AskDefine | Define commons

Dictionary Definition



1 a piece of open land for recreational use in an urban area; "they went for a walk in the park" [syn: park, common, green]
2 a pasture subject to common use [syn: common land]
3 class composed of persons lacking noble or knightly or gentle rank [syn: commonalty, commonality]

User Contributed Dictionary

see Commons




  1. Plural of common
  2. A central section of (usually an older) town, designated as a shared area.
    The Renaissance festival started with the "peasants" meeting in the commons.
  3. The mutual good of all; the abstract concept of resources shared by more than one, for example air, water, information.
    "The tragedy of the commons" is that none wish to make sacrifices of their or their family's interests for the common good.


a central section of an older town
  • German: Allmende
the mutual good of all
  • German: Allmende


Extensive Definition

Common land (a common), in England and Wales and the United States, is a piece of land owned by one person, but over which other people can exercise certain traditional rights, such as allowing their livestock to graze upon it. The older texts use the word "common" to denote any such right, but more modern usage is to refer to particular rights of common, and to reserve the name "common" for the land over which the rights are exercised. By extension, the term "commons" has come to be applied to other resources which a community has rights or access to. Common land is also found in Scotland, although its extent is much reduced from the millions of acres that existed prior to the 17th century.

Commons in England and Wales

The fact that land is common land does not mean it has no owner—all land in England and Wales is owned by someone. Common land is land over which people other than the owner also have rights. Those who have a right of common are known as commoners—the landowner retains other rights to the land, such as rights to minerals and large timber, and to any common rights left unexercised by the commoners.

Commons rights

Historically most rights of common were appurtenant to particular plots of land, and the commoner would be the person who, for the time being, was the occupier of a particular plot of land (or in the case of turbary, even a particular hearth). Some rights of common were said to be in gross, that is, they were unconnected with ownership or tenure of land. This was more usual in regions where commons are more extensive, such as in Northern England or in the Fens, but also included many village greens across England and Wales. Most land with appurtenant commons rights is adjacent to the common or even surrounded by it, but in a few cases it may be some considerable distance away.
Example rights of common are:
  • pasture, right to pasture cattle, horses, sheep or other animals on the common land
  • piscary, the right to fish
  • turbary, the right to take sods of turf for fuel
  • common in the soil, the right to take sand and gravel
  • mast or pannage, the right to turn out pigs for a period in autumn to eat mast (acorns and other nuts)
  • estovers, the right to take sufficient wood for the commoner's house or agriculture; usually limited to smaller trees and fallen branches
On most commons, rights of pasture and pannage for each commoner are tightly defined by number and type of animal. For example the occupier of a particular cottage might be allowed to graze fifteen cattle, four horses, ponies or donkeys, and fifty geese—the numbers allowed for their neighbours would probably be different. On some commons (such as the New Forest and adjoining commons), the rights are not limited by number, and instead a fee is paid each year for each animal turned out.

Pasture commons

Pasture commons are those where the primary right is to pasture livestock. In the uplands they are largely moorland, on the coast they may be saltmarsh, sand dunes or cliffs, and on inland lowlands they may be downland, grassland, heathland or wood pasture, depending on the soil and history.
These habitats are often of very high nature conservation value, because of their very long continuity of management.
In the past, most pasture commons would have been grazed by mixtures of cattle, sheep and ponies (often also geese). The modern survival of grazing on pasture commons over the past century is uneven:
  • In the uplands of the north and west, grazing is now mainly with large numbers of sheep, often leading to overgrazing; grazing by cattle or ponies is generally rare.
  • On lowland commons, grazing has ceased almost everywhere, and the ancient open habitats are becoming overgrown (see neglect of commons below). One substantial exception is the New Forest and its adjacent commons, where grazing by cattle and ponies survives (also some pannage).
Over the past few years, sheep grazing on upland commons has been reduced, both as a conservation measure and as a result in changes in agricultural subsidies. Grazing is also being returned to many lowland commons for conservation reasons.
Pasture commons are often a characteristic shape. Where roads enter the common, the common boundary tends to have tapering points, including the road verges for some distance. The boundaries between the roads are often curved and concave. Enclosures surrounded by the common are often rounded in shape. These shapes are due to past piecemeal enclosure of the common, which avoided roads and tended to be done in curves to minimise the length of fencing needed.

Arable and haymeadow commons

Surviving commons are almost all pasture. In earlier times, arable farming and haymaking were also included in the commons system, with strips of land in the common arable fields and common haymeadows assigned annually by lot. When not in use for these purposes, such commons were also grazed. A few of them still survive, for example common arable fields around the village of Laxton in Nottinghamshire, and a common meadow at North Meadow, Cricklade.

Commons law

The legal position concerning common land is confused. Most commons are based on ancient rights which pre-date the established law and even the Monarchy. The exact rights which apply to individual commons may be documented but more often are based on long-held traditions. The UK government tried to regularise the definitions of common land with the Commons Registration Act 1965, which established a register of common land. However numerous inconsistencies and irregularities remain.
Prior to the Erection of Cottages Act 1588, an Englishman could build his house on common land, if he could raise the roof over his head and have a fire in the hearth between sunrise and sunset, and claim the dwelling as his home.
Registered commons often abut each other, so what may appear to be a single large common may in fact consist of several commons with no visible boundary between them—these may for example be in different parishes. The commoners will have reciprocal rights over each other's commons.
The maintenance of fences around a common is the responsibility of the occupiers of the adjacent enclosed land, not (as it would be with enclosed land) the responsibility of the owners of the grazed livestock. This can lead to difficulties where not all adjacent occupiers maintain their fences properly.
The act of transferring resources from the commons to purely private ownership is known as enclosure, or (especially in formal use, and in place names) Inclosure. The Inclosure Acts were a series of private Acts of Parliament, mainly from about 1750 to 1850, which enclosed large areas of common, especially the arable and haymeadow land and the better pasture land.
It is often thought that a common is somehow owned by everyone, or at least by the community in some sense. While that may have been true more than a thousand years ago, when waste would be used for grazing by the local community and over which there would not be, nor would there need to be, any particular limit or control of usage; since at least late Anglo-Saxon times, the right to exercise a right of common has been restricted to a commoner.
The use of commons rights were carefully controlled, and so in practice commons did not usually suffer from the tragedy of the commons. For example, in response to overgrazing a common would be stinted, that is, a limit would be put on the number of animals each commoner was allowed to graze. These regulations were responsive to demographic and economic pressure—rather than let the commons be degraded, access was usually restricted even further.
Commons are often crossed by public roads, and this leads to another problem on modern pasture commons where grazing survives (or is to be reintroduced). Historically, the roads would have been cart-tracks, and there would have been no conflict between their horse-drawn (or ox-drawn) traffic and the pastured animals, and no great difficulty if pastured animals wandered off the common along the roads. However, these roads now have fast motorised traffic which does not mix safely with animals. To continue (or restore) grazing, such roads may need fencing or at least blocking at the edge of the common with cattle grids—however permission for fencing on a common is a bureacratic process which can be interrupted or prevented by unsympathetic local objectors (see neglect of commons below).
Royal Forests are legally separate from ordinary commons, but most have a similar commoning system.

Neglect of commons

After the Second World War most lowland commons became neglected because commoners, who could find better-paid work in other sectors of the economy, largely stopped exercising their rights. When open habitats are no longer grazed they start to develop scrub and then dense woodland, losing the grassy or heathland vegetation which may have occupied the land continuously for many centuries.
In 2007 Ashdown Forest (better known as the location for the fictional Hundred Acre Wood inhabited by Winnie-the-Pooh and his friends) was the centre of a dispute between some local residents and the forest's governing body, the Board of Conservators (who are working on behalf of the owners, East Sussex County Council). The Board wish to return the area to as it was before the Second World War, a blend of heath and woodland, lost because of "the advance of woodland into traditional heath areas after the Second World War, when returning soldiers gave up trying to scratch a living out of the forest. Whereas once hundreds of commoners used the wood and heath—their livestock obliging by chewing down young tree shoots—today there is only one commercial grazer." The residents complain that the results look like a First World War battle field. This is not a problem restricted to this common, but according to Jonathan Brown writing in the Independent on 21 April 2007 "similar debates are raging between locals and the authorities at other heathland areas in the New Forest and Surrey".

Common Land in Scotland

There are seven main types of common land in Scotland, some of which have similarities to common land in England and Wales.


The overwhelming majority of areas of common land in lowland Scotland and the Highland fringes were commonties. A commonty is an area of land where the rights of property or use are shared by two or more neighbouring (though not necessarily adjacent) landowners. They are not therefore truly 'common' land in the sense that anyone can use them, and this distinction meant that it was often very easy for commonties to be divided between landowners after a series of Acts permitting this were passed by the Parliament of Scotland in the 17th century, most notably the 1695 Act for the Division of Commonties. As a result the number of commonties declined very rapidly in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Common Mosses

Common mosses were areas of bog where the right to dig peat for fuel were shared by neighbouring landowners. They are therfore similar to commonties and most commonties included a common moss. However the difficulties of dividing such wet areas meant that they were left out of many commonty divisions and many common mosses may still survive, un-noticed because of the decline of peat-cutting.

Run rig

Run rig is a system of agriculture involving the cultivation of adjacent, narrow strips of raised land (rigs). Traditionally adjacent rigs would be used by different farmers and the rigs were periodically re-allocated between them. The system was common throughout Scotland prior to the 18th century, but survived longer in the Western Highlands where runrig was often associated with an adjacent area of common hill grazing which was also shared by the same farmers as the runrig.


Scattalds are unique to Shetland and are based on udal law, rather than the feudal law that predominated in the rest of Scotland. However, Scattalds are very similar to commonties and many were divided under the same 1695 Act that allowed for the division of commonties.

Crown Commons

Crown Commons were areas of land held directly by the crown and therefore the common rights that could be used were rights of use rather than rights of property. Unlike commonties, the rights to use crown commons (for example for grazing livestock) were available to anyone, not just the neighbouring landowners. There are no crown commons left in Scotland; those that survived into the 20th century were taken over by the Crown Estate.

Greens and Loans

Greens were small areas of common land near a settlement where livestock could be kept overnight, markets held and other communal activities carried out. Sometimes they were adjacent to drovers' roads near river crossing points or overnight accommodation. Most were genuinely common land with only the Crown holding any title to them. A loan was a common route through private property allowing access to an area of common land or other public place. As the traditional uses of greens and loans declined, they were often absorbed by the neighbouring landowners.

Burgh Commons

Burgh Commons were areas of common land where property rights or privileges of use were held by the Burgh for their inhabitants. They could include any of the other six types of common land and were sometimes shared with landowners outside the burgh. By the early 19th century, most burgh commons had been appropriated by the wealthy landowners who dominated burgh councils, and very few survive to this day.

Wider usage of the term

The word "Commons" has now come to be used in the sense of any sets of resources that a community recognizes as being accessible to any member of that community. The nature of commons is different in different communities, but they often include cultural resources and natural resources.
While commons are generally seen as a system opposed to private property, they have been combined in the idea of common property, which are resources owned equally by every member of the community, even though the community recognises that only a limited number of members may use the resource at any given time.
Commons are a subset of public goods; specifically meaning a public good which is not infinite. Commons can therefore be land, rivers and, arguably, money. The Commons is most often a finite but replenishable resource, which requires responsible use in order to remain available. A subset of this is a commons which requires not only responsible use but also active contribution from its users, such as a school or church funded by local donations.
In order to ensure responsibility of the users, there must be a system of management. Such models include the Hobbesian Leviathan model, where there is a central authority that monitors the behaviour of the users and can sanction abusers. There are also many other models, some of which can require no maintenance—for instance, if it is known that the collective consists mostly of contingent cooperators, then once responsible behaviour has been established, it will most likely continue without management. Another model is reputation management.

Historical Movements in Defence of the Commons

Contemporary Movements in Defence of the Commons

See also



  • A pattern of Landownership in Scotland: With Particular Reference to Aberdeenshire .

Further reading

  • An Economic Theory of Infrastructure and Commons Management .
  • The Management of Common Land in North West Europe, c. 1500-1850 . Comparative Rural History of the North Sea Area Series, no. 8.
  • Securing the Commons .

External links

commons in Welsh: Tir comin
commons in Danish: Fælled
commons in German: Allmende
commons in Spanish: Bien comunal
commons in French: Biens communaux
commons in Dutch: Meent
commons in Norwegian: Allmenning
commons in Norwegian Nynorsk: Allmenning
commons in Russian: Альменда
commons in Swedish: Allmänning

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

C ration, K ration, allotment, allowance, board, bourgeoisie, cafeteria, common, common people, common run, common sort, commonage, commonality, commonalty, commoners, dinette, dining car, dining hall, dining room, dining saloon, emergency rations, field rations, laborers, linendrapers, lower classes, lower middle class, lower orders, lumpen proletariat, meals, mess, mess hall, messroom, middle class, middle orders, ordinary people, paradise, park, peasantry, plain folks, plain people, pleasance, pleasure garden, pleasure ground, proletariat, public park, rank and file, rations, refectory, restaurant, salle a manger, shopkeepers, short commons, small tradesmen, the lower cut, the other half, the third estate, toilers, toiling class, tucker, upper middle class, vulgus, working class, working people
Privacy Policy, About Us, Terms and Conditions, Contact Us
Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2
Material from Wikipedia, Wiktionary, Dict
Valid HTML 4.01 Strict, Valid CSS Level 2.1