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.

Snell and Neeson point to more important questions. The dominant orthodoxy of academic rural history certainly since the 1950s and perhaps earlier has been, as we have said, shaped by economic history. Put crudely the questions asked, and therefore the answers given, are framed by notions like productivity, yield, factors of production, marginal costs and so on. This has not been wholly a bad thing since, at its best, it has brought a rigor to the discussion of agrarian history which is sadly lacking in much writing about rural areas. Yet the down side has been seriously debilitating, firstly, by imposing the over-view of agrarian change already outlined; and secondly, by creating a language derived from economic theory which excludes or devalues other ways of looking at the materials of rural and agricultural history. As Snell points out, there has been a great distrust among this orthodoxy of anything which cannot be rendered into 'a quantifiable unit of account'.

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