Blogging Utopia (4): Man-eating sheep

In this post, Cathy Shrank looks at one of the most memorable passages of More’s Utopia: Hythloday’s attack on the contemporary practice of enclosing land for sheep-farming and his analysis of its far-reaching effects.


Your sheep […] that commonly are so meek and so little, now, as I hear, they have become so greedy and fierce that they devour men themselves. They devastate and depopulate fields, houses and towns. For in whatever parts of the land sheep yield the finest and thus the most expensive wool, there the nobility and gentry, yes, and even some abbots though otherwise holy men, are not content with the old rents that the land yielded to their predecessors. Living in idleness and luxury without doing society any good no longer satisfies them; they have to do positive evil. For they leave no land free for the plough: they enclose every acre for pasture; they destroy houses and abolish towns, keeping only the churches – and those for sheep-barns […].

Woodcut image of three sheep
Arnaldus de Villanova, Ortus sanitatis (1491), (c) Wellcome Library

Thus one greedy, insatiable glutton, a frightful plague to his native country, may enclose many thousands of acres within a single hedge. The tenants are dismissed and compelled, by trickery or brute force or constant harassment, to sell their belongings. One way or another, these wretched people – men, women, husbands, wives, orphans, widows, parents with little children and entire families […] are forced to move out. They leave the only homes familiar to them, and can find no place to go. Since they must leave at once without waiting for a proper buyer, they sell for a pittance all their household goods […]. When that little money is gone (and it’s soon spent in wandering from place to place), what remains for them but to steal, and so be hanged – just, you’d say! – or to wander and beg? And yet if they go tramping, they are jailed as vagrants. They would be glad to work, but they can find no one who will hire them. There is no need for farm labour […] when there is no land left to be ploughed. One herdsman or shepherd can look after a flock of beasts large enough to stock an area that would require many hands if it were to be ploughed and sowed.

‘This enclosing has led to sharply rising food prices in many districts. Also, the price of raw wool has risen so much that poor people who used to make cloth can no longer afford it, and so great numbers are forced from work to idleness […].

‘To make this hideous poverty worse, it exists side by side with wanton luxury. […] Banish these blights, make those who have ruined farmhouses and villages restore them or rent them to someone who will rebuild. Restrict the right of the rich to buy up anything and everything, and then to exercise a kind of monopoly [….].
‘If you don’t try to cure these evils, it is futile to boast of your severity in punishing theft. Your policy may look superficially like justice, but in reality it is neither just nor practical.’

(from George M. Logan and Robert M. Adams, eds, Utopia (Cambridge University Press, 1989))

Hythloday’s critique of enclosure comes as part of his explanation as to why he believes that there is no point in trying to counsel princes and influence public policy, which was the subject of the ‘Dialogue of Counsel’ examined in the previous post by Joanne Paul. To justify his position, Hythloday recounts a conversation he had in England almost twenty years earlier, which – in his view – demonstrates the way in which people are resistant to reasoned argument about how things can be improved and prefer instead to preserve the status quo, however unfair or damaging that might be.

The reported discussion takes place between Hythloday and a lawyer, a fellow-guest in the household of Cardinal Morton, where Hythloday was also staying. (Here again, we see More blending fact and fiction, the topic of the second post: Morton, like Peter Gilles, was a real historical figure, and More knew his household well, having spent time there as a pageboy in the early 1490s, a few years before Hytholoday’s imagined visit.)

The debate arises when the lawyer wonders why there are so many thieves, when so many are hanged: ‘as many as twenty at a time on a single gallows’. Hythloday’s response is to show how poverty creates crime: soldiers crippled in the war, unable to return to their former trade, driven to theft to survive; and – in this passage – the impact of enclosing land for sheep-farming, a change of land use that benefits the landlord financially, but has a devastating effect on the local, and national, economy. As Hythloday notes, sheep-farming increases unemployment whilst at the same time driving up the cost of food, since less land is given over to growing grain (a staple food for the poor). Individual profit is put ahead of the common good.

Hythloday’s attack is powerful, with his hyperbolic depiction of man-eating sheep, and the insistent use of absolute terms to depict the social devastation wreaked: ‘they leave no land free’; ‘they enclose every acre’; and so on. He also focuses on the human cost of economic decisions.

The contemporary resonances of this can be seen in Jim Crace’s superb 2012 novel Harvest and the reviews it garnered:

Under [the landlord’s] design what was a farming community will become a sheep-tending community, the wool slated for the (far-off) clothing-manufacturing trade. He will chop down their trees, enclose their commons, plant grass in their fields, and fence off everything in sight; he will make the plow redundant and he will destroy a way of life. He is, in short, the prototype of Corporate Man, the Chainsaw Al of his day.
(Kathleen Byrne, Globe and Mail, 16.2.2013)

Hythloday’s denunciation of the way that the rich get richer at the expense of the poor would position him as a fore-runner of the Occupy movement, if Hythloday showed much commitment to enacting – rather than merely talking about – social change. However, his account of the conversation in Morton’s household further undermines his reliability as a speaker (as noted in the first post, his name can be translated as ‘disseminator of nonsense’). Despite the way that he presents it, the conversation he relates doesn’t actually support his claim that people are impervious to reasoned argument and resistant to change since the most influential person there present, Morton – then Chancellor of England – proves receptive to Hythloday’s ideas.

The way in which Book One unsettles the trustworthiness of Hytholoday’s perspective needs to be remembered as he takes centre-stage in Book Two, in which he describes Utopia, which is where next month’s post, by guest-blogger Chloe Houston, begins.

stained glass panel, depicting the wheat harvest
The Labours of the Month (August), 1450-75, (c) V&A