Enclosing knowledge: books and power in the English countryside

Issue: 179

Martin Empson

A review of The Enclosure of Knowledge: Books, Power and Agrarian Capitalism in Britain 1660-1800, James D Fisher (Cambridge University Press, 2022), £75

From the 16th until the 19th century, the multifaceted process known as enclosure transformed England’s rural landscape. A countryside farmed by peasants working small patches of land and paying rent to their lord was gradually transformed into one where wage labour predominated. The dispossession of whole communities caused misery on a huge scale. Common rights and lands were lost. Countless new laws banned hunting and criminalised the use of nature’s resources. Tens of thousands of people were forced into vagrancy or driven into towns to work in new industries, and those remaining in the countryside found themselves working in a new agrarian landscape as wage labourers for capitalist farmers.

Enclosure was part of a global process that transformed the world, opening the way for capitalism to develop. As Karl Marx famously wrote:

The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black skins, signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production.1

Yet, Marx also noted the “horrors” of the “expropriation of the agricultural population from the soil”.2 Alongside this material dispossession was a parallel process that saw agricultural producers robbed of their extensive knowledge.

James D Fisher’s new book argues that the “formation of agrarian capitalism in Britain is usually told as a story about markets, land and wages, but it was also about knowledge, books and expertise”. The capturing of “customary knowledge” by the new capitalist farming class was essential to the development of agrarian capitalism. The transformation of the agricultural landscape required a “reorganisation and redistribution of agricultural knowledge…as the people making decisions about how to farm were less likely to be the same people executing those decisions”.3

Usually, customary knowledge was passed down orally from generation to generation and shared among village communities. The enclosure of agricultural knowledge involved the written word, principally in the form of books, being used to concentrate information in the hands of the farming elite. As Fisher writes:

Agricultural books facilitated a shift away from a communal to an individualised system of knowledge, as custom—the accumulated resource of a community—was packaged into a private resource for the individual cultivator.4

This process took place with crusading zeal. The rich understood that the transformation of agriculture was central to the development of a capitalist economy. The enclosure of knowledge was both integral to and ran alongside the use of new crop rotations, fertilisers, technologies and methods that turned farming into a hugely profitable business. The enthusiasm for all this was not simply economic. The rich saw ordinary rural producers as poor and stupid, unable to farm the land in a profitable way for their masters. Thus, the enclosure of knowledge was also about making sure that the right class had the information and that they could direct the work of their labourers. Fisher quotes Arthur Young, a famous agricultural writer:

It is the business of the nobility and gentry who practice agriculture, and of authors who practice and write on it, to help forward the age…to spread the knowledge of them as much as possible; to endeavour to quicken the motions of the vast but unwieldy body, the common farmers… Common farmers love to grope in the dark; it is the business of superior minds…to shine forth to dissipate the night that involves them.5

Books, Fisher says, were “poor tools for teaching the whole practical art of husbandry”. Farmers, noted Baron Summerville, the president of the Board of Agriculture between 1798 and 1800, were “not a reading class”. However, the purpose of book knowledge was not to educate the common agricultural labourer. Rather it was for “constructing a managerial knowledge to be applied to expanding estates, projects of improvement and large-scale commercial farming”.6

It is worth emphasising what happened as capitalist farming developed. According to Fisher, the “landlord had no influence on the farming practice of tenants” in 1691.7 By the 1800s, landowners were managing workforces on farms geared toward “profit-making”. Fisher argues the key change in capitalist farming was not simply the use of wage labour, but the transformation of the labour process to allow capitalists to increase productivity and profits. Use of “book knowledge” facilitated this by giving the landowner insights into the work that would help him manage and control the labour process. Capitalist farmers did not want to farm but rather to learn how to make others farm for them in the most profitable way.

Dozens of authors took up the challenge of making agricultural knowledge accessible to the new farming class. Fisher shows how they concentrated this knowledge, generalising and simplifying it for ready consumption. This process ironed out regional differences, making agricultural knowledge more uniform. John Worlidge’s 1699 Systema Agriculturae: The Mystery of Husbandry Discovered exemplifies this. The book includes a dictionary of “rustick terms”, helping readers understand rural dialects, which varied dramatically over the space of a few miles. Worlidge saw his book as helping landowners “instruct those that are best able to teach us”. Thus, the knowledge of the commoners was taken from them and then used against them.

In 1764, Jethro Tull, the inventor of the seed drill so beloved of GCSE history teaching, was described as having been the first “to reduce agriculture to certain and uniform principles”, enabling a “rational and practical method”.8 Yet, his innovations arose partly from his clashes with the workers on his farms, who he feared were sabotaging these innovations to protect their interests. It is no surprise Tull dreamt of farming one day being done by “automata” who could “tillage without hands”.9

The abstraction of knowledge about agricultural practice from actual manual labour was central to the development of new social relations in the countryside. This was part of the longer-term historical evolution of capitalism, which created a division of labour that subordinated workers to management. The enclosure of agricultural knowledge in the hands (and on the bookshelves) of the rural elite went alongside the concentration of economic and political power by their class.

This process was contested. Fisher highlights the link between opposition to the enclosure of land and opposition to the enclosure of knowledge. In 1785, an anti-enclosure pamphlet bemoaned how “writers not brought up in the arts of agriculture from their childhood can never acquire such an established intimate knowledge” of farming.10 Fisher argues we should understand such critiques of “book-farming” as part of the “antagonistic social relations” between worker and master. He concludes that “sneering at book-farmers was akin to hedge-breaking”, the practice of destroying hedges and fences around enclosed land.11

I am slightly wary of this conclusion. Resistance to enclosure took many forms: petitioning, protesting, hedge-breaking and rioting. In some cases, these physical demonstrations helped delay or prevent enclosure. Behind those protests, no doubt, were many people that mocked the pretensions of landowners who hoped to make profit from farming even though their only knowledge came from their libraries. However, it was the act of protest itself, the digging up of a hedge or pushing over a fence, that might have made the difference about whether enclosure could proceed.

This is, though, a rather minor criticism of a fascinating book. Fisher shows how emerging agrarian capitalism involved the rise of a new class of managerial ­farmers whose interests lay in squeezing wealth from labourers. They required expert ­scientific knowledge to do this; the “enclosure of knowledge” was how they got it.

There is growing awareness among historians that, alongside colonialism, slavery and the destruction of indigenous people, the development of capitalism also saw a new ruling class steal the knowledge and wealth of pre-capitalist societies in order to maximise profits.12 Fisher’s book is an important contribution to this, offering new insights into how the countryside was transformed into capitalist uniformity.

Martin Empson is the author of Kill all the Gentlemen: Class Struggle and Change in the English Countryside (Bookmarks, 2018) and the editor of System Change not Climate Change: A Revolutionary Response to Environmental Crisis (Bookmarks, 2019).


1 Marx, 1990, p922.

2 Marx, 1990, p922.

3 Fisher, 2022, p3.

4 Fisher, 2022, p5.

5 Fisher, 2022, p15.

6 Fisher, 2022, p34.

7 Fisher, 2022, p45.

8 Fisher, 2022, p151.

9 Fisher, 2022, p149.

10 Fisher, 2022, p257.

11 Fisher, 2022, p262.

12 James Poskett’s Horizons: A Global History of Science (Viking, 2022) is an example—Empson, 2022.


Empson, Martin, 2022, “How the Global South Fuelled the Scientific Revolution” (15 June), https://socialistworker.co.uk/long-reads/how-the-global-south-fuelled-the-scientific-revolution

Fisher, James D, 2022, The Enclosure of Knowledge: Books, Power and Agrarian Capitalism in Britain 1660-1800 (Cambridge University Press).

Marx, Karl, 1990, Capital, volume 1 (Penguin).