Chapter : 3. Peasants and Farmers

The Time of open fields and commons

(i) Before late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in large parts of England the countryside was open. It was not partitioned into enclosed lands privately owned by landlords. Peasants cultivated on strips of land around the village they lived in. At the beginning of each year, at a public meeting, each villager was allocated a number of strips to cultivate. Usually, these strips were of varying quality and often located in different places, not next to each other. The effort was to ensure that everyone had a mix of good and bad land. Beyond these strips of cultivation lay the common land. All villagers had access to the commons. Here they pastured their cows and grazed their sheep, collected fuel wood for fire and berries and fruit for food. They fished in the rivers and ponds, and hunted rabbit in common forests. For the poor, the common land was essential for survival. It supplemented their meagre income, sustained their cattle, and helped them tide over bad times when crops failed.
(ii) From about the sixteenth century. When the price of wool went up in the world market in the sixteenth century, rich farmers wanted to expand wool production to earn profits. They were eager to improve their sheep breeds and ensure good feed for them. They were keen on controlling large areas of land in compact blocks to allow improved breeding. So they began dividing and enclosing common land and building hedges around their holdings to separate their property from that of others. They drove out villagers who had small cottages on the commons, and they prevented the poor from entering the enclosed fields. Till the middle of the eighteenth century the enclosure movement proceeded very slowly. The early enclosures were usually created by individual landlords. They were not supported by the state or the church. After the mid-eighteenth century, however, the enclosure movement swept through the countryside, changing the English landscape for ever. Between 1750 and 1850, 6 million acres of land was enclosed. The British Parliament no longer watched this process from a distance. It passed 4,000 Acts legalising these enclosures.

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