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The Enclosure Movement From the viewpoint of a large landowner or capitalist investor, the open-field system of peasant agriculture was inefficient and wasteful. With limited land available, commercial farmers needed to find other ways to increase crop yields.
England passed laws that allowed investors and commercial farmers to buy land—including previously public land, the commons. Enclosure (also called inclosure) involved combining the various strips into larger fenced-in fields and establishing individual titles of ownership for each field. Most widespread in England, enclosures had started as early as the 12th century and developed rapidly from the 15th to 18th centuries. Land that used to be communal was now privately owned.
Effects of Enclosure Over time, enclosure increased agricultural productivity and benefited the large landowners. The creation of privately owned, fenced-in fields made it easier for investors to buy more land and expand their holdings. In doing so, landowners could engage in large-scale production of crops and livestock, adopt new farming practices, and generate a surplus that they could sell. As the cost of food declined due to the efficiency of larger farms, diets expanded in their variety and the frequency of famines was reduced. All this led to a population increase.
However, the enclosure movement also profoundly disrupted traditional village life and created hardship for many peasants. Enclosure increased rural poverty and led to a growing population of landless peasants. Some became laborers or tenant farmers on large estates owned by wealthy landowners. Others, hoping to find enough work to survive, migrated to towns and cities, leading to rapid urbanization. In some cases, peasants tried to reassert their traditional rights by resisting enclosure. Peasant revolts swept through England in the 1500s and 1600s.
Serfdom, Peasants, and Revolts
The growth of commercial agriculture often harmed Western Europe’s peasants. However, most were no longer legally under the control of a landlord. That meant they could choose how to adapt to the new economy. These choices included the freedom to move from one place to another and to change jobs.
Serfdom in Eastern Europe
As serfdom declined in Western Europe, an opposite trend occurred in Eastern Europe. By the early 16th century, the status of peasants in the east deteriorated, and serfdom became more entrenched.
Powerful, centralized states emerged in Austria, Prussia, and Russia during the 17th century as monarchs persuaded aristocrats to cooperate by making them part of the state bureaucracy or administrative structure. Landlords became tax collectors, judges, and military officers. In turn, the state protected the serfdom that benefitted the the aristocracy. In Russia, serfdom became official law in 1649 and was not abolished until the 1860s.

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