February 2, 2011

Old School Foreclosure

Filed under: Land Reform, Neo-feudalism — Russell Bangs @ 8:33 am


Isn’t it nice to live in civilized times where things like this no longer happen?

Moleyns had birth and status on his side; Heydon had a sharp legal brain, and personal and professional connections that reached, tendril-like, throughout the claustrophobic hothouse of Norfolk society. The combination proved lethal for the Pastons. On 17 February 1448, Lord Moleyns sent a posse of armed men riding more than 150 miles from Wiltshire to north Norfolk, to seize Gresham [a manor] for himself. John and Margaret were not there and, with no warning of Moleyns’s plans, had no chance to organize any attempt at defense. The manor was overrun, their home invaded, and the doors barred against them. Gresham was gone before they knew what had happened.

There was, of course, no police force on whom the Pastons could call to expel the intruders from their property. They would have to take their complaint to the courts – and even there the awful reality was that Moleyns’s powerful family, with their atavistic attachment to Gresham, might outweigh the Pastons’ legitimate title. As soon as he started legal proceedings to retrieve the estate, John discovered how heavily the cards were stacked against him.

Things sure were different in 15th century England. Every acquisitive eye was on every choice piece of land, and if a target looked vulnerable, it was often might makes right on the ground and in the courts.
Overextended gentry like this Paston family was always on the hot seat. They just barely managed to fend off this threat:

As soon as they reached London, rumors reached them that a predatory interest in Fastolf’s elegant town house at Southwark had already been shown by the duke of Exeter, one of the most powerful noblemen in the country…Before Exeter could attempt to seize the mansion by force, Paston quickly arranged to meet his legal advisers, and managed to persuade them instead to “move my lord to sue by means of the law.” The duke’s claim was no more than an opportunistic attempt to acquire a desirable London residence by strong-arm tactics, and he retreated rapidly once it became clear that John would not be intimidated so easily. However, other possibilities were potentially more threatening…..

But there were plenty of others. These people grasped and grasped, and with every attempt to clutch they only attracted more fingers trying to pry them loose. It sounds like a really grim way to live.
These excerpts are from Helen Castor’s Blood and Roses: One Family’s Struggle and Triumph During the Tumultuous Wars of the Roses. Who this Paston family is seems unimportant. They’re very unattractive and boring as people, and incompetent losers on top of it. (I’m most of the way through it and haven’t yet seen any sign of the “triumph”; indeed, they just suffered another disastrous setback. As these quotes demonstrate, though, plenty of struggle.) Evidently the author wrote the book about them only because their surviving trove of letters is one of the few large ones from the period, and so they provide an in-depth depiction of the times.
That sure is true of the rule of law over landed property.

The family’s inescapable problem was that their estates had been bought so recently. However legally sound a purchase agreement might be – even if its every clause was contractually unimpeachable – the new owner of an estate was not safe against challenge from the family to which the land had previously belonged. The commercial market in land, booming though it was, sat uneasily within a culture steeped in the concept of inheritance, and the heirs of those who had put estates up for sale often acted as though such transactions were an illegitimate interruption of their rightful possession – such rights being conceived more in terms of visceral attachment than legal technicality. And the tension between these nebulous dynastic claims and property rights acquired by purchase was not always resolved according to the letter of the law. All too often, litigation was a skirmish within a wider battle in which strict legal form might be overwhelmed by the superior forces of political influence and powerful connections. John Mariot and Edmund Winter had discovered as much when they failed, after ten rancorous years in the courts, to retrieve the manor of East Beckham from Judge William’s [the founding Paston patriarch] well-connected grasp. But William’s death left the Pastons suddenly bereft of both allies and ammunition, and within months East Beckham was back in Mariot’s hands, without hope of recovery.

To that we can add that any powerful thug with zero claim at all but the muscle to grab and then trump up a “legal” pretext, however spurious, might strike at any time. Threats, thuggery, bribes, legal obfuscation and endless delaying tactics were the game.
The pretext always involved inheritance one way or another. Today that rings a bell when we think of securitization. Today the note and the lien, or the mere claim to hold them, can come from anywhere and sometimes from multiple places at once. (Similarly, in these feudal disputes the tenants are of course stuck in the middle, with two thugs each demanding the same thing: “Pay me the rents and do not pay him or else.”)
Today the unwitting buyer out of foreclosure is totally exposed. As the Bevilacqua decision in Massachusetts found, the buyer’s claim is only as good as the fraudulent representations of the foreclosure seller.
The same instability prevails for any homeowner, even if current on the mortgage, even if she has no mortgage at all. Anyone can be targeted by the servicer, or for that matter by any con man who forges papers and claims to represent a lender or noteholder.
As in the 15th century, the law doesn’t necessarily matter at all. Nor do we necessarily have a police force to do anything about it. More and more it’s might makes right. I guess our “civilization” hasn’t advanced so much after all. Or, as so many other signs show, we’re headed back to feudalism.
(I didn’t take this book out of the library expecting to find useful material. This was just meant to be pleasure reading. But its uncanny how everywhere I look I find the same phenomena.) 


  1. History don’t repeat herself, but sometimes boy, she sure do rhyme..

    Comment by paper mac — February 2, 2011 @ 3:36 pm

    • Especially during the reprise.

      But as in Egypt, we’re calling a new tune, and over there they’re already playing it themselves.

      Comment by Russ — February 2, 2011 @ 4:34 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

%d bloggers like this: