The Enclosures in England - An Economic Reconstruction
by Harriett Bradley
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Volume LXXX] [Number 2

Whole Number 186



Assistant Professor of Economics, Vassar College Sometime University Fellow in Economics



"It fareth with the earth as with other creatures that through continual labour grow faint and feeble-hearted." From speech made in the House of Commons, 1597




INTRODUCTION 11 The subject of inquiry—No attempt hitherto made to verify the different hypothetical explanations of the enclosures—Nature of the evidence.

CHAPTER I THE PRICE OF WOOL 18 Accepted theory of enclosure movement based on price of wool—Enclosures began independently of Black Death and before expansion of woollen industry—Price of wool low as compared with that of wheat in enclosure period—Seventeenth-century conversions of pasture to arable—Of arable to pasture—Conversion not explained by change in prices or wages—Double conversion movement due to condition of soil—Summary.

CHAPTER II THE FERTILITY OF THE COMMON FIELDS 51 Dr. Russell on soil fertility—Insufficient manure—Statistical indications of yield—Compulsory land-holding—Desertion of villains—Commutation of services on terms advantageous to serf—Low rent obtained when bond land was leased—Remission of services—Changes due to economic need, not desired for improved social status—Poverty of villains—Cultivation of demesne unprofitable.

CHAPTER III THE DISINTEGRATION OF THE OPEN FIELDS 73 Growing irregularity of holdings—Consolidation of holdings—Turf boundaries plowed under—Lea land—Restoration of fertility—Enclosure by tenants—Land used alternately as pasture and arable—Summary of changes.

CHAPTER IV ENCLOSURE FOR SHEEP PASTURE 86 Enclosure by small tenants difficult—Open-field tenants unprofitable—Low rents—Neglect of land—High cost of living—Enclosure even of demesne a hardship to small holders—Intermixture of holdings a reason for dispossessing tenants—Higher rents from enclosed land another reason—Poverty of tenants where no enclosures were made—Exhaustion of open fields recognised by Parliament—Restoration of fertility and reconversion to tillage—New forage crops in eighteenth century—Recapitulation and conclusion.



The enclosure movement—the process by which the common-field system was broken down and replaced by a system of unrestricted private use—involved economic and social changes which make it one of the important subjects in English economic history. When it began, the arable fields of a community lay divided in a multitude of strips separated from each other only by borders of unplowed turf. Each landholder was in possession of a number of these strips, widely separated from each other, and scattered all over the open fields, so that he had a share in each of the various grades of land.[1] But his private use of the land was restricted to the period when it was being prepared for crop or was under crop. After harvest the land was grazed in common by the village flocks; and each year a half or a third of the land was not plowed at all, but lay fallow and formed part of the common pasture. Under this system there was no opportunity for individual initiative in varying the rotation of crops or the dates of plowing and seed time; the use of the land in common for a part of the time restricted its use even during the time when it was not in common. The process by which this system was replaced by modern private ownership with unrestricted individual use is called the enclosure movement, because it involved the rearrangement of holdings into separate, compact plots, divided from each other by enclosing hedges and ditches. The most notable feature of this process is the conversion of the open fields into sheep pasture. This involved the eviction of the tenants who had been engaged in cultivating these fields and the amalgamation of many holdings of arable to form a few large enclosures for sheep. The enclosure movement was not merely the displacement of one system of tillage by another system of tillage; it involved the temporary displacement of tillage itself in favor of grazing.

In this monograph two things are undertaken: first, an analysis of the usually accepted version of the enclosure movement in the light of contemporary evidence; and, secondly, the presentation of another account of the nature and causes of the movement, consistent with itself and with the available evidence. The popular account of the enclosure movement turns upon a supposed advance in the price of wool, due to the expansion of the woollen industry in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Landlords at this period (we are told) were increasingly eager for pecuniary gain and, because of the greater profit to be made from grazing, were willing to evict the tenants on their land and convert the arable fields to sheep pasture. About the end of the sixteenth century, it is said, this first enclosure movement came to an end, for there are evidences of the reconversion of pastures formerly laid to grass. An inquiry into the evidence shows that the price of wool fell during the fifteenth century and failed to rise as rapidly as that of wheat during the sixteenth century. Moreover, the conversion of arable land to pasture did not cease when the contrary process set in, but continued throughout the seventeenth century with apparently unabated vigor. These facts make it impossible to accept the current theory of the enclosure movement. There is, on the other hand, abundant evidence that the fertility of much of the common-field land had been exhausted by centuries of cultivation. Some of it was allowed to run to waste; some was laid to grass, enclosed, and used as pasture. Productivity was gradually restored after some years of rest, and it became possible to resume cultivation. The enclosure movement is explained not by a change in the price of wool, but by the gradual loss of productivity of common-field land.

This explanation is not made here for the first time. It is advanced in Denton's England in the Fifteenth Century[2] and Gardiner, in his Student's History of England,[3] accepts it. Prothero[4] and Gonner[5] give it some place in their works. Dr. Simkhovitch, at whose suggestion this inquiry was undertaken, has for some time been of the opinion that deterioration of the soil was the fundamental cause of the displacement of arable farming by grazing.[6] This explanation, however, stands at the present time as an unverified hypothesis, which has been specifically rejected by Gibbins, in his widely used text-book,[7] and by Hasbach,[8] who objects that Denton does not prove his case. In this respect the theory is no more to be criticised than the theory which these authorities accept, for that does not rest upon proof, but upon the prestige gained through frequent repetition. But the matter need not rest here. It is unnecessary to accept any hypothetical account of events which are, after all, comparatively recent, and for which the evidence is available.

Of the various sources accessible for the study of the English enclosure movement, one type only has been extensively used by historians. The whole story of this movement as it is usually told is based upon tracts, sermons, verses, proclamations, etc. of the sixteenth century—upon the literature of protest called forth by the social distress caused by enclosure. Until very recently the similar literature of the seventeenth century has been neglected, although it destroys the basis of assumptions which are fundamental to the orthodox account of the movement. Much of significance even in the literature of the sixteenth century has been passed over—notably certain striking passages in statutes of the latter half of the century, and in books on husbandry of the first half. Details of manorial history derived from the account rolls of the manors themselves, and contemporary manorial maps and surveys, as well as the records of the actual market prices of grain and wool, have been ignored in the construction of an hypothetical account of the movement which breaks down whenever verification by contemporary evidence is attempted.

The evidence is in many respects imperfect. It would be of great value, for instance, to have access to records of grain production over an area extensive enough, and for a long enough period, to furnish reliable statistical indications of the trend of productivity. It would be helpful to have exact information about the amount of land converted from arable to pasture in each decade of the period under consideration, and to know to what extent and at what dates land was reconverted to tillage after having been laid to grass. There are no records to supply most of this information. It is possible that the materials for a statistical study of soil productivity are in existence, but up to the present time they have not been published, and it is doubtful if this deficiency will be supplied. It is even more doubtful whether more can be learned about the rate of conversion of arable land to pasture than is now known, and this is little. Professor Gay has made a careful study of the evidence on this question, and has analysed the reports of the government commissions for enforcing the husbandry statutes before 1600,[9] and Miss Leonard has made the returns of the commission of 1630 for Leicestershire available.[10] The conditions under which these commissions worked make the returns somewhat unreliable even for the years covered by their reports, and much interpolation is necessary, as there are serious gaps in the series of years for which returns are made. For dates outside of the period 1485-1630 we must rely entirely on literary references. Unsatisfactory as our statistical information is on this important question, it is far more complete than the evidence on the subject of the reconversion to tillage of arable land which had been turned into pasture.

It is to the unfortunate social consequences of enclosure that we owe the abundance of historical material on this subject. Undoubtedly much land was converted to pasture in a piece-meal fashion, as small holders saw the possibility of making the change quietly, and without disturbing the rest of the community. If enclosure had taken no other form than this, no storm of public protest would have risen, to express itself in pamphlets, sermons, statutes and government reports. Enclosure on a large scale involved dispossession of the inhabitants, and a complete break with traditional usage. For this reason the literature of the subject is abundant. When, however, the process was reversed, and the land again brought under cultivation, there was involved no interference with the rights of common holders. It was to the interest of no one to oppose this change, and no protest was made to call the attention of the historian to what was being done. References to the process are numerous enough only to prove that reconversion of land formerly laid to grass took place during the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries—to an extent of which not even an approximate estimate can be made.

Imperfect as the evidence is from some points of view, it is nevertheless complete for the purposes of this monograph. It would be impossible, with the material at hand, to reconstruct the progress of the enclosure movement, decade by decade, and county by county, throughout England. My intention, however, is not so much to describe the movement in detail as it is to give a consistent account of its nature and causes. Even a few sixteenth-century instances of the plowing up of pasture land should be enough to arrest the attention of historians who believe that the conversion of arable land to pasture during this period is sufficiently explained by an assertion that the price of wool was high. What especial circumstances made it advantageous to cultivate land which had been under grass, while other land was being withdrawn from cultivation? Contemporary writers speak of the need of worn land for rest for a long period of years, and remark that it will bear well again at the end of the period. Evidence such as this is significant without the further information which would enable us to estimate the amount of land affected. For our purposes, also, the notice of enclosure of arable land for pasture on one group of manors in the early thirteenth century is important as an indication that the fundamental cause of the enclosure movement was at work long before the Black Death, which is usually taken as the event in which the movement had its beginning. Low rents, pauperism, and abandonment of land are facts which indicate declining productivity of the soil, and statistical records of the harvests reaped are not needed when statutes, proclamations, and books of husbandry describe the exhausted condition of the common fields. The fact that the enclosure movement continued vigorously in the seventeenth century is conclusively established, and when this fact is known the impossibility of estimating the comparative rate of progress of the movement in the preceding century is of no importance. Upon one point at least, the evidence is almost all that could be desired. The material for a comparison of the prices of wheat and wool throughout the most critical portion of the period has been made accessible by Thorold Rogers.[11] It is to this material that the defenders of the theory that enclosures are explained by the price of wool should turn, for they will find a fall of price where they assume that a rise took place. Instead of an increase in the supply of wool due to a rise in its price, there is indicated a fall in the price of wool due to an increase in the supply. The cause of the increase of the supply of wool must be sought outside of the price conditions.

Acknowledgment should here be made of my indebtedness to Dr. V. G. Simkhovitch of Columbia University, without whose generous help this study would not have been planned, and whose criticism and advice have been invaluable in bringing it to completion. Professor Seager also has given helpful criticism. Professor Seligman has allowed me the use of books from his library which I should otherwise have been unable to obtain. For material which could not be found in American libraries I am indebted to my mother and father, who obtained it for me in England.


[1] V. G. Simkovitch, Political Science Quarterly, vol. xxvii, p. 398.

[2] (London, 1888), pp. 153-154. Denton refers here to Gisborne's Ag. Essays, as does Curtler, in his Short Hist. of Eng. Ag. (Oxford, 1909), p. 77.

[3] Vol. i, p. 321.

[4] English Farming Past and Present (London, 1912), p. 64.

[5] Common Land and Enclosure, p. 121.

[6] See Political Science Quarterly, vol. xxxi, p. 214.

[7] Industry in England (New York, 1897), p. 181.

[8] Hist. of the Eng. Ag. Laborer (London, 1908), p. 31.

[9] Pub. Am. Ec. Assoc., Third Series (1905), vol vi, no. 2, pp. 146-160: "Inclosure Movement in England."

[10] Royal Hist. Soc. Trans., New Series (1905), vol. xix, pp. 101-146: "Inclosure of Common Fields."

[11] Cf. infra, p. 26.



The generally accepted version of the enclosure movement turns upon supposed changes in the relative prices of wool and grain. The conversion of arable land to pasture in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries is accounted for by the hypothesis that the price of wool was rising more rapidly than that of grain. The beginning of the enclosure movement, according to this theory, dates from the time when a rise in the price of wool became marked, and the movement ended when there was a relative rise in the price of agricultural products. Before the price of wool began to rise, it is supposed that tillage was profitable enough, and that nothing but the higher profits to be made from grazing induced landholders to abandon agriculture. The agrarian readjustments of the fourteenth century are regarded as due simply to the temporary shortage of labor caused by the Black Death. High wages at this time caused the conversion of some land to pasture, according to the orthodox theory, and from time to time during the next two centuries high wages were a contributing factor influencing the withdrawal of land from tillage; but the great and effective cause of the enclosure movement, the one fundamental fact which is insisted upon, is that constant advances in the price of wool made grazing relatively profitable. It is usually accepted without debate that the withdrawal of arable land from tillage did not begin until after the Black Death, that the enclosures of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries were caused by a rise in the price of wool, and that the conversion of arable land to pasture ceased when this cause ceased to operate.

Against this general explanation of the enclosure movement, it is urged, first, that the withdrawal of land from cultivation began long before the date at which the enclosure movement, caused by an alleged rise in the price of wool, is ordinarily said to have begun. The fourteenth century was marked by agrarian readjustments which have a direct relation to the enclosure movement, and which cannot be explained by the Black Death or the price of wool. Even in the thirteenth century the causes leading to the enclosure movement were well marked. Secondly, the cause of the substitution of sheep-farming for agriculture in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries cannot have been a rise in the price of wool relatively to that of grain, because statistics show that the price of wool fell during the fifteenth century, and failed to rise as rapidly as that of wheat in the sixteenth century. Thirdly, a mere comparison of the relative prices of grazing and agricultural products cannot explain the fact that conversion of open-field land to pasture continued throughout the seventeenth century in spite of prices which made it profitable for landowners at the same time to convert a large amount of grass-land to tillage, including enclosures which had formerly been taken from the common fields. If these facts are accepted the explanation of the enclosure movement which is based upon a comparison of the prices of wheat and wool must be rejected, and the story must be told from a different point of view.

Taking up these points in order, we shall inquire first into the causes of the agrarian readjustments of the fourteenth century. A generation after the Black Death, the commutation of villain services and the introduction of the leasehold system had made notable progress. The leasing of the demesne has been attributed to the direct influence of the pestilence, which by reducing the serf population made it impossible to secure enough villain labor to cultivate the lord's land. The substitution of money rents in place of the labor services owed by the villains has been explained on the supposition that the serfs who had survived the pestilence took advantage of the opportunity afforded by their reduction in numbers to free themselves from servile labor and thus improve their social status. The connection between the Black Death and the changes in manorial management which are usually attributed to it could be more convincingly established had not several decades elapsed after the Black Death before these changes became marked. A recent intensive study of the manors of the Bishopric of Winchester during this period confirms the view of those who have protested against assigning to the Black Death the revolutionary importance which is given it by many historians. On these estates the Black Death "produced severe evanescent effects and temporary changes, with a rapid return to the status quo of 1348."[12] The great changes which are usually attributed to the plague of 1348-1350 were under way before 1348, and were not greatly accelerated until 1360, possibly not before 1370, and cannot, therefore, have been due to the Black Death.

Levett and Ballard devote especial attention to the effect of the Black Death upon the substitution of money payments for labor services and rents in kind, but their study also brings out the fact that the difficulty in persuading tenants to take up land on the old terms (usually ascribed to the Black Death) began before the pestilence, and continued long after its effects had ceased to exert any influence. Before the Black Death landowners were unable to secure holders for bond land without the use of force. A generation after the Black Death they were still contending with this problem, and it had become more serious than at any previous time. Whatever the significance of the Black Death, it must not be advanced as the explanation of a condition which arose before its occurrence, nor of events which took place long after its effects were forgotten. One result of the pestilence was, indeed, to place villains in a stronger position than before, but the changes which took place on this account must not be allowed to obscure the fact that landowners were already facing serious difficulties before 1348. Holders of land were already deserting, and the tenements of those who died or deserted could frequently be filled only by compulsion. Villains were refusing to perform their services on account of poverty, and they were already securing reductions in their rents and services. The temporary reduction of the population by the Black Death has been advanced as the reason for the ability of the villains of the decade 1350-1360 to enforce their demands; but without the help of any such cause, villains of an earlier period were obtaining concessions from their lords, and after the natural growth of the population had had ample time to replace those who had died of the pestilence, the villains were in a stronger position than ever before, if we are to estimate their strength by their success in lightening their economic burdens. The Black Death at the most did no more than accelerate changes in the tenure of land which were already under way. Villain services were being reduced, and the size of villain holdings increased. The strength of the position of the serfs lay not so much in the absence of competition due to a temporary reduction in their numbers as in their poverty. Tenants could not be held at the accustomed rents and services because it was impossible to make a living from their holdings. The absence of competition for holdings was no temporary thing, due to the high mortality of the years 1348-1350, but was chronic, and was based upon the worthlessness of the land. The vacant tenements of the fourteenth century, the reduction in the area of demesne land planted, the complaints that no profit could be made from tillage, the reduction of rents on account of the poverty of whole villages, all point in the same direction. These matters will be taken up more fully in a later chapter. Here it need only be pointed out that the withdrawal of land from cultivation was under way because tillage was unprofitable.

If tillage was unprofitable in the fourteenth century, so unprofitable that heirs were anxious to buy themselves free of the obligation to enter upon their inheritance, while established landholders deserted their tenements, the enclosure of arable land for pasture in the fifteenth century is seen in a new light. When there was no question of desiring the land for sheep pasture, it was voluntarily abandoned by cultivators. Displacement of tillage due to an internal cause precedes displacement of tillage for sheep pasture. The process of withdrawing land from cultivation began independently of the scarcity of labor caused by the Black Death and independently of any change in the price of wool; the continuation of this process in the fifteenth century is not likely to depend entirely upon a rise in the price of wool. That the enclosures of the fifteenth century were in reality merely a further step in the readjustments under way in the fourteenth century cannot be doubted. And that the whole process was independent of the especial external influence upon agriculture exerted in the fourteenth century by the Black Death and in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries by the growth of the woollen industry is shown in the case of a group of manors where the essential features of the enclosure movement appeared in the thirteenth century. More than a hundred years before the Black Death the Lord of Berkeley found it impossible to obtain tenants for bond land at the accustomed rents. Villains were giving up their holdings because they could not pay the rent and perform the services. The land which had in earlier times been sufficient for the maintenance of a villain and his family and had produced a surplus for rent had lost its fertility, and the holdings fell vacant. The land which reverted to the lord on this account was split up and leased at nominal rents, when leaseholders could be found, just as so much land was leased at reduced rents by landowners generally in the fourteenth century. Moreover, some of the land was unfit for cultivation at all and was converted to pasture under the direction of the lord.[13]

If the disintegration of manorial organization observed in the fourteenth century and earlier was not due to the Black Death; if this disintegration was under way before the pestilence reduced the population, and was not checked when the ravages of the plague had been made good; if tillage was already unprofitable before the fifteenth century with its growth of the woollen industry; and if land was being converted to pasture at a time when neither the price of wool nor the Black Death can be offered as the explanation of this conversion; then there is suggested the possibility that the whole enclosure movement can be sufficiently accounted for without especial reference to the prices of wool and grain. If the enclosure movement began before the fifteenth century and originated in causes other than the Black Death, the discovery of these original causes may also furnish the explanation of the continuance of the movement in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The amount of land under cultivation was being reduced before the date at which the price of wool is supposed to have risen sufficiently to displace agriculture for the sake of wool growing, and this early reduction in the arable cannot, clearly, be accounted for by reference to the prices of wool and grain. But it also happens that, in the very period when an increase in the demand for wool is usually alleged as the cause of the enclosures, the price of wool fell relatively to that of grain. The increase in sheep-farming in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, together with the fact that the domestic cloth manufacture was being improved at this time, has been the basis of the assumption that the price of wool was rising. The causal sequence has been supposed to be: (1) an increase in the manufacture of woollens; (2) an increase in the demand for wool; (3) an increase in the price of wool; (4) an increase in wool-growing at the expense of tillage, and the enclosure of common lands. If, as a matter of fact, the price of wool fell during this period, the causal sequence is reversed. If the price of wool fell, the increase in the manufacture of woollens has no relation to the enclosure movement, unless it is its result, and we are forced to look elsewhere for the cause of the increase of sheep-farming.

The accompanying tables and chart, showing the changes in the price of wool and of wheat from the middle of the thirteenth century through the first quarter of the sixteenth century, have been prepared from the materials given by Thorold Rogers in his History of Agriculture and Prices in England.[14] The averages given in his tables are based upon records of actual sales. They furnish, therefore, the exact information needed in connection with the theory that a rise in the price of wool relatively to that of wheat was the cause of the enclosure movement in England. In the century and a half before 1400, there were wide fluctuations in the prices of both commodities, but the price of wool rose and fell with that of wheat. The first quarter of the fourteenth century was a period of falling prices. The fall continued in the case of wool until about the middle of the century, when a recovery began, culminating about 1380. A rise in the price of wheat occurred sooner than that of wool and reached its climax about 1375. In the last quarter of the century the prices of both wool and wheat fell, with a slight recovery in the last decade of the century.



Wheat, per Wool, per quarter tod (28 lbs.) s. d. s. d.

1261-1270 4 8-5/8 9 - 1271-1280 5 7-3/4 9 2 1281-1290 5 0-7/8 8 10 1291-1300 6 1-1/8 7 10 1301-1310 5 7-1/4 9 - 1311-1320 7 10-1/4 9 11 1321-1330 6 11-5/8 9 7 1331-1340 4 8-3/4 7 3 1341-1350 5 3-1/8 6 10 1351-1360 6 10-5/8 6 7 1361-1370 7 3-1/4 9 3 1371-1380 6 1-1/4 10 11 1381-1390 5 2 8 - 1391-1400 5 3 8 4 1401-1410 5 8-1/4 9 2-1/2 1411-1420 5 6-3/4 7 8-1/4 1421-1430 5 4-3/4 7 5-1/2 1431-1440 6 11 5 9 1441-1450 5 5-3/4 4 10-1/2 1451-1460 5 6-1/2 4 3-3/4 1461-1470 5 4-1/2 4 11-1/2 1471-1480 5 4-1/4 5 4 1481-1490 6 3-1/2 4 8-1/2 1491-1500 5 0-3/4 6 0-1/2 1501-1510 5 5-1/2 4 5-3/4 1511-1520 6 8-3/4 6 7-1/4 1521-1530 7 6 5 4-1/4 1531-1540 7 8-1/2 6 8-3/4 1541-1550 10 8 20 8 1551-1560 15 3-3/4 15 8 1561-1570 12 10-1/4 16 - 1571-1582 16 8 17 -



Wheat, per Wool, per Date quarter tod

s. d. s. d.

1261-1400 5 11 8 7

1351-1400 6 1-3/4 8 7 1401-1460 5 9 6 2-1/2 1461-1500 5 6-1/2 5 3 1501-1540 6 10-1/4 5 9-1/2

After 1400 the price of wheat held at about the average price of the previous period, but for sixty years the price of wool fell, without a check in its downward movement. It is in this period that the woollen industry entered upon the period of expansion which is supposed to have been the cause of the enclosure movement, but there was no rise in the price of wool. Instead, there was a decided fall.[15] The average price for the decade 1451-1460 was just about one-half of the average price for the period 1261-1400. (The average price of wool in the last fifty years of the fourteenth century happens to be the same as the average for the period 1261-1400. Either the longer or the shorter period may be used indifferently as the basis for comparison). The average price for the period 1401-1460 was 25 per cent lower than the average for the preceding half-century. A comparatively slight depression in the price of wheat in the same period is shown in the tables. The average for 1401-1461 is only three per cent lower than that for 1265-1400 (seven per cent lower than the average for 1351-1400). Before 1460, then, there was nothing in market conditions to favor the extension of sheep farming, but there is reason to believe that the withdrawal of land from tillage had already begun. Leaving aside the enclosure and conversion of common-field land by the Berkeleys in the thirteenth century, we may yet note that "An early complaint of illegal enclosure occurs in 1414 where the inhabitants of Parleton and Ragenell in Notts petition against Richard Stanhope, who had inclosed the lands there by force of arms." Miss Leonard, who is authority for this statement, also refers to the statute of 1402 in which "depopulatores agrorum" are mentioned.[16] In a grant of Edward V the complaint is made that "this body falleth daily to decay by closures and emparking, by driving away of tenants and letting down of tenantries."[17] It is strange, if these enclosures are to be explained by increasing demand for wool, that this heightened demand was not already reflected in rising prices.

But, it may be urged, the true enclosure movement did not begin until after 1460. If a marked rise in the price of wool occurred after 1460, it might be argued that enclosures spread and the price of wool rose together, and that the latter was the cause of the former. Turning again to the record of prices, we see that although the low level of the decade 1451-1460 marks the end of the period of falling prices, no rise took place for several decades after 1460. Rous gives a list of 54 places "which, within a circuit of thirteen miles about Warwick had been wholly or partially depopulated before about 1486."[18] Two or three years later acts were passed against depopulation in whose preambles the agrarian situation is described: The Isle of Wight "is late decayed of people, by reason that many townes and vilages been lete downe and the feldes dyked and made pastures for bestis and cattalles." In other parts of England there is "desolacion and pulling downe and wylfull wast of houses and towns ... and leying to pasture londes whiche custumably haue ben used in tylthe, wherby ydlenesse is growde and begynnyng of all myschevous dayly doth encrease. For where in some townes ii hundred persones were occupied and lived by their lawfull labours, now ben there occupied ii or iii herdemen, and the residue falle in ydlenes."[19] It may be remarked that while the price records show conclusively that no rise in the profits of wool-growing caused these enclosures, the language of the statutes shows also that scarcity of labor was not their cause, since one of the chief objections to the increase of pasture is the unemployment caused.

It would seem hardly necessary to push the comparison of the prices of wool and wheat beyond 1490. In order to establish the contention that the enclosure movement was caused by an advance in the price of wool, it would be necessary to show that this advance took place before the date at which the enclosure problem had become so serious as to be the subject of legislation. By 1490 statesmen were already alarmed at the progress made by enclosure. The movement was well under way. Yet it has been shown that the price of wool had been falling for over a century, instead of rising, and that the price of wheat held its own. Even if it could be established that the price of wheat fell as compared with that of wool after this date, the usually accepted version of the enclosure movement would still be inadequate. But as a matter of fact the price of wheat rose steadily after 1490, reaching a higher average in each succeeding decade, while the price of wool wavered about an average which rose very slowly until 1535. The entries on which these wool averages are based are few, and greater uncertainty therefore attaches to their representativeness than in the case of the prices of earlier decades, but the evidence, such as it is, points to a more rapid rise in the price of wheat than in the price of wool. Between 1500 and 1540 the average price of wheat was nearly 24 per cent above that of the previous forty years, but the average price of wool rose only ten per cent. There are only nine entries of wool prices for the forty-six years after 1536, but these are enough to show that the price of wool, like that of wheat and all other commodities, was rising rapidly at this time. The lack of material upon which to base a comparison of the actual rate of increase of price for the two commodities makes further statistical analysis impossible, but a knowledge of prices after the date at which the material ceases would add nothing to the evidence on the subject under consideration.

Sir Thomas More's Utopia was written in 1516, with its well-known passage describing contemporary enclosures in terms similar to those used in the statutes of thirty years before, and complaining that the sheep

that were wont to be so meke and tame, and so smal eaters, now, as I heare saye, be become so great devowerers and so wylde, that they eate up, and swallow downe the very men them selfes. They consume, destroye, and devoure whole fields, howses, and cities. For looke in what partes of the realme doth growe the fynest, and therfore dearest woll, there noblemen, and gentlemen: yea and certeyn Abbottes ... leave no grounde for tillage, thei inclose al into pastures: thei throw doune houses: they plucke downe townes, and leave nothing standynge, but only the churche to be made a shepe-howse.[20]

These enclosures were not caused by an advance in the price of wool relatively to that of wheat, as the rise in the price of wool in the decade 1510-1520 was no greater than that of corn. Nor does sheep farming seem to have been especially profitable at this time, as More himself attributes the high price of wool in part to a "pestiferous morrein." Again, the complaint is also made that unemployment was caused, showing that scarcity of labor was not the reason for the conversion of arable to pasture:

The husbandmen be thrust owte of their owne, ... whom no man wyl set a worke, though thei never so willyngly profre themselves therto. For one Shephearde or Heardman is ynoughe to eate up that grounde with cattel, to the occupiyng wherof aboute husbandrye manye handes were requisite.[21]

In 1514 a new husbandry statute was passed, penalising the conversion of tillage to pasture, and requiring the restoration of the land to tillage. It was repeated and made perpetual in the following year. In 1517 a commission was ordered to enquire into the destruction of houses since 1488 and the conversion of arable to pasture. In 1518 a fresh commission was issued and the prosecution of offenders was begun. These facts are cited as a further reminder of the fact that the period for which the prices of wool and wheat are both known is the critical period in the enclosure movement. It is the enclosures covered by these acts and those referred to by Sir Thomas More which historians have explained by alleging that the price of wool was high. As a matter of record, the course of prices was such as to encourage the extension of tillage rather than of pasture.

After an examination of these price statistics it hardly seems necessary to advance further objections to the accepted account of the enclosure movement, based as it is upon the assumption that price movements in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries were exactly opposite to those which have been shown to take place. There is no reason to doubt the accuracy of Rogers' figures within the limits required for our purpose, and the evidence based on these figures is in itself conclusive. Even without this evidence, however, there is sufficient reason for rejecting the theory that changes in the prices of grain and wool account for the facts of the enclosure movement. For one thing, if the price of wool actually did rise (in spite of the statistical evidence to the contrary) and if this is actually the cause of the enclosure movement, the movement should have come to an end when sufficient time had elapsed for an adjustment of the wool supply to the increasing demand. If the movement did not come to an end within a reasonable period, there would be reason for suspecting the adequacy of the explanation advanced. As a matter of fact, it is usually thought that the enclosure movement did end about 1600. Much land which had not been affected by the changes of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries (it is usually asserted) escaped enclosure altogether until the need for better agriculture in the eighteenth century ushered in the so-called second enclosure movement, which did not involve the conversion of tilled land to pasture. This alleged check in the progress of the enclosure movement is inferred from the fact that new land, and even some of the land formerly withdrawn from the common-fields to be converted to pasture, was being tilled. This is interpreted by economic historians as evidence that arable land was no longer being converted to pasture. We are told by Meredith, for instance, that "Moneyed men at the end of Elizabeth's reign were beginning to find it profitable to sink money in arable farming, a fact which points to the conclusion that there was no longer any differential advantage in sheep-raising."[22] Cunningham is also of the opinion that "So far as such a movement can be definitely dated, it may be said that enclosure for the sake of increasing sheep-farming almost entirely ceased with the reign of Elizabeth."[23] Innes gives as the cause of this supposed check in the reduction of arable land to pasture that "The expansion of pasturage appears to have reached the limit beyond which it would have ceased to be profitable."[24] It is indeed reasonable that the high prices which are supposed to have been the cause of the sudden increase in wool production should be gradually lowered as the supply increased, and that thus the inducement to the conversion of arable to pasture would in time disappear. The theory that the enclosure movement was due to an increase in the price of wool would be seriously weakened if the movement continued for a time longer than that required to bring about an adjustment of the supply to the increased demand.

For the sake of consistency, then, this point in the account of the enclosure movement is necessary. It would follow naturally from the original explanation of the movement as the response to an increased demand for wool, as reflected in high prices. With the decrease in prices to be expected as the supply increased, the incentive for converting arable to pasture would be removed. Historians sometimes speak of other considerations which might have contributed to the cessation of the enclosure movement. Ashley, for instance, suggests that landowners found that to "devote their lands continuously to sheep-breeding did not turn out quite so profitable as was at first expected."[25] Others refer to the contemporary complaints of the bad effect of enclosure upon the quality of wool. The breed of sheep which could be kept in enclosed pastures was said to produce coarser wool than those grazing on the hilly pastures, and this deterioration in the quality of wool so cut down the profits from enclosures that men now preferred to plow them up again, and resume tillage. The extent to which the plowing up of pasture can be attributed to this cause must be very slight, however, as even contemporaries disagreed as to the existence of any deterioration in the quality of the wool. Some authorities even state that the quality was improved by the use of enclosed pasture: when Cornwall,

through want of good manurance lay waste and open, the sheep had generally little bodies and coarse fleeces, so as their wool bare no better name than Cornish hair ... but since the grounds began to receive enclosure and dressing for tillage, the nature of the soil hath altered to a better grain and yieldeth nourishment in greater abundance to the beasts that pasture thereupon; so as, by this means ... Cornish sheep come but little behind the eastern flocks for bigness of mould, fineness of wool, etc.[26]

The plowing up of pasture land for tillage cannot, then, be explained by the effect of enclosure upon the quality of wool. It has been ordinarily taken as an indication that the price of grain was now rising more rapidly than that of wool, partly because a relaxation of the corn-laws permitted greater freedom of export, and partly because the home demand was increasing on account of the growth of the population. Graziers were as willing to convert pastures to corn-fields for the sake of greater profits as their predecessors had been to carry out the contrary process. The deciding factor in the situation, according to the orthodox account, was the relative price of wool and grain. When the price of wool rose more rapidly than that of grain, arable land was enclosed and used for grazing. When the price of grain rose more rapidly than that of wool, pastures were plowed up and cultivated.

Up to this point, the account is consistent. If the price of wool was rising more rapidly than that of grain during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries (in spite of the statistical evidence to the contrary) it is reasonable that the differential advantage in grazing should finally come to an end when a new balance between tillage and grazing was established. It is not even surprising that the conversion of arable to pasture should have continued beyond the proper point, and that a contrary movement should set in. Bacon, in 1592, remarked that men had of late been enticed by the good yield of corn and the increased freedom of export to "break up more ground and convert it to tillage than all the penal laws for that purpose made and enacted could ever by compulsion effect."[27] In 1650 Lord Monson plowed up 100 acres of Grafton Park, which had formerly been pasture, and there are many other records showing a tendency to convert pasture to arable in the seventeenth century.[28] It is true that men were able to make a profit from agriculture by the end of the sixteenth century. But there is one difficulty which has been overlooked: the withdrawal from agriculture of common-field land did not cease. The protests against depopulating enclosure continue, and government reports and surveys show that enclosure for pasture was proceeding at as rapid a rate as in the sixteenth century. Miss Leonard's article on "Inclosure of Common Fields in the Seventeenth Century"[29] contains a mass of evidence which is conclusive. A few quotations will indicate its character:

"In Leicestershire the enclosures of Cottesbach in 1602, of Enderby about 1605, of Thornby about 1616, were all accomplished by a lessening of the land under the plough. Moore, writing in 1656, says: 'Surely they may make men as soon believe there is no sun in the firmament as that usually depopulation and decay of tillage will not follow inclosure in our inland countyes.'" (p. 117). Letters from the Council were written in 1630 complaining of "'enclosures and convercons tending as they generallie doe unto depopulation.... There appeares many great inclosures ... all wch are or are lyke to turne to the conversion of much ground from errable to pasture and be very hurtfull to the commonwealth.... We well know wth all what ye consequence will be, and in conclusion all turne to depopulation!'" (p. 128). Forster, writing in 1664, says, "there hath been of late years divers whole lordships and towns enclosed and their earable land converted into pasture!" (p. 142).

Frequently the same proprietor in the same year plowed up pasture land for corn and laid arable to pasture. Tawney cites a case in which ninety-five acres of ancient pasture were brought under cultivation while thirty-five acres of arable were laid to grass.[30] In 1630 the Countess of Westmoreland enclosed and converted arable, but tilled other land instead.[31] The enclosure movement, then, did not end at the time when it is usually thought to have ended. Since it is difficult to suppose that the price of wool could have been advancing constantly throughout two centuries, without causing such a readjustment in the use of land that no further withdrawal of land from tillage for pasture would be necessary, the continuance of the conversion of arable to pasture in the seventeenth century throws suspicion upon the whole explanation of the enclosure movement as due to the increased demand for wool.

Miss Leonard, indeed, advances the hypothesis that the price of wool ceased to be the cause of enclosure during the seventeenth century, but that other price changes had the same effect:

The increase in pasture in the sixteenth century was rendered profitable by the rapid increase in the price of wool, but, in the seventeenth century, this cause ceases to operate. The change to pasture, however, continued, partly owing to a great rise in the price of cattle, and partly because the increase in wages made it less profitable to employ the greater number of men necessary for tilling the fields.[32]

The assumption that wages and the price of cattle advanced sufficiently in the seventeenth century to account for the change to pasture are no better justified than the assumption of the rapid rise in the price of wool in the sixteenth century. If the price of meat and dairy products rose in the seventeenth century, so did the price of grain and other foods. The relative rate of increase is the only point significant for the present discussion. No statistics are available to show whether the price of cattle rose more rapidly than that of grain, and the evidence afforded by the reduction of arable land to pasture is counterbalanced by the equally well-established fact that much pasture land was plowed and planted in this period. It is equally probable on the basis of this evidence that the prices of wheat and barley advanced more rapidly than those of meat and butter and cheese. The same difficulty is met in the suggestion that the increase in pasturage was due partly to higher wages for farm labor. The extension of tillage over much land formerly laid to pasture as well as that which had never been plowed at all is sufficient cause for doubting a prohibitive increase in wages. Moreover, in modern times, wages lag in general rise of prices. Unless conclusive evidence is presented to show that this was not the case in the seventeenth century, it must be assumed to be inherently probable that the increased wages of the time were more than offset by the rapidly advancing prices.

During the seventeenth century, then, when it is admitted that the high price of wool was not the cause which induced landowners to convert arable to pasture, it cannot be shown that the high price of cattle or exorbitant wages will account for the withdrawal of land from cultivation. This is an important point, for historians frequently support their main contention with regard to the enclosure movement (i. e., that it was caused by an increase in the price of wool), by the statement that increasing wages made landlords abandon tillage for sheep-farming, with its smaller labor charges. It has been shown that the conversion of arable to pasture in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries cannot be explained by the price of wool, but it may still be urged that agriculture was rendered unprofitable by high wages. Indeed, it is usually stated that the withdrawal of land from cultivation which took place in the fourteenth century was due to the scarcity of labor caused by the Black Death. In the fifteenth century population was reduced by the Wars of the Roses; and throughout the period under consideration, agriculture had to meet the competition of the growing town industries for labor. Is it not possible that these influences caused an exorbitant rise in wages which would alone account for the substitution of sheep-farming for tillage?

The obvious character of the enclosure movement makes it impossible to accept this hypothesis. The conversion of arable land to pasture was caused by no demand for higher wages, which made tillage unprofitable. The unemployment and pauperism caused by the enclosure of the open fields are notorious, and it is to these features of the enclosure movement that we owe the mass of literature on the subject. Enclosures called forth a storm of protest, because they took away the living of poor husbandry families. The acute distress undergone by those who were evicted from their holdings is sufficient indication of the difficulty of finding employment, and it is impossible that wages could remain at an exorbitant level when the enclosure of the lands of one open-field township made enough men homeless to supply any existing dearth of labor in all of the surrounding villages. If agriculture was unprofitable, it was not because laborers demanded excessive wages, but because of the low productivity of the land. The significance of contemporary complaints of high wages is missed if they are interpreted as an indication of an exorbitant increase in wages. The facts are, rather, that land was so unproductive that farmers could not afford to pay even a low wage.

If it were necessary to argue the point further, it could be pointed out that wages even in industry were not subject to that steady rise which would have to be assumed, if high wages are to furnish the explanation of the substitution of pasture for tillage from the thirteenth century to the eighteenth. The statistical data on this subject are fragmentary, but Thorold Rogers' calculations for the period 1540-1582 are significant. In this period wages rose 60 per cent above the average of the previous century and a half; but the market prices of farm produce rose 170 per cent.[33] The rise in wages was far from keeping pace with the rise in selling prices, and the displacement of agriculture for grazing at this time must be due to some cause other than the greater number of laborers needed in agriculture. If, during certain periods within the four centuries under consideration wages advanced more rapidly than the prices of produce (statistical information on this subject is lacking) the continuous withdrawal of land from tillage during periods when wages fell remains to be explained by some cause other than high wages. Nor can high wages account for the conversion of tilled land to pasture simultaneously with the conversion of pasture land to tillage in the seventeenth century.

If wages were exorbitantly high in the seventeenth century, and if this is the reason for the laying to pasture of so much arable, how could farmers afford to cultivate the large amount of fresh land which they were bringing under the plow? Is this accounted for not by any expectation of profit from this land but by the statutory requirement that no arable should be laid to pasture unless an equal amount of grass land were plowed in its stead? Pasture in excess of the legal requirements was plowed up, and persons who did not wish to convert any arable to pasture are found increasing their tilled land by bringing grass land under cultivation. The movement cannot be explained, therefore, merely on the basis of the husbandry statutes. Nor is the law itself to be dismissed without further examination, for in it we find the explicit statement that fresh land could be substituted for that then under cultivation, because common-field land was in many cases exhausted; it was therefore better to allow this to be laid to grass while better land was cultivated in its place.[34] Here then, is the simple explanation of the whole problem. The land which was converted from arable to pasture was worn out; but there was fresh land available for tillage, and some of this was brought under cultivation.

No alternative explanation can be worked out on the basis of hypothetical wage or price movements. The historian is indeed at liberty to form his own theories as to the trend of prices in the seventeenth century, for he is unhampered by the existence of known records such as those for the sixteenth century; but it is impossible to construct any theory of prices which will explain why the conversion of arable land to pasture continued at a time when much pasture land was being plowed up. It is necessary to choose a theory of prices which will explain either the extension of tillage or the extension of pasture; both cannot be explained by the same prices. If, as some historians assume, the increase of population or some such factor was causing a comparatively rapid increase in the price of grain in this period, the continued conversion of arable to pasture requires explanation. If, as Miss Leonard supposes, the contrary assumption is true, and the products of arable land could be sold to less advantage than those of pasture, then the cause of the conversion of pasture to arable must be sought.

It is not only in the seventeenth century that this double conversion movement took place. In the second half of the fourteenth century pastures were being plowed up. At Holway, 1376-1377, three plots of land which had been pasture were converted to arable.[35] In this period much land was withdrawn from cultivation. The explanation usually advanced by historians for the conversion of arable to pasture at this time is that the scarcity of labor since the Black Death (a quarter of a century before) made it impossible to cultivate the land as extensively as when wages were low, or when serf labor was available. If this is the whole case, it is difficult to account for the conversion to arable of land already pasture. Other factors than the supposed scarcity of labor were involved; land in good condition, such as the plots of pasture at Holway, repaid cultivation, but the yield was too low on land exhausted by centuries of cultivation to make tillage profitable.

In the sixteenth century, also, the restoration of cultivation on land which had formerly been converted from arable to pasture was going on. Fitzherbert devotes several chapters of his treatise on surveying to a discussion of the methods of amending "ley grounde, the whiche hath ben errable lande of late," (ch. 27) and "bushy ground and mossy that hath ben errable lande of olde time" (ch. 28). This land should be plowed and sown, and it will produce much grain, "with littell dongynge, and sow it no lengar tha it will beare plentye of corne, withoute donge", and then lay it down to grass again. Tusser also describes this use of land alternately as pasture and arable.[36] A farmer on one of the manors of William, First Earl of Pembroke, had an enclosed field in 1567, which afforded pasture for 900 sheep as well as an unspecified number of cattle, "qui aliquando seminatur, aliquando iacet ad pasturam."[37] The motives of this alternating use of the land would be clear enough, even though they were not explicitly stated by contemporaries; arable land which would produce only scant crops unless heavily manured made good pasture, and after a longer or shorter period under grass, was so improved by the manure of the sheep pasturing on it and by the heavy sod which formed that it could be tilled profitably, and was therefore restored to tillage.

The fact of two opposite but simultaneous conversion movements is unaccountable under the accepted hypothesis of the causes of the enclosure movement, which turns upon assumptions as to the relative prices of grain and wool or cattle or wages. The authorities for this theory have necessarily neglected the evidence that pasture land was converted to arable in the sixteenth century and that arable land was converted to pasture in the seventeenth, and have separated in time two tendencies which were simultaneous. They have described the increase in pasturage at the expense of arable in the early period, and the increase of arable at the expense of pasture in the later period, and have explained a difference between the two periods which did not exist by a change in the ratio between the prices of wool and grain for which no proof is given.

It has been shown in this chapter that the conversion of arable to pasture in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries cannot have been caused by increased demand for wool, since the price of wool relatively to that of grain fell, and the extension of tillage rather than of pasture would have taken place had price movements been the chief factor influencing the conversion of land from one use to the other. It has also been shown that the conversion of arable to pasture did not cease at the beginning of the seventeenth century. If the principal cause of the enclosure movement had been the increasing demand for wool, this cause would have ceased to operate when time had elapsed for the shifting of enough land from tillage to pasture to increase the supply of wool. That the conversion of arable to pasture did not cease after a reasonable time had passed is an indication that its cause was not the demand for wool. When it is found that pasture was being converted to arable at the same time that other land was withdrawn from cultivation and laid to grass, the insufficiency of the accepted explanation of the enclosure movement is made even more apparent. A change in the price of wool could at best explain the conversion in one direction only. The theory that the cause of the enclosure movement was the high price of wool must be rejected, and a more critical study must be made of the readjustments in the use of land which became conspicuous in the fourteenth century, but which are overlooked in the orthodox account of the enclosure movement.


[12] Levett and Ballard, The Black Death on the Estates of the See of Winchester (Oxford, 1916), p. 142.

[13] Smyth, Lives of the Berkeleys (Gloucester, 1883), vol. i, pp. 113-160.

[14] (Oxford, 1866-1902), vols. i, iv.

[15] Increase in manufacture of woollen cloth constituted no increase in the demand for wool in so far as exports of raw wool were reduced.

[16] Royal Historical Soc. Trans., N. S. (1905), vol. ix, p. 101, note 2.

[17] Denton, England in the Fifteenth Century, p. 159.

[18] Gay, Quarterly Journal of Economics (1902-1903), vol. xvii, p. 587.

[19] Pollard, Reign of Henry VII (London, 1913), vol. ii, pp. 235-237.

[20] More, Utopia (Everyman edition), p. 23.

[21] Ibid., p. 24.

[22] Outlines of the Economic History of England (London, 1908), p. 118.

[23] Growth of Eng. Ind. and Commerce (Cambridge, 1892), p. 180.

[24] England's Industrial Development (London, 1912), p. 247.

[25] English Economic History (New York, 1893), part ii, p. 262.

[26] Carew, Survey of Cornwall (London, 1814), p. 77.

[27] Cunningham, Growth of English Industry and Commerce, Modern Times, 1903, part i, p. 101.

[28] Lennard, Rural Northamptonshire (Oxford, 1916), p. 87. For other examples, cf. infra, pp. 84, 99-101.

[29] Leonard, Royal Hist. Soc. Trans., 1905. Gonner in Common Land and Inclosure covers much the same ground, but does not bring out as clearly the extent to which the seventeenth century enclosures were accompanied by conversion of tilled land to pasture.

[30] Tawney, Agrarian Problem in the Sixteenth Cen. (London, 1912), p. 391.

[31] Royal Hist. Soc. Trans. (1905), vol xix, note 1, p. 113.

[32] Ibid., pp. 116-117.

[33] Rogers, History of Agriculture and Prices, vol. iv, p. 757.

[34] Cf. infra, p. 98.

[35] Levett and Ballard, The Black Death, p. 129.

[36] Cf. infra, p. 82.

[37] Tawney, op. cit., p. 220, note 1.

[38] Infra, p. 78, 81, 98-9.



Up to this point attention has been given chiefly to the theory that the enclosure movement waxed and waned in response to supposed fluctuations in the relative prices of wool and grain, and it has been found that this theory is untenable. It is now necessary to consider more closely the true cause of the conversion of arable land to pasture—the declining productivity of the soil—and the cause of the restoration of this land to cultivation—the restoration of its fertility.

The connection between soil fertility and the system of husbandry has been explained by Dr. Russell, of the Rothamsted Experiment Station:

Virgin land covered with its native vegetation appears to alter very little and very slowly in composition. Plants spring up, assimilate the soil nitrates, phosphates, potassium salts, etc., and make considerable quantities of nitrogenous and other organic compounds: then they die and all this material is added to the soil. Nitrogen-fixing bacteria also add to the stores of nitrogen compounds. But, on the other hand, there are losses: some of the added substances are dissipated as gas by the decomposition bacteria, others are washed away in the drainage water. These losses are small in poor soils, but they become greater in rich soils, and they set a limit beyond which accumulation of material cannot go. Thus a virgin soil does not become indefinitely rich in nitrogenous and other organic compounds, but reaches an equilibrium level where the annual gains are offset by the annual losses so that no net change results. This equilibrium level depends on the composition of the soil, its position, the climate, etc, and it undergoes a change if any of these factors alter. But for practical purposes it may be regarded as fairly stationary.

When, however, the virgin soil is broken up by the plough and brought into cultivation the native vegetation and the crop are alike removed, and therefore the sources of gain are considerably reduced. The losses, on the other hand, are much intensified. Rain water more readily penetrates, carrying dissolved substances with it: biochemical decompositions also proceed. In consequence the soil becomes poorer, and finally it is reduced to the same level as the rate of gain of nitrogenous matter. A new and lower equilibrium level is now reached about which the composition of the soil remains fairly constant; this is determined by the same factors as the first, i. e. the composition of the soil, climate, etc.

Thus each soil may vary in composition and therefore in fertility between two limits: a higher limit if it is kept permanently covered with vegetation such as grass, and a lower limit if it is kept permanently under the plough. These limits are set by the nature of the soil and the climate, but the cultivator can attain any level he likes between them simply by changing his mode of husbandry. The lower equilibrium level is spoken of as the inherent fertility of the soil because it represents the part of the fertility due to the soil and its surroundings, whilst the level actually reached in any particular case is called its condition or "heart", the land being in "good heart "or "bad heart", according as the cultivator has pushed the actual level up or not; this part of the fertility is due to the cultivator's efforts.

The difference between the higher and lower fertility level is not wholly a question of percentage of nitrogen, carbon, etc. At its highest level the soil possesses a good physical texture owing to the flocculation of the clay and the arrangement of the particles: it can readily be got into the fine tilth needed for a seed bed. But when it has run down the texture becomes very unsatisfactory. Much calcium carbonate is also lost during the process: and when this constituent falls too low, the soil becomes "sour" and unsuited for crops.

The simplest system of husbandry is that of continuous wheat cultivation, practiced under modern conditions in new countries. When the virgin land is first broken up its fertility is high; so long as it remains under cultivation this level can no longer be maintained, but rapidly runs down. During this degradation process considerable quantities of plant food become available and a succession of crops can be raised without any substitution of manure ... After a time the unstable period is over and the new equilibrium level is reached at which the soil will stop if the old husbandry continues. In this final state the soil is often not fertile enough to allow of the profitable raising of crops; it is now starving for want of those very nutrients that were so prodigally dissipated in the first days of its cultivation, and the cultivator starves with it or moves on.

Fortunately recovery is by no means impossible, though it may be prolonged. It is only necessary to leave the land covered with vegetation for a period of years when it will once again regain much of the nitrogenous organic matter it has lost.[39]

Dr. Russell adds that soil-exhaustion is essentially a modern phenomenon, however, and gives the following reasons for supposing that the medieval system conserved the fertility of the soil. First, the cattle grazed over a wide area and the arable land all received some dung. Thus elements of fertility were transferred from the pasture land to the smaller area of tilled land. This process, he admits, involved the impoverishment of the pasture land, but only very slowly, and the fertility of the arable was in the meanwhile maintained. Secondly, the processes of liming and marling the soil were known, and by these means the necessary calcium carbonate was supplied. Thirdly, although there was insufficient replacement of the phosphates taken from the soil, the yield of wheat was so low that the amount of phosphoric acid removed was small, and the system was permanent for all practical purposes. One of the facts given in substantiation of this view is that the yield after enclosure increased considerably.[40]

In discussing these points, it will be well to begin with the evidence as to exhaustion afforded by the increased yield under enclosure. The improvement in yield took place because of the long period of fallow obtained when the land was used as pasture; or, in the eighteenth century, with the increase in nitrogenous organic matter made possible when hay and turnips were introduced as field forage crops. That is, the increase in yield depended either upon that prolonged period of recuperation which will restore fertility, or upon an actual increase in the amount of manure used. Apparently, then, open-field land had become exhausted, since an increase in yield could be obtained by giving it a rest, without improving the methods of cultivation, etc., or by adding more manure.

There was not, as Dr. Russell supposes, enough manure under the medieval system of husbandry to maintain the fertility of the soil. It is true that the husbandman understood the value of manure, and took care that the land should receive as much as possible, and that he knew also of the value of lime and marl. But, as Dr. Simkhovitch says:

It is not within our province to go into agrotechnical details and describe what the medieval farmer knew, but seldom practiced for lack of time and poor means of communication, in the way of liming sour clay ground, etc. Plant production is determined by the one of the necessary elements that is available in the least quantity. It is a matter of record that the medieval farmer had not enough and could not have quite enough manure, to maintain the productivity of the soil.[41]

The knowledge of the means of maintaining and increasing the productivity of the soil is one thing, but the ability to use this knowledge is another. The very origin and persistence of the cumbersome common-field system in so many parts of the world is sufficient testimony as to the impossibility of improving the quality of the soil in the Middle Ages. The only way in which these men could divide the land into portions of equal value was to divide it first into plots of different qualities and then to give a share in each of these plots to each member of the community. They never dreamed of being able to bring the poor plots up to a high level of productivity by the use of plentiful manuring, etc., but had to accept the differences in quality as they found them. The inconvenience and confusion of the common-field system were endured because, under the circumstances, it was the only possible system.

Very few cattle were kept. No more were kept because there was no way of keeping them. In the fields wheat, rye, oats, barley and beans were raised, but no hay and no turnips. Field grasses and clover which could be introduced in the course of field crops were unknown. What hay they had came entirely from the permanent meadows, the low-lying land bordering the banks of streams. "Meadow grass," writes Dr. Simkhovitch, "could grow only in very definite places on low and moist land that followed as a rule the course of a stream. This gave the meadow a monopolistic value, which it lost after the introduction of grass and clover in the rotation of crops."[42] The number of cattle and sheep kept by the community was limited by the amount of forage available for winter feeding. Often no limitation upon the number pastured in summer in the common pastures was necessary other than that no man should exceed the number which he was able to keep during the winter. The meadow hay was supplemented by such poor fodder as straw and the loppings of trees, and the cattle were got through the winter with the smallest amount of forage which would keep them alive, but even with this economy it was impossible to keep a sufficient number.

The amount of stall manure produced in the winter was of course small, on account of the scant feed, and even the more plentiful manure of the summer months was the property of the lord, so that the villain holdings received practically no dung. The villains were required to send their cattle and sheep at night to a fold which was moved at frequent intervals over the demesne land, and their own land received ordinarily no dressing of manure excepting the scant amount produced when the village flocks pastured on the fallow fields.

The supply of manure, insufficient in any case to maintain the fertility of the arable land, was diminishing rather than increasing. As Dr. Russell suggested in the passage referred to above, the continuous use of pastures and meadows causes a deterioration in their quality. The quantity of fodder was decreasing for this reason, almost imperceptibly, but none the less seriously. Fewer cattle could be kept as the grass land deteriorated, and the small quantity of manure which was available for restoring the productivity of the open fields was gradually decreasing for this reason.

Soil exhaustion went on during the Middle Ages not because the cultivators were careless or ignorant of the fact that manure is needed to maintain fertility, but because this means of improving the soil was not within their reach. They used what manure they had and marled the soil when they had the time and could afford it, but, as the centuries passed, the virgin richness of the soil was exhausted and crops diminished.

The only crops which are a matter of statistical record are those raised on the demesne land of those manors managed for their owners by bailiffs who made reports of the number of acres sown and the size of the harvest. These crops were probably greater than those reaped from average land, as it is reasonable to suppose that the demesne land was superior to that held by villains in the first place, and as it received better care, having the benefit of the sheep fold and of such stall manure as could be collected. Even if it were possible to form an accurate estimate of the average yield of demesne land, then, we should have an over-estimate for the average yield of ordinary common-field land. No accurate estimate of the average yield even of demesne land can be made, however, on the basis of the few entries regarding the yield of land which have been printed. Variations in yield from season to season and from manor to manor in the same season are so great that nothing can be inferred as to the general average in any one season, nor as to the comparative productivity in different periods, from the materials at hand. For instance, at Downton, one of the Winchester manors, the average yield of wheat between 1346 and 1353 was 6.5 bushels per acre, but this average includes a yield of 3.5 bushels in 1347 and one of 14 bushels in 1352,[43] showing that no single year gives a fair indication of the average yield of the period. For the most part the data available apply to areas too small and to periods too brief to give more than the general impression that the yield of land was very low.

In the thirteenth century Walter of Henley and the writer of the anonymous Husbandry are authorities for the opinion that the average yield of wheat land should be about ten bushels per acre.[44] At Combe, Oxfordshire, about the middle of the century, the average yield during several seasons was only 5 bushels.[45] About 1300, the fifty acres of demesne planted with wheat at Forncett yielded about five-fold or 10 bushels an acre (five seasons).[46] Between 1330 and 1340, the average yield (500 acres for three seasons), at ten manors of the Merton College estates was also 10 bushels.[47] At Hawsted, where about 60 acres annually were sown with wheat, the average yield for three seasons at the end of the fourteenth century was a little more than 7-1/2 bushels an acre.[48]

Statistical data so scattered as this cannot be used as the basis of an inquiry into the rate of soil exhaustion. Where the normal variation from place to place and from season to season is as great as it is in agriculture, the material from which averages are constructed must be unusually extensive. So far as I know, no material in this field entirely satisfactory for statistical purposes is accessible at the present time. There is, however, one manor, Witney, for which important data for as many as eighteen seasons between 1200 and 1400 have been printed. A second suggestive source of information is Gras's table of harvest statistics for the whole Winchester group of manors, covering three different seasons, separated from each other by intervals of about a century. The acreage reported for the Winchester manors is so extensive that the average yield of the group can be fairly taken to be the average for all of that part of England. Moreover, Witney seems to be representative of the Winchester group, if the fact that the yield at Witney is close to the group average in the years when this is known can be relied upon as an indication of its representativeness in the years when the group average is not known. The average yield for all the manors in 1208-1209 was 4-1/3 bushels per acre; for Witney alone, 3-2/3. In 1396-1397 the yield of the group and the yield at Witney are, respectively, 6 and 6-1/4 bushels per acre.[49]

Table III shows the yield of wheat on the manors of the Bishopric of Winchester in the years 1209, 1300 and 1397. If it could be shown that these were representative years, we should have a means of measuring the increase or decrease in productivity in these two centuries. Some indication of the representativeness of the years 1300 and 1397 is given by a comparison of prices for these years with the average prices of the period in which they lie. The price in 1300 was about 17 per cent below the average for the period 1291-1310,[50] an indication that the crop of nine bushels per acre reaped in 1299-1300 was above the normal. The price of wheat in 1397 was very slightly above the average for the period;[51] six bushels an acre or more, then, was probably a normal crop at the end of the fourteenth century. This conclusion is supported also by the fact that the yield in that year at Witney was approximately the same as the average of the eleven seasons between 1340 and 1354 noted in Table V. The price of wheat in the year 1209-1210 is not ascertainable. Walter of Henley's statement that the price of corn must be higher than the average to prevent loss when the return for seed sown was only three-fold[52] is an indication that the normal yield must have been at this time at least three-fold, or six bushels, so that the extremely low yield of the year 1208-1209 can hardly be considered typical. This examination of the yield in the three seasons shown in the table gives these results: at the beginning of the thirteenth century the average yield was probably about six bushels and certainly not more than ten; at the beginning of the fourteenth century the average was less than nine bushels—how much less, whether more or less than six bushels, is not known—at the end of the fourteenth century the yield was about six bushels.



Area sown Produce Ratio produce Date Acres Bushels per acre to seed

1208-1209 6838 4-1/3 2-1/3 1299-1300 3353 9[54] 4 1396-1397 2366-1/2 6 3



Wheat Mancorn and Rye Barley 1208-1209 5108 492 1500 1299-1300 2410 175 800



Date Bushels per acre Acres sown 1209 3-2/3 417 1277 8-1/2 180 1278 ... 191 1283 8-1/2 ... 1284 10-1/2 ... 1285 7-1/4 ... 1300 (7-10) ... 1340 5-1/2 126 1341 7-1/2 138 1342 6 132 1344 ... 129 1346 5-1/2 127 1347 6-1/2 128 1348 6-3/4 138 1349 4-3/4 128 1350 5-1/4 ... 1351 6-1/2 ... 1352 8-1/2 ... 1353 5 ... 1397 6-1/4 51-1/2

The yield of the soil in single seasons at widely separated intervals is a piece of information of little value for our purpose. These tables reveal other facts of greater significance. The yield for the year gives almost no information about the normal yield over a series of years, but the area planted depends very largely upon that yield. The farmer knows that it will pay, on the average, to sow a certain number of acres, and the area under cultivation is not subject to violent fluctuations, as is the crop reaped. The area sown in any season is representative of the period; the crop reaped may or may not be representative. Land which, over a series of years, fails to produce enough to pay for cultivation is no longer planted. If the fertility of the soil is declining, this is shown by the gradual withdrawal from cultivation of the less productive land, as it is realized that it produces so little that it no longer pays to till it. Table IV shows that in fact this withdrawal of worn out land from cultivation was actually taking place. The area sown with wheat on the twenty-five manors for which the statistics for both periods are available was reduced by more than fifty per cent between the beginning and the end of the thirteenth century. A similar reduction in the area planted with all of the other crops, mancorn, rye, barley and oats, took place. A process of selection was going on which eliminated the less fertile land from cultivation. If six bushels an acre was necessary to pay the costs of tillage, land which returned less than six bushels could not be kept under the plow. The six bushel crop which seems to be normal in the fourteenth century is not the average yield of all of that land which had been under cultivation at an earlier time, but only of the better grades of land. Plots which had formerly yielded their five or six bushels an acre had become too barren to produce the bare minimum which made tillage profitable, and their produce no longer appeared in the average. Even with the elimination of the worst grades of land the average yield fell, because the better land, too, was becoming less fertile. At Witney (Table V) the area planted with wheat fell from about 180 acres in 1277 to less than 140 acres in 1340; but, in spite of this reduction in the amount of land cultivated, the average annual yield after 1340 was less than 6-1/2 bushels, while it had been about 8-1/2 bushels per acre in the period 1277-1285. This withdrawal of land from cultivation took place without the occurrence of any such calamity as the Black Death, which is ordinarily mentioned as the cause of the reduction of arable land to pasture in so far as this took place before 1400. It affords an indirect proof of the fact that much land was becoming barren.

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