Dear Simon Winchester,
I know you know your history better than that. I also know you know you’re writing for people who don’t. Therefore, please do not oversimplify to the point of inanity.
I’ve liked several of Winchester’s books in the past, but in The Map that Changed the World, he is losing me not very far in – by seeming to suggest that the Enclosure Acts in England were an unmitigated good, purely because they made the English countryside much prettier. WTF?
This is actually an odd case where I somehow learned the populist history before the what you might call the official version, or the good side of the picture. The Enclosure Acts, by taking away the rights of non-land-owners to farm common land, led to hard times and short-term starvation for a lot of people. They fled to the cities, for lack of any other options, ending up in the sort of gin-laden rookeries you see in Dickens. Later on I read the other side of it in books on other aspects of history. The good side is that they enabled landowners to farm much more efficiently than before, so that England was able to produce much larger amounts of food, leading to a massive growth in population. As far as I can tell (and I’m not pretending to understand the entire picture) enclosures helped the rich immensely and both hurt and helped the poor. It’s not a simple story …. but I am pretty sure that the aesthetics are not the biggest part of it.