Rent History: Part 1 From Pyramids to Poolhouses How Rent History Applies Today

At RentPost we try to provide you with the entire spectrum of data when it comes to leasing and renting and making better decisions. We even offer some good do’s, don’ts and general points of reference when it comes to landlord-tenant interactions. However, no explanation, no matter how involved, of the science of renting could ever really be complete without paying a little attention to its history. By learning about the history of renting, it becomes a little easier to see how it, as a business, has evolved to the point it’s at now. By putting leasing and renting in a historical context, we can all make better business decisions today.

Basically, renting developed from a more primitive form of tenancy, called tenant farming. Tenant farming developed from–and yes, we have to say it–slavery, which dominated prehistoric and ancient social relationships. In Ancient Egypt, for example, a huge proportion of the populace were all slaves to the Pharaoh–remember all those pyramid temples they built to worship him? They would do whatever work he required of them–all too often heavy lifting–and he would take care of them how he saw fit, depending on his mood. He would provide them with some sort of food and shelter, thus maintaining the very primitive Egyptian social networking.

By the time of the Romans, social attitudes had developed somewhat, so that even though there was an Emperor, who could force anyone to do anything with a word, the system of landowning and tenancy had evolved somewhere in-between the way it was in Ancient Egypt and the way it is today. Wealthy landowners, called patricians, still held slaves, but these were usually prisoners of war, and by then it was accepted convention that legitimate Roman citizens should have some right to property, even if they could not own land. Here renting began in earnest, with plebians–the Roman term for the common poor–renting living space, usually at exorbitant rates, renting from their more wealthy counterparts. While this system perpetuated the gap in wealth between the two classes, it at least provided a strong classical precedent for poorer classes to live as tenants without being slaves.

The Middle Ages, about a thousands years after the peak of the Romans, saw somewhat a regression in the rights of tenants, as large landowners–no longer in the city of Rome but in the forests and foothills of western Europe–were able to gain huge amounts of control over their local populations with no central ruler or King to control what they did. This was feudalism–the most powerful lord around would grant his protection to other local, less powerful lords if they promised him fealty, or loyalty. These lesser lords in turn would rent out tracks of land at exorbitant rates who would build shacks and farm them, usually finding themselves lucky to break even and not be “evicted” from their property. Feudalism begin to die out around the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries when new, more powerful kings grew jealous of the wealth of the powerful lords and individual citizens became more and more indignant with the unfairness of tenant farming.

Tenant farming–and its inherent abuses of tenants–never really died out, but over the centuries the balance of power between landlords tenants have greatly evened out, for several reasons. Not only did feudalism die out, liberal and humanistic ideals from the Enlightenment gradually mollified attitudes concerning social class and enhanced the cause of individual rights. Capitalism, and the rise of the middle class, helped blur the once-clear line between rich and poor, and an increasing number of people began to rent under better conditions and with better interest rates. People of similar means began renting to each other, as equals. The resulting growth of the economy from this more efficient and fair method of business only increased people’s commitment to making the business of renting and tenancy more manageable.

Certainly, even today, renting is not completely fair. Most of us, either as tenants or landlords, feel that we have in some way be wronged or treated unfairly at some point in the process. But people will never be perfect and certainly making them that way is not the goal of RentPost. But, by appreciating the evolution of renting through history, we can learn from the motivations, tendencies, mistakes, and even abuses of our predecessors to make better business decisions. In acknowledgement of this past, landlords should strive to treat tenants with this hard-earned, long-coming, and well-earned respects. Tenants who are treated well should be grateful and accommodating to the concerns of their landords. The gradual improvement of renting in the last two thousand years points to an auspicious future if we can steel ourselves for the unforeseen challenges the future is bound to present.

**Here’s a link to part 2 of this article.

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Witt Callaway


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  • Well I am looking to see if you have any historical citations for your claims. Otherwise following the narrative you provided the conclusion is that we are still slaves in our modern world: we have switched out the term “slave” for “employee” and “master” for “employer” to make it more agreeable to the ears. And we changed out the horrible working conditions with uniforms: therefore this allows the greedy for wealth to monopolize the land and rent it out to others

    When you trace the etymology of the word “employee” it literally means to ‘fold in’ therefore the “employer” is the one telling you how to fold. A “job” also literally means ‘a piece of work’ and is not work itself which involves actual toil and skill.

By Witt Callaway

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