England Agricultural Regions and Agrarian History

Joan Thirsk

Library Code 338.10942 THI

1 Introduction

The purposes of this book are threefold. The first is to introduce the reader to the

burgeoning literature on England's agricultural regions in the sixteenth and

seventeenth centuries, and to explain how historians construct them and arrive at

different maps with varying boundaries. The second aim is to offer a simplified

schedule of fanning regions that will help the reader to perceive the main

characteristics of England's landscape before venturing to absorb, compare and judge

the detail that has been offered by specialist scholars. The third aim is to make more

understandable the debate

on the economic significance of agricultural innovations in the sixteenth and

seventeenth centuries and their impact on these specialised regional economies. The.

list of innovations has not aroused controversy. But differences of opinion exist

concerning their importance in improving agricultural output before 1750; did

they amount to an agricultural revolution? An exposition of the differing viewpoints is

offered here. It is hoped that the discussion of these three topics will prove

to be a helpful introduction to the voluminous literature on the agricultural history of

the period 1500-1750, leaving the reader better informed to make his way alone

hereafter. In preparing this book, 1 have borne in mind the needs not only of those

whose main interest is the economic and social development of England

as a whole. but also of those who prefer to work on a smaller canvas, and who wish to

place their locality within a larger context. Above all, 1 hope to have made it easier for

all readers to transpose the agrarian landscape of the sixteenth and seventeenth

centuries from the mind's eye onto the visible landscape of the present, and

so bring the past to life.

The book is part of the series on studies in Economic and Social History and is

a review of the literature on Agrarian History 1500-1750. There are 90 references

listed. The different reasons for breaking England into agricultural regions are given

and several maps from different authors outlining their ideas as to the breakdown into

regions are included. By comparing Different regions some interesting findings occur

, some unrelated to agriculture . For instance in the English Civil War it was noted

that Royalists came from areas of chalk downland whereas those sympathising with

parliament came from woodland and pastoral regions .

The criteria used to determine the different regions would be equally

applicable to Ireland. These include underlying soil type , the percentage of land

enclosed, this is well dealt with in E Estyn Evans book " The personality of Ireland

Enclosure or the fencing and subdivision of commonly held land was more likely to

occur in parishes where there was only one landlord than where there were several

particularly if these were absentees. Other factors determining agricultural regions

would include altitude , topography , and climate . in England pastoral country lies

mainly to the north and west and arable country predominates in the south and cast.

This would be similar in Ireland which has a higher percentage of pastoral land but

most of the arable land is in the south and east. Drainage and availability of fertilisers

would also influence the agricultural enterprises. Social factors would also influence the type of agriculture practised. Dairy

farming was more suitable to small family farms whereas cattle rearing and fattening

was more suitable for farmers with greater resources , who could afford to wait for

their returns . Grain farming was most economically carried out by farmers with large

acreages and a.large force of hired workers who were readily available in the busy

seasons. War and disease, such as -the Black Death, could result in drastic decrease

in the population and a replacement of the system from arable grain and livestock

community to a pastoral one requiring only one or two shepherds to manage the farm

.When enclosure occurred this would result in an increase in rents, disappearance of

many of the small farmers and a change in the system practised in the area. An

increase in population might result in a decrease in pastoral farming and an increase in

dairying. An increase in population might also result in more subdivision of

properties . This might be acceptable where a rural based industry such as linen

weaving was prospering but could lead to disastrous consequences if there was a

downturn in the rural industry. Rural based industry was more likely to prosper in

areas with a pastoral system where there was more spare time available than in the

arable areas In times of increasing population there would he more people needing to

be fed and this would give rise to an increase in arable farming. The adoption of new

crops such as the potato would also give rise to different farming patterns . Improved

transport could result in expansion of different systems into areas that were previously

too remote from the markets this would apply particularly to perishable produce.

Political factors also affected the system in use. Cattle farmers in England were

deeply affected by two Irish Cattle Acts passed in 1663 and 1667 which forbade the

import of young animals from Ireland, but this surely would have had a greater affect

on the Irish farmer. Similarly in the 18th Century and Act was introduced banning the

import of Irish wool into England. This had a side effect of encouraging the Linen

trade in Ulster and other parts of Ireland Another aid to defining the systems of

agriculture in use is inventories left by farmers but these are not as available in Ireland

as they are in England. The defining of Agricultural regions was not static and

changed with time due to the various factors listed above. Even with all this

information not all historians agree as to the division into the different regions .

The role of the landlord in introducing innovative systems is dealt with at

some length and this has parallels in Ireland for Example Denis Cronin's thesis on the

Frenchs of Monivea Co. Galway and their encouragement of the linen industry and other innovations on their estates