Medieval Manors



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- Medeival Manors

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Enclosure (also inclosure) is the Mediveal Manors process of conversion of common land to private ownership. Historically, enclosure is primarily associated Medieal Manors with the privatization of land in England from Meideval Manors the 12th to 19th centuries.


  • 1 Introduction
  • 2 The Middle Ages and Renaissance
    • 2.1 The plague and population change
    • 2.2 The Great Debasement
    • 2.3 Poverty
    • 2.4 Early enclosure
    • 2.5 Enclosure riots
    • 2.6 Religion and economic life
  • 3 References
  • 4 See also
  • 5 Literary references to Enclosure
  • 6 External links


There were two main help processes of enclosure in England. One was the division of large open fields into privately controlled plots of land, usually hedged and known at the time as "severals". This land was already owned, but under a concept of ownership that gave the owners rights to the crops, but also meant that other people might have rights to partial use of that land. For example, villagers might have the right to graze their animals on the stubble in the open fields after the harvest was taken, or in a hay meadow after the haying. This land was private, but subject to certain public rights, usually known as "common rights". Before enclosure, a farmer might own or rent several strips in an open field. Medieval manors usually had two to three large open fields, so that crops could be rotated. In the process of enclosure, the large fields were divided and communal access restricted. Most open-field manors in England were enclosed in this manner, with the notable exception of Laxton, Nottinghamshire.

The second process of enclosure was the division and privatization of common fens and marshes, moors and other "wastes" (in the original sense of "uninhabited places"). These enclosures turned common land into owned land, whereas field enclosures only segregated land that was already owned.

The history of enclosure in England is different from region to region. Not all areas of England had open-field farming in the medieval period. Parts of south-east England, notably parts of Essex and Kent retained a pre-Roman system of farming in small enclosed fields. In much of west and north-west England, fields were similarly either never open, or early enclosed. The primary area of open field management was in the lowland areas of England in a broad swath from Yorkshire and Lincolnshire diagonally across England to the south, taking in parts of Norfolk and Suffolk, Cambridgeshire, large areas of the Midlands, and most of south central England. These areas were most affected by the first type of enclosure, particularly in the more densely settled areas where grazing was scarce and farmers relied on open field grazing after the harvest and on the fallow to support their animals.

The second form of enclosure affected those areas, such as the north, the far southwest and unique regions such as the East Anglian Fens, where grazing had been plentiful on otherwise marginal lands, such as marshes and moors. Access to these common resources was an essential part of the economic life in these strongly pastoral regions. In the Fens, large riots broke out in the seventeenth century, when attempts to drain the peat and silt marshes were combined with proposals to partially enclose them.

From as early as the 12th century, some open fields in Britain were being enclosed into individually owned fields. In Great Britain, the process sped up during the 15th and 16th centuries as sheep farming grew more profitable. In the 16th and early 17th centuries, the practice of enclosure was denounced by the Church and the government, particularly depopulating enclosure, and legislation was drawn up against it. But elite opinion began to turn towards support for enclosure, and rate of enclosure increased in the seventeenth century. This led to a series of government acts addressing individual regions, which were given a common framework in the Inclosure Consolidation Act of 1801.

Sir Thomas More, in his 1516 work Utopia suggests that the practice of enclosure is responsible for some of the social problems affecting England at the time, specifically theft.

But I do not think that this necessity of stealing arises only from hence; there is another cause of it, more peculiar to England.' 'What is that?' said the Cardinal: 'The increase of pasture,' said I, 'by which your sheep, which are naturally mild, and easily kept in order, may be said now to devour men and unpeople, not only villages, but towns; for wherever it is found that the sheep of any soil yield a softer and richer wool than ordinary, there the nobility and gentry, and even those holy men, the abbots not contented with the old rents which their farms yielded, nor thinking it enough that they, living at their ease, do no good to the public, resolve to do it hurt instead of good. They stop the course of agriculture, destroying houses and towns, reserving only the churches, and enclose grounds that they may lodge their sheep in them.

Both economic and social factors drove the enclosure movement. In particular, the demand for land in the seventeenth century, increasing regional specialisation, engrossment in landholding and a shift in beliefs regarding the importance of "common wealth" (usually implying common livelihoods) as opposed to the "public good" (the wealth of the nation or the GDP) all laid the groundwork for a shift of support among elites to favour enclosure. Enclosures were conducted by agreement among the landholders (not necessarily the tenants) throughout the seventeenth century; enclosure by Parliamentary Act began in the eighteenth century. Enclosed lands normally could demand higher rents than unenclosed, and thus landlords had an economic stake in enclosure, even if they did not intend to farm the land directly.

Enclosure was also believed to be necessary to implement certain technological improvements, though some historians have found that these were also implemented in open field manors. One stated advantage was the reduction in the spread of disease, because plots were separated from their neighbours, and livestock were segregated into herds. Enclosed fields also allowed farmers to experiment in selective breeding, which would be more difficult in a common field.

While many villagers received plots in the newly enclosed manor, for small landholders this compensation was not always enough to offset the costs of enclosure and fencing. Many historians believe that enclosure was an important factor in the reduction of small landholders in England, as compared to the Continent, though others believe that this process had already begun from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Enclosure faced a great deal of popular resistance because of its effects on the household economies of smallholders and landless labourers. Common rights had included not just the right of cattle or sheep grazing, but also the grazing of geese, foraging for pigs, gleaning, berrying, and fuel gathering. Many people who had previously been able to live off the land, now were forced into the cities where they became laborers in the Industrial Revolution.

By the end of the 19th century the process of enclosure was largely complete.

Many landowners would become rich through the inclosure of the commons, heaths and downland. Many ordinary folk had a centuries old right taken away. Land inclosure had been condemned as a gigantic swindle on the part of large landowners, and Oliver Goldsmith in his well known rhyme summed it up thus:

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

The Middle Ages and Renaissance

The plague and population change

From 1347-52, plague (mainly 'the Black Death', or bubonic plague) decimated European society, initially killing 25 million people—a third of the total population. Labor shortages led to depression and revolts as peasants demanded higher wages but were denied them. Smaller outbreaks of plague continued until 1600 or so—in 1556-60 a bout of plague reduced the English population by 6%—but in the late fifteenth-sixteenth centuries there was an immense overall population increase. By 1500, England had recovered from plague deaths so that the population was about 5 million again, as it was in 1300. By 1700 England's population reached 9 million. From 1500-1600 the City of London grew 400% to a high of about 200,000 people.

From 1450-1630 economies expanded alongside increasing poverty. The social framework of the manorial estate—and that of medieval society in general, including the town guilds of the burghers—was falling away. The old order had been centered on religious, theocentric values of continuity, stability, security and cooperative effort. These goods were accompanied by the ills of intolerance of change, rigid social stratification, little development, and a high degree of poverty.

The Great Debasement

Following population change, The Great Debasement of 1540s was probably the largest cause of enclosure. When Henry VIII arrived on the throne, his finances were in superb shape thanks to the miserly attitude of his father Henry VII. However this soon changed, Henry VIII doubled household expenditure and started costly wars against both France and Scotland. This rapidly decreased his wealth and lead to a series of taxes by his finance minister Thomas Wolsey. Soon the population began to tire of Wolsey's windfall taxes and thus a new means of finance must be found. This was found and carried out in 1544 when Henry retained ~50% of the silver in the coinage, this was repeated to a lesser extent the following year. This, combined with injection of bullion from the New Worlds, increased the money supply within England. The increase in money supply lead to inflationary pressure on prices, therefore causing a long term inflation crisis, resulting in enclosures. Enclosures followed because the landowners wealth was under threat, so forced the landowners into becoming more efficient.

The debasement was not seen as a cause of inflation (and therefore enclosures) until Somerset's reign as Protector of Edward VI. Up to this point enclosures were seen as the cause of inflation not the outcome. When Thomas Smith tried to advise Edwards Seymour (The Duke of Somerset) on his response to enclosure (that it was result of inflation not a cause), he was only ignored. It took till John Dudley's (The Duke of Northumberland) time as Protector for his finance minister William Cecil to realise and act on debasement to stop enclosure. S Mulcahy 15:38, 9 January 2007 (UTC)


About 50% of the European population was too poor to pay taxes. The laboring poor comprised two-thirds of urban populations. By the sixteenth century, poverty had reached such an acute level (60-80%) that traditional charities could no longer cope and new responses were called for. Throughout the Renaissance, it fell to the churches—Protestant and Catholic—to provide for the care of the poor, of which there were very, many. English censuses of the poor usually show rates of poverty at about 20%. From 1630-1750 there was a general depression and radical economic change: 40% of the rural English population was forced to abandon agrarian life. By the end of the Middle Ages there were new, previously unrecognized categories of the poor beyond widows, orphans and handicapped people, including urban wage-earners and day laborers. The latter are only possible in a money economy where labor has become a quantifiable economic entity. Such a radical shift—and the reality of migratory labor unattached to land and not subordinate to any absolute master—was a shock to the system.

The shock was that of a premarket economy giving way to a market economy, a transition that was not marked by a transition from poverty to wealth for most people. The emergence of Labor as an idea and laborers as a fact was not necessarily coupled with the resources and jobs necessary for the production of wealth. Dominated by agriculture, the medieval economy had aimed at subsistence, not marketable surplus—largely because of the lack of markets. But even during the Renaissance in England, almost all wheat produced was consumed domestically, so a decrease in production would cause scarcity and/or a rise in prices barring a drop in the overall population. As stated above, however, the population was growing. There was available agricultural labor and there was available land, but the land was often uncultivated or turned to other uses.

Early enclosure

Open farmland in England had been commonly enclosed as pastureland for sheep from the fourteenth to the sixteenth century as populations declined. Foreign demand for English wool also helped encourage increased production, and the wool industry was often thought to be more profitable for landowners who had large decaying farmlands. Some manorial lands lay in disrepair from a lack of tenants, which made them undesirable to both prospective tenants and landowners who could be fined and ordered to make repairs. Enclosure and sheep herding (which required very few laborers) were a solution to the problem, but of course this created other problems: unemployment, the displacement of impoverished rural laborers, and decreased domestic grain production which made England more susceptible to famine and higher prices for domestic and foreign grain. (On the hazards of converted farmland to pastureland, see Thomas More's account of the man-eating sheep in Utopia.) The loss of agricultural labor also hurt others like millers whose livelihood relied on agricultural produce. Fynes Moryson reported on these problems in An Itinerary (1617):

England abounds with corn [wheat and other grains], which they may transport, when a quarter (in some places containing six, in others eight bushels) is sold for twenty shillings, or under; and this corn not only serves England, but also served the English army in the civil wars of Ireland, at which time they also exported great quantity thereof into foreign parts, and by God's mercy England scarce once in ten years needs a supply of foreign corn, which want commonly proceeds of the covetousness of private men, exporting or hiding it. Yet I must confess, that daily this plenty of corn decreaseth, by reason that private men, finding greater commodity in feeding of sheep and cattle than in the plow, requiring the hands of many servants, can by no law be restrained from turning cornfields into enclosed pastures, especially since great men are the first to break these laws.

By some accounts, 3/4ths to 9/10ths of the tenant farmers on some estates were evicted in the late medieval period. Other economic historians argue that forced evictions were probably rare. Landlords would turn to enclosure as an option when lands went unused. Reflecting royal opposition to this practice, the anti-enclosure acts of 1489 and 1516 were aimed at stopping the waste of existing structures and farmland which would lead to lower tax revenues, fewer potential military conscripts for the crown, and more potential underclass rebels.

Enclosure riots

After 1529 or so, the problem of untended farmland disappeared with the rising population. There was a desire for more arable land along with much antagonism toward the tenant-graziers with their flocks and herds. Increased demand along with a scarcity of tillable land caused rents to rise dramatically in the 1520s to mid-century. The 1520s appear to have been the point at which the increases became extreme, with complaints of rackrenting appearing in popular literature. (See Crowley.) There were popular efforts to remove old enclosures, and much legislation of the 1530s and 1540s concerns this shift. Angry tenants impatient to reclaim pastures for tillage were illegally destroying enclosures. From 1549 agrarian revolts swept all over the nation, and other revolts occurred periodically throughout the century. Clearly the popular rural mentality was rather medieval, the goal being to try to restore the security, stability, and functionality of the old order. However, in looking to the past, early modern commoners believed they were asserting ancient traditional and constitutional rights granted to the free and sturdy English yeoman as opposed to the enslaved and effeminate French—a contrast often drawn by 16th century writers. (See Hutchins.) This emphasis on rights was to have a pivotal role in the modern era unfolding from the Enlightenment. D. C. Coleman writes that the English commons were disturbed by the loss of common rights under enclosure which might involve the right "to cut underwood, to run pigs" (40).

The Midland Revolt

In 1607, beginning on May Eve in Northamptonshire and spreading to Warwickshire and Leicestershire throughout May, riots took place as a protest against the enclosure of common land. Known as The Midland Revolt, it drew considerable support and was led by Captain Pouch, otherwise known as John Reynolds of Desborough, Northamptonshire. He said he had authority from the King and the Lord of Heaven to destroy enclosures and promised to protect protesters by the contents of his pouch, which he carried by his side, which he said would keep them from all harm. Thousands of people were recorded at Hillmorton, Warwickshire and at Cotesbach, Leicestershire. A curfew was imposed in the city of Leicester, as it was feared citizens would stream out of the city to join the riots. A gibbet was erected in Leicester as a warning, and was pulled down by the citizens.

Newton Rebellion: 8 June 1607

Eventually James I ordered his Deputy Lieutenants in Northamptonshire - where over a thousand had gathered at Newton, near Kettering, to protest against the enclosures of Thomas Tresham, pulling down hedges and filling ditches - to put down the riots. The Treshams - both the family at Newton and their more well-known Roman Catholic cousins at nearby Rushton, the family of Francis, who had been involved two years earlier in the Powder Treason and had apparently died in The Tower - were unpopular for their voracious enclosing of land and had long argued with the Puritan family the Montagus of Boughton about territory. Now Tresham of Newton was enclosing common land - The Brand - that had been part of Rockingham Forest. Edward Montagu, one of the Deputy Lieutenants, had stood up against enclosure in Parliament some years earlier, but was now placed by the King in the position effectively of defending the Treshams. The local armed bands and militia refused the call-up, so the landowners were forced to use their own servants to suppress the rioters on 8 June 1607. The Royal Proclamation was read twice. The rioters continued in their actions and the gentry and their forces charged. 40-50 were killed and the ringleaders were hanged and quartered. No memorial to the event or to those killed exists. The Tresham family declined soon after. The Montagu family went on through marriage to become the Dukes of Buccleuch, one of the biggest landowners in Britain.

John Reynold's pouch was found after he was captured. It was opened and all that was in it was a piece of green cheese. Captain Pouch was hanged.

Religion and economic life

In the late medieval-early modern period, the common mentality behind medieval economic order—in which economic matters were subordinate to religious and ethical beliefs—was undergoing a shift to a modern conception of economics as an autonomous, free-standing, independent, extensively secularized public sphere.

The Roman Catholic Church, then and now, has always maintained the classical and patristic opposition to usury/interest and the pursuit of wealth as its own end. Early and later radical sect of Protestants had similar views, some even going further to practice kinds of communism. On the other hand, the Protestant mainstream, coming from Luther and especially Calvin, has been famously connected with the emergence of modern capitalism by Max Weber and R. H. Tawney.

The Protestant Reformation probably enabled as well as reflected increasing separation of economic life from the domain of the church. However, Luther and also Calvin had the same approximate theocentric, communal social vision as that professed by the Catholic church. Luther's vision of society and economics was fundamentally medieval, as was John Calvin's. The latter tolerated capitalistic practices like usury in Geneva within the parameters of significant ethical restraints. Luther was dogmatically and vehemently against usury. Early English reformers like Tyndale, Latimer, and Crowley had similar communitarian values and views; this is expressed in their hostility toward enclosure.

English popular Protestantism was not atypical in being marked by an emphasis on simplicity, plainness, honesty, and thrift. In the face of ample examples of ostentatious and wasteful clergy and nobles, Protestant "plainness" appealed to the old, conservative, medieval values of mercantilist townspeople and a populace formerly steeped in peasant agricultural life for generations. For such people in a hardscrabble world with limited social mobility and limited wealth, waste was associated with death, want, and decline.


  • Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation, 1944
  • J.M. Neeson, Commoners: Common Right, Enclosure and Social Change in England, 1700 – 1820, [1], Cambridge University Press, 1993, ISBN 0-521-56774-2
  • Leigh Shaw-Taylor, 'Parliamentary Enclosure and the Emergence of an English Agricultural Proletariat', Journal of Economic History, 2001
  • Keith Lindley, Fenland Riots and the English Revolution, 1982
  • Peter Kropotkin, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, 1902 [2]

See also

  • Agricultural revolution
  • Common-pool resource
  • Das Kapital (Capital), Vol. 1, Ch. 27
  • Political economy
  • Utopia (book)

Literary references to Enclosure

  • Das Kapital (Capital)
  • Das Kapital (Capital), Vol. 1, Ch. 27 - 'Expropriation Of The Agricultural Population From The Land'
  • Utopia (book)

External links

  • Laxton Open Field Village
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