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Work
Drover and livestock on common land
© Mary Evans Picture Library
Enclosure and Resistance in Oxfordshire: A Tradition of Disorder?

Wage-earning agricultural labourers were not unheard of in early 16th Century England, when they accounted for perhaps one in four of the adult-male population. It is equally true, that wage-earning did spread gradually through the agrarian economy, a process that had become especially marked by the late 18th Century.

It is nonetheless clear that the level of agricultural wages remained very low in early modern society, and was almost certainly insufficient to support a labourer and his family even in the unlikely situation that paid work could be obtained all year round. In lowland England, the rhythms of employment were dictated by the seasonality of agriculture, with labour being in particular demand only during harvest.

Precarious

Family leaving home
Country people leaving a village due to enclosures in the 18th Century
© Mary Evans Picture Library
Indeed, those historians who have correlated agricultural wages and prices in this period have been given pause to wonder how rural labourers ever paid the rent or put food on the table. Their living was often so precarious and uncertain that they could not give it a name: sometimes rural workers described themselves as living “by the providence of God”; occasionally, they explained that they “made shift” to survive.

Among the most significant factors that contributed to the viability of the agricultural labourer’s household was his (and, even more pertinently, his family’s) ability to exploit the natural resources of forest, fen and waste. The rights to gather fuel from the common woodlands, to graze cattle on the common wastes and to glean the scourings of the harvests from the common fields were invaluable supplements to the makeshift economy of the rural labourer, and were very frequently exercised by women and children.

Words: Steve Hindle - University of Warwick

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