How many times have you heard your landlord say, “This is my property and I can do anything I want?” Before you tell him to stick his anything where the sun don’t shine (I will tell you how and when to make this suggestion in subsequent issues) understand that your landlord is simply a romantic. He should be wearing a cod piece and tights.
For over one thousand years dating back to the days of ye olde English estate, a landed lord could literally do anything he desired to his tenants because he owned them. Indeed a thousand years ago, according to medieval rumor, the lord had the right of jus primae noctis—the right to bed virgins on their wedding night. Did you see Braveheart? Of course, the virgins were the lord’s tenants. That is, their husbands or fathers lived on the lord’s land. (Women were the property of husbands and fathers back then.)
The word “tenant” comes from the French word tenir, “to hold.” Many medieval tenants were “villains.” Villain. Vil”lain\, n. [OE. vilein, F. vilain, LL. villanus, from villa a village, L. villa a farm. See Villa.] 1. (Feudal Law) One who holds lands by a base, or servile, tenure, or in villenage; a feudal tenant of the lowest class, a bondman or servant. “If any of my ancestors was a tenant, and a servant, and held his lands as a villain to his lord, his posterity also must do so, though accidentally they become noble.”—Jeremy Taylor. Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary, © 1996, 1998 MICRA, Inc.
It is generally accepted that the winners in wars, the conquerors, write history. The losers are always relegated to bad guy status. That the rich and powerful, especially in pre-literate societies with emerging language, imparted the meaning of words is no stretch. Do you think that a lord might have become angry if refused his right of jus primae noctis? Or that the early rebellions of Scottish and Irish tenants protesting their abuse on the lords’ lands may have embittered the powerful? Is that how the current meaning of “villain” came into use? Certainly “Robin Hood” became a British term for criminal, not the mythological hero who stole from the rich and gave to the poor. Think “hood” as used in West Side Story.
Anglo-American culture has never been kind to tenants. In the United States only property owners (always white, always male) could vote. It wasn’t until 1850 when the last property ownership requirements for voting were abolished. As time passed, the power exchange between landlords and tenants became more abstract, more “civilized” with the concept of payment of rent (although there are still a few sharecroppers in the United States today). Slavery was eventually abolished. Contracts and leases evolved, but they were usually one-sided and non-negotiable. Ring a bell? It was still the landlord’s property and he could do, for the most part, whatever he wanted, including evicting a tenant at will…with whatever force necessary.
Modern law regulating the eviction of tenants only began to develop less than 140 years ago. For example, California passed its first laws regulating lockout and forcible removal of tenants (forcible detainer) in 1872. The statutes regulating eviction (unlawful detainer) came later in 1905. The California law regulating habitability in dwellings was enacted in 1970 and it wasn’t until 1974 when the California Supreme Court recognized the right of a tenant to defend a nonpayment eviction action because the landlord refused to maintain the unit in a habitable condition. In other words until about 35 or 40 years ago, the landlord could legally toss your ass out if you refused to pay for an apartment that didn’t have heat or if the roof was so rotten you could see the stars through it at night! The California legislature finally got around to thinking that there should be a law about that in 1986.
When you ponder your paltry rights as a tenant know that they are very newly won given the long history and custom of the landlord/tenant “relationship.” If etymology (the study of the origins of words) demonstrates the DNA of culture, then the words “landlord” and “tenant” are embedded in our psyches. No wonder that we dutifully pay our rent for our overpriced hovels. No wonder that our legislature balks at protecting tenants. No wonder that the landlord says, “This is my property and I can do anything I want.” Though you may have accidentally become noble…well, at least, you can vote…the next time you’re writing your rent check remember this: You’re still paying the lord to live on his land and you’re still the villain.