In a few lines, the poem manages to criticize double standards,expose the artificial and controversial nature of property rights, and take a slapat the legitimacy of state power. And it does this all with humor, without jargon, and in rhyming couplets. Academics (including this one) should takenote. Like most of the criticisms of the enclosure movement, the poem depictsa world of rapacious, state-aided “privatization,” a conversion into privateproperty of something that had formerly been common property or, perhaps,had been outside of the property system altogether. Sir Thomas More went fur-ther, though he used sheep rather than geese to make his point. He argued thatenclosure was not merely unjust in itself, but harmful in its consequences—acause of economic inequality, crime, and social dislocation:
But yet this is not only the necessary cause of stealing. There is another, which, as Isuppose, is proper and peculiar to you Englishmen alone. What is that, quoth theCardinal? Forsooth my lord (quoth I) your sheep that were wont to be so meek andtame, and so small eaters, now, as I hear say, be become so great devourers and sowild, that they eat up, and swallow down the very men themselves. They consume,destroy, and devour whole fields, houses, and cities. For look in what parts of therealm doth grow the finest and therefore dearest wool, there noblemen and gentle-men . . . leave no ground for tillage, they enclose all into pastures; they throw downhouses; they pluck down towns, and leave nothing standing, but only the church to bemade a sheep-house. . . . Therefore that one covetous and insatiable cormorant andvery plague of his native country may compass about and enclose many thousandacres of ground together within one pale or hedge, the husbandmen be thrust out of their own.
The enclosure movement continues to draw our attention. It offers irresisti-ble ironies about the two-edged sword of “respect for property,” and lessonsabout the way in which the state defines and enforces property rights to pro-mote controversial social goals. The most strident critics of the enclosuremovement argue that it imposed devastating costs on one segment of society.
an old library discovering a box full of printed squibs, satires and ballads of the time against the actsand those who were supposed to favour them,—the library having belonged to a gentleman who playedan active part on the opposition side.” The author then quotes the first verse as a “naive epigram . . .which forcibly impressed itself on my memory.” “Exon” Ballads Against Inclosures, 9 N
, at 130-131 (2nd ser., Feb. 1860). The context makes it appear that the poem itself must datefrom the late 18th century. In other sources, the poem is sometimes dated at 1764 and said to be inresponse to Sir Charles Pratt’s fencing of common land.
, Dana A. Freiburger, JohnThompson, English Philomath—A Question of Land Surveying and Astronomy, poster papersubmitted to the History of Astronomy Workshop University of Notre Dame, (July 1-4, 1999), note 15,
http://www.nd.edu/ ~histast4/exhibits/papers/Freiburger/index.html (last visited Dec. 19,2002). This attribution is widespread and may well be true, but I have been able to discover nocontemporary source material that sustains it. By the end of the nineteenth century, the poem wasbeing quoted, sometimes with amusement and sometimes with agreement, on both sides of theAtlantic.
Ezra S. Carr,
Aids and Obstacles to Agriculture on the Pacific-Coast
, in T
USBANDRY ON THE
290, 291 (San Francisco, A.L. Bancroft and Co. 1875); E
NTRODUCTION TO THE
219(1901).2. Although we refer to it as “
enclosure movement,” it was actually a series of enclosures thatstarted in the fifteenth century and went on, with differing means, ends, and varieties of stateinvolvement, until the nineteenth century.
, J.A. Y
, 1450-1850 (1977).3. T
32 (Alfred A. Knopf 1992) (1947).