How the Capitalist Agrarian Revolution Affected the Commons and Property Regimes

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By Hartmut Zückert:

"Before the Agrarian Revolution, which was linked to the Industrial Revolution, there were two different intensities of land use (the following is based on Zückert 2003): intensive cultivation of arable and meadow land (manuring, plowing, sowing, harrowing, harvesting, irrigation or drainage), which was therefore the peasants’ private property; and extensive cultivation of grazing land and woodlands where cattle was herded and wood harvested, and which for this reason remained common property: the commons (see figure). How much livestock an individual could have depended on the amount of hay available as winter fodder, that is, on the size of the meadows. From spring to fall, cattle were herded on the common pasture.

The Agrarian Revolution basically meant that people started to grow forage crops such as clover, turnips and potatoes, making it possible to feed cattle in the barn. Thus, rough pasture was no longer needed. The commons was either turned into fields or cultivated more intensively as pastureland. In other words: it was enclosed. The practice of having animals graze in the forest (wood pasture) was abandoned, and the forests were devoted to intensified timber production and privatized as well for this reason. The only uses to remain communal were those that were possible only on an extensive basis, such as Alpine meadows.

The agrarian innovations required capital investment: changes to crop rotation, seed for the feed crops, fences or hedges, barns and new equipment. For this reason, peasants, leaseholders and manorial lords with substantial holdings were at an advantage in the process of changing the mode of production and promoting it, while smallholders kept to traditional forms of farming. That was the basis of the conflicts around enclosures between manorial lords and leaseholders on the one side and smallholders on the other. Unable to compete, the latter lost out. Without keeping a few head of cattle on the commons, they could not survive, and once the commons was enclosed, they could no longer farm for themselves and thus had to work as laborers on the farms of those who had benefited from the enclosures. That was the true “tragedy of the commons.”

The basic distribution of property after the enclosures initially corresponded to the system of property rights that had prevailed before. In the feudal order, property was always shared property, that is, the nobility or the priory loaned the peasant his holding and the land that belonged to it; he had to perform labor services and pay rents in kind or money rents and was subject to the jurisdiction of the feudal lords. As the commons was part of the farmland, it, too, was under the control of the landlord, who was known in England as the “lord of the soil of the common.” The lord and the commoners alike herded cattle on the common pasture and harvested timber in the woods. In Europe, the degree to which this occurred depended on whether the feudal lords had agricultural businesses themselves or were sustained mostly by rents." (


"East of the Elbe River, the peasants had to perform labor services in the fields of the manor even until the 19th century and only had usage rights to the commons. In England and the Rhineland, on the other hand, the manors were leased, and this ensured that the leaseholders had a dominant position vis-à-vis the other commoners in using the commons. In England, the commercial demand for wool resulted in the lord’s flocks of sheep flooding the commons. In the Rhineland, the “Meistbeerbten”–the leaseholders–increasingly took on responsibility for manag­ing the forest. In southwestern Germany and Switzerland, the manor fields were let out to the peasants, and the feudal lords limited themselves to the extensive branches of the economy, such as lumbering or grazing sheep, and competed with the peasants for the commons.

Accordingly, property rights developed in different ways. In southwestern Germany, the feudal property was forced back more and more, and around 1800 the peasants were de facto owners of their farms and the common pastures. They also enjoyed defined use rights to the forest, and often also to community woods. East of the Elbe, in contrast, the peasants only had weak property rights to their farms and usage rights to the commons.

With different property regimes, the consequences of the enclosures differed as well. In England, the lords and their leaseholders secured the lion’s share of the commons – a scandal criticized publicly as early as 1516 by Thomas More in the critique of society he placed before his “Utopia”: “sheep...devour men.” The nobility and abbots, he wrote, were “stop[ping] the course of agriculture, destroying houses and towns, reserving only the churches, and enclos[ing] grounds that they may lodge their sheep in them.” East of the Elbe, the situation was worse; the nobility was taking possession of the common land and granting the peasants only minimal “compensation.” The manors, which had grown large because of the appropriation of the commons, were run with semi-free laborers who obeyed the nobility’s lashes. The state acted as midwife of the new system of property rights by passing the parliamentary enclosures, i.e., enclosures enabled by laws of Parliament, in England (c. 1760-1820) or the Gemeinheitsteilungsordnungen in 1821 in Prussia. In southwestern Germany, in contrast, dividing up the commons after a long process resulted in a beneficial situation for the peasants and communities." (

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