J. M.Neeson, Commoners: Common Right, Enclosure, and Social Change in England, 1700-1820, Cambridge, 1993

by Rural Reads

Debate in British historiography on what the enclosure of common agricultural lands and the coming of industrialization meant for standards of living has been described as  “more polemical and vituperative” than that on any other issue.   Because England ceased to have a serf-like peasantry tied to the lord’s land centuries before the rest of Europe, it is often argued that losing the benefits of common rights was insignificant, especially when compared to the greater efficiencies that came from enclosure. English peasants were already “free”.    Neeson argues against this consensus.  She gives a rich picture of what the rural culture was before enclosure, and what was lost with its culmination of common rights in the early 19th century.  Rather than a statistical focus on wages, she emphasizes the loss of economic security and cultural autonomy by the rural poor.   For instance, not being able to graze a cow had huge implications for nutrition and security, which wouldn’t be noticed if that benefit of common rights had already been discounted.

A similar look at the consequences of modernizing agriculture for all aspects of the standard of living is K. D. M. Snell, Annals of the Labouring Poor, Social Change and Agrarian England, 1660-1900, Cambridge, 1985.

An argument that enclosure didn’t even lead to production efficiencies, effects on rural culture aside, which I haven’t found yet, is R. C. Allen, Enclosure and the Yeoman.

Chip Planck, cplanck@rstarmail.com