Prof. John H. Munro

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Prof. John H. Munro

Department of Economics

University of Toronto
10 and 17 October 2012

The Economic History of Modern Europe to 1914
Prof. John Munro
Lecture Topic No. 6:


G. The ‘Agricultural Revolution’ of the 17th - 19th Centuries:

G. The ‘Agricultural Revolution’ in England: during the later 17th to early 19th Centuries

1. The Agricultural Revolution in Historical Perspective: the General Character of Agrarian Change Since the 17th Century:

a) A radical transformation of the agricultural sector: in historical context

I) in my view, such a transformation has always been necessary: at least for almost all traditional societies and countries in order to permit modern urban industrialization and sustained economic growth.1

ii) purposes:

(1) to release labour, capital, and even land for more productive and profitable employment elsewhere in the economy, especially in the industrial sector;

(2) in particular, to supply labour, foodstuffs, and industrial raw materials for urban industrialization

(3) capital requirements for industrialization also came from agriculture, as well as from commerce & finance,

iii) European comparisons: we shall see how this principle was applied in both the 18th and 19th centuries.

(1) not only in the case of Great Britain during the Industrial Revolution era, and also subsequently in the 19th century

(2) But also in the case studies of France, Germany, and Russia, from 1789 to 1914

(3) In general, Great Britain succeeded best, in this transformation, followed closely by Germany, with Russia and France lagging behind (though Russia had wide regional variations).

iv) That Great Britain was the first major country to achieve this radical transformation of the agricultural sector is another important consideration in answering the perennial question about the origins of the modern Industrial Revolution: why was Britain first?

v) Our first task: is to understand the concept of an ‘Agricultural Revolution’

b) the so-called Agricultural Revolution and the accompanying ‘enclosures’ provide the chief focus on this topic – of the later 17th to early 19th centuries, with a three-fold purpose :

I) to ascertain when the fundamental period of agrarian change, the so-called Agricultural Revolution, took place: i.e.,

(1) Before the Industrial Revolution: in the 16th or 17th centuries?

(2) During the Industrial Revolution era itself: from ca. 1760 to ca. 1820?

(3) After the first phase of Industrial Revolution: i.e., from the 1820s?

ii) to examine how and why so much of the agricultural sector was transformed from essentially medieval feudal to modern capitalist foundations:

(1) the structure of early modern English agriculture as the heritage of medieval feudal-manorialism:

  1. with a system of communal, peasant-villager property rights

  2. even if they were tenants of powerful landlords (often aristocrats),

  3. a majority of them in the central and populous Midlands zone were, if no longer serfs, the descendants of serfs.

(2) this structure, with deep medieval foundations was being transformed, from the later 15th century,

  1. to a modernized economic system based on individual private-property rights:

  2. even if such lands, so transformed to achieve a complete private-property status, for landlords, was then rented out by those landlords to their tenant farmers.

  3. this was a long process, requiring several centuries, so that in this course we shall examine only the last and complete phase (from ca. 1750 to ca. 1830)

(3) Enclosure is the collective name for this radical transformation in property rights

  1. which in fact had actually first begun, in a very small way, as early as the 13th century, and

  2. but whose first major phases took place in Tudor-Stuart England, from the later 15th century through to the 17th century

(4) For the overall significance, see my web document on Major Themes in European Economic History, for which I list the first two main themes as:2

  1. The struggle for property rights: to acquire and defend property rights (and to ‘capture economic rents’) in land, labour, capital, and enterprise (intellectual property rights)

  2. The erosion of institutional impediments to a market economy and to European economic development: (inter alia) Feudalism, Manorialism, Serfdom, the Church

iii) to examine how and why Enclosures facilitated or permitted major advances in agricultural productivity, and promote Industrialization?

c) A negative question: why study agriculture and the agrarian sector of the economy in seeking the origins of the modern Industrial Revolution, in view of the following contrary or negative factors?

I) Despite all the positive changes of the so-called Agricultural Revolution era, nevertheless England or Great Britain never succeeded in feeding all of its growing population

(1) As I have argued before, England ceased being a net exporter of grains, from the 1770s, and became thereafter always a net importer of grains and other foodstuffs.

(2) by the late 19th century, almost 85% of Britain’s national consumption needs for grain was met by imports – from as far away as India.3

(3) But, for the crucial phases of the Industrial Revolution era itself (ca. 1760 - ca. 1820), Britain was then far less dependent on food imports than was its chief rival, the Netherlands.

ii) Growth rates in both agricultural productivity and total outputs:

(1) agricultural growth rates were much less than in the other sectors of the economy, especially in the industrial sector

(2) But growth rates are difficult to measure:

  1. We have to distinguish between growth rates of productivity per unit of land and unit of labour

  2. And growth rates in total outputs: for as we shall see increased productivity in the 19th century seemingly paradoxically to a decline in total outputs – for logical reasons to be seen later

iii) Furthermore, the industrial sector overall probably did not succeed in achieving significant growth rates until the 1830s.

(1) That seemingly calls into question the concept of the Industrial Revolution

(2) But we can hardly expect technological and innovative entrpreneurial changes to produce overall positive growth rates in the beginning: so that the period 1760 to 1830 must be viewed as one of an incubation or embryonic developments for future real growth

d) The importance of agrarian change for modern English and European economic growth and industrialization: arguments for its vital importance

I) agriculture still remained the largest sector of the economy in early-modern England and in all of early-modern Europe (except the Low Countries and possibly Lombardy in Italy):

(1) the agricultural sector, at the dawn of the modern era, still employed by far the largest proportion of the population.

(2) around 1500: agriculture (along with related forms of rural industries) engaged about 75% of the population in both England and France (compared to perhaps 85% - 90% in 1300);

(3) and, in this early-modern era, the agrarian economy employed up to 85% in eastern and south-eastern Europe.

ii) importance of agriculture for rural manufacturing industries:

(1) as just indicated, a very high proportion of the population engaged in agriculture in early-modern Europe also included some people who produced industrial goods,

(2) if only in terms of part-time employment, because that agrarian structure tied so much of the population to the land and thus helped determine a rural structure for so many industries;

(3) i.e., that reflected the basic inelasticity of the pre-industrial labour supply, especially for the manufacturing sector.

iii) low agrarian productivity:

(1) That agrarian structure, with a subset of rural industries, basically reflects a low level of productivity, per unit of manpower and per acre [or hectare: about 2.47 acres],

(2) and both productivity defects had to be transformed if real economic growth was going to occur.

iv) in any event, for this course as a whole, on modern European economic history, agriculture and the agrarian sector are everywhere vitally important:

(1) for the major goal of the course is to understand the economic and social processes that transformed fundamentally rural, peasant, agricultural societies into modern industrialized urban societies: i.e., transformed societies from being basically rural and agrarian to become largely urban and industrial (plus commercial/financial in scope).

(2) That means essentially the series of economic processes and transformation that liberated labour, resources (land), and capital from the agrarian sector to become far more productively employed as inputs in the commercial-financial and industrial sectors.

(3) Since we begin with England and the Industrial Revolution, we also want to see to what extent the English model of agrarian transformation was followed on the continent, when its major countries underwent industrialization in the 19th and early 20th centuries

e) The Tasks of Agrarian Change to Promote European Economic Development and Industrialization:

I) The elimination of existing social and institutional barriers, many surviving from medieval times: as just indicated, but worthy now of a more precise repetition

(1) in the form of two related socio-agrarian institutions that still survived the medieval era:

  1. manorialism (also called seigniorialism):4 the economic foundations for medieval feudalism;

  2. communal peasant land tenures and communal farming organizations, which had been part of medieval manorialism, in England and in much of northern continental Europe.

  3. indeed, from Ireland to Russia (as we shall see in the second term), when we examine similar agricultural transformations in France, Germany, and Russia (including Poland, Ukraine).

(2) and to replace them with contractual private property rights that allowed both land and labour to respond to market forces:

(3) In England, most of those barriers, except for communal agriculture under manorialism, had disappeared by the 16th or 17th centuries;

(4) Serfdom: did it remain problem?

  1. that means the bondage of peasants to their tenancies on manorial estates, though with a status better than that of slaves: to be examined in more detail in the second term

  2. Certainly in England, from the 16th century, there was no longer any problem of peasant serfdom, in terms of arbitrary manorial exactions and legal constraints on labour mobility (i.e., peasants were no longer bound to the manor)

  3. but it continued to be a major problem and economic barrier on the continent, especially in central and eastern Europe, linked closely with manorialism, as we shall see in the second semester: for France, Germany, and Russia

  4. serfdom in central-eastern Europe was not in fact abolished until the mid to late 19th century

(5) Thus, in much of northern continental Europe, especially eastern Europe, the medieval vestiges of feudalism, manorialism (seigniorialism) and communal agriculture remained as very strong barriers up to the 19th century.

(6) indeed, as noted earlier, and to repeat with emphasis once again: we shall see how important these barriers remained on the continent: and in examining the economic history of France, Germany, Poland, and Russia next term.

ii) Second task of agrarian changes: To increase productivity per acre of land and per unit of manpower engaged: to increase outputs at ever lower unit costs.

iii) Thus the third task: to liberate labour and other economic resources, as previously stressed,

(1) for more productive employment elsewhere in the economy:

(2) and thus to reduce the proportional share of the agrarian sector in a rapidly changing economy.

f) Increasing Agricultural Productivity had these more particular, specific objectives:

I) first, to repeat: to liberate labour from the soil: to be employed more productively in other sectors of the economy, especially urban sectors: trade, finance, and manufacturing industry.

(1) In England, the proportion of the population engaged in agriculture fell

  1. from 76% in 1500 to 46% in 1750,

  2. to 22% in 1850,

  3. and to just 7% in 1900

(2) In France, in sharp contrast, that proportion fell only from:

  1. 73% in 1600 to 61% in 1750,

  2. and to just 43% in 1900

(3) A prime goal of modernizing the agricultural sector was to achieve such reductions.

ii) to supply increasing foodstuffs to permit growth of urban industrial populations: and those of the economic sectors with urban settings, i.e., commerce and finance

iii) to supply more industrial raw materials: especially for the various textile industries, which were then the major manufacturing industries (woollens, worsteds, linens, fustians).

iv) to supply capital (from agrarian rents and profits): also to be invested more productively in other sectors of the economy.

v) to increase rural market demand for manufactured goods: when and for which the rural economy provided generally still the largest market.

g) These productivity objectives remained, however, limited in scope, from the 1760s:

I) current estimates of growth in agricultural productivity, during the Industrial Revolution era,

(1) are indeed much higher than older estimates,

(2) nevertheless productivity growth in industry and trade well outstripped those in agriculture.

ii) Indeed, as also noted earlier, the so-called Agricultural Revolution that both preceded and accompanied the Industrial Revolution, failed to feed all of Britain’s growing population:

(1) so that, as noted earlier, Britain became a net food importer from the 1770s, having been a net food exporter for the previous century (from the 1660s).

(2) at best, the so-called Agricultural Revolution, succeeded only in reducing the amounts and values of necessary food imports, which, as noted earlier, were proportionately far greater in the Netherlands during the later 18th and early 19th centuries.

(3) Yet the agrarian changes did meet other objectives: in terms of releasing labour and other resources from the agricultural sector to be more efficiently employed elsewhere.

iii) As I stressed earlier, British economic growth from the later 18th and 19th centuries fundamentally depended on industrialization and its related commercial expansion: i.e.,

(1) to permit the growing imports of much cheaper foreign foodstuffs, from export earnings: of both industrial goods and services (and especially services).

(2) Otherwise, there could have been no demographic revolution accompanying the Industrial Revolution: one that allowed the population of England and Wales to double (almost) from 1751 to 1821 (6.342 million to 12.269 million) and then to triple from 1821 to 1911 (to 36.136 million).

h) The Mechanics of Rising Agricultural Productivity in Early-Modern Europe to 1800:

Note: Before the 19th century, modernisation did not mean mechanization but the following changes in land use:

I) Enclosure:

(1) changes in land-tenure or land-holding to replace communal forms of agricultural with structures based private property institutions,

(2) which both economized on labour and promoted superior farming techniques.

ii) Changes in cultivation techniques involving complex crop rotations, and with animals

(1) which also changed the relationship between livestock raising and crop cultivation (known as ‘convertible husbandry’),

(2) designed to improve soil fertility and thus output.

iii) The significance of all these agrarian changes can be best understood by examining what they displaced, in the form of traditional communal agriculture in northern Europe, from Ireland to the Ural Mountains of Russia.5

  1. The Barriers to Agrarian Changes and Economic Development: The Open or Common Field Systems

a) The Organization of Communal Agriculture in Northern Europe: the ‘Common Field’ or ‘Open Field’ Systems of Peasant Tenant Agriculture: must be clearly understood

I) This was a system of peasant tenancy agriculture, practised by peasants in northern Europe: (1) The British Isles (including Ireland) and continental Europe north of the Loire river in France and north of the Danube in Central Europe, and eastward through Poland and Russia to the Ural Mountains:

(2) A medieval manor was divided between:

  1. the lord’s demesne (domain): usually the best and largest arable lands, pasture lands, and for forest lands, for the manorial lord’s exclusive use

  2. and the peasant tenancies: surrounding or distant from the demesne lands

(3) the peasant tenants were subject to the economic and judicial control of feudal manorial lords: i.e., they rented their farm holdings from great landlords, often military landlords or ecclesiastical lords (bishops, etc).

(4) peasant paid feudal-manorial rents to their lords in three forms (often combined):

  1. labour services on the lord’s demesne lands: chiefly arable lands

  2. in kind: i.e., as a share of their own harvests

  3. in money: in silver coin

(5) Over time cash money rents came to displace other forms of rent, as labour services and payments in kind were ‘commuted’ or transformed into money rents, which became almost universal by the 15th century.

ii) In medieval and early modern England, open field farming was, however, not universal:

(1) It was chiefly concentrated in what is called the Midlands belt (see map): which was precisely the very region that had been subjected to medieval feudalism, manorialism, and serfdom:

  1. feudalism: as a militaristic system of government, based on military service and rewards

  2. manorialism: the agrarian economic superstructure: to support the feudal lords

  3. serfdom: a dependent peasantry, tied to the manorial estate, to work the lord’s lands for his benefit – paying rent for land in the form of labour services + money (or kind)

(2) but excluding parts of the counties of East Anglia (Norfolk and Suffolk) and the Home Counties near London (Kent, Middlesex), the SE counties, Wales, and the North East,

(3) for these regions had evidently never experienced either feudalism, manorialism, or this system.

(4) These other regions, without open field farming, largely consisted of either:

  1. individual peasant proprietorships and hamlets; i.e., with small compact individual holdings

  2. or large areas of unfenced pastoral lands for raising cattle, sheep, and pigs

iii) This largely manorial peasant tenancy system goes under both names, each of which defines certain central characteristics of the farming system:

(1) ‘Open Field’: because croplands worked by the peasant tenants were not organized as individual plots but were cast as large, open or unfenced fields.

(2) ‘Common Field:’ because the peasant tenants worked these great open fields of croplands to a considerable extent communally, and not individually:

  1. i.e., teams of peasants ploughed all their lands and harvested all their lands together;

  2. and grazed their livestock in common both in common pastures (or waste lands) and on the arable fields after harvesting.

iii) The crop-zones of the Open Fields could be organized as either a two-field or a three-field system of crop rotations: let us consider the three-field system, which had become predominant:

iv) This so-called Open Field or Common system: pertained to almost half of the arable lands of Britain even as late as the early the 18th century:

b) The Mechanics of the Three-Field System of Crop Rotations


ARABLE LANDS in cultivation in Northern Europe






FALL (Winter)

Wheat or Rye; and/or Winter Barley (‘berecorn’)



Oats, Barley

Legumes (Peas and Beans)


Resting Uncultivated (Double Ploughed)









I) Fall or Winter Fields (Fields A):

  1. consisted of crops that were planted in the Fall, grew in the Spring, and were harvested in mid Summer:

  2. grains such as winter wheat and rye (rye being a northern crop in origin);

  3. and also winter barley (‘berecorn’).

ii) Spring or Summer Fields (Fields B):

  1. fields that were planted with both grain and vegetable crops in the Spring and harvested in the Fall (Autumn).

  2. The additional grains were oats and barley:

(1) oats were particularly important in serving as a foodstuff or fodder for livestock, especially for horses (more powerful and speedier than oxen), which could not be properly fed as draft animals in south;

(2) barley served not only for bread and porridge but for brewing beer [south: wine].

  1. the vegetables were green vegetables: principally beans and peas, which are technically known as legumes, because they added nitrogen, the most important fertilizer, to the soil.

  2. That nitrogen came not from the plants themselves but from the parasitic bacteria that lived on their roots: bacteria absorbed inorganic nitrogen from the air, which they transformed into organic nitrogen compounds (with carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen) that were fixed in the soil when the bacteria died and decomposed.

  3. This additional nitrogen, in restoring some fertility, helps to explain why this field could grow a summer crop after having grown a fall-winter crop the year before.

  4. But the nitrogen-fixing properties of beans and peas were rather limited.

iii) Fallow Field (Field C):

  1. these were the fields, about one-third of the village arable, that were left uncultivated for one year, to rest and allow nature to recuperate and restore natural fertility.

  2. Livestock would graze on any natural grasses growing there, on the fallow (as well as on the other arable lands, after harvesting -- graze on the stubble).

  3. Livestock would also provide a dividend in form of manure, but really only if they received some food elsewhere, off the field (as in stall-feeding).

  4. They might fix nitrogen in the form of manure more quickly in the soil (so long as the manure was ploughed in);

  5. but they would not provide a net addition to fertility over the long run, I must stress, unless fed from outside sources.

iv) The Village ‘Commons’: the Pasture, Meadow, and Wood Lands:

  1. lay beyond and often around the great open arable fields (croplands), and were always physically distinct from these arable lands.

  2. They served not only for grazing and otherwise feeding all kinds of livestock, but also as a source wood and wild fruits.

v) Crop Rotations on Arable Fields:

(1) would thus occur over a three-year cycle, involving these three sets of arable fields.

(2) Thus each set of fields would receive a Fall-planted (winter) crop one year, a Spring-planted (summer) crop the next year, and lie fallow, at rest, the third year;

(3) and thus each set of fields would produce two sets of crops every three years.

vi) Livestock: in mixed farming (husbandry) systems

(1) was really the most vital component of northern common or open field farming;

(2) and that England especially came to have such a large livestock component in its agriculture was a major asset, which also explains its relative complexity.

c) Why were livestock so important?

I) to provide power: oxen and/ or horses to pull the very large and heavy wheeled ploughs necessary to cultivate the wet clay soils of northern Europe:

(1) livestock choices: for a typical medieval peasant plough team, either

- eight oxen, or

- two horses

(2) horses were thus both swifter and more powerful

(3) economic drawback to using horses:

- horses were more expensive to feed: requiring oats, in addition to hay and grasses

- plough horses, as capital, may not have been more expensive, however, to purchase than oxen

- transition from oxen to horses took considerable time – centuries – in northern Europe.

ii) to provide manure and restore nitrogen to the soils: as already noted, for fertilizing the arable fields.

iii) to provide auxiliary sources of food, especially protein: in the form of meat and dairy products -- milk, butter, cheese.

iv) finally, to provide raw materials for widespread rural manufacturing:

  1. wool from sheep: to manufacture various forms of wool-based textiles: woollens and worsteds (to be seen later, under Industry)

  2. hides: the leather from both sheep and cattle,

  3. bone: a most important material serving many functions of modern metals and plastics.

  4. barley: for rural (and then urban) brewing (beer and ale): very major industry

v) For the vital importance of livestock in European economic development, see Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel: the Fate of Human Societies (New York, 1999):

(1) He contends, that of the many physical advantages that allowed Europe to develop to become the economically and militarily predominant continent, the most important was its livestock component.

(2) That is, no other region of the world had a comparable set and economically advantageous combination of these large domesticated animals.

  1. for both warfare – i.e, the vital importance of horses)

  2. and for agriculture: horses, oxen (with bulls and cows and calves), sheep, donkeys, goats

(3) Consider that sub-Saharan Africa’s indigenous animals, though certainly large,

  1. were too fierce to be domesticated (rhinoceros, hippopotamus, lion;

  2. only the elephant had some limited use)

  3. but by early-modern times cattle were introduced into sub Saharan Africa6

(4) The Americas, before the arrival of the Spanish (who brought horses, from the 16th century), had had no such animals, except for llama, a poor substitute for horses and cattle

(5) Asia did have buffaloes and camels, as well as horses (in the northern steppes),

  1. but not in the same relative supply and

  2. not used or usable in as economically advantageous manner as Europe’s large domesticated animals.

(6) Most important: no other region outside of Europe managed to integrate the use of both arable crops and livestock in such an effective manner: known as animal husbandry or mixed farming.

(7) Within Europe itself: the North was much more advantageously endowed than the South, a factor that I shall stress again when we come to France, in the second term.

d) The Communal Features of Open Field or Common Field Farming:

I) Communal grazing: on both pasture (or meadow) and arable lands:

(1) That meant first that the entire village livestock herds, i.e., of the whole peasant village community,

  1. grazed on all these lands together, pasture and arable,

  2. rather than separate grazing by each peasant family in individual segregated flocks on their own family holdings.

(2) Communal grazing on large open fields was much more land efficient than grazing the livestock separately on small plots, on which the livestock would necessarily have been tethered (tied to a stake), to prevent trespassing on neighbouring lands.

(3) The village livestock herd (sheep and cattle) were communally grazed not only on the pasture and waste lands, but also on the arable fields themselves after they had been harvested

  1. i.e., feeding on the post-harvest stubble; and

  2. grazing on the fallow lands, feeding on naturally growing grasses on the fallow.

(4) Continued population growth first led the peasants (or landlords) to expand their arable lands at the expense of waste and pasture lands;

(5) as pasture lands became more and more scarce they were then forced to graze their livestock on the stubble of open arable fields, after harvesting.

(6) And many historians believe that this problem of growing population pressures, forcing the arable to expand at the expense of scarce pasture lands, explains the original foundations and reasons for the establishment of Open Fields in northern Europe.

(7) Consider Table 1, below, in the Appendix, on the changing arable to pasture ratios, with population growth and diminishing returns.

(8) Communal grazing of the livestock, sheep and cattle, on these arable lands was important in helping to restore fertility to the soil: i.e., in supplying extra manure to these lands (called ‘folding’);

(9) but, as noted earlier, net additions to soil fertility came only from feeding the livestock with extra fodder supplied from outside these arable fields.

ii) Thus the necessity for open unfenced Fields: because fencing of individual holdings would prevent this form of livestock grazing.

iii) Scattering of strips that formed the peasant tenancies:

  1. The peasant tenancies in open fields were not constructed as separate blocks of land;

  2. but instead, the peasant tenancies were constituted as a collection of strips that were scattered and intermingled with those of other tenants, in each of the three fields or agricultural zones.

  3. Why were the strips and thus the tenancy holdings of the peasants so scattered?

iv) some explanations for scattering of tenancy strips in the open fields:

(1) diversification as risk aversion by the peasant community: the McCloskey thesis 7

  1. to give peasant families some shared access to both good and bad lands for all kinds of crops; lands of higher and lower fertility; lands with varying degrees of risk of loss from frost, flooding, insects, rodents, and crop diseases.

  2. Even if this system meant some inefficiencies, especially in walking to scattered strips, and thus lower than optimum outputs,

  3. most peasants probably preferred this lower risk and added security to maximum output:

  4. just as modern investors might also prefer in diversifying securities in an investment portfolio, while accepting lower yields.

(2) To protect livestock grazing: the Dahlman thesis. 8

  1. Peasants required large economies of large scale for livestock raising -- i.e., large blocks of open land,

  2. while many preferred to grow crops on small plots of land: i.e., land-extensive versus land-intensive forms of agriculture.

  3. But if some peasants had decided to pursue arable agriculture by buying up parcels of land from neighbours, consolidating them into solid blocks, and then withdrawing that block from the communal system, they would seriously undermine the economics of livestock grazing;

  4. and thus strip-scattering was designed to discourage land consolidation and alienation from the open fields.

  5. to repeat: to permit livestock grazing on both post-harvest arable fields and on the fallow.

(3) Potential gains from using village labour in common: communal labour and capital

v) Communal Ploughing:

(1) Communal ploughing was a common feature of much northern open-field farming: especially

  1. on heavy, wet, river-valley soils that required very large and costly ploughs

  2. and also a large plough team, with eight oxen or two or more horses.

(2) The cost of acquiring such a plough team was generally far too great for most of the poorer peasants as individuals;

(3) and thus several families had to pool both capital and labour to acquire and operate the plough and the requisite draft animals: either eight oxen or two horses.

vi) Communally Determined Crop Rotations by a village council:

(1) the crop rotations were applied to the village arable lands as a whole (at least those of the peasant tenants) and not to individual holdings.

(2) A village council, led by the major peasant farming families, determined both

  1. the division of lands between livestock and arable, and

  2. most of the seasonality of crops to be grown, in what order.

(3) Obviously totally independent or private, individual farming, with individual initiatives on crop cultivation, could not be permitted with communally organized farming: especially so once the village decided to allow livestock grazing on harvested fields.

(4) Livestock could not be allowed on the fields until harvesting completed;

(5) that meant a common harvest with the same type of crops (winter, summer) in each field.

vii) Private aspects of early-modern communal farming: the following factors distinguish medieval open-field from modern-day collective or communal farming (as practised in the former USSR -- still surviving in Russia and Ukraine -- or in Israel):

(1) the crops and other products of the land and livestock still belonged to the individual peasant tenant, not to the village community. Indeed much of the cultivation remained individual.

(2) Some individual choice permitted in crop selections

  1. i.e., beans, peas, oats, barley, etc. in Spring plantings; or winter barley in the Fall plantings),

  2. so long as peasants did not violate the seasonal and biological rotations.

e) The Low productivity of Communal Open-Field Peasant farming: lower than the potential that could be achieved with individual holdings.

I) Resistance to Change:

(1) in that all decisions involving changes in crop rotations, lay-out of the fields, balance between livestock and arable etc. had to based upon the common consent of the villagers,

(2) in reality the unanimous consent of the village council, a council of more prominent families and their elders.

(3) That did not mean that change was impossible; but it meant that change was obviously much more difficult to achieve than it would be under single, unified land-management.

(4) Consider again McCloskey’s ‘Risk Aversion’ thesis to explain the scattering of peasant tenancy strips in the open arable fields.

ii) ‘The Neighbourhood Effect’: i.e., that the more productive farmers were victims of careless neighbours: who did not rid their strips of weeds or try to control pests.

iii) Wastage in tending scattered strips:

(1) Lower productivity with scattered strips than was possible with unified plots using existing techniques:

  1. in particular from the waste labour involved in tending scattered strips,

  2. labour time lost in walking from strip to strip, in order to sow seeds, harrow the soil, remove weeds, etc..

(2) wastage from the lost use of the land, known as ‘balks’, involved in separating the strips of the peasant tenant holdings.

iv) Peasant Immobility and Disguised Unemployment:

(1) In the medieval past, that immobility had been a condition of peasant serfdom,

  1. whereby servile peasants were bound to their landlords or to the estate itself by birth,

  2. and were forbidden to leave their holdings without his permission

  3. conditional upon payment of heavy fines or fees, in compensation.

(2) but after western serfdom had withered away in the West, much of the peasantry was still, for all intents and purposes, immobile, bound to their village lands by family ties in this system of communal village cultivation.

(3) Later, when we come to 19th-century central and eastern Europe -- to Germany and Russia:

  1. I will stress the problems of a still very widespread and deeply entrenched serfdom, which had really only developed from the 16th and 17th centuries;

  2. and then that growing stain of serfdom bound the peasants to the land, as mere chattels of the lord, far more so than was ever true in the West.

(4) Immobility meant inelastic labour supplies, potentially raising wage rates for alternative forms of employment (i.e., this system denied employers a ready supply of free labour).

(5) meant disguised unemployment in some villages or districts, as the counterpart to labour scarcities in others.

(6) Indeed communal open-field farming with tenancies in form of scattered strips was well designed to accommodate disguised unemployment of surplus peasants and to maintain communal harmony.
3. Enclosures and the Destruction of Communal Open-Field Farming

a) Enclosures:

I) It provided the economic antithesis of communal open field farming, as just discussed;

ii) This involved a system of private property, which necessarily meant the destruction and removal of communal peasant farming, indeed throughout Europe,

iii) But enclosures took place over a very long period of time, up to the 19th century

b) The Forms and Nature of Early-Modern Enclosures:

I) Definition:

(1) Placing land under single management: to extinguish any collective, common or village communal rights to the use of that land;

(2) that usually meant fencing off lands to prevent other villagers & livestock from using that land.

ii) Conversion of Land from Communal Use to Private Property: Thus private property rights, enforceable under law, meant the following:

(1) the right of the owner to exclude anybody else access to the land, by legal force in necessary;

(2) but also the right to lease the land to a tenant of his own choosing

(3) thus the right to reorganize the use and disposition of property in response to market forces;

(4) the right to sell, trade, bequeath the land or amalgamate it with other lands;

(5) the right of the owner to bequeath, sell, transfer, trade, lease the land

(6) the right of the owner to appropriate the income, the stream of rents from the use of this land:

(7) The right of the owner to pledge the land as collateral for a loan, i.e., to raise capital; and obviously no peasant village community could pledge the entire village loans to secure investments.

iii) Enclosure could be undertaken by either the landlord or by his leading tenants:

(1) in most cases, enclosure occurred in a piecemeal fashion, probably beginning with the village commons, rather than all at once (despite the best efforts of the village community collectively to discourage such enclosures).

(2) While some landlords did undertake enclosures as capitalist farmers, to work their estates for profit, most in fact chose to rent out newly enclosed lands to tenants, by leases for stipulated number of years.

c) The Physical Forms of Enclosure:

I) Enclosure of the Village Commons:

(1) fencing off the village common lands -- the pasture, meadow, and woodlands and common waste for the exclusive use of just one tenant or the landlord, especially for livestock raising.

(2) Such enclosures thus meant the physical suppression of communal livestock grazing rights, villagers loss of access to wood and other forest products.

ii) Engrossing of the Arable Open Fields:

(1) This meant the redistribution and consolidation of those scattered, intermingled tenancy strips into compact, unified farms -- that were

  1. either absorbed into the landlord's estate or

  2. more usually leased to just one tenant.

(2) Such engrossing was usually followed by withdrawal of these lands from the common rotation and then by fencing.

(3) That generally also meant peasant displacement as larger, more efficient farm units were worked with proportionately less labour.

iii) Reclamation of Waste Lands:

(1) Turning waste land into productive lands; i.e., conversion of moorlands, marshes, then fenlands, forest and scrubland into either pasture or more often arable lands.

(2) This type of enclosure was obviously much more socially beneficial than the other two types because it added new agricultural lands promoting new settlements and the employment of more labour.

(3) Most famous example is the drainage and cultivation of the Fenlands of East Anglia in the 17th century (Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire).

f) Potential Economic Gains from Single (Unified) Management of the land: innovation and productivity gains:

I) Unified or Single management: so that one person, whether landlord or his tenant, made all the decisions on land use, and was able to effect change without having to gain communal consent, as with Open Field manorial farming.

ii) Ralph Davis: on the peasantry and agricultural innovation:9

No class of users of the land was less able to innovate [than the peasantry]; and great numbers of them were subsistence farmers who grew [grain], not for the market except in years of unusually good harvest, but for their own families. Though peasants were by no means unwilling to innovate if the practical advantages were clear and the risks small, they had the least facilities for information, the least resources to bear the costs and risks of change, the least capacity to co-erce their slow-moving fellows into the cooperative effort that was usually necessary for large-scale changes. It was not easy for landlords to compel the peasant community of a village to try new ways so long as most tenures gave the peasants security at more or less fixed rentals, and the key to extensive rural change had to be found eventually in the breaking down of old tenures so that peasants could be subjected to economic pressures, or alternatively forced out in favour of market-oriented farmers.

iii) Examples of changes that could be better effected by individual control:

(1) to decide on division of land between arable and pasture;

(2) the adoption of convertible husbandry, a much more advanced system, with periodic alternation between arable and pasture, without fallow [to be explained later, in the section on technical change]

(3) similarly, on arable lands, to adopt much more complex crop rotations, with a crop diversification away from dependence on grains, with goal of reducing the fallow.

(4) pasture and livestock: to engage in the selective breeding of livestock (impossible with communal grazing of livestock).

g) Potential Gains from Land Consolidation and Economies of Scale: Reorganization of tenancy lands into large compact unified farms with much greater operating efficiency:

I) Labour Economies:

(1) On overcrowded lands, enclosure provided greater labour efficiencies: by displacing the surplus population, by getting rid of disguised unemployment.

(2) In so far as that did mean ‘depopulation’ (though it never meant total depopulation), it also meant some increased productivity of labour.

ii) Land Efficiencies: Conversely, on underpopulated lands where arable farming was not efficient, because of scarce labour, enclosure here meant greater economic efficiency by transforming some or all of the land to livestock farming (sheep raising, dairying, etc.).

iii) Capital to Land Ratios:

(1) Large unified farms permitted more capital investment in farming (especially with one capitalist farmer deciding on investments):

(2) particularly in term of livestock raising, artificial irrigations, land drainage, land reclamation and other technical improvements;

(3) but that is true only to a certain size, beyond which capital became inefficiently utilized, so some recent studies are suggesting.

iv) Possibility of achieving increasing returns or greater economies of scale in both production and marketing, where much larger marketable outputs justified increased investments.

v) Greatly facilitated the financial ability of both landlords and leasehold tenants holding enclosed farms to raise capital by borrowing on mortgages:

(1) i.e., to pledge either the lands, or the products and fruits of the enclosed lands, as security for a mortgage loan.

(2) That would have been difficult, if not impossible, for common field tenants, holding scattered and interspersed strips, to mortgage their properties in similar fashion, simply because no single person had individual private-property rights over the use of such lands: who would lend money on the security of communal property, when no individuals could be held responsible?10

vi) Allowed manorial landlords in particular to regain the sole use of former demesne lands:

(1) In medieval feudal-manorial agriculture, a manorial estate had been divided into two sections:11

  1. the demesne (domain: from ‘dominus’: lord, in Latin): the central arable and pasture lands of the estate, usually the best lands, worked for the sole benefit of the lord

  2. the peasant tenancy lands: other lands lying beyond the demesne lands, that once servile tenants held from the lord in return for rents that were paid in money, kind (share of the produce), and labour services on the lord’s demesne

(2) From the 1380s to the 1420s, most manorial lords (at least in the Midlands), found that falling agricultural prices (grains and wool) and rising costs made demesne agriculture unprofitable: i.e., as manorial lords became victims of a price-cost squeeze.12

(3) So most of these lords leased out portions of their demesnes, in piece-meal fashion, to their peasants, for fixed annual cash rents only, and without servile obligations.

(4) this was a major factor in the decline of English serfdom (or ‘villeinage’ – as the more common term used in the economic-history literature)

(5) in doing so, many manorial lords had allowed their remaining demesne lands to become intermixed with peasant tenancy strips in the Open Fields: to gain the advantage of peasant communal ploughing of all arable lands in the Open Fields

(6) When the behaviour of rising prices (grains and wools) and relatively falling costs again made demesne agriculture profitable, from the later 15th century:

  1. many such lords found that the only method of regaining full control over their demesnes was to enclose the Open Fields

  2. and also to gain back former demesne lands that had been leased out to tenants.

(7) We will find, in the second term, that such motives also prevailed in 19th-century German, Polish, and Russian agriculture.

(8) German historians have indeed used the following terms to indicate the two basic types of manorial economies

  1. Gutsherrschaft: a manorial economy in which the bulk of the lords’s revenues are derived from the commercial exploitation of the demesne lands, using servile labour to work the demesnes lands (i.e., rent in labour rather than in money)

  2. Grundherrschaft: a manorial economy in which the lord’s revenue are largely derived from the fixed cash rental payments from a largely free (non-Seville) peasantry.

h) But enclosure did not guarantee more rational land use and economic advancement:

I) at best, enclosure made it easier for an enterprising landlord or tenant farmers to effect changes and realize these goals, but it did not compel them to do so.

ii) Nor did larger farms in any way necessarily mean more efficient farming:

(1) Many studies show that relatively small farms can be efficient: evidence from the Low Countries.

(2) Some Enclosures may have been economically beneficial in breaking up some very large estates into more manageable sized capital farms.

h) The History of Enclosures in England:

I) the two most famous eras of enclosures were during:

(1) The Tudor Stuart era from the late 15th to early 17th century; and

(2) The Industrial Revolution era, from ca. 1760 to 1820; but

ii) many historians, however, contend that it was an ongoing process just as important in the intervening era as well, especially the later 17th century, where we will begin.

iii) The historic importance of the English Midlands: the dozen or so counties in the middle zone of England, which was:

(1) As noted earlier, this was the very region that had been most thoroughly subjected, from medieval times, to feudal manorialism and to communal forms of agriculture.

(2) geographically a zone suited almost equally to livestock and arable (crop) farming

(3) For that reason especially, the most densely populated region of England (along with East Anglia)

(I) The Motives for Enclosures:

I) Profit Maximization and Rent Extraction: was obviously the overriding motive, for both landlords & tenants

(1) to extract greater profits from commercial farming, by re-organizing agricultural production to produce more cash crops and livestock products to be sold in local, especially urban markets.

(2) to convert older forms of inheritable peasant tenancies into shorter term leaseholds: to extract greater economic rent from the land: see the document on Ricardian Economic Rent.13

ii) that in turn obviously necessarily had meant a change in landlord mentality:

(1) a change from a feudal mentality that had looked upon land as a means of supporting political and military power to become, eventually:

(2) a more capitalist mentality that sought to exploit the land for market-oriented profit potentials.

iii) Here I cannot go into the very complex story of the first major wave of enclosures in the Tudor- Stuart era, from the 1480s to the 1620s, except to note the following:

(1) The role of the rapidly expanding cloth trade in this era:

  1. to provide an economic incentive to convert arable lands occupied by peasants into vast sheep farms.

  2. to produce the wool for those cloth exports, especially at the beginning when grain farming was less profitable.

(2) The transfer, during this era, of a vast amount of agricultural lands from the hands of the old feudal-military aristocracy, the Church, and the crown (king) into the hands of a non-noble class of landholders called the gentry, with a more capitalist mentality.

(3) the term gentry applies to those upper-class but non-noble landowners,

  1. including those of the former knight-class called ‘Sir’, and those descended from wealthy merchants, professional men, state office-holders,

  2. who had acquired large landholdings, often by buying manors or estates from impoverished members of the traditional feudal aristocracy.

  3. Since many were of urban professional and mercantile origin, many looked upon these landed estates as a source of larger profits.

(4) But many of the old landed feudal families also took part in these enclosures.

j) Factors that hindered or limited conversions of communal lands into enclosed lands:

I) The important question to be asked here are these:

(1) why did some landlords succeed in their enclosures, while others failed to achieve these objectives, if they had indeed sought to enclose their estates?

(2) and thus why was the Enclosure movement so long drawn out?

  1. beginning, in earnest at least, in the 1460s and continuing up and past the Industrial Revolution era

  2. On the eve of the Industrial Revolution, in the 1760s, perhaps 75% of the cultivated land of England finally been enclosed

  3. the remaining 25% was subsequently enclosed, but the enclosure movement was not completed until the 1820s or 1830s

ii) The explanation for the long delay concerns the relative degree and force of property rights: (1) Across England, and especially in the Midland zone of open-field farming, the legal conditions that governed peasant tenancies varied widely,

(2) so that some peasant had much better protected property rights than did others;

(3) and some had virtually no property rights at all, or very limited rights.

iii) These were following groups of tenants: and their property rights or conditions of tenure

(1) Freeholders:

  1. A small minority of peasants were considered to be freeholders: while they paid rents as tenants, they paid only limited fixed rents, often minimal rents,

  2. with full rights to bequeath their lands to their children by inheritance, without interference from manorial landlords;

  3. their property rights were fully protected by royal Common Law courts.

(2) Leaseholders:

  1. A somewhat larger group of peasants of small farmers were those who rented their lands -- often lands that had been carved out of the lord’s demesne (domain: central holdings) -- by written contracts or leases that specified rents to be paid for a limited number of years.

  2. While landlords could not cancel leases during their term, they could refuse to renew them, and thus enclose these lands on the expiry of the leases.

(3) Copyholders or Customary Tenants: 14

  1. The largest single group of peasant tenants in Open Field zones were those who were descendants of medieval serfs,

  2. whose ancestors had converted their servile labour obligations into cash rents by agreements with the manorial lord,

  3. the term copyholder means ‘tenure by copy of the court roll according to the custom of the manor’: and thus they were also called customary tenants.

  4. these tenancy agreements were recorded on the parchment (i.e., sheep skin) rolls of the manorial courts, with a copy given to the peasant family

  5. These copyhold contracts were generally not protected by royal or Common Law courts, but they did specify conditions of inheritance for the peasant tenancy that were subject to manorial court jurisdiction (and only rarely could they be appealed to royal courts):

  6. Thus: the decline and final erosion of serfdom, which had tied such peasant tenancies to their holdings (thus virtually guaranteeing them security of tenure), had meant either a loss of serious weakening of their property rights.

■ While a few copyholders were able to secure unlimited and untrammelled rights of inheritance, most were limited to one, two, or at most three lives (i.e., generations who could succeed by inheritance to the holding).

■ In some English counties, manorial customs dictated that a ‘life’ was only seven years, and that the maximum tenure of ‘three lives’ was thus only 21 years.

■ When the last ‘life’ had expired, the contract was therefore terminated, allowing the landlord to enclose.

■ A small minority were only ‘copyholders at will’ and could easily be dispossessed by the lord.

■ Landlords also had the right to impose inheritance duties called ‘entry fines’: and when these fines were not specified in their amounts in manorial court rolls, landlords could arbitrarily raise the fines to excessive levels and thus force non-paying tenants off their lands.

■ Some landlords were able to buy out peasant tenants from any of these groups.

■ as we shall see, in the second term, in comparing French peasants with English peasants, we will find that French peasants paradoxically enjoyed far more secure property rights than did English peasants, from the 15th century

■ Conversely, therefore, English landlords, from the 15th century, were far better able to enclose their lands – i.e., to dispossess those tenants who were copyholders – than were French landlords.15

(4) Cottagers: were a relatively large amorphous class of those engaged in medieval and early-modern agriculture, perhaps 20% - 25% of the total:

  1. technically they were tenants, and generally free tenants, who held a few strips in the arable open fields,

  2. with rights of access to the village Commons grazing lands for whatever livestock they possessed.

  3. But most they were wage-earning agricultural labourers, who depended on these wages, especially at harvest and sewing seasons, to survive; and perhaps as well with supplementary industrial employment. and perhaps as well with supplementary industrial employment.

  4. few, however, could survive by their tenancy holdings alone.

  5. they had few rights to their holdings, few rights in the village, and thus they were the easiest to dispossess;

  6. and denial of access to grazing rights on the Commons was often sufficient to force them to sell or give up their tenancy rights to strips in the open-field arable.

4. The Agrarian Recession of ca. 1660-1750 and Innovations:

a) An Agrarian Revolution During Agrarian Recession?

I) In the current economic history literature, the predominant view, if by no means the only view, is that the century preceding the Industrial Revolution, from c. 1660 to c.1760, marked the most important period of agrarian changes:

(1) an era that helped create an Agricultural Revolution to help pave the way for the 18th century Industrial Revolution.

(2) thus once again, as in the commercial sector, we see the 1660s as a crucial turning point in modern British economic history.

ii) The key thesis: that this era experienced an agrarian recession, especially in grain-oriented agriculture, with falling prices,

(1) which provided the key incentive to reorganize agriculture more productively and profitably,

(2) in particular by diversifying agriculture away from grain farming

(3) especially using a system of mixed farming called convertible husbandry (to be explained)

iii) Price Movements during the Agrarian Recession, 1660 - 1740: we mus now examine the changes or movements of agricultural prices, in terms of:

(1) the price level itself: i.e., in terms of the consumer price index

(2) and changes in individual prices: the relative prices for grain and livestock products

b) The Macro-economics of changes in the general price level (Consumer Price Index)

I) General Deflation: monetary and other causes

(1) This period, from ca. 1660 to the 1740s, was generally one of deflation, of generally falling prices;

(2) but one in which grain prices fell more than did the general price level (see graph).

(3) As noted in previous lectures, this era experienced an overall monetary contraction

  1. with a much reduced inflow of precious metals from Spanish America

  2. and with an increased silver outflow in trade with Asia and the Baltic; and

(4) Europe also experienced, at the same time, a demographic decline, which may have curbed the income velocity of money (if you want to maintain a purely monetary explanation).

ii) General Deflation: why a problem: in creating a price-cost squeeze for farmers

(1) chief problem: deflation tends to increase the real cost of factor inputs, in terms of labour, capital and land, because those costs tend to remain fixed (in nominal terms), while other prices fall:16

  1. labour: with the prevalence of nominal wage stickiness, known as the ‘rachet effect’ so that money wages do not fall when other prices do fall (true from the 1370s to about 1920)

  2. interest: interest rates are set by contractual agreements, so that nominal interest rates, and thus the annual money payments for interest, do not decline, even when other prices do

  3. rent: similarly, rent payments for the use of land are set by leasehold contracts, so that annual rent payments may remain fixed, for ten, twenty, or 99 years

(2) Thus the landlord and farmer found, during such periods of deflation, that their factor costs of productions were rising, in real terms, while real grain prices were falling.

(3) And thus a major component of the price-cost squeeze facing landlords and their tenants who were producing grain.

(4) Hence the incentive to engage in technological innovations to reduce factor costs of production (to use at least land and labour more economically)

c) The Micro-economics of changes in relative prices

I) The Disproportionate Fall in Grain Prices:

(1) from the 1660s to the 1740s, generally

(2) with the important exception the 1690s, which were unusual years combining both wartime disruptions and bad harvests.

(3) As the graph on the screen shows, grain prices reached their lowest point during the period 1730-50, thus on the eve of Industrial Revolution.

ii) Livestock Prices during the Recession: But, as the same graph illustrates, livestock prices and prices for non-grain arable crops fared relatively better, i.e., by enjoying an increase in at least their relative prices.

iii) Explanation of the Changes in Relative Prices:

(1) The fall in grain prices: the essential problem was that grain production had grown much faster than demand over the 17th century;

(2) and a relative contraction in the demand for traditional grains (rye, wheat, and barley): reflects the following two changing circumstances: involving aggregate demand and aggregate market supply of grains

iv) the Microeconomics of demand for and supply of grain

(1) population stagnation and decline:

  1. even the two leading economic regions, the Netherlands and England, lost some population;

  2. that demographic decline was much worse in the principal continental European grain markets, thus seriously hurting the Dutch grain trade.

(2) Increased supplies of grain placed on West European markets:

(3) Product substitution:

  1. competition from new sources of carbohydrates in Europe,

  2. especially potatoes, corn (maize), and rice.

v) As evidence for a continued growth in grain production, we find that England itself had become a major net exporter of grain from later 17th century (perhaps as a consequence of prior enclosures), as the tables on the screen show:

The Baltic and English Grain Export Trades

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