Martin Summers, Tony Gosling
Friday 11th April, Easter 2014, www.thisweek.org.uk
no news review this week - Tony is at NUJ conference in Eastbourne. Martin & Tony look at economics historical context deliberately missing from the mainstream media.
How Britain came to be run by crooked City of London financiers and we by their agents in Bristol. What we can do.
The seventeenth century Levellers and Diggers and how their opponents may have taken 'legal ownership' of the commons but how their visionary ideas can and will never die.
Over the course of a few hundred years, much of Britain's land has been privatized — that is to say taken out of some form of collective ownership and management and handed over to individuals. Currently, in our "property-owning democracy", nearly half the country is owned by 40,000 land millionaires, or 0.06 per cent of the population,1 while most of the rest of us spend half our working lives paying off the debt on a patch of land barely large enough to accommodate a dwelling and a washing line.
Private ownership of land, and in particular absolute private ownership, is a modern idea, only a few hundred years old. "The idea that one man could possess all rights to one stretch of land to the exclusion of everybody else" was outside the comprehension of most tribespeople, or indeed of medieval peasants. The king, or the Lord of the Manor, might have owned an estate in one sense of the word, but the peasant enjoyed all sorts of so-called "usufructory" rights which enabled him, or her, to graze stock, cut wood or peat, draw water or grow crops, on various plots of land at specified times of year.
The open field system of farming, which dominated the flatter more arable central counties of England throughout the later medieval and into the modern period, is a classic common property system which can be seen in many parts of the world. The structure of the open fields system in Britain was influenced by the introduction of the caruca a large wheeled plough, developed by the Gauls, which was much more capable of dealing with heavy English clay soils than the lightweight Roman aratrum (Fr araire ). The caruca required a larger team of oxen to pull it —as many as eight on heavy soils — and was awkward to turn around, so very long strips were ideal. Most peasants could not afford a whole team of oxen, just one or two, so maintaining an ox team had to be a joint enterprise. Peasants would work strips of land, possibly proportionate to their investment in the ox team. The lands were farmed in either a two or three course rotation, with one year being fallow, so each peasant needed an equal number of strips in each section to maintain a constant crop year on year.
Furthermore, because the fields were grazed by the village herds when fallow, or after harvest, there was no possibility for the individual to change his style of farming: he had to do what the others were doing, when they did it, otherwise his crops would get grazed by everyone's animals. The livestock were also fed on hay from communal meadows (the distribution of hay was sometimes decided by an annual lottery for different portions of the field) and on communal pastures.
The open field system was fairly equitable, and from their analysis of the only remaining example of open field farming, at Laxton, Notts, the Orwins demonstrate that it was one where a lad with no capital or land to his name could gradually build up a larger holding in the communal land:
"A man may have no more than an acre or two, but he gets the full extent of them laid out in long "lands" for ploughing, with no hedgerows to reduce the effective area, and to occupy him in unprofitable labour. No sort of enclosure of the same size can be conceived which would give him equivalent facilities. Moreover he has his common rights which entitle him to graze his stock all over the 'lands' and these have a value, the equivalent of which in pasture fields would cost far more than he could afford to pay."