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Enclosure in Britain

They hang the man and flog the woman That steal the goose from off the common, But let the greater villain loose That steals the common from the goose.

(Traditional Rhyme)

Although enclosure of commons has taken place at many iso­ lated moments throughout world history, it was in Britain be­ tween the 15th and the 19th centuries that the phenomenon became identifiable as a historical process. It is no coincidence that the country which gave birth to the expression "inclosure", should also be the country that spearheaded the drive towards an industrialized market economy, for the one was essential to the other.

Enclosure in Britain can be dis­ tinguished from earlier forms of expropriation and enclosure in that it did not merely involve a transfer of power from the commons to an expropriating elite, but also sig­ nalled a more profound change in the social order in two related re­ spects. Firstly, enclosure, by rede­ fining land as "property", gave it the status of a commodity, tradeable within a rapidly expanding market system; and as a corollary, since the majority of people were denied access to the land and forced to become wage-labourers, labour also became a tradeable commodity. Secondly, enclosure in Britain has consistently been justified by its perpetrators and apologists as "im­ provement". The first legal act to enforce enclosures, the Statute of Merton of 1235, spoke of the need to "approve" (ie., improve) the land in order to extract greater rent.3

elasticity both to the size of peasants' holdings and to the level of their labour contribution, as the size of their families changed over the years. After the harvest, the arable land became a collective pasture for villagers' stock and remained fallow during the following year. The greater part of the land consisted of meadow, heath, moorland or woodland, all of which were managed communally, and where peasants held many rights, such as estovers (fuelwood), turbary (peat cutting) and pannage (turning pigs into the woods).

However the system was not easily adaptable to change. There was no place in it for the ambitious farmer who wished to specialize in breeding sheep, or who in later centuries wished to apply more complex rotations including crops such as turnips or clover. But after the Black Death plague of 1348, which wiped out over a third of the population, the scarcity of labour and the abundance of land prompted a change in land-tenure from the bottom levels of society upward, whereby individual holdings

existed alongside the open-field system, while the common pastures and woodlands remained substan­ tially intact.

The rate of change, however, was not fast or lucrative enough for am­ bitious landowners who found that they could extract more value from the land by turning it over to sheep to supply the booming wool export market. Between the 14th and the 16th centuries, thousands of peas­ ants were evicted from their hold­ ings, while many more saw the common lands that were the basis of their independence fenced off for sheep. Other commoners found that their small plots of arable were harder to maintain when deprived of the common pasture for cattle and were forced to sell up.

While newer tenants could be summarily evicted, those with tradi­ tional rights had recourse to the law. But the courts were invariably biased against the poor, as Bishop Latimer in 1552, testified:

"Improvement" was seen as linked, if not completely synonymous, with profit in the same way that the later term "development" has come to be associated with "economic growth".

The trial of a landlord during John Ket's Rebellion of 1549 — one of many peasant revolts against enclosure, heavy taxes and other abuses. Sixteen thousand insurgents formed a camp near Norwich and "scoured the country around, destroyed inclosures, filled in ditches, levelled fences."

"Be the poor man's cause never so manifest, the rich shall, for money, find six or seven counsellors that shall stand with subtleties and sophisms to cloak an evil matter and hide a known truth . . . Such boldness have these covetous cormorants that

The system of "open-field" — unfenced and communally managed strips of arable land — that predominated in England throughout the Middle Ages had several advantages for the peasantry as well as disadvantages. Most importantly, it guaranteed access to the land for the bulk of the population. Although the poorer villagers were obliged to work for stipulated periods on the local Lord's land, for the rest of the time they were free to work their own plots. At the time of the Domesday Book census in 1086, more than half the arable land belonged to the villagers. This unfenced land was worked with varying degrees of collectivization, which allowed a certain

now their robberies, extortion and oppression have no end or limits, no banks can keep in their violence. As for turning the poor out of their holdings, they take it for no offence, but say their land is their own and they turn them out of their shrouds like mice. Thousands in England, through such, beg now from door to door which have kept honest houses."4

By Latimer's day, enclosure was seen to be causing a severe lawand-order problem. It had created a dispossessed proletariat of potential wage-earners, without providing any industry to em­ ploy them. Recurrent peasant revolts and the menacing presence

132

The Ecologist, Vol. 22, No. 4, July/August 1992