Common or common land was not owned by commoners. The soil and anything which it contained, or grew on it, was part of the ‘waste’ or uncultivated land (in the sense of a grown crop). This was usually, but not always, on the outskirts of a settlement. It was a part of the land within a manor and as such was owned by the lord of that manor. The right to the use of the ‘fruits’ of that soil depended on the customs within that manor. These rights acquired names used throughout England. Common of Pasture, the right to graze animals on the land; Common in Soil, the right to clay, sand, gravel and stone; Common of Turbary, the right to cut turf and peat; Common of Piscary, the right to fish and Common of Estovers, the right to take wood from the land, but only to a set circumference. Common of Estovers was further divided into; Housebote, wood to repair a house; Firebote, for fuel; Plowbote, to repair farm implements and Hedgebote to repair boundary hedges and fences.

I first encountered the notion of “estovers” (the right to gather wood on common land) when I was doing researching Odiham Common before we visited it for a weekend walk. This was my first indication that Commons didn’t work the way I thought they did. Since moving to the UK, I’ve lived close to one Commmon or another—Tunbridge Wells Common, Clapham Common, Tooting Common, Streatham Common. I had come to think of a Common as a place anyone could visit and projected that back into history. Assuming that it had always been this way: that anyone could visit, graze their animals, take what they needed from a common. The Commons, I imagined, where an idyllic past where people had what they needed.

To be honest, I was probably influenced to view the commons in this way by Garrett Hardin, whose Tragedy of the Commons has been influential in the way we conceive of the commons. 

The tragedy of the commons develops in this way. Picture a pasture open to all. It is to be expected that each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons…

As a rational being, each herdsman seeks to maximize his gain…

[T]he rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to his herd. And another; and another…. But this is the conclusion reached by each and every rational herdsman sharing a commons. Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit–in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.

It turns out that this kind of Commons has never really existed. Hardin’s Commons is best approached as a thought experiment, rather than an historical reality. To be fair to Hardin, he does propose mechanisms for managing the rights to a Common, and later wrote a clarification that said he his original paper addressed the “unmanaged” commons. Still, Hardin’s hypothetical Commons set out in the Tragedy of the Commons still looms large in our collective understanding of what a Commons is.
Tim Harford discussed Hardin’s hypothetical commons in a recent podcast, and contrasted it with the traditional English Commons.

Garrit Hardin explained that there was no way to sustainably manage the common property. The only solution was to natoinalize it—let the state run it—or to privatize it—divide it up into little parcels and hand them out to individuals. But the English Commons lasted for hundreds of years, perfectly sustainably. They were managed by a community; they were owned by a community. These were people who were neighbors. They lived next door to each other, and they could police those rules.

Harford is somewhat idealizing the past, or at least collapsing it. While Commons were likely managed by a community early on, they eventually came to resemble the situation described in the first quote of this post: the lord of the manor owned the land and decided which commons rights to grant. Lewis Hyde in Common as Air (p. 29) offers a nice potted summary of these two historical approaches of managing the Commons:

In the Saxon age before the Norman conquest, it is assumed that all village lands were held and worked in common, except for a few enclosed gardens and orchards. No one person or family was the ultimate owner; what belonged to people were use rights, the commons being the place those rights were expressed. During the many centuries after the Norman conquest, the lands of any village were more likely associated with a local manor, the assumption being that the soil belonged ultimately to the lord of the manor and that rights of common were granted on condition of fealty to him and attendant acts of tribute (military service especially).

Nevertheless, this doesn’t invalidate Harford’s key point in the podcast: the Commons have been successfully managed throughout history, whether by a community or by a feudal lord. In making this point, Harford highlights the work of Elinor Ostrom on “common pool resources.” Ostrom’s PhD focused on the use of fresh water in the aquifer under Los Angeles, which was being depleted of fresh water and slowly filling with salt water. On the surface, usage of the aquifer seemed as if it was irrefutable proof of the Tragedy of the Commons. What actually happened was very different.

What actually happened was that people got together… and hammered out rules—messy ad-hoc rules. And the rules worked. They not only worked; they lasted.

It turned out other common pool resources across the United States and across the world were also being managed sustainably by these ad-hoc rules. They were different every time. They didn’t always work, but sometimes they did.

And Lynn Ostrom discovered something very important: the Tragedy of the Commons isn’t a tragedy. It’s not inevitable… It’s the Problem of the Commons, and problems have solutions.

The rules of the English Commons were certainly ad-hoc. While they eventually came to have specific names like Estovers, the rights that were granted and who they were granted changed over time. The English Commons lasted for hundreds of years, and only ended with the ‘Inclosure Acts of the 17th century onwards.

I’m currently reading Common as Air, in which Lewis Hyde examines the problems of the commons from the perspective of history. He looks at the ideas and opinions of the founders of the United States of America

When I’m finished I’ll be interested to compare Hyde’s philosophical and historical conclusions with those of Elinor Ostrom’s more empirical approach.