The English Enclosure Movement


Consider the conflicts involved in the enclosing* of commonly used agricultural lands. How would you remedy a conflict between villagers and adjacent land owners who want the commons?


The practice of enclosing the commons dates to the 12th century when a spreading awareness among landowners of the defects of the open-field system. Since the early Middle Ages, before the arrival of Feudalism (1066) from Normandy villagers had practiced an open field system on which to graze oxen (used communally to plow fields) and cattle (for milk, cheese, butter and tallow). Three field rotation was used.


The following factors also contributed to the enclosing of the commons:  improved agricultural methods. The rise of the landlord class with an interest in farming for profit (sheep grazing to provide wool for the lucrative Flanders trade) rather than subsistence and the growth of towns and cities with larger markets than the villages for fresh and finished agricultural products  (eggs, honey, ham, cheese, butter, leather, parchment, flax, seed oil, fruit, vegetables, poultry, meat & flour) were also factors.


As enclosures became increasingly widespread, they resulted in a tremendous increase in agricultural products and income for landowners and traders. Although farmers entered into enclosure agreements the principle agents of enclosure to reap the benefits were the landlords. Traditional tenants were displaced from the farms, because without common lands farmers became unable to supplement their need for fuel, fodder (cattle feed), fiber or food.


Legally the power of enclosure was granted to the landlords in the 13th century by the statutes of Merton (1235) and Westminster II (1285), which provided, however, that enough land must be left unenclosed to fulfill the common rights (traditional uses) of the tenantry (collectively the tenants {renters} near a given area of common land). Landlord frequently avoided such stipulations by expulsion of the tenants or purchase of the common rights, and by waiting until the expiration of the claims or death of the tenant; then taking over the questionable acreage. Grazing flocks of sheep superseded subsistence farming.


As a consequence of growing enclosures, large numbers of peasants were reduced to beggary and pauperism; many others joined the class of urban working class poor (expanding the Parish roles and requiring the enactment of Poor Laws). In the 16th century Tudor monarchs, fearing social unrest from the growing number of poor, attempted to discourage the enclosure practice with little success.  Late in the 17th century landlords became a dominant force in English parliamentary life and the use of enclosure spread rapidly, further stimulated by rising profits and the enactment in 1801 of the General Enclosure Act, by Parliament during the Napoleonic Wars.


The Enclosure Act of 1845-subjected abuses of the enclosure practice to strict governmental controls, which now amended is still in force. Due to further restrictions the practice virtually ceased by the late 19th century. Since enclosure represents a key factor in the transition from medieval, subsistence agriculture to modern commercial production Russia, Hungary, Germany, France & Denmark experienced similar events. Migrants to America had experienced displacement due to these prevailing trends in what is called the commercialization of agriculture.


Enclosure is the process where private individuals acquired ownership to lands that had traditionally been held in common and used by villagers for pasture, coppice, and hunting or were left unoccupied as waste lands.



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What would you do to settle a dispute over the acquisition of a common property?




Answer these questions after rereading the previous page.

What is the enclosure movement ?





How is it both a local problem and a national issue?





What key words do you know?





What important words used in the piece do you not know?






How is the above process of enclosure an issue of competing land-uses?





How is the enclosure movement a water use issue?





What economic uses of the landscape are at odds?





What was the legal authority, or was there a legal basis for what occurred?





What are the moral dimensions of what occurred?





What issues or authors can you relate to this historical problem today & how?