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ENCLOSURE. Common land was a key component of agriculture in many parts of early modern Europe. Those who enjoyed "common rights" could use specified resources from often extensive areas of permanently or temporarily uncultivated land, much of which was open country, such as the rough pasture or heathland associated with the modern expression "the common." However, these rights were also exercised over much of the land that was normally cultivated in individual private plots. Common rights, most prominently the right to grazing, could be exercised when these areas lay fallow. Thus there were, broadly speaking, two forms of common land.

The uncultivated land provided pasture, building timber, and fuel, such as wood, turf, and peat. The ownership of the soil belonged either to the lord of the manor (as in England and northwestern France), the village commune (as was frequently found in southern Germany), or, in some cases, the state (as in Sweden and parts of Spain and Italy). However, the local commoners who regulated access to and exploitation of the commons enjoyed rights to the resources therein. The commoners only rarely comprised all of the population. More often than not they were manorial tenants (where the lords owned the commons) or those enjoying full citizenship rights in village communes. The collective management of the common was controlled by a village or lord's court. These "waste" lands are referred to as "commons" in all European historiography.

The practice of pasturing livestock on fallow land outside of the period of cultivation is usually considered part of the system of "common land" only by English historians. However, throughout Europe this practice was usually managed by the same authorities that regulated the "common waste." This system of fallow grazing could require communal regulation in districts of open fields where peasants held many scattered individual plots that were not fenced off from each other. To prevent trespassing and to facilitate the grazing herds, village authorities regulated when fields or meadows should be open, thus limiting the types of crops that could be grown and especially the cultivation of the fallow. This form of common rights was already prevalent in medieval times in midland England, much of northern France, southern and central Germany, southern Sweden, parts of Italy, and, by 1600, the interior of Spain.

"Enclosure" is the English term for the dissolution of these common rights. It was often accompanied by the physical division of the land by walls or hedgerows, hence the term. However, this was not necessarily the case, and some districts of open fields (such as Kent in England) had never been subject to common rights. In continental historiography this process is often referred to as the dissolution or division of the common lands and the abolition of communal forms of land ownership. Previously common waste was allotted to new owners (often with a large share for the previous owner of the soil), and the scattered strips of the common fields were usually consolidated into blocks of discrete farms.

The colonization of the waste and its cultivation tended to reduce the amount of common land available from the medieval period onward. Conversion of arable land to pasture in eras of low grain prices could also remove communal grazing rights. Technically this constituted enclosure and could be found all over Europe, especially in periods of agricultural expansion during the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries.

The most famous process of enclosure, and one that came to serve as a model for other parts of Europe, occurred in England. By 1500, some 45 percent of England was enclosed or had never been subject to common rights. The late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries saw some enclosure of arable land by lords for conversion to pasture, taking advantage of high wool prices. This was perceived to cause settlement desertion and jeopardize food supplies and became a major cause of rural unrest. Changed economic circumstances and official disapproval prevented most further enclosure movements in the sixteenth century. However, a more prosperous farming class, along with improved demand for pastoral products and new farming techniques, led to rapid expansion of enclosure in the seventeenth century, largely achieved in a piecemeal fashion at a local level by agreement among landlords and tenants. Finally, between 1760 and 1820s, "Parliamentary enclosure" was carried out. Where the owners of 80 percent of the land involved approved of each proposed enclosure, an act of Parliament could be passed requiring its implementation under the supervision of parliamentary commissioners. This allowed landowners to bypass the objections of more numerous smallholders who only, however, owned a small part of the proposed enclosure. By these means a final wave of enclosure completed the destruction of the common open fields of midland England. It was argued both by some contemporaries and by subsequent historians, among them Karl Marx, that the loss of common rights caused the destruction of a class of smallholders who had relied on the commons for cheap access to grazing and fuel. Although those with legally established rights were compensated for their loss, they often lacked the capital to make the newly enclosed lands allotted to them cultivable at competitive prices. As a result, it was frequently believed that Parliamentary enclosures contributed to a proletarianization of a workforce that was primed for work in the factories of the industrial revolution. Although local effects could be severe, it is now generally thought that the bulk of England's smallholdings had disappeared long before the period of Parliamentary enclosure.

In many parts of Europe, fallow land and common grazing were slow to disappear, persisting until the nineteenth century and even into the twentieth. However, the use of new fodder crops, such as turnips or clover, and stall-feeding of animals on their higher yields removed the need for pasture in the fields and prompted a decrease in the area of fallow. This in turn led to a gradual abandonment of common grazing on arable land in parts of northern and central Italy, France, the Low Countries, Denmark, and Germany during the late seventeenth, or, for the most part, the eighteenth century. On the northern coast of Spain, the abandonment of fallow was permitted by the introduction of maize during the seventeenth century.

Increasingly, and in part taking England as an example, agronomists and government came to see common property as an impediment to investment and innovation. This was not universally the case, as some were of the opinion (articulated most clearly in several small German states) that access to cheap resources on the commons encouraged population growth and thus taxable labor for domestic industry. During the eighteenth century, however, numerous governments attempted to force the dissolution of common rights and partition of the commons through national legislation. Such privatizations were not new on the European landscape. Claiming ownership of the wastes (baldíos), the Castilian government had, in a process peaking in the 1580s, sought to sell them off for fiscal reasons, with the land often passing into private ownership. These efforts were more pronounced toward the end of the ancien régime, especially under the influence of the Physiocrats. Laws encouraged or required the partition of common land in Sweden from 1749, Spain from 1768/1770, Austrian Brabant in 1772, Denmark in 1781, Baden in 1768, and in Prussian territories from the 1760s. French authorities encouraged partitions from the 1760s onward, though there was already a long tradition of lords usurping sections of the commons, especially where they could assert ownership of the soil.

However, responses were mixed. They depended on which groups could legally claim common rights and thus a right to compensation with an allotment of newly privatized land, and whether there was a realistic prospect of being able to farm the land profitably. Poorer groups welcomed the chance to obtain landholdings in some places, while they feared the loss of common resources in others. Similarly, some richer farmers desired the removal of encumbrances of communal management, while others valued common rights as a source of additional income for their workforce. Nearly everywhere change came slowly and was only systematically carried out in the Napoleonic period. In some regions common rights persisted until the twentieth century.

See also Agriculture ; Feudalism ; Forests and Woodlands ; Gardens and Parks ; Industrial Revolution ; Industry ; Peasantry .


Brakensiek, Stefan, ed. Gemeinheitsteilungen in Europa: Die Privatisierung der kollektiven Nutzung des Bodens im 18. und 19. Jahrhundert. Jahrbuch für Wirtschaftsgeschichte Beiheft 2. Berlin, 2000. Collection of articles on enclosure in northern Europe, in German and English.

Demelas, Marie-Danielle, and Nadine Vivier, eds. Les propriétés collectives (17501920). Rennes, 2003. Collection of chapters on common lands and enclosure covering southern and western Europe.

Moor, Martina de, Leigh Shaw-Taylor, and Paul Warde, eds. The Management of Common Land in North West Europe, c. 15001850. Turnhout, 2002. Collection of chapters on the operation of common rights.

Paul Warde


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en·clo·sure / enˈklōzhər/ • n. 1. an area that is sealed off with an artificial or natural barrier. ∎  an artificial or natural barrier that seals off an area.2. the state of being enclosed, esp. in a religious community: the nuns kept strict enclosure. ∎  hist. the process or policy of fencing in waste or common land so as to make it private property, as pursued in much of Britain in the 18th and early 19th centuries: one of the chief effects of enclosure was to increase the number of landless workers.3. a document or object placed in an envelope together with a letter.


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enclosure In European history, the fencing-in by landlords of common land. Complaints against this practice date from the 13th century. Enclosure usually led to increased agricultural productivity at the cost of depriving people of free grazing and firewood. It was a cause of popular rebellions, especially in the 16th century. The Agricultural Revolution of the 18th century produced another spurt of enclosure.


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enclosure the process or policy of fencing in waste or common land so as to make it private property, as pursued in much of Britain in the 18th and early 19th centuries.