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How Changes in English Farm Practices Influenced the Colonization of the Americas

Updated on January 17, 2023
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Cygnet Brown is a high school and middle school substitute teacher. She is the author of fourteen books and a long-time gardener.

Early English Farming Practices

Under the system of communal agriculture which was developed by Danish and Saxon tribes, full-grown cows weighed between 80-100 pounds and it took eight of them to pull a single plow. These cows lived on acorns, grass, roots, straw, and leaves. They roamed and bred at will and competed for the forage with the red and white hogs and the long-haired Cotswold sheep. Old men chanted cants and mixed herbal medicine to thwart disease with the moon magic formulas handed down from Roman reeves and Druids.

The gentry laid out hereditary family strips that ran along the river bottoms or straight up across the hills and were cropped in three-year successions and remained fallow on the fourth. Wheat production averaged twelve bushels to an acre on the fertile flat lands and from four to eight on the upper fields. Peas did well if they produced six peas for every pea planted.

In November the oldest animals were slaughtered and fall brought meat feasts of fresh sausage spareribs, knuckle bones, and hocks. the remainder of the meat of the hog and sheep was salted and smoked over peat and birchwood fires. Beef of the sinewy oxen was hung in sheds until tenderized. This process was finished around the end of December when joints of beef and Yorkshire pudding graced the table at Christmas and New Year celebrations.

English Agriculture Under Norman Rule

The Norman lords invaded and ruled England and gave cuts of meat French names like beef, pork, mutton, and poultry, but allowed the animals themselves to retain the old Saxon names of a hog, sheep, cow, horse, and chicken. The land belonged to the Normans and was passed from the father to the eldest son. The domain of a count became called a "county". The Norman name "Ville" was used as a collective term for a county estate. The thatched stone cottages of land workers stacked eave to eave along two cart roads were called villages. Until 1400 the workers called themselves villeins". Land operated by a villager on a direct lease from the manor lord was called a "farm". The word "farm" came from a French word meaning payment of a rental or fee." Among the landsmen of Saxon roots defied the Normals and called settlements by their Saxon name "tun" or "town" to identify a settlement and called land included in each church parish a "township".

A system of human rights evolved based on a pattern of democratic behavior known as Common Law. One of the eternal privileges of the villagers was the right to pasture their livestock in certain fields or commons set aside to share among the villagers.

The Development of the English Agriculture Enclosure System

In about 1300, markets began to open up in France for the long, fine hair of the Cotswold sheep. The Norman landlords built hedges and brush fences which gave way to stone fences to enclose the sheep. City traders began to develop a cloth industry and imported skilled weavers from France to handle the looms and small cottage factories began popping up around the country.

Under King Henry VIII, England withdrew from the Roman Catholic Church and redistributed church lands to court favorites. thousands of church acres were removed from commons and turned into pastures for the wool trade. Under Queen Elizabeth's rule was given back to the villagers, the Spanish Armada was defeated, and the English empire cashed in on the piracy of Drake, Frobisher, Hawkins, and others to scoop up Spain's plunder. Cotswold wool and English cloth dominated Germany, France, Dutch, and northern Italy's commercial fairs. This led to more factories being built in the cities. In 1603 the Laws of Tillage that Elizabeth had imposed were repealed so that the enclosures could be enlarged.

The cities swelled in the 1600s. new carts, new stores, and new clerks pushed their homes together demanding that the supplies come through them. Farming began to diversify. There were no more commons or strip crops. Production for cash of meat, grain, milk, and root vegetables was needed to feed the cities.

Animals began to be selectively bred for better production. Pastures were planted with improved grasses and clovers. Orchards were set out with apples, plums, peaches, pears, cherries, and small fruits. Village gardens grew cabbage, turnips, and other root crops. New vegetables were discovered in the New World like potatoes, maize, and squash.

The English countryside was turning into a wool empire. weaving factories began to be built around London, York, and the Midland towns. The enclosure system forced thousands of villagers from their homes. Beggars were rampant along the cart roads.

America Became the Place for European Dissenters

The rise of Puritanism, the Quaker movement, and the steadfast protection by the nobles of Roman Catholic worship added to the turmoil of England's change from an agricultural economy to an industrial one. The wool merchants, religious leaders, and the Crown all saw their answer in the west. In America, agricultural colonies would provide the food needed to keep the wool industry workers fed in Britain. They would in time become consumers of manufactured products as well. In addition, the dissenters could be sent there and isolated and the excess manpower could be siphoned off.

During the first twenty-five years of the 17th century, the king granted charters to Virginia, Plymouth, Massachusetts Bay, Penn, and De la War to be models of democracy in the new land. Each charter granted a form of representative government by freemen to which the royal governors and agents of the company's directors must bow. In addition, indentured servants could work for a settler for five or six years and then for a small fee could claim fifty acres of land in their own name. All it took was surviving three months of seasickness, ship's fever, starvation, and Indian attack for six years, and a man could own fifty acres. This beaconing of Yeomen to seek their fortunes as farmers in this new land is the main reason that England would eventually dominate the Temperate Zone of the New World.

Though the Spanish and French arrived before the English, only England came ashore with the plow and hoe into the rich fields of the eight-hundred-mile stretch between Maine and Georgia. The northern half was brown forest podzolic soil rich in nitrogen and as. To the south half-bog soil blended into red and yellow podzolic.

It was to these regions that disinherited villagers, debtors, second-son victims of a system that gave all to the firstborn son, and free thinkers came in search of freedom. Most of them came from the English countryside, none more than a couple of generations removed from the thoughts, moods, and practices of agriculture.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2013 Cygnet Brown


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