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Prior to the 18th century, agriculture was much the same across Europe, and had been since before the Middle Ages. The system in operation was essentially post-feudal, with each villager subsistence farming their own strips of land in one of three large open fields.

From as early as the 12th century, some open fields in Britain were being enclosed into individually owned fields, with the process taking off rapidly in the 15th and 16th centuries as sheep farming grew more profitable. This led to villagers losing their land and grazing rights, and left many unemployed. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the practice of enclosure was denounced by the Church, and legislation was drawn up against it, but the developments in agriculture during the 18th century required large, enclosed fields in order to be workable. This led to a series of government acts, culminating finally in the General Enclosure Act of 1801.

While the villagers received compensation for their strips, it was minimal, and the loss of rights for the rural populace led to an increased dependency on the Poor Law[?]. Only a few found work in the (increasingly mechanised) enclosed farms. Most were forced to relocate to the cities and find work in the emerging factories, opening the way for the Industrial Revolution.

By the end of the 19th century the process of enclosure was largely complete.

See also

Agricultural revolution

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