Enclosure was the single most important change to farming practices in Leicestershire in the last thousand years. The land in most Leicestershire parishes was enclosed between 1480 and 1790, and this transformed the way the land was farmed. The impact and timing of this change varied widely from place to place. These research guides will help you to identify and understand the records that can tell you when and how the land was enclosed and how the land was farmed before and after that change.
Researching enclosure – when and how was enclosure achieved, and what records may exist?
What was enclosure?
In the midland counties in the Middle Ages the most productive land for arable crops was laid out in large prairie-like fields, which were divided into furlongs, and further subdivided into long thin strips, ideally suited to ploughing with a team of oxen that required substantial room to turn. This map of Burrough on the Hill, produced for volume V of the Victoria County History of Leicestershire, shows the village with its three open fields.
Crop rotation was practised, so a village with three fields, for example, might have one planted in the winter with corn (a generic term for any cereal crop), one planted in the spring with beans (for fodder as well as for human consumption) and one left fallow for a year. Those with land would hold strips in each field, sharing out the best and poorest soils and ensuring no one was disadvantaged as each field was left fallow in turn. Although the separate strips were owned or rented by individuals, the fields and furlongs were held ‘in common’. All the livestock of the manor or village would graze together in the fallow field or meadows, the fallen corn might be available to all after harvest, and the resources of the less productive land, such as furze or gorse, were also shared. Ploughing was also a communal activity, as few would have owned a plough-team of their own.
The disadvantages of this mode of farming are apparent. It required meetings and cooperation between villagers, the agreement of ‘rules’, for example on the maximum number of animals that could be grazed, and penalties for infringements; livestock diseases could spread rapidly; farmers wasted time walking between their strips and, while it was possible to grow a different crop from one’s neighbours, flexibility was limited by agreed dates for ploughing and harvesting.
Inclosure involved taking all or part of the communal open fields, or the ‘waste’ land beyond the fields, into private ownership. It was usually accompanied by the enclosure of this land by a fence or hedge, and was in some cases followed by the conversion of arable land into pasture. The word ‘enclosure’ is used today to mean the combination of these two processes.
What was the impact of enclosure?
Enclosure created the countryside we see in the midlands today: fields which are regular in shape, bounded by hedges and frequently stocked with grazing cattle or sheep, and villages linked by roads with wide grass verges. As well as changing the landscape, enclosure changed farming practices and the pattern of land ownership. The fields surrounding the village were no longer held in common, but were taken into private ownership. Enclosure had economic and social consequences for almost every inhabitant of a village, creating winners and losers. In the most extreme cases, it has been blamed for village depopulation and desertion. It aroused strong feelings among those who stood to gain or lose the most, and among those concerned by the plight of the poor.
Many labourers in unenclosed villages had a degree of independence. They worked for a wage, perhaps for one of the large farmers, but the inventories of the goods they left at their death tell us that many also rented a few strips in the open fields, where they could grow crops and graze a cow or perhaps a few sheep. When work was scarce, they could support themselves from their land, at least in the short-term. This changed for many at enclosure. Enclosure increased the productive capacity of land, so landlords could demand more rent. Higher rents and the need to pay for hedging forced many to give up the land that had supported them when work was scarce. Those without land also suffered. In many parishes they had been allowed to collect fallen grain after the harvest, furze for the fire, mushrooms for the pot and perhaps also graze an animal on ‘waste’ ground. Once the land was enclosed, these resources were no longer available to them. In contrast, the better off stood to make significant gains. Landowners could obtain higher rents for their land, as the larger farmers were prepared to pay more for land that was free from the inefficiencies and restrictions of the open field system. Owners and tenants of large farms could increase their profits and, if tithes were extinguished at the same time, would no longer have to share their increased productivity with the church. Clerical and lay rectors could also gain if land was allotted to them in lieu of future tithes, as they might receive as much as one-seventh or one-eighth of the total land. This disparity made enclosure a hot political topic with contemporaries, and it has remained so among historians. When looking at the records created, it is therefore necessary to look beyond the rhetoric and the claims made by either side, and examine the facts of each individual enclosure from a neutral perspective.