THREAD. Some years ago I began to wonder whether the collective cultivation of arable land in open fields *was* an early medieval innovation of the 7th-10thC or whether they might have earlier origins. Here’s what I found out. (Photo: devon.gov.uk/historicenviro…)+
2. The term ‘open fields’ has become shorthand for large (often huge) areas of arable, subdivided into unhedged blocks (‘furlongs’), subdivided in turn into narrow strips (‘selions’) which are apportioned among a no. of farmers. But I wanted a specific definition.. +
3. So here is mine: the layout of an arable field is ‘open’ if
(1) it is divided between 2 or more cultivators;
(2) it isn’t subdivided by physical boundaries - anyone can move straightforwardly across the whole field irrespective of ownership (obviously, respecting crops) +
4. And then I read a brilliant article on different kinds of open field by Prof. Mark Bailey (👉 starting on p169 of this pdf bahs.org.uk/AGHR/AGHR58.pdf). He discussed the characteristics of 2 sorts of open fields - and yes, this is important for origins because ... +
5. .. it turned out that (if you accept my definition) some prehistoric & RomanoBritish communities were cultivating at least some of their arable in open fields. I’ll tell you more about this photo in a while (*whispers* it’s an Iron Age field). +
6. But these early open fields were *not* the same as the huge fields of the Middle Ages in terms of layout, the pattern of ownership in them, or in the way in which individual farmers managed the crops on their own holdings. Let me explain.. +
7. The large medieval open fields that most people know about had predictable forms of layout, ownership & crop management.
LAYOUT: The open field usually included all a community’s arable land, AND that arable was subdivided into (usually) 2 or 3 units often called ‘fields’ +
8. LAYOUT cont’d: and each of the 2 or 3 fields was subdivided into blocks called ‘furlongs’ (because they were a furrow long, like a piece of string is long - not because they were 220 yards long. You can see the blocks of furlongs here at Mursley, cut across by modern hedges..+
9. And almost the last one on LAYOUT: each furlong was divided into strips (selions, technical term) and shared out between the farmers - this map from Balsham in 1617 shows the names of the different farmers on their selions..+
10. On claylands the furrows between ridges divide one selion from the next. As in Balsham, by the later middle ages someone’s holding was usually just one strip but it might include 2 or more neighbouring ones, or have been subdivided again.
11. ‘K - now for the distinctive OWNERSHIP patterns of large medieval open fields. The diagram shows all the arable land held by one farmer, shaded in black. His land lies in strips which are equitably divided between each of the 3 fields, & in each furlong.+
12. The holdings of the other farmers followed the same pattern - to allow the collective management of CROPPING under a system of crop rotation: every farmer planted (say) wheat on his holdings in Field 1, barley (say) in Field 2, & left his strips fallow in field 3...+
13. Every farmer had the right to put stock to graze on the fallows.. and the next year the crops/fallows were rotated among the fields. The important thing is that the system depended on agreement about the detail of land use and management... +
14. Bailey called this a ‘wide’ open field system because the farmers had ‘wide’ rights to graze in the fallows. And it has a restricted distribution (why is for another day). So what about the other kind of open field? And I promise this will be much briefer +
15. As you can see the other type of open field was unpredictable in every way:
LAYOUT: lots of fields
OWNERSHIP: unpredictably distributed
CROPPING: no collective management of crops or fallows. Each farmer could do as he pleased on his own holding..
16. Bailey called this a ‘narrow’ open field system because there was so little collectivity in managing cropping. These open fields are found all over England (incl Cornwall) (The intensity of shading isn’t about intensity of distribution. No idea why it was mapped like this). +
17. So, what about this Iron Age field system at Hut Knowe in the Borders? It was arable cultivated by a number of households, and subdivided into ‘fields’ by low unhedged banks. (dayofarchaeology.com/mike-middleton…). It was an open field & there are other prehistoric examples - but... +
18. was Hut Knowe a ‘wide’ or ‘narrow’ open field? Was cropping collectively managed or did each household manage its own? We don’t know. We can only identify ‘wide’ open fields from documentary evidence for how holdings wr distributed & crops wr managed. So +
19. It’s safest, in the absence of documentary evidence, to identify Hut Knowe’s Iron Age field system as narrow. All the arable in an open field, but each household cultivating its own land according to its own wishes.
20. And here’s a Romano-British example at Haddon, Northants., from Prof Stephen Upex: 3 RB settlements (the black spots) collectively cultivating arable subdivided into blocks by low ditches. It’s an open field - but probably a ‘narrow’ one. So +
21. take another look at the distribution of these ‘narrow’ open fields. They’re found All Over Britain. They’re (in my view) a traditional form of cultivation whose origins go right back into prehistory. Like rights of common, they embody ancient traditions of collectivity.+