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Who stole the goose from of the common?


In a recent article in The Wild Peak blog I touched on the issue of the Enclosure of the Commons – both in France and Britain. In Britain enclosure was a brutal affair that stretched over many centuries. George Orwell once put it thus:

Stop to consider how the so-called owners of the land got hold of it. They simply seized it by force, afterwards hiring lawyers to provide them with title-deeds. In the case of the enclosure of the common lands, which was going on from about 1600 to 1850, the land-grabbers did not even have the excuse of being foreign conquerors; they were quite frankly taking the heritage of their own countrymen, upon no sort of pretext except that they had the power to do so.

In the previous century Karl Marx had already summed up what the Enclosures were all about:

We have seen how the forcible seizure of the common lands, accompanied for the most part by the transformation of arable into pasture, began in the fifteenth century and lasted on into the sixteenth […] The advance that has been made in the eighteenth century is shown in this, that the law itself now became the instrument by which the theft of the people’s land was achieved, although the great farmers continued to use their petty private methods in addition. The parliamentary form of this robbery was to pass Acts for the enclosure of commons; in other words, decrees whereby the great landowners made a present to themselves of the people’s land, which thus became their own private property […] a systematic seizure of communal landed property helped, side by side with the theft of the State domains, to swell the size of those great farms which, in the eighteenth century, were called ‘capital farms’ or ‘merchant farms’, and ‘to set the country folk at liberty’ as a proletariat for the uses of industry.

The 17th Century Diggers were just one of numerous protests against the Enclosures

To be sure there was much protest, resistance and even rebellion at both the local and national levels. We can find numerous court reports, aristocratic complaints about resistance and rebellion, as well as pamphlets and writings from, for example, the Levelers and Diggers of the 17th century. E. P. Thompson and many other historians and economists have consistently tried ‘to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the obsolete hand-loom weaver, the utopian artisan ….. from the enormous condescension of posterity.’ Yet much of the evidence regarding what actually happened, and what the people affected by the Enclosures felt, does not come directly and unmediated from the ‘common’ people themselves. It doesn’t come from those whose livelihood was being taken away, from those who were being forced into the horror of the Poor House or into the equally brutal squalor of the urban factory.

I always find it humbling and moving when we can hear the actual words of those being oppressed; even more so when the testimony comes in poetic form. I would like to share two poems that do just this. The first in from the 17th century and is called The Goose and the Commons. We don’t know who wrote it, but it is an early and rare eye-witness account of the English enclosures:

                 The Goose and the Commons

The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common
But leaves the greater villain loose
Who steals the common from off the goose.

The law demands that we atone
When we take things we do not own
But leaves the lords and ladies fine
Who take things that are yours and mine.

The poor and wretched don’t escape
If they conspire the law to break;
This must be so but they endure
Those who conspire to make the law.

The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common
And geese will still a common lack
Till they go and steal it back.

John Clare – The Peasant-Poet

The common people may be mute in much of written history, but when they speak, as in this poem, we find that they were in no way unaware of what was happening to them and who was really responsible, even though their horizons might have only been local.

The other poem is from two hundred years later and comes from the ‘peasant-poet’ John Clare. Clare described his writings as ‘the voice of a poor man’.  As the historian of the Commons J. F. C. Harrison points out: ‘John Clare, the peasant-poet and son of a cottage farmer in Helpstone, Northamptonshire, is perhaps the only voice of an actual victim of enclosure. Helpstone was enclosed by an Act of 1809 when Clare was sixteen.’ The poem is called The Mores (‘Moors’):

                 The Mores

Far spread the moorey ground a level scene
Bespread with rush and one eternal green
That never felt the rage of blundering plough
Though centurys wreathed spring's blossoms on its brow
Still meeting plains that stretched them far away
In uncheckt shadows of green brown, and grey
Unbounded freedom ruled the wandering scene
Nor fence of ownership crept in between
To hide the prospect of the following eye
Its only bondage was the circling sky
One mighty flat undwarfed by bush and tree
Spread its faint shadow of immensity
And lost itself, which seemed to eke its bounds
In the blue mist the horizon's edge surrounds
Now this sweet vision of my boyish hours
Free as spring clouds and wild as summer flowers
Is faded all – a hope that blossomed free,
And hath been once, no more shall ever be
Inclosure came and trampled on the grave
Of labour's rights and left the poor a slave
And memory's pride ere want to wealth did bow
Is both the shadow and the substance now
The sheep and cows were free to range as then
Where change might prompt nor felt the bonds of men
Cows went and came, with evening morn and night,
To the wild pasture as their common right
And sheep, unfolded with the rising sun
Heard the swains shout and felt their freedom won
Tracked the red fallow field and heath and plain
Then met the brook and drank and roamed again
The brook that dribbled on as clear as glass
Beneath the roots they hid among the grass
While the glad shepherd traced their tracks along
Free as the lark and happy as her song
But now all's fled and flats of many a dye
That seemed to lengthen with the following eye
Moors, loosing from the sight, far, smooth, and blea
Where swopt the plover in its pleasure free
Are vanished now with commons wild and gay
As poet's visions of life's early day
Mulberry-bushes where the boy would run
To fill his hands with fruit are grubbed and done
And hedgrow-briars – flower-lovers overjoyed
Came and got flower-pots – these are all destroyed
And sky-bound mores in mangled garbs are left
Like mighty giants of their limbs bereft
Fence now meets fence in owners' little bounds
Of field and meadow large as garden grounds
In little parcels little minds to please
With men and flocks imprisoned ill at ease
Each little path that led its pleasant way
As sweet as morning leading night astray
Where little flowers bloomed round a varied host
That travel felt delighted to be lost
Nor grudged the steps that he had ta-en as vain
When right roads traced his journeys and again -
Nay, on a broken tree he'd sit awhile
To see the mores and fields and meadows smile
Sometimes with cowslaps smothered – then all white
With daiseys – then the summer's splendid sight
Of cornfields crimson o'er the headache bloomd
Like splendid armys for the battle plumed
He gazed upon them with wild fancy's eye
As fallen landscapes from an evening sky
These paths are stopt – the rude philistine's thrall
Is laid upon them and destroyed them all
Each little tyrant with his little sign
Shows where man claims earth glows no more divine
But paths to freedom and to childhood dear
A board sticks up to notice 'no road here'
And on the tree with ivy overhung
The hated sign by vulgar taste is hung
As tho' the very birds should learn to know
When they go there they must no further go
Thus, with the poor, scared freedom bade goodbye
And much they feel it in the smothered sigh
And birds and trees and flowers without a name
All sighed when lawless law's enclosure came
And dreams of plunder in such rebel schemes
Have found too truly that they were but dreams.

I will not offer a close reading of this poem, I leave that to you. Of course the poem is both about the impact of the enclosures on both people and the countryside, but it also is quite clear regarding who gained. A reader of the poem once observed that ‘privatization of the common land appears in itself as unnatural, as a crime against the animals, birds, insects, trees, flowers, rivers and streams themselves.’ Clare was indeed an early ecologist; he even called his works a ‘language that is ever green’. I leave the final word yet again to E. P. Thompson:

Clare may be described, without hindsight, as a poet of ecological protest: he was not writing about man here and nature there, but lamenting a threatened equilibrium in which both were involved.

 Sources

John Clare, A Champion for the Poor: Political Verse and Prose. Manchester, Carcanet Press, 2000;  George Orwell, As I Please, Tribune, 18 August, 1944; Karl Marx, Capital. Volume 1, London, Everyman’s Library, 1974;  J. F. C. Harrison, The Common People: A History from the Norman Conquest to the Present, London: Flamingo, 1984; E. P.Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, Harmondsworth, Penguin Books, 1975 ; Ronald Paul, A language that is ever green, Moderna Sprak, 2011.

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