The open-field village was essentially a self-contained social and economic organization originally based upon production for subsistence, not for market. It was not peculiar to England–or to Europe. Whenever and wherever man first reached the stage of settled cultivation, some form of open-field agriculture was adopted. To produce the three main necessities of life, bread, beer, and meat, the husbandman must grow wheat, rye, barley, oats for his stock, and peas or beans.
The quantity of natural meadow land was strictly limited, and there was little possibility of creating extra meadow before the use of artificial phosphates. Much of the meadow, until quite recent times, was subjected to periodic–generally annual–reallotment. Apparently, it was too valuable ever to become purely private property. The internal divisions in it were ideal rather than real. They were not fences but imaginary lines, running from posts or meerstones on one side of the meadow to corresponding marks on the other side. At haysel the lines were trodden out and the traditional lots so remarked were allocated by lot or rotation among the proprietors claiming rights. In order to give everyone a fair chance of securing a plot of good meadow, each tenant had a traditional mark, the frying pan, the ‘hern’s foot’, the bow, and so on, cut into a piece of wood. These were cast into a hat, and drawn forth by a boy.
The open arable land was arranged after a fashion less primitive, but still archaic. The arable lands were divided into two or three large fields, which were subdivided into more or less rectangular areas styled furlongs, each made up of a number of long narrow selions. The ancient practice of fallowing allowed the land to regain its fertility, so each man must have land in each field. Since there were no permanent hedges or fences inside the fields, every man’s land lying cheek by jowl with every other’s, the entire field must be under the same crop at the same time. Sowing and reaping must be carried out simultaneously, for the stock remained until sowing time and was turned back in after harvest. Anyone having land in only one field of two, or two of three, would have found himself without bread or beer for a whole year once every two or three years.
Outside the open meadow and the common arable land lay the unredeemed waste, not yet taken into cultivation, and stretching to the limit of a corresponding waste belonging to the next township or parish. The origins of common meadow and common waste probably date back to an even earlier period than open arable field. They have certainly existed since long before the time of feudal manors, and the Anglo-Norman legal theory was quite mistaken. This point is worth noting, for much enclosure from the Statute of Merton (1253) onwards has been based on an incorrect legal interpretation of a historical fact.
The classic quotation bearing on the origins of the English open-field system is earlier than England itself, a famous mention of it in Tacitus‘ Germania, dating from the later part of the first century, “Agri pro numero cultorum ab universes in vices occupantur…”, “Land proportioned to the number of inhabitants is occupied by the whole community in turn.” This is the Keltic type of communal agriculture, known as run-rig, in which the soil is periodically redivided, and the tenant’s holding is compact. In those parts of England where this system predominated, such as Devon and Cornwall, enclosure by voluntary agreement took place early on. But gradual enclosure by voluntary agreement had a much different effect than the cataclysmic enclosure of the eighteenth century.
The open-field system had evolved to meet the needs of a stable society, based on subsistence agriculture. The replacement of this system by individual farms, and the replacement of communal control by that of persons pursuing policies of ‘enlightened self-interest’ is the process technically known as enclosure. From about 1760 onward, the usual means of effecting enclosure was by private act of parliament. There were two types of enclosure going on simultaneously. One was a movement for the reclamation and possible cultivation of remaining waste. The other movement was one to rationalize open-field agriculture by gathering together the scattered selions of open land, and often cancelling the pasturage and other rights upon them. Either of these changes would involve the loss of pasturage and other rights, and each was often carried out very high-handedly without any proper compensation being made for rights lost.
John Rous, a chantry priest of Warwick, had petitioned Parliament on the subject of depopulation in 1459, and in his History of the Kings of England, written between that year and 1486, he gives a list of sixty-two townships, hamlets, manors, and parishes within thirteen miles of Warwick which had either totally disappeared, or been reduced by as much as ninety percent. Complaints of wholesale enclosure still occurred, and the cause of the poor was taken up by two very influential men, Thomas More, then a rising court favorite, and Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, Lord Chancellor of England. Under their influence in 1517 the King, Henry VII, set up a commission to inquire into depopulation, conversion, and enclosure. Henry’s action on the commission’s report was prompt, but less effective than had been hoped. Administered by the magistrates, legislation was evaded, and enclosure continued.
In the revolts of 1536 and 1549, enclosure played an appreciable part among the rebel’s grievances though in the later ones of 1554 and 1569 there was perhaps less element of agrarian motive. There were enclosure uproars in Oxfordshire in 1596, and again in the Midlands in 1607 agrarian grievances led to something approaching armed revolt.
With the seventeenth century, the arguments for enclosure an economic grounds became more frequent. No redress was given, and in 1607 the countryside was in armed revolt. The rioters took the name of Levellers, and their manifesto makes to clear that the agrarian grievance was almost the sole cause of the unrest. Many of the numerous and vocal agricultural propagandists of the time wholeheartedly urged enclosure. Some, however, argued that steps must be taken to protect the interests of the poor. The poor were considered to be of two classes: the industrious poor who are content to work for their betters, and the idle poor who prefer to work for themselves.
The Diggers: On 16 April 1649, the Council of State was informed that William Everard, a cashiered army officer “who termeth himself a prophet’, together with one or two hundred kindred spirits, had begun to dig up the (commonable) land on St. George’s Hill, in Weybridge, Surrey, and to sow it with carrots, parsnips, and beans. While the Council was wondering what action to take, Gerrard Winstanley and Everard, the leaders, appeared before them, hat on head, with a detailed Christian-Socialist-agrarian programme. They were left undisturbed until autumn, and when they were forcibly dispossessed, their missionaries went out on tour. The Digger movement is one of the interesting might-have-beens of English social and economic history, it’s only discernible result being that it scared landholders into closing ranks against any proposals for land reform.
For our purpose, the ‘Georgian’ era began 1688/89, with the establishment of parliamentary monarchy, a system not at all disposed to any action which would affect adversely the economic interests of the dominant landed classes. There was now no thought of the power of the state being used to arrest the current of agrarian change. Very soon the enclosure movement went on by leaps and bounds. From the 1660’s onwards, the current of propaganda in favor of enclosure became stronger and stronger.
The gentry were not slow to profit by the profusion of good advice which was showered upon them by the agricultural experts. The controversy on the rights and wrongs of enclosure broke out again a little after the middle of the eighteenth century, under influence of a series of high corn prices in the 17650’s, and lasted through the 1770’s and 1780’s. A contemporary writer observed that, “…enclosure is a swindle, pushed by the gentry and the farmers at the expense of the cottagers and laborers. It is often carried out upon solemnly sworn testimony which is outrageously false, it always means consolidation, and therefore depopulation. Many villages that formerly contained five hundred souls have been reduced to eighty or even forty.
After the 1780’s little more is heard of the case for open-field agriculture and the maintenance of commons. Arthur Young and William Marshall, the two great agricultural theorists of the time, agree on the inevitability of enclosure, however much they differ upon other matters. When the Board of Agriculture was established by William Pitt in 1793, it prepared a series of reports commending enclosure as the means to social and agricultural improvement.
The greater part of this has been liberally edited from: The Enclosure Movement by W. E. Tate 1967, LC 67-23645. Of particular interest is Appendix II, which is a bibliographic essay. “The one work of outstanding literary merit is certainly J.L. and Barbara Hammond’s The Village Labourer 1760-1830, 1920, Longmans Green & Co. 39 Paternoster Row, London; which contains more distinguished writing than all the other books on the subject taken together. It has been described as ‘one of the most brilliant works of historical fiction in the English tongue’. At the very least it is to be regarded, to quote a recent writer, as an ‘explosive’ book, to be handled with great care’. No one has yet succeeded in replying to it in a book half as readable.” Concerned primarily with the effects of enclosure from 1795 to the 1830’s, it was commissioned by the Labour Research Department, and is a well-researched antidote to the self-serving propaganda of theorists such as Andrew Young, Jethro Tull, and ‘Turnip’ Townshend.