In the time before enclosure, shared pastures where landless villagers could graze their animals were common. Laxton [England] had two, the Town Moor Common and the much larger Westwood Common, which together supported a hundred and four rights to common use, with each of these rights attached to a cottage or a toft of land in the village. In Laxton, the commons were a resource reserved for those with the least: both the commons and the open fields were owned by the lord of the manor, and only villagers with little more than a cottage held rights to the commons.
As a visitor from the age of private property, it seems remarkable to me that commoners held rights to land they did not own or rent, but, at the time, it was commonplace. In addition to common pasture, commoners were granted rights of pannage, of turbary, of estovers, and of piscary—rights to run their pigs in the woods, to cut peat for fuel, to gather wood from the forests, and to fish. These were rights to subsistence, rights to live on what they could glean from the land. In the course of enclosure, as written law superseded customary law, commoners lost those rights. Parliament made property rights absolute, and the traditional practice of living off the land was redefined as theft. Gleaning became trespassing, and fishing became poaching. Commoners who continued to common were now criminals.
The story of enclosure is sometimes told as a deal, or a transaction, in which landowners traded away their traditional relationship with the landless in exchange for greater independence. By releasing themselves from their social obligations to provide for the poor, they gained the freedom to farm for profit. And this freedom, or so the story goes, is what allowed the increased efficiencies that we call the agricultural revolution. Commoners lost, in the bargain, the freedom once afforded to them by self-sufficiency. Dispossessed of land, they were now bound to wages.
The landowners who promoted enclosure promised “improvement,” and “improvement” is still the word favored by some historians. But we should be wary of the promotional language of the past. Leaving the commons to the commoners, one eighteenth-century advocate of enclosure argued, would be like leaving North America to the Native Americans. It would be a waste, he meant. Imagine, he suggested, allowing the natives to exercise their ancient rights and to continue to occupy the land—they would do nothing more with it than what they were already doing, and they would not “improve” it. Improvement meant turning the land to profit. Enclosure wasn’t robbery, according to this logic, because the commoners made no profit off the commons, and thus had nothing worth taking.