historical reflection on enclosures as the only way to prevent ‘tradegy of the commons,


“The road system of the hundreds was in place through the middle of the eleventh century and it proved to be adequate enough to make “possible a centralization of national government to which there was no parallel in western Europe following the Norman Conquest in 1066. After all, the dramatic increase in centralization required a substantial amount of travel by royal officials such as tax collectors and judges, and armies when rebellions arose, as well as by politically connected citizens (e.g., Barons, representatives of the major church institutions such as abbeys and monasteries) who had to visit the royal court. At the same time, however, many of the incentives underlying the hundreds were undermined. For instance, William seized virtually all of the land in England, and while he held many large estates for his own use, he also granted use of large tracts to Barons and the Church in exchange for support.

Enclosure of some land which had been controlled by local agricultural communities as open fields and common pastures soon followed. In particular, land granted to the aristocracy, called the demesne, could be enclosed (other types of land were controlled by freeholders who paid rent to the lord, and by the villiens who provided labor to the lords). The Statute of Merton also permitted the lords to enclose large portions of the “waste,” the high woodlands and unimproved pastures that lay in clumps around the arable lands, at the expense of the freeholders and villiens who used such areas, grazing was also significantly restricted in the vast royal forests and parks “in the interest of the chase.” With increasing enclosure, the potential for straying cattle was diminishing so the value of this cooperative function of the tithing was also declining. Then, in the 1400s, as wool prices rose relative to grain prices, the lords’ evicted large numbers of tenants and enclosed additional large tracts of land, converting it to sheep pasture from crops and stubble fields upon which cattle had grazed. Hundreds of local villages were abandoned.

Many of the remaining kinship groups and tithing were broken apart as people were driven from their traditional homes. In addition, the Normans replaced the Anglo-Saxon restitution-based “man-price” system (were) with a criminal law system involving fines to and confiscations by the king along with corporal and capital punishment. This withdrawal of the right to restitution had significant implications for the tithing and hundred because it substantially reduced incentives to maintain the reciprocal arrangements for protection, pursuit, prosecution, and insurance, and to participate in the local court system. Indeed, the king’s expectation that the local communities would continue to provide policing and prosecution in order to collect revenues and property for the crown, without compensation, proved to be unfounded, leading to a long series of institutional changes. Thus, for various interrelated reasons the hundreds became ineffective or disappeared.

While members of local communities probably still had incentives to maintain roads for local use, the breakdown of the voluntary hierarchical tithing-hundred-shire system apparently produced a growing problem of under-maintenance for some long-distance connections. Local freemen were probably less likely to travel between communities, at least voluntarily,25 so they had weaker incentives to maintain those arteries that were predominantly for long-distant (inter-community) travel, at the same time that the demand for long distance travel was growing from other sources. As noted above, the demand for long-distance travel due to the activities of the king and his court increased dramatically under the Normans. In addition, representatives of the church with its widespread holdings also travelled extensively, as explained in more detail below. Trade also was expanding throughout eleventh and twelfth centuries. Most commercial retailing activities took place at fairs during this period, and merchants travelled from fair to fair in order to sell their wares and buy others, thus requiring increasingly intensive use of some roads.

Kings claimed royal rights to free passage for themselves and their courts to travel anywhere in their kingdom, as well as for anyone traveling to his court on royal business, and expected roads to be provided for these purposes. This claim was reinforced after William’s seizure of land, because, even though he granted fiefs of land to his supporters and others that he wanted support from, he retained a claim of absolute authority over the use and disposition of the land granted to these individuals. Landholders controlled land only as long as they performed their required duties and paid their required fees. Successes in putting down rebellions  tended to strengthen this property rights arrangement, so the Norman kings’ claim of free passage, was simply, in their minds, a right to pass over their own lands. Not surprisingly, then, of the three groups demanding access to roads for long distance travel, it was not the royal government that took up the road-provision task after the breakdown of the hundreds; it was he religious and the merchant communities.” The story continues …..


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