Levelling, enclosure, and coronavirus

By Max Ashby Holme

The law doth punish man or woman
That steals the goose from off the common,
But lets the greater felon loose
That steals the common from the goose.

– Excerpt from “The Goose and the Commons” (c. 17th cent.) [1]

As lockdown measures in the UK are eased, we must consider the kind of world COVID-19 will leave behind. The coronavirus has been called a ‘great leveller’. As Paul Bristow, the Conservative MP for Peterborough, put it: ‘It doesn’t matter who you are, where you live, or what circumstances you come from – we are all at risk.’ [2] This statement is misleading, however, since coronavirus amplifies existing social inequalities. Not only do life savings help to mitigate the financial impact of the virus on the wealthy, they are also more likely to be able to work from home, and less likely to find themselves in overcrowded accommodation, without access to gardens. [3] Those most exposed to the virus, including care home workers, bus drivers, and shop keepers – as well as hospital staff – are overwhelmingly the lowest paid members of the workforce. [4] Furthermore, coronavirus disproportionately affects people from BAME backgrounds. [5] It is a myth that the virus affects everyone equally, and the political origins of the term ‘leveller’ illustrate even more clearly how poor a label it is for coronavirus.

In May 1607, a combination of grain shortages, high prices and sickness had led to prolonged hardship, and commoners across the Midlands gathered in crowds of thousands to protest. [6] According to contemporary accounts, these ‘riotous persons’ did not steal, nor did they attack people, goods, or cattle. However, they did use ‘all their strength to level and lay open enclosures’. For centuries, agrarian hardship had been exacerbated by wealthy landlords enclosing common land, removing vital grazing land from public ownership. The protesters were supported by non-participating residents, who gave them spades and shovels to break down the fences and fill in the ditches of recently enclosed land. Their leader was ‘a base Fellow called John Reynoldes’, who claimed authority from God and the King. Reynoldes wore a pouch – the contents of which, he claimed, would protect the protesters from harm (earning him the nickname ‘Captain Pouch’). He was mistaken; the Midland Rising was defeated after 40 or 50 people were killed and many more left injured. Reynoldes’ pouch was searched, but it contained only a piece of green cheese. [7]

The protesters called themselves ‘diggers’ and ‘levellers’, terms which would later be applied to radical groups in revolutionary England in the 1640s. From its first use, ‘levelling’ carried a dual meaning: the literal, physical act of levelling hedges also evoked the symbolic levelling of social inequalities. [8] This association continued to provoke anxiety among the upper classes long after the event; the records of the Jacobean Court of Star Chamber in the following decades feature numerous attempts to portray protesters as ‘levellers’ who would break down not only enclosures, but the social distinctions that held up the elite. [9] By attacking enclosures, the Levellers had symbolically threatened the bedrock of upper-class wealth and power. Land, fundamentally, generated privilege in seventeenth-century England.

As we look to the future beyond lockdown, it is clear that COVID-19 is no great ‘leveller.’ Working from home, the wealthy will continue to enjoy tea breaks in their gardens while ordinary people are forced to crowd onto public transport as workplaces reopen. But, perhaps more importantly, unlike the Levellers of 1607, this virus will not challenge modern-day enclosures. The richest 1%, disproportionately made up of white men, have enclosed the world’s resources in much the same way as seventeenth century English landlords did; they own more than twice as much wealth as the next 6.9 billion people. [10] While structural inequality and social oppression of all shades remain – and while the rich maintain their ownership of capital – neither this nor any other crisis will affect everyone equally; the worst off will always suffer the most.



[1] Poem, “The Goose and the Commons,” http://wealthandwant.com/docs/Goose_commons.htm. For a later version of the poem, see Peter Linebaugh, Red Round Globe Hot Burning: A Tale at the Crossroads of Commons and Closure, of Love and Terror, of Race and Class, of Kate and Ned Despard (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2019), 238, JSTOR.

[2] Paul Bristow, ‘Coronavirus – the great leveller’, Peterborough Telegraph (13 April 2020), see: https://www.peterboroughtoday.co.uk/news/people/coronavirus-great-leveller-2534800 [accessed 10 June 2020]

[3] Owen Jones, ‘Coronavirus is not some great leveller: it is exacerbating inequality right now’, The Guardian (9 April 2020), see: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/apr/09/coronavirus-inequality-managers-zoom-cleaners-offices [accessed 10 June 2020]

[4] Emily Maitlis, Newsnight (9 April 2020), see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L6wIcpdJyCI [accessed 10 June 2020].

[5] Benjamin Butcher and Joel Massey, ‘Why are more people from BAME backgrounds dying from coronavirus?’, BBC (9 June 2020), see: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-52219070 [accessed 10 June 2020].

[6] Joan Thirsk, The Agrarian History of England and Wales: Volume IV 1500-1640 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1967), 232.

[7] John Stow and Edmund Howes, Annales (London: Richard Meighen, 1631), 890. [Spelling modernised].

[8] See Robert Wilkinson, A Sermon Preached at North-Hampton (London: John Flasket, 1607).

[9] Brian Manning, Village Revolts (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988), 83.

[10] Oxfam, Inequality and poverty, see: https://www.oxfam.org.uk/get-involved/campaign-with-us/inequality-and-poverty [accessed 10 June 2020].

Image credit: Photo by Zachary DeBottis from Pexels

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