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Deserters from the Plough

Hardyesque idyll or a vision of dereliction and random cruelty? Alun Howkins looks at how historians have treated the story of nineteenth-century rural Britain.

Parliamentary enclosure destroyed the old peasant economy. It did this not only by more than decimating small occupiers and landlords and by reducing their total acreage, but also by more completely separating the agricultural practice of small and large farmers, by pushing the smaller occupiers into the market more thoroughly than before and by expropriating landless commoners on whom much of the old economy had depended.

Snell takes a different course, looking at the 'gains' in productivity as a result of enclosure. He argues, in most respects very convincingly, that the unproblematic assessment of gains not only underestimates work on the productivity potential of open field agriculture but, more significantly ignores a whole range of hidden social costs which resulted from enclosure.

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