Beating the Bounds

Not much to do with books and writing, but interesting history.


Maps are only one way of knowing the shape of a place. Before the borders of England’s parishes were definitively mapped, people learned the boundaries of their community by foot. Every year, a few days before the feast of the Ascension, the members of each parish would come together to walk the edge of their common lands.

The practice was called “beating the bounds,” and the purpose was to create a shared mental map of the parish, to ensure that neighboring communities couldn’t encroach on their land. They carried flags, sang songs, read homilies, and used slender willow-branches to swat the landmarks that separated one parish from another.

It was the responsibility of the older members of the community to remember the boundaries, and the responsibility of the younger ones to learn them, so that they could be preserved for another generation. Pain was used as an aid to memory, and the form of attack was determined by the landscape. If they came to a stream, the children’s heads might be dunked in it; if the boundary ran against a wall, they might be encouraged to race along it, so that they would fall into the brambles on either side. If they came across a ditch, they might be encouraged to jump across it, so that they would slip in the mud. And when they came to a boundary-stone, the children would be flipped upside down, to have their heads knocked against it. In some spots, though, more pleasant memories would be created, by pausing for a glass of beer or a snack of bread and cheese. Finally, they would finish with a party on the village green.

The most practical reason for this tradition was to create a living record of the parish’s boundaries, which could serve as evidence in disputes. In one case, for instance, a 75-year-old man testified that he knew exactly where the eastern boundary of the parish lay, because he had been thrown into a heap of nettles there sixty years ago, when he was a boy. Simply asserting that he remembered the boundary would not have stood up in court; it was the vivid, visceral nature of this memory, its connection to a dramatic experience, that helped his parish win the case.

The perambulation also served to bless the crops and to draw the people of the parish together. The poet and priest George Herbert wrote that the beating of the bounds was a time for “reconciling of differences” and that anyone who stayed home would be reproved as “uncharitable and unneighborly.” The parish came into being as its inhabitants walked it: both as a geographical space, and as a community.

But, in the sixteenth century, the common lands began to be enclosed and appropriated to the exclusive use of landowners. John Taylor writes bitingly of how landowners, through enclosure, enriched themselves at the expense of their neighbors:

One man in garments he doth wear
A thousand akers on his back doth beare
Whose ancestours in former times did give
Meanes for a hundred people well to live
Now all is shrunke, (in this vaineglorious age)
T’attire a coach, a footman, and a page.

Landowners employed professional surveyors to assess the value of each acre (which quickly led to hikes in the rent) and make maps of their properties. Rather than a space to be travelled through, the land was turned into an object that could be viewed at a distance and treated as a trophy. The common lands that the people had once considered part of their shared landscape were fenced off and surrounded with hedges, and the practice of “beating the bounds” was slowly suffocated.v

But the consequences of land enclosure were much more dramatic than simply destroying a colorful tradition. The common lands supported people in many ways: they were used for grazing, hunting, for digging sod, and for collecting firewood. Enclosure cut deeply into the ability of average commoners to support their families, and many were forced to uproot themselves and move to the cities, becoming industrial laborers.

Link to the rest at JSTOR, which includes a photo and an illustration

6 thoughts on “Beating the Bounds”

  1. Fascinating. Common lands were protected when a sensible use of them was possible in a community which depended on each other in bad times. But the minute there isn’t enough grass for everyone’s sheep, the problems arise.

    And the rich’s appropriation of everything they can get their hands on is never reversible. Ask the Native Americans.

    Memory may hold up in court, but written records will supersede.

    • It’s starting to be reversed to some extent (but not nearly enough) in Scotland with Scottish government assisted community buyouts in various places, mostly small islands or remote places that have suffered for many years from careless absentee landlords and short term tenancies. These are also – sometimes – areas that suffered from the Clearances (when the land was cleared of people to make way for sheep.) Neither forgotten nor forgiven and still an issue even now.

    • And the rich’s appropriation of everything they can get their hands on is never reversible. Ask the Native Americans.

      More poor homesteaders and settlers ended up on those lands than rich folks.

      • Folks today fail to factor in what *land* meant to europeans in past times.
        It meant independence, survival, and most of the things we associate today with a higher education and success in life. The rich of the time had no reason to go risk life and limb on the frontier but the entrepreneurial and lower classes did. Many had no other choice. This was the times of Dicken’s London and the Irish Potato Famine, after all.
        And much like today, observing the niceties of urban “civilized behavior” wasn’t much of a priority.
        Books and movies rarely depict the need and (often) desperation driving the individual settlers, whose own mortality rate rivaled the natives. The settling of the west was nowhere near as simple as euro greed vs peaceful natives. It was a clash of cultures driven by the economics of an agrarian world pressured by population growth and early industralization.
        It was a very different time from today’s world and, as usual, judging those people by today’s standards achieves nothing.

        • We have had large migrations for thousands of years, but only for the recent migrations have we had the detailed histories to dissect.

          In North America, infectious disease migrated across the continent before people did. Settlers found cleared and abandoned fields and few people.

          When the first English sailed to Long Island in the 1500s, they didn’t even think of going ashore. They faced thousands of well armed Indians lined up on the shore who thought the English should stay on the ships. A hundred years later, they landed with no opposition in the same place. Disease had landed first.

          • Yup.
            The ancient greeks did it in an organized fashion, moving into Greece after the fall of Mycenae and spreading into Asia minor (now Turkey) and even Italy as the zromans were starting *their* expansion. (Oops!)

            Before thst, the phoenicians originated around Lebanon but at their peak they were all over Northern Africa, Spain, and southern France. Just in time to run into the Romans. (A recurring scenario, that.)

            The Proto-Swedes moved east and became tbe Rus, and west and became Vikings and later Normans. The Goths came west and south from the steppes of central Asia and ended up in Spain, and everwhere their descendants went.

            It’s part and parcel of agrarian cultures to prosper and expand, looking for land to feed the growing population. It’s that, or die of disrase or in warfare.

            The only difference with the move into the Americas is the european and asian tribes had a far wider range of domesticated animals and lived closer to them, often in the same shelter, and caught many of the same diseases, often in milder versions, and survivors carried their immunities. And the vectors.

            The people who carried the diseases across the Atlantic didn’t do it on purpose or even know they did it. After all, all the peoples they ever met had most of the same diseases and immunities. They’d been migrating and fighting and mingling since forever. It wasn’t until fairly late in tbe 20th century that we began to understand why the early colonizers found mostly collapsing empires and empty plains. And in many cases, the pandemics outraced the explorers. Most South American societies fell without ever meeting a european. (Lately they have been finding signs of a vast advanced culture centered on the Amazon basin that collapsed and their grove-based civilization quickly devolved into the jungle explorers found decades later.

            Elsewhere, the survivors had to deal with land-hungry migrants with superior technologies and a vast range of domesticated animals. As Jared Diamond’s GUNS, GERMS, AND STEEL pointed out it was all geography and sheer luck. Very little malice was actually required. The newcomers could honestly proclaim that it wasn’t personal, just business as usual.

            But none of that fits the modern narratives of innocent victims and evil oppressors.

            (It does serve as good story fodder, especially in SF with its space travellers and multiplanet civilizations.)

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