Teaching the agricultural revolution

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Andrew Angus-Smith

Abington Friends School

Jenkintown, PA
NEH Summer Seminar 2000

Historical Interpretations of the Industrial Revolution in Britain

University of Massachusetts Dartmouth at the University of Nottingham
The lives of most students, and most teachers, are now so removed from rural life that Agriculture and the Agricultural Revolution is now taught merely as a piece of colourful background or as a quick precursor to industrialization. Time constraints in our school and college courses have killed the study of agriculture - which is a tremendous loss as it is important to teach it, simple to teach it, and fun to teach it. It is easy for us to forget, or our students to appreciate, that the vast majority of people who ever existed were farmers, and indeed that this remains the case in the World today. We all have our anecdotes of student ignorance of the subject ( Question : ‘Where does milk come from ?’ Answer : ‘The supermarket’). This alienation from the land and the production of food is increasing and will continue to do so. It is increasing amongst teachers, too. Yet if we are to understand our History, understand how a civilization develops -- and if we are to encourage environmental activism -- we have to reverse this trend and put a much greater emphasis on agriculture in our historical teaching than it has been receiving in recent decades. There must always be time for Agriculture.
Possible Glossary :



pastoral farming

arable farming,

mixed farming.

subsistence agriculture

commercial agriculture






wind power




crop rotation

agricultural innovation

production surplus

cash economy


manor / manorial system

champion / champagne fields,












Introduction of the topic
(1) Agriculture can be introduced into virtually any History course at school or college level simply by asking, ‘How much food does each human being need every year just to sustain his / her life ?’ The answer is a surprisingly large amount of food, about one fifth of a ton for each person. I have often asked my students to keep a record of all that they eat in a week, then multiply it by 52 : they are horrified by how many hamburgers, French fries, Twinkie bars, salads and cornflakes that totals up to in a year. I then ask them how much of this they actually produced themselves, or whether they had any direct link with this production. Of course the answers are almost invariably negative. The point then is to emphasize that, well, someone must have produced it all, and hopefully someone is out there today continuing to do so -- otherwise we are all going to be in a lot of trouble next year.

(2) The follow-up question is this : Was this a good year for American agricultural production or a disappointing one ? Well, invariably none of the students know -- and usually, neither do I. That is the point : we don’t know and it really doesn’t matter directly to us except for a few extra cents on a bag of flour or a packet of sugar every now and then. But this gives us a great lead-in to the past : in a Chinese commune, or an Ancient Egyptian hamlet along the Nile, or an Aztec village or a medieval manor in Europe, everyone would know very accurately what last year’s yield of every crop, every field, was : the quality of their lives for months to come, maybe their very lives, would be controlled by it. This over-riding importance, this dominating anxiety, is one of the first points I want to emphasize strongly when dealing with agriculture in my courses. That is the ‘micro’ side : the ‘macro’ is no less than that all civilizations are built on agricultural surplus. Without one, nothing is going to develop very far.

Working agricultural example :
I use a picture which is an amalgam of several villages I know in Oxfordshire, England. As an example of an open field system manor it is fairly representational -- but it has the advantage of being applicable to other places and other times too. Add a pyramid being built in the background (and desert instead of trees) and you have an average village in Ancient Egypt : a wooden junk floating on the river makes it Ancient China
Uses :

(a) Even up to 12th grade level students enjoy role-playing. I transform the class into a village community, each student representing his / her own family, and allocate cottages and ‘peasant’ roles to most of them. I also include and emphasize some examples of existing specialization - the priest, the blacksmith, the tanner, the miller and the fowler are good examples. This gets the students involved. I am always surprised how easily students accept that I take the controlling job -- the lord of the manor -- for myself. (b) This leads into discussion of the advantages / limitations of the open field system. Students usually come to the conclusion that although it is incredibly inefficient (especially the strip system), as long as it fulfills its primary purpose of keeping most of the villagers alive, that’s really all they could ask for, or expected at the time. The difference between mere subsistence agriculture and capitalistic agriculture has been established. (c) The importance of enclosure in the industrializing process is now easy to discuss, takes relatively little time and really sets us up for the causes of industrialization. By re-drawing the same village picture as an enclosure map, dressing it up in a bit of pompous ‘parliamentarese’ I can allocate each family a certain number of acres as freehold, non-communal property. I am rarely questioned about my right as lord of the manor to do this but I am pleased when I am : it is a good opportunity to puncture the fiction of a medieval village being a nice friendly co-operative place where everyone cheerfully worked along together, obedient to age-old customs. In fact when urbanization came, no-one was surprised by the avaricious manipulations of the new factory owners : people had already been subject to such exploitation by their manorial lords during the rural centuries. The importance of the ‘enclosure’ stage of this two-picture progression : (a) The students are interested in what their allocation is going to be. I usually ask them to write a description of the enclosure process, its aims, justifications and risks before I distribute copies of the actual enclosure map : from being objective, they then immediately become surprisingly subjective when they see what their allocation actually is. (b) What to do now ? Assuming for example that the average English farm today is about 800-1000 acres in area and has changed little in maybe two centuries since enclosure, that is presumably about the optimum size. I tell the students that anyone who has just received over 500 acres has a very good chance of doing prosperously well in the new, more capital-intensive agriculture and should stick with it, especially if they can introduce some of the innovations. Anyone receiving less than 500 acres is in an unviable situation and should start thinking of alternatives. So what are these unfortunates going to do now ? I try not to help them much as students usually quickly suggest possibilities such as emigration to the colonies, opening a tavern, becoming a weaver or spinner full-time, concentrating exclusively on some form of intensive smallholding agriculture, migrating to a neighbouring area that has not yet been enclosed, moving to a local market town -- or the one I am of course waiting to exploit by developing it into my lead-in to the Industrial Revolution, to renounce agriculture completely and become part of the urban proletariat. This covers the transition into the Industrial Revolution -- and the ‘bridge’ between the old rural world and the new industrial one is provided by the students themselves.
Assignments /Homework
I enjoy teaching the Agricultural Revolution because it ‘feels’ different every time I do it, largely as a result of the students’ personalities and contributions. I usually assign the following :

--glossary factual test based on own dictionary work

--essay, partly factually descriptive, partly imaginative discussing the

--debate over whether to enclose or not-

- essay or oral presentation, perhaps in character if the student is comfortable with that form, covering enclosure and its results.

I have to keep the time factor in consideration constantly. When it catches the students’ imaginations this topic could very easily expand to fill a week’s lesson time -- time which on virtually all my courses I simply don’t have to allocate to it. Yet I also have to reiterate that this agricultural sector is not just important in itself but is an essential precursor of industrialization. It can be an end in itself (when used as background for a set novel, for example), but it is usually presented as a means to an end. This topic usually goes well. It doesn’t always fly like a bird when presented this way but it has never completely died on its feet once the 20-30 times I have used it. I have also noticed that if the Agricultural Revolution has gone well, the Industrial Revolution probably will too. If I ‘skipped’ agriculture -- as sometimes when running late I am tempted to -- I think the Industrial Revolution would ‘come from nowhere’ and students would be slow to appreciate its radical importance. The Industrial Revolution itself would not be as easy nor as enjoyable to teach. So, colleagues, look to your fields and your crops before you look to your coal mines, textile machines and railways. They areall important features of one great whole, ‘The Great Changes’.

Enclosure Proclamation


of common land of the manor of RUTLANDHALL

in the county of NOTTINGHAM having been presented

in due form upon this 1st day ofJuly in the years of Our

Lord the1,773rd , the 17th Year of the Reign of

our Sovereign Lord George, the Third of that name,

and having duly passed the House of Commons

and the House of Lords of this Realm, is submitted for

the Royal Assent of Said George Our King, be it

known that the Enclosure of said Manor of RUTLAND-

-HALL shall be based upon the following lawful division

of said property according to the Customary Usage of

this Realm :

--- The Commons shall be held in community in


--- The surveyors find that all the dwelling houses in the

said Manor belong freehold to the Lord of the Manor save

the Mill and the workplace of the Blacksmith

--- The land at present in the three Open Fields shall be

equitably divided thusly by family :

Lord of the Manor : 1,000 acres

Cornelius 100 acres

Eudy 100 acres

Fisk 600 acres

Fletcher 600 acres

Nicholls 180 acres

Palmierti 20 acres plus mill

Russell 200 acres

Spillane 600 acres

Stuart 200 acres

Veto 500 acres

Sum total : 4,300 acres

There appear to be no Common Law nor

customary land claims for the other families

resident here at this time.

There can be no appeal against this allocation

based as it is upon the Customary Rights and

Usage of the English Common Law of this


Done this day the first of July in the Year of

Our Lord the 1,773rd in the names of the Lords

and Commons and Common Law of this

Realm of England.


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