The word rent is widely used, but its origins are not widely understood, as attested by recent appeals to abolish rent during the Covid-19 lockdown.
Rent has taken on a heightened significance in recent weeks due to a sudden rapid spike in unemployment in various countries. Prompted by the worldwide Covid-19 lockdown, the spike has forced many people into a situation where they suddenly cannot afford their rent. This came to a head on April 1st, when many people’s first post-lockdown rent payment was due. A cursory Twitter search of keywords such as “rent” and “landlord” on this day gives a pretty good impression of people’s increasingly radical attitudes towards the (non-)payment of rent. It also suggests that, for the first time in a long time, a lot of people are suddenly beginning to question why they should even be expected to pay rent.
As it happens, this question can be partially answered by way of a short investigation of the very history of the word “rent”.
Rent comes most recently from the Old French rente, meaning “payment due, income”. Rente itself comes from the Latin phrase reddō (to give in return, or give back), a word formed of re- (again) and dō (to give). We can trace these two root words even further back to the equivalent Proto-Indo-European words ure and deh. Which is all to say that the word appears to capture a quite fundamental and even natural process within human society: to give something in return for something else.
Rent Before and After Capitalism
These days, of course, rent has a much more specific meaning — to give payment in return for the temporary use of property. This more specific meaning emerged in the mid-15th century. The timing is significant, because it was around this period that countries in Western Europe, starting with England, began their transition from feudalism to capitalism. One of the principal aspects of this transition was the enclosure of manorial lands by the landlord class. How this went, is that landlords slowly worked out that they could make more money from grazing than they could by having their peasant tenants work the land. Thanks, in particular, to the emergence of an international market for wool around this time, they began to close off the “common” land the peasants formerly had free access to.
Prior to this enclosure, the peasant class had worked the same land for centuries: since, for better or worse, the feudal landlord/tenant relationship often legally prohibited peasants from leaving the land without the lord’s permission. In this relationship, peasants were expected to give a certain amount of the product of their labour to their landlord as payment for use of the land throughout the year. But despite this exchange, they weren’t really renters in any modern sense. After all, they often came with the land, and were passed from one landlord to another as part of any transfer of ownership. Furthermore, peasants often had a lot of freedom to work the land as they saw fit, and there were countless instances of landlords struggling to get tenants to hand over produce throughout the late medieval period.
An Impersonal Arrangement
Following the breakdown of this feudal system, former peasants increasingly migrated to the city, forming the basis of a new urban proletariat. Meanwhile, in a bid to circumvent the church’s prohibition of usury (charging interest for moneylending) the landlord class increasingly came to rely on renting their land to those landless peasants who remained in the countryside, many of whom no longer had such direct ancestral link to the area. In both the urban and rural context, the relationship between landlord and tenant became less personal, necessitating the creation of more formal rental agreements.
All this happened due to a very particular understanding of land and who owns it. According to this understanding, the owner of a piece of land holds exclusive dominion over it, can charge however much they like for a tenant to gain temporary access to it, and is entitled to remove any tenant who is not abiding by a rental agreement.
Between Owner and Thing Owned
This all has its origins in Roman law, which introduced the idea of property as fundamentally a relationship between an owner and a thing owned, whereby the owner has almost singular authority to dispense with the thing as they please. As Orlando Patterson suggests in his book Slavery or Social Death (1982), the source of this concept lies in the master/slave relationship which predominated in the Roman mode of production. After it was dusted off by medieval European legal scholars during the transition to capitalism, the concept spread across the entire globe during the colonial period, and now forms the basis of property law in almost every country in the world.
The problem is, property isn’t fundamentally a relationship between an owner and a thing owned. It is a relationship between an owner and the rest of society. The rest of society accepts the owner’s exclusive right to the property because of laws established by the state, and maintained through its monopoly on violence.
“Rent”, therefore, is anything but natural. Rather, it is something that emerged in specific circumstances and continues to exist because there has remained broad support for it in society at large. But there were, are and will always be other ways for people to gain temporary access to land besides having to pay rent for it.