The view of the commons as archaic, ‘backward’ and ‘irrational’ institutions for the management of resources has now been revised in favour of a more positive one, for both past and present societies. Indeed, it is clear that the commons had multifarious ecological and economic benefits for both medieval and early modern rural societies in Western Europe. That being the case, many scholars have seen the increasing expropriation of the commons in the transition to the early modern period as a sign of increasing inequality characterizing pre-industrial Europe, and many have lamented the loss of communal grazing privileges connected to processes such as land enclosure – pushing poor peasants into the ‘abyss’ with the removal of their final form of welfare. However, in this paper it is argued that the social distribution of the benefits to the commons were rarely, if ever, entirely equitable. In fact, in many historical contexts the benefits of the commons could also be highly restricted – crystallizing and entrenching stratifications themselves, and even serving as the ‘vehicle’ of further inequality. The expropriation of the commons did not necessarily make Western European rural societies any more unequal.

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Journal of Agrarian Change
Department of History

Curtis, D. (2016). Did the Commons Make Medieval and Early Modern Rural Societies More Equitable? A Survey of Evidence from across Western Europe, 1300-1800. Journal of Agrarian Change, 16(4), 646–664. doi:10.1111/joac.12101