In the earlier days the monks had always taken the lead in farming, and if improvements were introduced it was sure to be the monks who were the pioneers. How useful the monasteries had been and what an important factor they were is perhaps best seen from the effect their dissolution had upon the laboring classes.
Henry VIII suppressed six hundred and forty-four monasteries, ninety colleges, two thousand three hundred and seventy-four free chapels and one hundred and ten hospitals. These held one-fifth of all the land in the kingdom and one-third the national wealth. At the same time nearly one hundred thousand male persons were thrown out of employment. The land taken up by the king was bestowed upon his nobles and favorites, and these, desirous of securing immediate and larger profits, enclosed immense areas and turned to the breeding and pasturing of sheep. It was the substitution of pasture for tillage, of sheep for corn, of commercialism for a simple, self-sufficing industry, of individual gain for the old agrarian partnership in which the lords or abbots, the parsons, yeomen, farmers, copy-holders and laborers were associated for the supply of the wants of the villagers. A perfect frenzy for raising sheep took possession of the agricultural community. No pains were spared to increase the extent of pasturage. Small tenants were evicted, laborers’ cottages were pulled down, the lord’s demesnes turned into pasturage, and wastes and commons which had before been open to all were now enclosed for the same purpose. Every one was now convinced that “the foot of the sheep would turn sand into gold,” and hastened to substitute grazing for tillage.
But while there was this sudden and wholesale transference of the arable land to pasturage, as sudden and violent a change in the character of labor was required. The dog and the shepherd took the place of the plowmen and their teams, and thus diminished the demand for labor at the very moment when the supply was increased. Very serious results followed. The poorer tenants were ruined and an immense number of persons were thrown out of employment, to become beggars and thieves. It was, says Gibbins in the “Industrial History of England,” the beginning of English pauperism.
Henry M. Goodell, “The Influence of the Monks in Agriculture and Christian Civilization” (Sacred Heart Review, 3 December 1910)