Open field agriculture in England

The open field system was a prevalent agricultural system in much of Europe from the middle ages; in some places it was still present up until the 20th century. For example in Herefordshire the last open fields were removed in the 20th century. This form of settlement can also be known as champion land. Each villager was allocated strips usually at a village meeting each year. Their holdings were scattered. However contrary to popular belief not all areas in England had open field farming in the medieval period. For example in Essex and Kent they retained pre Roman system of small square enclosed fields. Lincolnshire was a typical area of open field agriculture. However, much of pre roman Britain was an open field system.

There is much division and debate on when the open field system originated. This can be argued that it is down to ‘insufficient distinction being made between a three strip system, a three field system and an open field system’. [1] H.L.Gray’s work in English field systems can be seen as a starting point in 1915. However it has now been realised that open field systems are much more complex than he first thought. He focused on the variety of open field systems. Later came Orwins view, in the open fields of 1938, they had a practical approach which was seen to be influential but they assumed that the open field system was fully running from the start which has been proven to be wrong. Then in 1964 came Joan thirsk new view, distinguishing between open fields and common fields and arguing that it developed slowly, maturing in the 13th century. In 1973 historical geographers Baker and Butlin did a number of regional studies which emphasised the variety, and stressed that they evolved. ‘It concluded that the midland field system was more adaptable to change than was once believed’. [2] This belief that they evolved is accepted but now earlier chronology is now preferred. Then in 1983 in the agricultural history review it drew attention to how they seemed to be planned. This was also argued in 1982 David Hall medieval fields ‘for the 8th and 9th origin subdivided fields laid out in a deliberate act of planning. The original plan was drastically modified over time’. [3] However this can be disputed R. A. Dodgshon argues that they were not consciously designed, but that they were makeshift and response to a diversity of influences. Opinion has therefore changed and evolved over time but is also still divided.

Land was divided into what was known as planned countryside (champion) and ancient countryside (woodland). Thomas Harrison said ‘it is so that soile being divided into champion ground and woodland’ [4] . In the champion everybody lives in uniformly built towns, it is a nucleated village, whereas woodland village’s people are scattered. In the champion was where the open fields were, open fields are where there are no hedges or fixed physical boundaries, possibly on the edge but not internally, it has strips. The land is the champion is divided into lots of strips, each individual gets around 30 strips. They are scattered throughout the territory of the parish muddled with everybody else’s. However it is in a regular order, as would be their houses in the streets also. ‘Between 1220 and 1240 documents show that wherever Thomas de Hampton had strips then Henry de Kaam was his neighbour’. [5] The strips of land also known as selions are then grouped into bundles called furlongs, these are then grouped into fields. Each village has two or three fields. Each year one of the fields was allowed to remain fallow. They were instead grazed with livestock, they became communal. Therefore it was communal on one hand but on the other individualistic, you got to keep what you grew. The strips could not be bundled into one group because if they were all in one place they may all be fallow for one year. In the late medieval periods they gradually disappear.

It is often seen as hard to define when the open field system of agriculture first developed. There are many debates among historians for the origins of the open field system for example in a recent article on the common fields Dr Thirsk attacked the orthodox view of Gray Orwin on the subject. Dr Thirsk defined the classical common field system as being made up of four essential elements. [6] At first arable and meadow were divided into strips, then arable and meadow were open for common pasturing, then common rights over waste, then finally this was regulated by a group of people. ‘This definition is quite unobjectionable, though it could be argued that its third element – common rights over waste is not strictly essential to it’. [7] In the journal it is argued that the open field system as it is normally understood did not come into being until the later Middle Ages. It argues that ‘if dr thirsk succeeds in showing that the evidence for the existence of the open field system in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries is far from being conclusive or satisfactory’. [8] 

Open field agriculture took many forms. Therefore it is hard to pin point when the origin was. ‘The different factors which go to make up the various types of open field systems go some way towards explain the origins of such systems’. [9] However this is then disputed by archaeologists who are concerned with the physical remains of the past e.g. ridge and furrow. The historians and historical geographers have a different view on the definition of open field systems compared to that of the archaeologists. Historians base their definitions on the systems, and social aspects. Not just merely the remains. This therefore leads to problems in dating when open fields originated. ‘it is extremely difficult to discover the origins of almost any aspect of human behaviour, for until it is relatively common place it is usually difficult to detect archaeologically’. [10] Also there is the problem that over the years there are changes that disrupt the land. ‘Thus the physical manifestations of open fields which archaeologists have to deal with are the result of the pattern imposed by the most recent cultivation, not the first’. [11] Therefore when studying open field systems archaeologists look at the ridge and furrow and accept it to be medieval. It has however become clear from recent work they there was never just one type of open field system. ‘Even by the thirteenth century, there was not one type of open field system but many’. [12] There is often a pessimistic approach to the origins of open fields.

The evidence that remains to help us discover the origins of the open field system includes ridge and furrow. A heavy plough, capable of turning over sod would cut the furrow and a mold board turns the soil sideways, pulled by 6 to 8 ox. We know this from domesday. This would gradually mound the soil up in the middle of the strip. The strips were not straight but always shaped as an s but backwards. This is because of the turning room the plough needed and the fact that most were right handed. We can date ridge and furrow from any time after the introduction of the heavy plough and not necessarily medieval. By the 11th century it was in use in most of England.

It is important to remember that there was never one open field system over Britain that was identical and used. It also changed over the years. It developed over time. Why it grew is important. There needed to be a solution to the problem of farming with certain soils, animals, climate, topography, crops, markets, transportation and so forth. ‘At any one moment there were open field villages in various stages of evolution’. [13] Hard to define what an open field system was. It was different in different areas so can seen to be started at different times. ‘ Consequently, the second complex phenomenon behind the label is the lack of agreement of what is to be understood by an open field system, as different authors disagree to some extent on what constitutes the salient interlocking features of the system’. [14] 

There are many broad outlines to what an open field system was and when it developed over the country making it difficult to summarise when it evolved. There is also lots of literature on this topic which is diverse. One of the earliest pieces of evidence of the early open field system comes from a law from King Ine of Wessex. ‘If ceorls have a common meadow or other share land to enclose, and some have enclosed their share while other have not….’ [15] This was issued between 668 and 694. It gives evidence to the early existence of open fields. However it doesn’t give elements of the whole system. It does not mention strips, cropping rules, common grazing or regulations. We cannot however assume that all land even within the same community was treated the same. All of the elements therefore may not have originated at once but could have been gradual. Then in 966 a charter refers to arable share land. ‘it is very likely that the exploitation of the agricultural resources of midland England was well established by the tenth century, although it is equally likely that the complex open filed system did not reach its full maturity before the twelfth’. [16] There are now lots of evidence to suggest that the introduction of the open field system was a long term process.

When looking at maps of open field systems you can see that each system is logically adapted to the geography of its parish. Also different systems co existed side by side in the same geographical area. The open field system originated because it was sufficient at feeding the population. Local landowners would rent land to farmers known as tenants, they would grow enough to survive and any left would be sold to market. Ridge and furrow advantages include drainage especially on heavy clay soils where the water won’t drain easily. However you do not want to plough light soils such as chalk. Also there is the creased table cloth theory. Possible resistance to soil erosion and it creates more surface area so there is more land to grow crops on. For many centuries it met the country’s need for food, it also let villagers have a say as it made decision by vote, and people were working together, there was also the common land so a sense of community. It went hand in hand with the development of villages clustered around a nucleus of church and manor house. This created a sense of community, they worked communally, and open field agriculture is an example of this. In some villages, villagers owned a team of oxen so ploughed the strips in sequence. However in some ways it can also be seen as individualistic. It gradually spread over England, but it can never be said that it completely took over.

The most common open field system was where a village had 3 bigs fields with the village located in the centre, each field could be miles across and each villagers would have strips of land in each field so that each would have a share of good and bad land.