2.3.1-18: The Enclosure Period

Module 2, Section 3.1-18

The Enclosure Period

3.1 To understand how it came to be that this most basic and obvious human right - the right to the earth itself - was somehow left out of the founding documents of democracy, it will serve our purpose here to go back to the centuries of European history that John Mohawk is talking about, to the Enclosure Period. This is the time of violent direct suppression of the indigenous people of Europe. Between the thirteenth and seventeenth centuries, masses of peasants were evicted from their holdings or saw their common lands fenced off for sheep.

3.2 The Enclosures began after the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215. This was the great charter that King John was forced by the English barons to grant. Traditionally interpreted as guaranteeing certain civil and political liberties, the right to land for the common people was not among them. The first legal act to enforce enclosures was the Statute of Merton of 1235 which spoke of the need to “approve (meaning improve) the land in order to extract greater rent.”

3.3 The enclosures redefined land as “private property” and thereby gave it the status of a commodity, tradable within an expanding market system. Since the majority of people were denied access to the land and were forced to become wage laborers, labor also became a tradable commodity. The enclosures were justified by its perpetrators as necessary in order to make “improvements.”

3.4 Hear the words of Robert Ket, who led the Peasants’ Revolt of 1549 against the enclosures, heavy taxes, and other abuses (1992 Special Issue of The Ecologist, “Whose Common Future?”):


The common pastures left by our predecessors for our relief and our children are taken away. The lands which in the memory of our fathers were common, those are ditched and hedged in and made several; the pastures are enclosed, and we shut out. Whatsoever, the fowls of the air or fishes of the water, and increase of the earth - all these do they devour, consume and swallow up.... We can no longer bear so much, so great, and so cruel injury; neither can we with quiet minds behold so great covetousness, excess and pride of the nobility.... While we have the same form and the same condition of birth together with them, why should they have a life so unlike unto ours, and differ so far from us in calling?


3.6 The rebellion of 1549 was one of many peasant revolts in old Europe. Sixteen thousand insurgents formed a camp near Norwich and “scoured the country around, destroyed enclosures, filled in ditches, leveled fences.”

3.7 Over several hundred years 4,000 Private Acts of Enclosure were passed covering some 7,000,000 acres. Probably the same sized area was enclosed without application to Parliament. About two thirds involved open fields belonging to cottagers while one third involved commons such as woodland and heath. In the census of 1086, more than half the arable land belonged to the villagers. By 1876, only 2,225 people owned half the agricultural land in England and Wales; that 0.6 per cent of the population owned 98.5 per cent of the agricultural land. As newer agricultural methods and technologies were applied, landowners could raise the rents of their lands by phenomenal amounts. As the cash economy developed, the rent money accumulated into the hands of the landholders and the plight of the people worsened. To survive, they sometimes were forced to borrow money from the landholders at high rates of interest.

3.8 By the early 1800s tenant farmers in Ireland had to give their entire crops to the landlords as rent. When their subsistence potato crops failed from blight, there was nothing to fall back on. Some three million people died of starvation and disease between 1845 and 1849, while one million fled to the US and Canada. Ireland’s population of eight million was cut in half. During the famine Ireland exported to England enough grain, cattle, pigs, butter and eggs “to feed the Irish people twice over” as one Irish historian put it.

3.9 A poem from the Enclosures period:

The law hangs the man and flogs the woman
Who steals a goose from off the commons
But turns the greater scoundrel loose
Who steals the commons from the goose.

For More on Enclosures:

3.10 Alastair McIntosh, a modern day Scottish bard, tells us:


The "Highland Clearances," which forced Scottish people off their land from the late eighteenth to early twentieth century, were an event of cultural genocide which paralleled and in many respects, pioneered patterns of colonial conquest elsewhere in the British Empire. The effects persist in the national psyche to this day; an aching sense of loss, concealed only by a thin plaster of relative material affluence, and a growing sense of the importance of reclaiming the commons.


3.11 The first wave of the Scottish Highland enclosures, in the second half of the eighteenth century, forced a previously self reliant peasant peoples onto marginal land. This was to clear the interior lands for sheep whilst also creating a waged labour force for the industrialist dominated industries.

3.12 Here is Alastair’s The Scottish Highlands in Colonial & Psychodynamic Perspective In this article he tells us: Today throughout Scotland, just 4,000 people own 80% of private land.This figure would represent 0.08% of the resident population were it not that many are absentee landlords ‑ English aristocrats, Arabian oil sheiks, Swiss bankers, South African industrialists, racing car drivers, pop stars, arms dealers and others not noted for their socio‑ecological awareness.

3.14 Enclosure meant not only the removal of land from subsistence communities, but a profound step towards viewing both the land and its people as things to be traded and exploited. The Enclosure Acts were the greatest single cause of the degradation of labour, driving people into cities where they were forced to work menial factory jobs for starvation wages.

3.15 Many people could not find employment after they had been thrown off their lands. By the time Elizabeth I ascended to the throne, England consequently had some 80,000 itinerant poor with no visible means of subsistence.

3.15 "Improvement," as the reason for the necessity of the Enclosures was termed by its apologists, was associated with “profit” in the same way that today’s term, "development," has become associated with "economic growth." As such, “privatisation” can be viewed as a continuation and extension of the Enclosures.


The cruelest and most important fact of all is that the criterion for the best use of land ceased to be the number of people it could support, and became the amount of profit it could make. - Alastair McIntosh

Wealth and poverty in Manila (slums and cityscape)


3.17 W. R. Lester, in writing about Unemployment and the Land in 1936 had this to say about the colonialization of Kenya, essentially the continuation of the Enclosures that had begun centuries before in Europe:

So white settlers have set about 'civilizing' these people by destroying their tribal land system. They are taking the lands from the natives and wherever they have done so, the result has been an abundant supply of 'labour on the market' with wages kept down by the competition of landless men, just as they are at home.


This is confirmed by evidence given before the Native Labour Commission (Kenya) in 1912 13. Settler after settler came before the commission and demanded in the most precise terms that the natives should be forced out of 'Reserves' to work for wages by cutting down their land so that they should have less than they could live on. Lord Delamere, himself owner of 150,000 acres, said:

If this policy is to be continued, that every native is to be a landholder of a sufficient area on which to establish himself, then the question of obtaining a satisfactory labour supply will never be settled.


The process of reducing men to unemployment and poverty is here stated in all its nakedness and simplicity.... In refusing land (to the people) an 'adequate' supply of labour on the market would be guaranteed.

3.18 The above section explored how the common lands of Europe were enclosed, privatised and turned into a market commodity. As a result, the work of the “common people” was also commodified as they were turned into wage laborers. Great numbers of people were forcefully deprived of access to land and thrown into the labour pool. The enclosure and land commodification process continues to this day throughout the world.

shantytown in Malina