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The Open Field System


EnglishFieldSyscopy_1 extent of open fields

Draw a line from Durham in the north, to Devon in the west, and from the Wash in the East, to Sussex in the south and you have a swathe of the country which at one time was almost exclusively given over to what was called the common, or open field system. Had it been possible to view an open field parish from the air, in, let us say the 12th century, you would have seen [typically] three large arable fields of several hundred acres each. In practice as the sketch below shows there were often many more. If they were hedged at all it was at their outer boundaries and at their centre was the cluster of buildings that comprised the village- when you have to walk to work, you don’t want it to be too far away from your home.

EnglishFieldSyscopy_1 strip farming

These were the common arable fields and closer examination would have revealed that a third of the fields were growing wheat, another third barley or oats and the remainder was left fallow. Each year the cropping of the fields was rotated. These fields were divided up into hundreds, sometimes thousands of narrow strips farmed by the villagers. These strips were of a size, the acre, that was said to represent a days ploughing. If ploughed using a particular technique the strips gradually assumed a convex shape, a central ridge falling away to a furrow on either side, giving rise to a distinctive appearance which can still be seen today where ploughing has not destroyed them.

Ridge & Furrow fields at Cold Newton Leicestershire, Matt Neale Wikipedia

This shape helped drain the land but there were many open fields where drainage was not required and where a different technique of ploughing left an entirely flat ridge, although each strip was still separated from its neighbour by a furrow.

According to status the villagers held a variable number of strips in the arable fields and because one field always had to be left fallow [to restore fertility to it] these strips were spread over all of the fields. Moreover since everyone’s nutritional needs were the same, each man had to have a fair distribution of the good and less good quality land. These strips were sometimes called ‘lands’ or ‘selions’. According to the lie of the land perhaps twenty or thirty strips were grouped together into ‘furlongs’ which were often at odd angles to each other giving the fields a patchwork quilt appearance. The furlongs were orientated so as to improve the drainage of the land and between them were balks, uncultivated strips, allowing access to the furlongs along which anyone could walk or lead their oxen.

In addition to the arable fields there were smaller areas of grassland dotted about the parish. Some of this, the pasture, was used for semi-permanent grazing throughout the year but the most valuable land of all – the meads or meadow land had the primary purpose of growing hay. A commoner with rights in the ‘common pasture’, [see below], would be in possession of strips of grassland. These were delineated by a variety of wooden ‘mead’ marks or marker stones and each commoner would be responsible, at the time of the hay harvest, for mowing his own hay and carrying it away. This hay was what saw the oxen through the winter. It was in many respects the most important crop of all for without these beasts [as they were known] there could be no ploughing the following year. Before the days of artificial feeds to lose a hay rick to wind or fire was an unimaginable disaster that could lead to starvation for the human population then next year. After the hay harvest the meadow would be used for grazing and, since it was difficult to keep cattle confined to thin strips, this necessarily meant that all the commoners animals grazed together. 1 In later centuries, to prevent overstocking, the grazing was ‘stinted’ so that only a certain number of animals could be grazed on the meadows. In any case during the late autumn the animals were taken off and the grass was allowed to grow untouched until the next hay harvest.

Had it been possible to see the boundaries of the manor or parish it would have been observed that the majority of the parish was in fact occupied by a large area of land that did not fit this neat pattern; it looked as if it was uncultivated, which it was, and uninhabited which quite often it wasn’t. This was the ‘waste’ of the parish; in time it would become known as the common but as this word has a multiplicity of meaning I prefer to use the term waste. In a period when the population was sparse and the land area large, it was simply not possible to cultivate all the land of the manor and the residue, usually the poorer quality or more distant part of the parish was left uncultivated. The waste belonged to the Lord of the Manor and was what we might call ‘reserve land’ which could be brought into cultivation if necessary.


All of this could have been seen from the air and there is perhaps too much emphasis on the role of structure when describing the common fields for this was far more than ‘structure’; it was a ‘system’, a complex set of legal and social relationships between the inhabitants. Unseen yet enveloping everything in the parish or manor were a set of customary practices. These covered virtually every activity in the parish. Tenures, tithes, poor law assessment, access to common land, to the common meadow, by-laws, heriots and religious oblations were all customary in nature. These customary practices varied between parishes but importantly what ever the practices were they were protected under common law. Sometimes these practices were written down, as in customary tenures such as copyhold, but often they existed only in the memories of ancient villagers who it appear were not uncommonly wheeled into court to testify as to the longevity of the practice.

One of the most important area governed by custom were ‘rights of common’, which in simple terms allowed one man to make a profit from the land of another. The waste belonged to the lord of the manor but from the earliest centuries the villagers had the right to use it, indeed they had no choice. The earliest right was known as common appendant and Blackstone takes up the story;“Common appendant is a right, belonging to the owners or occupiers of arable land, to put commonable beasts upon the lord’s waste, and upon the land of other persons within the same manor. Commonable beasts are either beasts of the plow, or such as manure the ground. This is a matter of most universal right; and it was originally permitted, not only for the encouragement of agriculture, but for the necessity of the thing. For, when lords of manors granted out parcels of land to tenants, for services either done or to be done, these tenants could not plow or manure the land without beasts; these beasts could not be sustained without pasture; and pasture could not be had but in the lord’s wastes, and on the unenclosed fallow grounds”.

Appendant rights could never be detached from the land, except with the approval of parliament by way of an inclosure act, even to the extent that if the land had been divided into a hundred smaller parts each part had a share of the right. They were however limited to animals Levant and Couchant’. This literally means ‘rising up and laying down’ but in the context of appendant rights it means that only animals which could be maintained throughout the winter on the land to which the right was appendant could be grazed on the waste. In effect this meant restricting the stock to sheep, horses and cattle.

After the year 1290 AD a new form of common right came into being known as common appurtenant. This produced a much wider range of rights and extended to a larger number of people who could claim them. It allowed animals, other than cattle and sheep, to be grazed on the common and extended the range of rights to, for example taking wood, turf or furze from the waste. There was an important change however for these new rights were by ‘prescription’, which is to say they were rights depending upon a grant by the lord of the manor, annexing to particular lands a right of user of a particular waste.2

Rights of common were so diverse that only a general outline can be given. They were universal, in that they were to be found in all open field parishes and were protected under the common law but their exact nature varied from parish to parish. The most frequent right was common of pasture. This allowed the depasturing of cattle, horses or sheep on the waste as well as the common meadow fields after the hay harvest. Indeed they could be extended to grazing over any piece of greensward as it was known including the verges of the roads and the balks that separated the arable strips. There were many other rights though, a commoner might have the right to take firewood, turf, furze, chalk, gravel and so on for their own use.

Initially the rights were attached to a piece of land, or a cottage and varied according to the amount of land the owner or tenant held. As they were granted by prescription a record was made in the court roll of the manor and the manorial court could alter the terms of the right. As the population grew, for example, it became usual to reduce the number of animals allowed on the waste – a process known as stinting.

This neat, orderly description of rights of common falls down when confronted by the reality in the manors, as over the centuries the attachment of the right to the land decayed. Manorial lands might be sold off with or without the right remaining attached to the land. Most often the basic unit of real property, the messuage, a cottage with land and common rights attached would be split up. The cottage might be divided into two, or it might fall down and be rebuilt as two new cottages with the result that the common right became divided between the households. Or the land might be detached from the cottage which retained the rights, or rights might become detached from the land and be leased off to the highest bidder. There were numerous permutations on a theme but ‘cottagers rights’ were still extremely common in the 18th and 19th century and in many parishes perhaps a majority of the villagers had some common right. They were not always able to use them, not everyone could afford a cow or a few sheep, but these dead commons as they were known could be let out to others who could use them.

These were the strictly legal rights, but similar rights often accrued to villagers who held little or no land in the manor but who had through the passage of time been accustomed to using the waste. Frequently these ‘rights’ were of great duration and had often been tolerated by the lords for pragmatic reasons –villagers with a means of supporting themselves were less likely to claim poor relief. Thus two types of rights arose, those that had a firm legal basis, but which were rare and a right that arose from custom alone which often existed in the memory of the aged villagers. The inclosure commissioners had little choice but to acknowledge the former, but frequently ignored the latter.

This distinction was to prove important for rights of common formed a species of property known as incorporeal hereditaments3.It is easy to understand how grass, turf, furze, timber and so on are considered as ‘property’ for they are tangible objects, but rights of common were property in another sense, for there was a value attached to the possession of the right itself. As property the rights were protected under the common law; “The lord has the sole interest in the soil; but the interest of the lord and commoner, in the common, are looked upon in law as mutual. They may both bring actions for damage done, either against strangers, or each other”.4

It was precisely because rights of common were property that an act of parliament was needed before any inclosure could proceed. Only statute law could overcome the common law and abolish a form of property5; and only then once adequate compensation had been paid.


I have already looked at the function of the Manorial Court’s in respect of the manor of Rampisham but this gives a pale indication of the way that a fully open manor would have worked as the only surviving record is in a manor where only the waste land remained open. The open fields having been inclosed years before [we cannot say when].

The open field manor was a complex place requiring close cooperation and a set of rules to regulate the course of agriculture. This too was managed by the Court Baron. The manor was not some kind of communist or socialist idyll, for each man was responsible for tending his own strips and producing food for himself and his family and it was not uncommon for one man to try and better himself at the expense of others. Moreover ploughing, broadcasting6, weeding, bird scaring, harvesting and gleaning were all communal activities which had to be coordinated because for better or worse the manor was a community of individuals who were mutually dependent on one another and had, perforce to work together.

Open Field System_1open field system

Components of the Open Field System

In fully open field manors the range of rules that the Court Baron laid down were much more extensive and a flavour can be gained from Court Baron at Laxton in Nottinghamshire in the 17th and 18th centuries. The punishments set out for disobeying the rules in Laxton were known as ‘Pains’, Item:

It is pained that every one make his fence well and sufficiently about the Wheat-field before the 23rd of this instant in pain of not so doing

3s 4d

That no one shall carry fire between neighbour & neighbour uncovered in pain of not so doing

3s 4d

That Mr Stephenson cut his crab-tree-tops in High Land, & every one plash their hedges there in pain of not so doing

3s 4d

It is pained that every one shall wring [sic] their swine betwixt this and the 20th day of this Month and so keepe them from time in pain of any one offend

3s 4d

That no man make a high way from the top of Thomas Hazard’s Orchard down the Holmes but keep the usual way in pain of not so doing

3s 4d

That Mich. Cawdwell plash his hedge in Brockley close betwixt him & Willim Whale-head [sic] betwixt this & the 2nd Febr in pain of not so doing

3s 4d

That every one scour all the ditches belonging to the Long-meadow. South-loon & East- Ing betwixt this & the 10th of May next following in pain of not etc

3s 4d

That the Burley-men do repair Whitmoor- bridge betwixt this a& the 24th of this instant in pain of no so doing

3s 4d

That the fields shall not be broken without the consent of the Overseers of the Highways and at the tolling of the Bell

£1 10s 0d

That if anyone remove his neighbour’s Land mark or mark belonging to the Commons

£1 10s 0d

That none drive or redrive Horses loose through the Cornfields

Not given

That all persons who have bad chimneys shall immediately mend or repair them


That none do plough up the commons

£1 19s 11d

In this society every man in the parish knew his neighbour. Michael Caldwell, William Whale-head and many more not mentioned here would have been know to all. They would not have needed a map or plan to tell them where their lands or the land of others lay. They probably did not even need the ‘Land mark’ to tell them where their strips were. Orwin in his account of Laxton in the 1930’s recounted how a man after thirty years away could remember ploughing the fields of his father You start in Holme side furlong, plough two lands, miss three, plough one more, go onto Foxmore furlong etc.” He said that the only time that he had made a mistake was once when the ridge and furrow were alike obliterated by Snow and he had carted manure to land adjacent to his father’s.””7 The rules illustrate the fear of fire, which was bad enough in houses but disastrous if it spread to hayricks. The only means of supporting oxen and horses through the winter. Interestingly there is a reference to fire in Martin’s diary for 1845,

23rd August 1845

Pd John Chubb for Beer when Mr Wardens Chimney was on Fire 3s 4d

26th August 1845

11s 4d Reced of Mr Crew Jennings for Beer pd for my me when Mr Wardens Chimney was on Fire

Crew Jennings was the local agent for the Salamander Insurance company and no doubt 11s 4d in beer money to those trying to put it out was money well spent. Martin and Chubb had an incentive for seeing the work well done as Martin’s house was next to Mr Wardens and John Chubb was the landlord of the Acorn Inn nearby.

This then was the open field system of agriculture and inclosure swept it all away. We will see how the inclosure commissioners and surveyors conducted an inclosure presently but the end result of the inclosure was always the same; the consolidation of the arable lands into discrete ‘closes’8 bounded by hedges or fences, the bringing into cultivation of the waste of the manor and most damagingly from the yeoman farmers and peasants perspective the extinction of all rights of common and, arguably, the destruction of the village community.

Next    Why inclose ?

1It is possible to do this by what is known as tether grazing but this appears to have been mainly used for grazing the balks. A modern version, supported by the electric fence, is known as paddock grazing.

2Note that the right is again attached to the land another form of right of common known as common in gross allowed a particular user to take his profit without the land being specified. It does not concern us here.

3As were tithes.

4Blackstone ibid.

5Eg slaves !

6The sowing of seed by hand.

7C S Orwin The Open Fields 1938

8Strictly speaking a close was open arable land converted to an inclosed pasture. However it is clear from numerous tithe maps that the newly inclosed land was often used for arable purposes. The word ‘close’ is here used to denote any land that was inclosed from open arable fields or the waste regardless of whatever purpose it was used.