The First Agricultural Revolution is said to have began in the 1500s’ may have in some ways explain the treatment it gave to Ireland during the 16th and 17th century. In England of that period social justice was not a priority. In England before the growth of towns as we know them to day, life in England centred mainly around the local village. Each village had its own allocation of land – the precursor of the modern parish – and each village had the right to own or hire certain areas of this land for grazing, hay and tillage. Most of the land was unfenced and farmed on a system of strips and patches. Thus within any given area, a farmer might have one or more patches depending on the system of allocation. The system of cropping was winter corn, spring corn and fallow. Some areas of land were enclosed or fenced so as to provide hay, but the bulk of the grazing land was held in common. When autumn came all farmers had an equal right to stubble grazing and so all cattle were turned loose on the cultivated ground at a specified date. Once the stubble grazing was finished all unwanted animals were killed off and salted down for winter food. Naturally the only cattle and sheep that were kept were those that were intended as a nucleus for breeding and in many cases the reserves of animal fodder were barely sufficient to see through the winter. By the middle of the eighteenth century English agriculture was well on its way to becoming fully commercialized economic activity, organized and administered to the needs of the market. This constituted a decisive change from the mediaeval economy which had been based largely on subsistence farming, and governed by tradition and custom rather than by calculation of profit. The development of capitalist agriculture was pivotal for the economy as a whole, since agriculture accounted for between 40 and 45% national income and, of course, it dominated the rural economy, despite the continued presence of much smaller-scale manufacture and handicraft. The growth of the system was unique in the world: rural England contained the first capitalist economy. While the ‘English model’ was never to be repeated elsewhere in its exact form, it did represent in a general sense a prototype – the economic system that had developed in rural England by the latter half of the eighteenth century was destined to become global in its extent.
England’s rural sociologists of the day varied on the benefits of the the capitalist model of agriculture that evolved. In part, the difference stems from divergence of purpose and method. The more pessimistic interpretations of the period stress the unequal distribution of the benefits gained from commercialization, and emphasize the social and cultural dislocation which the rise in capitalism entailed. The more optimistic perspective stresses the gross gains in productivity which the new innovations provoked. The emphasis is placed upon necessary economic advance in order to achieve the modernization of medieval agriculture. The latter employs state records and agrarian change through the eyes of the ‘improvers’, the former elaborates the view from the village rather than the estate, pays considerable attention to forms of social protest and develop a ‘history from below’.
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