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a specific form of eliminating common lands and communal routines; one of the forms of the mass expropriation of the peasantry—the basis for the primitive accumulation of capital. The classic example of enclosures took place in England between the late 15th and early 19th centuries.

The enclosure movement began in England as early as the 13th century, when, with the development of commodity-money relations and with the rising demand for wool, the feudal lords enclosed common lands and annexed them to their domains. The early enclosures did not vitally affect the communal system in the countryside. At first, the enclosures took place deep in feudal society. In the late 15th century, however, during the period of the disintegration of feudal relations, the character and significance of the enclosures changed. The basic reason for the enclosures in the late 15th and early 16th centuries was the rise in wool prices, a consequence of large-scale exports and the development of the English cloth industry, in which capitalist relations originated. During this period, arable lands, as well as pastures, were enclosed. The lords enclosed their own domains, as well as the land allotted to the peasants, thereby eliminating communal routines. Deprived of their plots of land, the peasant holders were also driven from their homes, which in many areas belonged to the lords, who granted them to the peasants as a supplement to their allotments. Driven from the land, the peasants became paupers—beggars and vagrants.

A new impetus for enclosures was provided by the Reformation and by the secularization of church and monasterial lands, which was accompanied by the expulsion of the peasants. The lords exploited the enclosed lands, hiring farm laborers from among the cotters (poor peasants), or leased the lands to large-scale tenant farmers. The enclosures altered the social structure of the countryside: the proportion of farmers rose, and that of independent peasant communards declined, although in the late 16th through early 17th centuries from one-half to two-thirds of the arable and pasture lands still belonged to them.

Beginning in 1485 the government adopted a series of laws against enclosures, hoping at least to prevent the disappearance of 20-acre peasant plots. The government feared a decline in the number of taxpayers and in the country’s military might (the peasants were the main source of army recruits). It also viewed the expropriated masses as a source of social disturbances. By the early 16th century, however, the government’s fight against enclosure had, in effect, come to an end. The government acted ruthlessly toward the expropriated peasants (the “bloody legislation against the dispossessed” in 15th- and 16th-century England). The peasants responded with many uprisings (Robert Ket’s uprising in the east and the uprisings in southwestern and central England in 1549; the uprising of 1607 in central England and the uprisings of the 1620’s through 1630’s; and the uprisings on the eve of and during the English bourgeois revolution of the 17th century).

The enclosure movement grew stronger, especially after the bourgeois revolution of the 17th century, during the capitalist reorganization of agrarian relations. The political conditions ensuring further enclosures were the victory of the “new” (bourgeoisified) gentry in the 17th-century revolution, as well as the agrarian legislation associated with the revolution, which made the former big feudal landowners the full owners of the land and regarded the peasant holders as temporary users of their parcels, entirely dependent on the will of the lord. In the 18th century, Parliament intervened in the enclosure process, legalizing it in numerous “private” enclosure acts. The “parliamentary enclosures,” which became more frequent from the 1760’s and especially during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, completed the elimination of the common and the destruction of the class of petty landowners.

The enclosures contributed to the formation of the classical structure of capitalist agriculture in England. Feudal lords became capitalist landlords, tied exclusively to the capitalist farmers, who shared with the landowners a portion of the profit they extracted from the exploitation of agricultural workers. Feudal rent gave way to capitalist rent. The main producer of the Middle Ages, the feudally dependent peasant, was replaced by the agricultural worker. As a result of the expropriation of the peasantry, the English bourgeoisie acquired a source of cheap labor.

Enclosures were also widespread in the Netherlands, France, and Germany.


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