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The Midland Peasant
- by W G Hoskins
The Economic and Social History of a Leicestershire Village
Professor Hoskins had two golden periods in his remarkable life. The first was between 1955 and 1959
when he published The Making of the English Landscape (1955) followed by Leicestershire: an
illustrated essay in the history of the landscape (1957) and in the same year The Midland Peasant,
concluding with Local History in England (1959).
As a result, Hoskins became the leading local historian in the country and was recognised as a
pioneer. He made local history popular and revolutionised the approach by turning attention to the
understanding of the historical landscape.
The second golden period was in the 1970s when he reached millions through his TV programmes. The
associated books English Landscapes: How to read the man-made scenery of England and One Man’s
England consolidated his position as Britain’s premier local historian.
Recently, a series of fiftieth anniversaries and new editions of his publications has revived interest. To mark
the 100th anniversary of Hoskins’s birth in 1908 a new paperback edition of The Midland Peasant was
issued with an introduction by Professor David Hey, a former student of Professor Hoskins.
Although published in 1957, Hoskins had been working on this book since the 1930s when he lived in Wigston Magna and lectured at the
University College, Leicester. According to David Hey, despite Hoskins’ ‘huge and deserved fame ... many of us regard it (The Midland
Peasant) as his greatest contribution to the study of English Local History’.
This book is a study of the Midland peasant farmer and the open-field system in which he worked all his life as revealed through the
records of Wigston Magna. Hoskins attempts to reconstruct this society transformed by the enclosures of the 1760s which ‘altered its
farming almost beyond recognition, and changed the entire culture and habits of the peasant community’.
Wigston Magna was particularly suitable because it was Leicestershire’s largest village; it was within a few miles of Leicester; it had been
on the frontier of Danelaw; it had a large population of free peasantry; it had no interference from monasteries and the lords of the
manor were absentees.
Additionally, it had an exceptional number of medieval peasant charters, conveyances, leases, mortgages, wills and inventories which
revealed a great deal about buying and selling land between one peasant family and another. Hoskins was able to follow individual
families right through the economic changes that occurred over centuries. He reaches the 1900s and still he can detect family continuity.
This was a model study especially in the use of the historical documents. Apart from its scholarly approach it was written in Hoskins’ very
fluent and memorable style:-
‘On emerging from the grave into the bright sunshine once more, I saw all around the visible evidence of the continuity of life in this
community whose history I was trying to unravel.
‘Beneath the modern field-pattern, laid out nearly two hundred years ago, I saw the rolling succession of ridge and furrow that spoke of
arable cultivation for a thousand years before that . . . all this, the long history of this village set in the green Midland landscape, was
visible without moving more that a few yards.’
Basic to all this was his understanding of landscape and how people related to it. All through the book he is conscious of the setting of
settlements, farming and industry. Phrases such as ‘an east-west ridge’, ‘an extensive cap of glacial sands’, ‘forested clays’, ‘high ground’,
‘the ground falls away’ proliferate and his eye for man-made patterns in the landscape was superb.
As David Hey comments, ‘Fifty years on, The Midland Peasant remains an outstanding study, well worthy of a new edition’.