PHO705 Week 15: Plunder of the Commons

Guy Standing’s Plunder of the Commons: A Manifesto for Sharing Public Wealth (Standing 2019) is probably required reading for anyone involved in documenting the British landscape, its history and agriculture. However, this is not the place to offer a dispassionate review of Standing’s carefully researched story of centuries of greed and larceny. The question is whether and how this book affects my photographic practice and the lessons I can take from it with regard to my Final Major Project, the Oxfordshire Rising of 1596.

The most important impact of this book is that it obliges almost anyone who reads it to rethink and reset a host of their assumptions about land and the entire concept of property. It is too easy to forget that we live in an era of aggressive Neo-Liberalism that takes a very narrow view of such things. First, what does Standing mean by ‘commons’ and ‘commoners’?

‘The commons refers to all our shared natural resources – including the land, the forests, the moors and parks, the water, the minerals, the air – and all the social, civic and cultural institutions that our ancestors have bequeathed to us, and that we may have helped to maintain or improve. It also includes the knowledge that we possess as society, built on an edifice of ideas and information constructed over the centuries’ (Standing 2019: ix).

Second, what is Standing trying to document? Essentially, the history of this:

‘Commons now make up a tiny 5 per cent of land in Britain, against roughly half in the Middle Ages, while only 2 per cent of what was wooded forest in medieval times is forest now. A fifth wave of the plunder of the commons is underway … Everything we hold or use in common or intended for public benefit – from parks to police, from schools to sewers, even the air we breathe – is under attack’ (Standing 2019: 14-15).

The result of this long collapse of the commons is that land ownership in Britain is completely one-sided. Standing points out that by 1873 ‘just 710 aristocrats … owned a quarter of the whole country and 4,000 families owned half of it, much of that land obtained from the commons and from gifts from successive monarchs’ (Standing 2019: 22). Today, Standing continues, ‘a third or more remains in the hands of a few thousand aristocrats and gentry, mostly descendants of the land-owning families in 1873’ (Standing 2019: 14-15). A surprising amount of the rest is in the hands of the State, the Crown and corporations, not of individuals at all.

In looking at any landscape in England, therefore, I am also looking at a social landscape, an economic landscape, a landscape of power relations over history, as well as at a physical landscape shaped by man over thousands of years. I cannot afford to allow assumptions to remain unchallenged in my gaze and Standing’s book is a timely reminder that my gaze requires constant evaluation.

As Standing points out, much of the English landscape today has been determined by a few momentous events. Since the sixteenth century 5,000 enclosure Acts have enclosed more than 6.8 million acres of what had been common, public land (Standing 2019: 13), but of much more relevance to my Final Major Project is Henry VIII’s confiscation of church lands in Tudor times. That released some 10 million acres of land onto the market, spurring the rise of a property-owning middle class (the lords of the manor on my patch) and depriving countless rural poor of a means of subsistence.

It is precisely this that fuelled the Oxfordshire Rising of 1596 and countless other risings and incidents of rural unrest throughout the sixteenth century. Even so, it was only a continuation of a process of enclosure and agricultural change that was already well underway. We can see this in More’s Utopia of 1516:

‘… your shepe that were wont to be so meke and tame, and so small eaters, now, as I heare saye, be become so great devowerers and so wylde, that they eate up, and swallow downe the very men them selfes. They consume, destroye, and devoure whole fields, howses, and cities … Noble man and gentleman, yea and certeyn Abbottes … leave no ground for tillage, thei include all into pastures; the throw down houses; they pluck downe townes, and leave nothing standyinge but only the churche to be made into a sheephowse’ (Sir Thomas More, Utopia, 1516).

Standing shows that social attitudes changed during this period too. ‘The arbitrary mass transfer of what had been a form of commons was to scar permanently Britain’s class structure. It led to an extraordinary degree of concentration of land ownership that persists to this day’ (Standing 2019:11). The terms ‘common’ and ‘commoner’ acquired their more modern pejorative meaning. Social attitudes hardened. The rural poor and those displaced by enclosures began to be not merely looked down on but seen as a menace. Harsh laws against vagrancy were introduced. ‘From the sixteenth century onwards the emerging middle class of private property-owners joined the aristocracy in treating the rural commons as subversive, a zone of idleness, sinfulness and debauchery’ (Standing 2019: 15). This is confirmed in the tone Sir Henry Norris adopted after Steer had been arrested, calling Steer and his party ‘evill disposed wretches’ (Walter 1985: 126)

I don’t think I can actually photograph a change of social attitudes 450 years ago, but the knowledge of this will colour the photographs that I do make. Standing’s analysis goes a long way to explaining the anger of Bartholomew Steer and his peers, something that comes through clearly in the judicial depositions. These were people who felt not only that they had been deprived of the means of supporting themselves but also that the new elite was treating them with great disrespect too. By the same token, Standing’s analysis also explains why the local lords of the manor were as harsh and intolerant of criticism as apparently they were. Like others of the Tudor elite, they were ‘new money’. They had acquired their lands in dubious circumstances and were extracting profits from them even more dubiously, by replacing people with livestock and repudiating any duty to those displaced. It suited them to look down on ‘commoners’ and promote a social order in which commoners should know their place. Those who refused to acquiesce would be made an example of, which is exactly what happened. Steer and his companions were in effect subjected to judicial murder.

Even 450 years later it is easy to be quite angry about this. Anger is not always a useful emotion but in this case I think it can be put to good effect. It means I can look for drama. It means I can point out lies and find compassion where it is needed. It means I do not have to see a ruin as ‘picturesque’ or grand country houses of the time as impressive or sublime. Instead I can see them for what I think they are: sinister, evidence of oppression and injustice, places where bad and unhappy things have happened. And since, as Standing shows, England’s concentration of wealth and manifest social injustices have been turbocharged by Neo-Liberalism in recent decades, I can see these problems continuing today.

So this history is living history, still alive with meaning and emotion 450 years later. For sure, Standing’s book will affect my photographic practice even if indirectly. I doubt that anyone who reads it will be able to look on England and its history in the same way again.

References

STANDING, Guy. 2019. Plunder of the Commons : A Manifesto for Sharing Public Wealth. London: Pelican.

WALTER, John. 1985. ‘A “Rising of the People”? The Oxfordshire Rising of 1596’. Past & Present 107(1), [online], 90–143. Available at: https://academic-oup-com.ezproxy.falmouth.ac.uk/past/article/107/1/90/1605901 [accessed 24 May 2021].