The British Enclosure Movement: Definition & Overview

The British Enclosure Movement: Definition & Overview
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  • 0:04 Communally Owned Land
  • 1:20 Enclosure
  • 1:58 British Enclosure Movement
  • 4:04 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christina Boggs

Chrissy has taught secondary English and history and writes online curriculum. She has an M.S.Ed. in Social Studies Education.

Imagine a time before fences or private yards. In 12th century England this was a reality; land wasn't owned privately, it was owned by everyone. This lesson describes the British Enclosure Movement and reveals how it drastically changed the way we view land ownership today.

Communally Owned Land

Imagine waking up one morning and finding your neighbors in your front yard. Maybe they have a few chickens with them, one or two cows, a handful of horses, and perhaps a dozen sheep. The animals are munching on the lawn, pulling leaves from the shrubs, and taking care of their business all over the place. What do you do? Well, for starters, you would probably walk outside and ask them what they think they're doing. Your family owns that yard, and your neighbors have no legal right to be standing on it.

Up until a few hundred years ago in Europe, the idea of a privately owned yard was largely unheard of, unless you were fabulously wealthy or powerful. In fact, the common man was assigned a small plot of land to farm upon within a much larger area of communally owned land. Communally owned land is an area owned by everyone in the community; today, the only communally owned land you're likely to find is in a public park. If the land wasn't being farmed, the entire community had access to it and could use it for their own needs. Farmers could graze their animals on community land, search for firewood or building materials for their home, or get water from local streams. Areas that weren't very good for farming were also used for communal purposes year-round.

Enclosure

The idea of communally owned land began to change as early as the 1100s in England. Wealthy nobles and lords decided that they should have the sole right to own certain pieces of land and should be able to use it whenever and however they wanted. To show that the land was theirs and no one else's, they built enclosures. These enclosures blocked off land from public use through the presence of tall shrubs, fences, and walls. At this point, the idea of 'this land is your land, this land is my land' began to shift to 'this is land is my land...no seriously, it's mine, so get off of it.'

British Enclosure Movement

Some enclosure took place during the 12th century and during the 15th to 17th centuries. More and more, lords took large tracts of land and reserved them for private pastures and fields. The most significant period of enclosure, however, took place from the mid-1700s to the mid-1800s. By the end of the 1800s, almost all of England's communal land was privatized and enclosed from public use. So how exactly did this happen, and why?

At the time, British Parliament began receiving a large number of petitions, or requests, from various nobles and powerful men around the community. They claimed that privatizing the land would make farming more efficient. Controlling how the land was used would let them implement beneficial practices like rotating their crops or letting certain fields go fallow for a year or two to replenish nutrients in the soil.

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