Online Encyclopedia

COMMONS

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Originally appearing in Volume V06, Page 780 of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.
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COMMONS,1 the term for the lands held in commonalty, a relic of the system on which the lands of England were for the most part cultivated during the middle ages. The Early country was divided into vills, or townships—often, history. though not necessarily, or always, coterminous with the parish. In each stood a cluster of houses, a village, in which dwelt the men of the township, and around the village lay the arable fields and other lands, which they worked as one common farm. Save for a few small inclosures near the village—for gardens, orchards or paddocks for ycung stock—the whole town-ship was free from permanent fencing. The arable lands lay in large tracts divided into compartments or fields, usually three in number, to receive in constant rotation the triennial succession of wheat (or rye), spring crops (such as barley, oats, beans or peas), and fallow. Low-lying lands were used as meadows, and there were sometimes pastures fed according to fixed rules. The poorest land of the township was left waste—to supply feed for the cattle of the community, fuel, wood for repairs, and any other commodity of a renewable or practically inexhaustible character? This waste land is the common of our own days. It would seem likely that at one time there was no division, as between individual inhabitants or householders, of any of the lands of the township, but only of the products. But so far back as accurate information extends the arable land is found to be parcelled out, each householder owning strips in each field. These strips are always long and narrow, and lie in sets parallel with one another. The plough for cultivating the fields was maintained at the common expense of the village, and the draught oxen were furnished by the householders. From the time when the crop was carried till the next sowing, the field lay open to the cattle of the whole vill, which also had the free run of the fallow field throughout the year. But when two of the three fields were under crops, and the meadows laid up for hay, it is obvious that the cattle of the township required some other resort for pasturage. This was supplied by the waste or common. Upon it the householder turned out the oxen and horses which he contributed to the plough, and the cows and sheep, which were useful in manuring the common fields, in the words of an old law case: " horses and oxen to plough the land, and cows and sheep to compester it." Thus the use of the common by each householder was naturally measured by the stock which he kept for the service of the common fields; and when, at a later period, questions arose as to the extent of the rights on the common, the necessary practice furnished the rule, that the commoner could turn out as many head of cattle as he could keep by means of the lands which were parcelled out to him, the rule of levancy and couchancy, which has come down to the present day. In the earliest post-conquest times the vill or township is found to be associated with an over-lord. There has been much controversy on the question, whether the vill originally status of owned its lands free from any control, and was subse- township. quently reduced to a state of subjection and to a large extent deprived of its ownership, or whether its whole history has been one of gradual emancipation, the ownership of the waste, For the commons (communitates) in a socio-political sense see REPRESENTATION and PARLIAMENT. 2 There is an entry on the court rolls of the manor of Wimbledon of the division amongst the inhabitants of the vill of the crab-apples growing on the common. or common, now ascribed by the law to the lord being a remnant of his ownership of all the lands of the vill. (See MANOR.) At whatever date the over-lord first appeared, and whatever may have been the personal relations of the villagers to him from time to time after his appearance, there can be hardly any doubt that the village lands, whether arable, meadow or waste, were substantially the property of the villagers for the purposes of use and enjoyment. They resorted freely to the common for such purposes as were incident to their system of agriculture, and regulated its use amongst themselves. The idea that the common was the " lord's waste," and that he had the power to do what he liked with it,subiect to specific and limited qualifying rights in others, was, there is little doubt, the creation of the Norman lawyers. One of the earliest assertions of the lord's proprietary interest in waste lands is contained in the Statute of Merton, a statutes statute which, it is well to notice, was passed in one oiAerton of the first assemblies of the barons of England, before and West- the commons of the realm were summoned to parliamtnster ment. This statute, which became law in the year the Second.
End of Article: COMMONS
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