Understanding enclosure

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This article seeks to re-evaluate the history and importance of one of the most important processes to have shaped the English cultural landscape in the last one thousand years. It emphasises the diversity of the enclosure experience through space and time, and attempts to identify some general ‘rules’ which help explain what happened. It also challenges some recent scholars who view enclosure as a unified, structuring process.

The article begins by describing the different forms of enclosure; the distinction between piecemeal and general enclosure, and the various forms that general enclosure could take. It challenges the over-sharp distinction drawn in the past between ‘champion’ and ‘ancient’ countryside. It identifies two main phases of agricultural change – from late medieval times until 1700, and from 1700 to 1900 – and links these to the enclosure history of different regions, pointing out, for instance, the great early modern shift from arable to enclosed pasture in the
Midlands that produced the familiar ridge and furrow earthworks which were, until recently, a ubiquitous feature of the region.
The article establishes two general principles: firstly, the ease with which enclosure was achieved was closely connected to the nature of existing landholding patterns, and secondly, that before 1700 most enclosure was associated with a conversion to permanent pasture. It also proposes a modified chronology for enclosure.

Finally the article explores the social and ideological causes and implications of the enclosed landscape: its expression of paternalistic social concerns, the landed elite’s desire for prestige, and order – a landscape that was diametrically opposed to the commons, the democratic abode of ‘undesirable elements’ and the poor. It takes issue however, with the view that enclosure caused the decline in the fortunes of the rural poor and the small farmers. The article concludes by setting
out a new agenda for landscape historians, one based on the analysis of the enclosure history of ecologically distinct regions and areas.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)56-79
Number of pages24
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2000

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