised, and by a gradual course of innovation the plasticity of the less dignified class of valuable objects is communicated to the classes which stand conventionally higher. The history of Roman Property Law is the history of the assimilation of Res Mancipi to Res Nec Mancipi. The history of Property on the European Continent is the history of the subversion of the feudalised law of land by the Romanised law of moveables; and though the history of ownership in England is not nearly completed, it is visibly the law of personalty which threatens to absorb and annihilate the law of realty.
The only natural classification of the objects of enjoyment, the only classification which corresponds with an essential difference in the subject matter, is that which divides them into Moveables and Immoveables. Familiar as is this classification to jurisprudence, it was very slowly developed by Roman law, from which we inherit it, and was only finally adopted by it in its latest stage. The classifications of Ancient Law have sometimes a superficial resemblance to this. They occasionally divide property into categories, and place immoveables in one of them; but then it is found that they either class along with immoveables a number of objects which have no sort of relation with them, or else divorce them from various rights to which they have a close affinity. Thus, the Res Mancipi of Roman Law included not only land but slaves, horses, and oxen. Scottish law ranks with land a certain class of securities, and Hindoo law associates it with slaves. English law, on the other hand, parts leases of land for years from other interests in the soil, and joins them to personalty under the name of chattels real. More over, the classifications of Ancient Law are classifications implying superiority and inferiority; while the distinction between moveables and immoveables, so long at least as it was confined to Roman jurisprudence, carried with it no suggestion whatever of a difference in dignity. The Res Mancipi, however, did certainly at first enjoy a precedence over the Res Nec Mancipi, as did heritable property in Scotland, and realty in England, over the personalty to which they were opposed. The lawyers of all systems have spared no pains in striving to refer these classifications to some intelligible principle; but the reasons of the severance must ever be vainly sought for in the philosophy of law; they belong not to its philosophy, but to its history. The explanation which appears to cover the greatest number of instances is that the objects of enjoyment honoured above the rest were forms of property known first and earliest to each particular community, and dignified therefore emphatically with the designation of Property. On the other hand, the articles not enumerated among the favoured objects seem to have been placed on a lower standing, because the knowledge of their value was posterior to the epoch at which the catalogue of superior property was settled. They were at first unknown, rare, limited in their uses, or else regarded as mere appendages to the privileged objects. Thus, though the Roman Res Mancipi included a number of moveable articles of great value, still the most costly jewels were never allowed to take rank as Res Mancipi, because they were unknown to the early Romans. In the same way chattels real in England are said to have been degraded to the footing of personalty, from the infrequency and valuelessness of such estates under the feudal land-law. But the grand point of interest is, the continued degradation of these commodities when their importance had increased and their number had multiplied. Why were they not successively included among the favoured objects of enjoyment? One reason is found in the stubbornness with which Ancient Law adheres to its classifications. It is a characteristic both of uneducated minds and of early societies, that they are little able to conceive a general rule apart from the particular applications of it with which they are practically familiar. They cannot dissociate a general term or maxim from the special examples which meet them in daily experience; and in this way the designation covering the best-known forms of property is denied to articles which exactly resemble them in being objects of enjoyment and subjects of right. But to these influences, which exert peculiar force in a subject-matter so stable as that of law, are afterwards added others more consistent with progress in enlightenment and in the conceptions of general expediency. Courts and lawyers become at last alive to the inconvenience of the embarrassing formalities required for the transfer, recovery, or devolution of the favoured commodities, and grow unwilling to fetter the newer descriptions of property with the technical trammels which characterised the infancy of law. Hence arises a disposition to keep these last on a lower grade in the arrangements of Jurisprudence, and to permit their transfer by simpler processes than those which, in archaic conveyances, serve as stumbling-blocks to good faith and stepping-stones to fraud. We are perhaps in some danger of underrating the inconveniences of the ancient modes of transfer. Our instruments of conveyance are written, so that their language, well pondered by the professional draftsman, is rarely defective in accuracy. But an ancient conveyance was not written, but acted. Gestures and words took the place of written technical phraseology, and any formula mispronounced, or symbolical act omitted, would have vitiated the proceeding as fatally as a material mistake in stating the uses or setting out the remainders would, two hundred years ago, have vitiated an English deed. Indeed, the mischiefs of the archaic ceremonial are even thus only half stated. So long as elaborate conveyances, written or acted, are required for the alienation of land alone, the chances of mistake are not considerable in the transfer of a description of property which is seldom got rid of with much precipitation. But the higher class of property in the ancient world comprised not only land but several of the commonest and several of the most valuable moveables. When once the wheels of society had begun to move quickly, there must have been immense inconvenience in demanding a highly intricate form of transfer for a horse or an ox, or for the most costly chattel of the old world—the Slave. Such commodities must have been constantly and even ordinarily conveyed with incomplete forms, and held, therefore, under imperfect titles.
The Res Mancipi of old Roman law were, land,—in historical times, land on Italian soil,—slaves and beasts of burden, such as horses and oxen. It is impossible to doubt that the objects which make up the class are the instruments of agricultural labour, the commodities of first consequence to a primitive people. Such commodities were at first, I imagine, called emphatically Things or Property, and the mode of conveyance by which they were transferred was called a Mancipium or Mancipation; but it was not probably till much later that they received the distinctive appellation of Res Mancipi, “Things which require a Mancipation.” By their side there may have existed or grown up a class of objects, for which it was not worth while to insist upon the full ceremony of Mancipation. It would be enough if, in transferring these last from owner to owner, a part only of the ordinary formalities were proceeded with, namely, that actual delivery, physical transfer, or tradition, which is the most obvious index of a change of proprietorship. Such commodities were the Res Nec Mancipi of the ancient jurisprudence, “things which did not require a Mancipation,” little prized probably at first, and not often passed from one group of proprietors to another. While, however, the list of the Res Mancipi was irrevocably closed, that of the Res Nec Mancipi admitted of indefinite expansion; and hence every fresh conquest of man over material nature added an item to the Res Nec Mancipi, or effected an improvement in those already recognised. In sensibly, therefore, they mounted to an equality with the Res Mancipi, and the impression of an intrinsic inferiority being thus dissipated, men began to observe the manifold advantages of the simple formality which accompanied their transfer over the more intricate and more venerable ceremonial. Two of the agents of legal amelioration, Fictions and Equity, were assiduously employed by the Roman lawyers to give the practical effects of a Mancipation to a Tradition; and, though Roman legislators long shrank from enacting that the right of property in a Res Mancipi should be immediately transferred by bare delivery of the article, yet even this step was at last ventured upon by Justinian, in whose jurisprudence the difference between Res Mancipi and Res Nec Mancipi disappears, and Tradition or Delivery becomes the one great conveyance known to the law. The marked preference which the Roman lawyers very early gave to Tradition caused them to assign it a place in their theory which has helped to blind their modern disciples to its true history. It was classed among the “natural” modes of acquisition, both because it was generally practised among the Italian tribes, and because it was a process which attained its object by the simplest mechanism. If the expressions of the jurisconsults be pressed, they undoubtedly imply that Tradition, which belongs to the Law Natural, is more ancient than Mancipation, which is an institution of Civil Society; and this, I need not say, is the exact reverse of the truth.
The distinction between Res Mancipi and Res Nec Mancipi is the type of a class of distinctions to which civilisation is much indebted, distinctions which run through the whole mass of commodities, placing a few of them in a class by themselves, and relegating the others to a lower category. The inferior kinds of property are first, from disdain and disregard, released from the perplexed ceremonies in which primitive law delights, and then afterwards, in another state of intellectual progress, the simple methods of transfer and recovery which have been allowed to come into use serve as a model which condemns by its convenience and simplicity the cumbrous solemnities inherited from ancient days. But, in some societies, the trammels in which Property is tied up are much too complicated and stringent to be relaxed in so easy a manner. Whenever male children have been born to a Hindoo, the law of India, as I have stated, gives them all an interest in his property, and makes their consent a necessary condition of its alienation. In the same spirit, the general usage of the old Germanic peoples—it is remarkable that the Anglo-Saxon customs seem to have been an exception—forbade alienations without the consent of the male children; and the primitive law of the Sclavonians even prohibited them altogether. It is evident that such impediments as these cannot be overcome by a distinction between kinds of property, inasmuch as the difficulty extends to commodities of all sorts; and accordingly, Ancient Law, when once launched on a course of improvement, encounters them with a distinction of another character, a distinction classifying property, not according to its nature but according to its origin. In India, where there are traces of both systems of classification, the one which we are considering is exemplified in the difference which Hindoo law establishes between Inheritances and Acquisitions. The inherited property of the father is shared by the children as soon as they are born; but according to the custom of most provinces, the acquisitions made by him during his lifetime are wholly his own, and can be transferred by him at pleasure. A similar distinction was not unknown to Roman law, in which the earliest innovation on the Parental Powers took the form of a permission given to the son to keep for himself whatever he might have acquired in military service. But the most extensive use ever made of this mode of classification appears to have been among the Germans. I have repeatedly stated that the allod, though not inalienable, was commonly transferable with the greatest difficulty; and moreover, it descended exclusively to the agnatic kindred. Hence an extraordinary variety of distinctions came to be recognised, all intended to diminish the inconveniences inseparable from allodial property. The wehrgeld, for example, or composition for the homicide of a relative, which occupies so large a space in German jurisprudence, formed no part of the family domain, and descended according to rules of succession altogether different. Similarly, the reipus, or fine leviable on the re-marriage of a widow, did not enter into the allod of the person to whom it was paid, and followed a line of devolution in which the privileges of the agnates were neglected. The law, too, as among the Hindoos, distinguished the Acquisitions of the chief of the household from his Inherited property, and permitted him to deal with them under much more liberal conditions. Classifications of the other sort were also admitted, and the familiar distinction drawn between land and moveables; but moveable property was divided into several subordinate categories, to each of which different rules applied. This exuberance of classification, which may strike us as strange in so rude a people as the German conquerors of the Empire, is doubtless to be explained by the presence in their systems of a considerable element of Roman law, absorbed by them during their long sojourn on the confines of the Roman dominion. It is not difficult to trace a great number of the rules governing the transfer and devolution of the commodities which lay outside the allod, to their source in Roman jurisprudence, from which they were probably borrowed at widely distant epochs, and in fragmentary importations. How far the obstacles to the free circulation of property were surmounted by such contrivances, we have not the means even of conjecturing, for the distinctions adverted to have no modern history. As I before explained, the allodial form of property was entirely lost in the feudal, and when the consolidation of feudalism was once completed, there was practically but one distinction left standing of all those which had been known to the western world—the distinction between land and goods, immoveables and moveables. Externally this distinction was the same with that which Roman law had finally accepted, but the law of the middle ages differed from that of Rome in distinctly considering immoveable property to be more dignified than moveable. Yet this one sample is enough to show the importance of the class of expedients to which it belongs. In all the countries governed by systems based on the French codes, that is, through much the greatest part of the Continent of Europe, the law of moveables, which was always Roman law, has superseded and annulled the feudal law of land. England is the only country of importance in which this transmutation, though it has gone some way, is not nearly accomplished. Our own, too, it may be added, is the only considerable European country in which the separation of moveables from immoveables has been somewhat disturbed by the same influences which caused the ancient classifications to depart from the only one which is countenanced by nature. In the main, the English distinction has been between land and goods; but a certain class of goods have gone as heir-looms with the land, and a certain description of interests in land have from historical causes been ranked with personalty. This is not the only instance in which English jurisprudence, standing apart from the main current of legal modification, has reproduced phenomena of archaic law.
I proceed to notice one or two more contrivances by which the ancient trammels of proprietary right were more or less successfully relaxed, premising that the scheme of this treatise only permits me to mention those which are of great antiquity. On one of them in particular it is necessary to dwell for a moment or two, because persons unacquainted with the early history of law will not be easily persuaded that a principle, of which modern jurisprudence has very slowly and with the greatest difficulty obtained the recognition, was really familiar to the very infancy of legal science. There is no principle in all law which the moderns, in spite of its beneficial character, have been so loath to adopt and to carry to its legitimate consequences as that which was known to the Romans as Usucapion, and which has descended to modern jurisprudence under the name of Prescription. It was a positive rule of the oldest Roman law, a rule older than the Twelve Tables, that commodities which had been uninterruptedly possessed for a certain period became the property of the possessor. The period of possession was exceedingly short—one or two years, according to the nature of the commodities—and in historical times Usucapion was only allowed to operate when possession had commenced in a particular way; but I think it likely that at a less advanced epoch possession was converted into ownership under conditions even less severe than we read of in our authorities. As I have said before, I am far from asserting that the respect of men for de facto possession is a phenomenon which jurisprudence can account for by itself, but it is very necessary to remark that primitive societies, in adopting the principle of Usucapion, were not beset with any of the speculative doubts and hesitations which have impeded its reception among the moderns. Prescriptions were viewed by the modern lawyers, first with repugnance, afterwards with reluctant approval. In several countries, including our own, legislation long declined to advance beyond the rude device of barring all actions based on a wrong which had been suffered earlier than a fixed point of time in the past, generally the first year of some preceding reign; nor was it till the middle ages had finally closed, and James the First had ascended the throne of England, that we obtained a true statute of limitation of a very imperfect kind. This tardiness in copying one of the most famous chapters of Roman law, which was no doubt constantly read by the majority of European lawyers, the modern world owes to the influence of the Canon Law. The ecclesiastical customs out of which the Canon Law grew, concerned as they were with sacred or quasi sacred interests, very naturally regarded the privileges which they conferred as incapable of being lost through disuse however prolonged; and in accordance with this view, the spiritual jurisprudence, when afterwards consolidated, was distinguished by a marked leaning against Prescriptions. It was the fate of the Canon Law, when held up by the clerical lawyers as a pattern to secular legislation, to have a peculiar influence on first principles. It gave to the bodies of custom which were formed throughout Europe far fewer express rules than did the Roman law, but then it seems to have communicated a bias to professional opinion on a surprising number of fundamental points, and the tendencies thus produced progressively gained strength as each system was developed. One of the dispositions it produced was a disrelish for Prescriptions; but I do not know that this prejudice would have operated as powerfully as it has done, if it had not fallen in with the doctrine of the scholastic jurists of the realist sect, who taught that, whatever turn actual legislation might take, a right, how long soever neglected, was in point of fact indestructible. The remains of this state of feeling still exist. Wherever the philosophy of law is earnestly discussed, questions respecting the speculative basis of Prescription are always hotly disputed; and it is still a point of the greatest interest in France and Germany, whether a person who has been out of possession for a series of years is deprived of his ownership as a penalty for his neglect, or loses it through the summary interposition of the law in its desire to have a finis litium. But no such scruples troubled the mind of early Roman society. Their ancient usages directly took away the ownership of everybody who had been out of possession, under certain circumstances, during one or two years. What was the exact tenor of the rule of Usucapion in its earliest shape, it is not easy to say; but, taken with the limitations which we find attending it in the books, it was a most useful security against the mischiefs of a too cumbrous system of conveyance. In order to have the benefit of Usucapion, it was necessary that the adverse possession should have begun in good faith, that is, with belief on the part of the possessor that he was lawfully acquiring the property, and it was further required that the commodity should have been transferred to him by some mode of alienation which, however unequal to conferring a complete title in the particular case, was at least recognised by the law. In the case therefore of a Mancipation, however slovenly the performance might have been, yet if it had been carried so far as to involve a Tradition or Delivery, the vice of the title would be cured by Usucapion in two years at most. I know nothing in the practice of the Romans which testifies so strongly to their legal genius as the use which they made of the Usucapion. The difficulties which beset them were nearly the same with those which embarrassed and still embarrass the lawyers of England. Owing to the complexity of their system, which as yet they had neither the courage nor the power to reconstruct, actual right was constantly getting divorced from technical right, the equitable ownership from the legal. But Usucapion, as manipulated by the jurisconsults, supplied a self-acting machinery, by which the defects of titles to property were always in course of being cured, and by which the ownerships that were temporarily separated were again rapidly cemented together with the briefest possible delay. Usucapion did not lose its advantages till the reforms of Justinian. But as soon as law and equity had been completely fused, and when Mancipation ceased to be the Roman conveyance, there was no further necessity for the ancient contrivance, and Usucapion, with its periods of time considerably lengthened, became the Prescription which has at length been adopted by nearly all systems of modern law.
I pass by with brief mention another expedient having the same object with the last, which, though it did not immediately make its appearance in English legal history, was of immemorial antiquity in Roman law; such indeed is its apparent age that some German civilians, not sufficiently aware of the light thrown on the subject by the analogies of English law, have thought it even older than the Mancipation. I speak of the Cessio in Jure, a collusive recovery, in a Court of Law, of property sought to be conveyed. The plaintiff claimed the subject of this proceeding with the ordinary forms of a litigation; the defendant made default; and the commodity was of course adjudged to the plaintiff. I need scarcely remind the English lawyer that this expedient suggested itself to our forefathers, and produced those famous Fines and Recoveries which did so much to undo the harshest trammels of the feudal land-law. The Roman and English contrivances have very much in common, and illustrate each other most instructively, but there is this difference between them, that the object of the English lawyers was to remove complications already introduced into the title, while the Roman jurisconsults sought to prevent them by substituting a mode of transfer necessarily unimpeachable for one which too often miscarried. The device is in fact one which suggests itself as soon as Courts of Law are in steady operation, but are nevertheless still under the empire of primitive notions. In an advanced state of legal opinion, tribunals regard collusive litigation as an abuse of their procedure; but there has always been a time when, if their forms were scrupulously complied with, they never dreamed of looking further.
The influence of Courts of Law and of their procedure upon property has been most extensive, but the subject is too large for the dimensions of this treatise, and would carry us further down the course of legal history than is consistent with its scheme. It is desirable, however, to mention, that to this influence we must attribute the importance of the distinction between Property and Possession—not, indeed, the distinction itself, which (in the language of an eminent English civilian) is the same thing as the distinction between the legal right to act upon a thing and the physical power to do so—but the extraordinary importance which the distinction has obtained in the philosophy of the law. Few educated persons are so little versed in legal literature as not to have heard that the language of the Roman jurisconsults on the subject of Possession long occasioned the greatest possible perplexity, and that the genius of Savigny is supposed to have chiefly proved itself by the solution which he discovered for the enigma. Possession, in fact, when employed by the Roman lawyers, appears to have contracted a shade of meaning not easily accounted for. The word, as appears from its etymology, must have originally denoted physical contact or physical contact resumeable at pleasure; but as actually used, without any qualifying epithet, it signifies not simply physical detention, but physical detention coupled with the intention to hold the thing detained as one’s own. Savigny, following Niebuhr, perceived that for this anomaly there could only be a historical origin. He pointed out that the Patrician burghers of Rome, who had become tenants of the greatest part of the public domain at nominal rents, were, in the view of the old Roman law, mere possessors, but then they were possessors intending to keep their land against all comers. They, in truth, put forward a claim almost identical with that which has recently been advanced in England by the lessees of Church lands. Admitting that in theory they were the tenants-at-will of the state, they contended that time and undisturbed enjoyment had ripened their holding into a species of ownership, and that it would be unjust to eject them for the purpose of redistributing the domain. The association of this claim with the Patrician tenancies, permanently influenced the sense of “possession.” Meanwhile the only legal remedies of which the tenants could avail themselves, if ejected or threatened with disturbance, were the Possessory Interdicts, summary processes of Roman law which were either expressly devised by the Prætor for their protection, or else, according to another theory, had in older times been employed for the provisional maintenance of possessions pending the settlement of questions of legal right. It came, therefore, to be understood that everybody who possessed property as his own had the power of demanding the Interdicts, and, by a system of highly artificial pleading, the Interdictal process was moulded into a shape fitted for the trial of conflicting claims to a disputed possession. Then commenced a movement which, as Mr. John Austin pointed out, exactly reproduced itself in English law. Proprietors, domini, began to prefer the simpler forms or speedier course of the Interdict to the lagging and intricate formalities of the Real Action, and for the purpose of availing themselves of the possessory remedy fell back upon the possession which was supposed to be involved in their proprietorship. The liberty conceded to persons who were not true Possessors, but Owners, to vindicate their rights by possessory remedies, though it may have been at first a boon, had ultimately the effect of seriously deteriorating both English and Roman jurisprudence. The Roman law owes to it those subtleties on the subject of Possession which have done so much to discredit it, while English law, after the actions which it appropriated to the recovery of real property had fallen into the most hopeless confusion, got rid at last of the whole tangled mass by a heroic remedy No one can doubt that the virtual abolition of the English real actions which took place nearly thirty years since was a public benefit, but still persons sensitive to the harmonies of jurisprudence will lament that, instead of cleansing, improving, and simplifying the true proprietary actions, we sacrificed them all to the possessory action of ejectment, thus basing our whole system of land recovery upon a legal fiction.
Legal tribunals have also powerfully assisted to shape and modify conceptions of proprietary right by means of the distinction between Law and Equity, which always makes its first appearance as a distinction between jurisdictions. Equitable property in England is simply property held under the jurisdiction of the Court of Chancery. At Rome the Prætor’s Edict introduced its novel principles in the guise of a promise that under certain circumstances a particular action or a particular plea would be granted; and, accordingly, the property in bonis, or Equitable Property, of Roman law was property exclusively protected by remedies which had their source in the Edict. The mechanism by which equitable rights were saved from being overridden by the claims of the legal owner was somewhat different in the two systems. With us their independence is secured by the Injunction of the Court of Chancery. Since however Law and Equity, while not as yet consolidated, were administered under the Roman system by the same Court, nothing like the Injunction was required, and the Magistrate took the simpler course of refusing to grant to the Civil Law Owner those actions and pleas by which alone he could obtain the property that belonged in equity to another. But the practical operation of both systems was nearly the same. Both, by means of a distinction in procedure, were able to preserve new forms of property in a sort of provisional existence, until the time should come when they were recognised by the whole law. In this way, the Roman Prætor gave an immediate right of property to the person who had acquired a Res Mancipi by mere delivery, without waiting for the ripening of Usucapion. Similarly he in time recognised an ownership in the Mortgagee, who had at first been a mere “bailee” or depositary, and in the Emphyteuta, or tenant of land which was subject to a fixed perpetual rent. Following a parallel line of progress, the English Court of Chancery created a special proprietorship for the Mortgagor, for the Cestui que Trust, for the Married Woman who had the advantage of a particular kind of settlement, and for the Purchaser who had not yet acquired a complete legal ownership. All these are examples in which forms of proprietary right, distinctly new, were recognised and preserved. But indirectly Property has been affected in a thousand ways by equity, both in England and at Rome. Into whatever corner of jurisprudence its authors pushed the powerful instrument in their command, they were sure to meet, and touch, and more or less materially modify the law of property. When in the preceding pages I have spoken of certain ancient legal distinctions and expedients as having powerfully affected the history of ownership, I must be understood to mean that the greatest part of their influence has arisen from the hints and suggestions of improvement infused by them into the mental atmosphere which was breathed by the fabricators of equitable systems.
But to describe the influence of Equity on Ownership would be to write its history down to our own days. I have alluded to it principally because several esteemed contemporary writers have thought that in the Roman severance of Equitable from Legal property we have the clue to that difference in the conception of Ownership, which apparently distinguishes the law of the middle ages from the law of the Roman Empire. The leading characteristic of the feudal conception is its recognition of a double proprietorship, the superior ownership of the lord of the fief coexisting with the inferior property or estate of the tenant. Now, this duplication of proprietary right looks, it is urged, extremely like a generalised form of the Roman distribution of rights over property into Quiritarian or legal, and (to use a word of late origin) Bonitarian or equitable. Gaius himself observes upon the splitting of dominion into two parts as a singularity of Roman law, and expressly contrasts it with the entire or allodial ownership to which other nations were accustomed. Justinian, it is true, reconsolidated dominion into one, but then it was the partially reformed system of the Western Empire, and not Justinian’s jurisprudence, with which the barbarians were in contact during so many centuries. While they remained poised on the edge of the Empire, it may well be that they learned this distinction, which afterwards bore remarkable fruit. In favour of this theory, it must at all events be admitted that the element of Roman law in the various bodies of barbarian custom has been very imperfectly examined. The erroneous or insufficient theories which have served to explain Feudalism resemble each other in their tendency to draw off attention from this particular in gredient in its texture. The older investigators, who have been mostly followed in this country, attached an exclusive importance to the circum stances of the turbulent period during which the Feudal system grew to maturity; and in later times a new source of error has been added to those already existing, in that pride of nationality which has led German writers to exaggerate the completeness of the social fabric which their forefathers had built up before their appearance in the Roman world. One or two English inquirers who looked in the right quarter for the foundations of the feudal system, failed nevertheless to conduct their investigations to any satisfactory result, either from searching too exclusively for analogies in the compilations of Justinian, or from confining their attention to the compendia of Roman law which are found appended to some of the extant barbarian codes. But, if Roman jurisprudence had any influence on the barbarous societies, it had probably produced the greatest part of its effects before the legislation of Justinian, and before the preparation of these compendia. It was not the reformed and purified jurisprudence of Justinian, but the undigested system which prevailed in the Western Empire, and which the Eastern Corpus Juris never succeeded in displacing, that I conceive to have clothed with flesh and muscle the scanty skeleton of barbarous usage. The change must be supposed to have taken place before the Germanic tribes had distinctly appropriated, as conquerors, any portion of the Roman dominions, and therefore long before Germanic monarchs had ordered breviaries of Roman law to be drawn up for the use of their Roman subjects. The necessity for some such hypothesis will be felt by everybody who can appreciate the difference between archaic and developed law. Rude as are the Leges Barbarorum which remain to us, they are not rude enough to satisfy the theory of their purely barbarous origin; nor have we any reason for believing that we have received, in written records, more than a fraction of the fixed rules which were practised among themselves by the members of the conquering tribes. If we can once persuade ourselves that a considerable element of debased Roman law already existed in the barbarian systems, we shall have done something to remove a grave difficulty. The German law of the conquerors and the Roman law of their subjects would not have combined if they had not possessed more affinity for each other than refined jurisprudence has usually for the customs of savages. It is extremely likely that the codes of the barbarians, archaic as they seem, are only a compound of true primitive usage with half-understood Roman rules, and that it was the foreign ingredient which enabled them to coalesce with a Roman jurisprudence that had already receded somewhat from the comparative finish which it had acquired under the Western Emperors.
But, though all this must be allowed, there are several considerations which render it unlikely that the feudal form of ownership was directly suggested by the Roman duplication of domainial rights. The distinction between legal and equitable property strikes one as a subtlety little likely to be appreciated by barbarians; and, moreover, it can scarcely be understood unless Courts of Law are contemplated in regular operation. But the strongest reason against this theory is the existence in Roman law of a form of property—a creation of Equity, it is true—which supplies a much simpler explanation of the transition from one set of ideas to the other. This is the Emphyteusis, upon which the Fief of the middle ages has often been fathered, though without much knowledge of the exact share which it had in bringing feudal ownership into the world. The truth is that the Emphyteusis, not probably as yet known by its Greek designation, marks one stage in a current of ideas which led ultimately to feudalism. The first mention in Roman history of estates larger than could be farmed by a Paterfamilias, with his household of sons and slaves, occurs when we come to the holdings of the Roman patricians. These great proprietors appear to have had no idea of any system of farming by free tenants. Their latifundia seem to have been universally cultivated by slave-gangs, under bailiffs who were themselves slaves or freedmen; and the only organisation attempted appears to have consisted in dividing the inferior slaves into small bodies, and making them the peculium of the better and trustier sort, who thus acquired a kind of interest in the efficiency of their labour. This system was, however, especially disadvantageous to one class of estated proprietors, the Municipalities. Functionaries in Italy were changed with the rapidity which often surprises us in the administration of Rome herself; so that the superintendence of a large landed domain by an Italian corporation must have been excessively imperfect. Accordingly, we are told that with the municipalities began the practice of letting out agri vectigules, that is, of leasing land for a perpetuity to a free tenant, at a fixed rent, and under certain conditions. The plan was afterwards extensively imitated by individual proprietors, and the tenant, whose relation to the owner had originally been determined by his contract, was subsequently recognised by the Prætor as having himself a qualified proprietorship, which in time became known as an Emphyteusis. From this point the history of tenure parts into two branches. In the course of that long period during which our records of the Roman Empire are most incomplete, the slave-gangs of the great Roman families became transformed into the coloni, whose origin and situation constitute one of the obscurest questions in all history. We may suspect that they were formed partly by the elevation of the slaves, and partly by the degradation of the free farmers; and that they prove the richer classes of the Roman Empire to have become aware of the increased value which landed property obtains when the cultivator has an interest in the produce of the land. We know that their servitude was predial; that it wanted many of the characteristics of absolute slavery, and that they acquitted their service to the landlord in rendering to him a fixed portion of the annual crop. We know further that they survived all the mutations of society in the ancient and modern worlds. Though included in the lower courses of the feudal structure, they continued in many countries to render to the landlord precisely the same dues which they had paid to the Roman dominus, and from a particular class among them, the coloni medietarii, who reserved half the produce for the owner, are descended the metayer tenantry, who still conduct the cultivation of the soil in almost all the South of Europe. On the other hand, the Emphyteusis, if we may so interpret the allusions to it in the Corpus Juris, became a favorite and beneficial modification of property; and it may be conjectured that wherever free farmers existed, it was this tenure which regulated their interest in the land. The Prætor, as has been said, treated the Emphyteuta as a true proprietor. When ejected, he was allowed to reinstate himself by a Real Action, the distinctive badge of proprietary right, and he was protected from disturbance by the author of his lease so long as the canon, or quit-rent, was punctually paid. But at the same time it must not be supposed that the ownership of the author of the lease was either extinct or dormant. It was kept alive by a power of re-entry on non-payment of the rent, a right of pre-emption in case of sale, and a certain control over the mode of cultivation. We have, therefore, in the Emphyteusis a striking example of the double ownership which characterised feudal property, and one, moreover, which is much simpler and much more easily imitated than the juxtaposition of legal and equitable rights. The history of the Roman tenure does not end, however, at this point. We have clear evidence that between the great fortresses which, disposed along the line of the Rhine and Danube, long secured the frontier of the Empire against its barbarian neighbours, there extended a succession of strips of land, the agri limitrophi, which were occupied by veteran soldiers of the Roman army on the terms of an Emphyteusis. There was a double ownership. The Roman State was landlord of the soil, but the soldiers cultivated it without disturbance so long as they held themselves ready to be called out for military service whenever the state of the border should require it. In fact, a sort of garrison-duty, under a system closely resembling that of the military colonies on the Austro-Turkish border, had taken the place of the quit-rent which was the service of the ordinary Emphyteuta. It seems impossible to doubt that this was the precedent copied by the barbarian monarchs who founded feudalism. It had been within their view for some hundred years, and many of the veterans who guarded the border were, it is to be remembered, themselves of barbarian extraction, who probably spoke the Germanic tongues. Not only does the proximity of so easily followed a model explain whence the Frankish and Lombard Sovereigns got the idea of securing the military service of their followers by granting away portions of their public domain; but it perhaps explains the tendency which immediately showed itself in the Benefices to become hereditary, for an Emphyteusis, though capable of being moulded to the terms of the original contract, nevertheless descended as a general rule to the heirs of the grantee. It is true that the holder of a benefice, and more recently the lord of one of those fiefs into which the benefices were transformed, appears to have owed certain services which were not likely to have been rendered by the military colonist, and were certainly not rendered by the Emphyteuta. The duty of respect and gratitude to the feudal superior, the obligation to assist in endowing his daughter and equipping his son, the liability to his guardianship in minority, and many other similar incidents of tenure, must have been literally borrowed from the relations of Patron and Freedman under Roman law, that is, of quondam-master and quondam-slave. But then it is known that the earliest beneficiaries were the personal companions of the sovereign, and it is indisputable that this position, brilliant as it seems, was at first attended by some shade of servile debasement. The person who ministered to the Sovereign in his Court had given up something of that absolute personal freedom which was the proudest privilege of the allodial proprietor.