Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 September 2013
In his Agrarian Problems, Eric Kerridge accused R. H. Tawney of conjuring up a sixteenth century characterised by ‘a relentless and remorseless capitalism which impiously rode down a wretched peasantry’. Certainly no one could accuse Tawney of equivocation in terms of his Christian Socialist views: and it is not too hard to find forthright quotations in The Agrarian Problem, such as his dismissal of the Edwardian Riot Act as ‘a straightforward attempt to prevent the poor from protesting when their possessions were taken from them by the rich’. Yet Tawney's views were perhaps more nuanced than he is sometimes given credit for. Thus he distinguished piecemeal enclosure from ‘the great enclosures made by lords of manors from which the peasants obviously lost’ – the ‘obviously’ being a typical Tawneian touch – while he made it clear that, when talking of enclosure, he meant converting open arable fields to pasture, which he claimed ‘the word would have suggested to nine men out of ten in our period’.
Yet depopulating enclosure was a regional phenomenon: and it is with the tenth man's interpretation that this chapter is concerned. Although far from Tawney's main focus, there are in fact numerous references in the Problem to wasteland enclosure. Perhaps unusually, he seems to have seen piecemeal enclosure as a win-win situation – ‘the lord gained by leasing part of it [the waste] to be broken up and cultivated while, so long as sufficient land was left for grazing, the tenants gained by getting land which they could add to their holdings and on which a growing population could settle’.