Published by EH.Net (May 2019)

Christopher Dyer, Erik Thoen and Tom Williamson, editors, Peasants and Their Fields: The Rationale of Open-field Agriculture, 700-1800. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols Publishers, 2018. x + 275 pp. $105 (paperback), ISBN: 978-2-503-57600-8.

Reviewed for EH.Net by David Hall.

The book consists of ten essays beginning with the open fields of England, Scandinavia and countries surrounding the North Sea and finishes with contrasting contributions from South America and Japan. One author (Hans Renes) widens the discussion to much of Western Europe. The papers arose from two meetings, one in Bern (2013) and one in Ghent (2014).

I examine each of the chapters in turn.

1. Tom Williamson, University of East Anglia, “Open Fields in England: An Overview.”

The system of arable land lying in unfenced strips grouped together in blocks called furlongs, and the furlongs gathered into larger areas called fields are explained. Fields coinciding with two or three cropping areas were called by Gray “the Midland System” (1915). Williamson gives four maps from various sources showing the central south-west to north-east distribution of such systems (Fig. 1.1). They are often associated with nuclear villages. The historiography and theories of their origins is discussed. The concept of planning to form nuclear settlements and extensive fields is challenged (see below).

2. Christopher Dyer, University of Leicester. “Open Fields in Their Social and Economic Context: The West Midlands of England.”

The region is mapped on Fig. 2.3. Its eastern half incorporates part of the area of the Midland System, which is described with helpful detail giving a map of Compton Verney, Warwickshire, c.1300. The western wooded region had dispersed settlement and less arable. It was cultivated in “seasons” rather than large fields, consisting of several “fields” not necessarily adjacent. Charters of the tenth century use agricultural terms (acre, headland. Etc.), and it is likely that extensive open fields were formed during the eighth and ninth centuries. The author discusses various economic parameters and notes that a market economy existed by the eleventh century to provide food needed by towns.

3. Carl-Johan Gadd, University of Gothenburg. “Open Fields in Scandinavia, c. 900-c. 1850.”

Much of Scandinavia had arable, meadow and settlement lying together in a ring fence comprising only a small percentage of the very large area of surrounding common pasture and wood. These are illustrated by Sorby and Lugarp, Sweden, c. 1640 on Fig. 3.2. Arable was limited to dispersed pieces lying next to farms on the edge of an oval ring fence. The space between was meadow; outside of the ring fence was a large area of common pasture. Continuous cropping operated in the woodland areas of Sweden and all of Norway where there was any arable. The far north of Sweden and Norway had no arable. Most of Denmark operated a field-grass system (convertible husbandry); arable being divided from pastures. There were long rotations with grass left for 6 to 10 years and the arable manured. In eastern Denmark and southern Sweden there were two- and three-field systems with up to 50 percent arable (Fig. 3.1) The fields were controlled by regulations and had short fallows. The south had strips laid out in a regular order, called solskifte, or “sun division.” In 1414 a deputy judge accompanied by twelve local jurors set out such a system. Solskifte was laid out as late as the seventeenth century.

4. Hans Antonson, Lund University. “The Open-field Landscape in Two Swedish Provinces on the Fringe of Possible Cultivation.”

This paper studies details in two provinces of central Sweden, Jamtlland and Harjedalen. A township example is Funasdalen in 1688, with settlement squeezed between a mountain and lake forming an elongated area 1500m long with 15 farms possessing 21 small areas of arable, the remainder being meadow with a large number of hay barns. The whole was ring fenced on the south-east, the other side were bounded by the mountain and lake (Fig. 4.5). Maps and bylaws of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries provide great detail of the holdings (Sweden has c. 20,000 surveys). The arable of Hagra hamlet in Rodon parish in 1693 is illustrated on Fig. 4.2. It consisted of furlongs 300m in length held by a four farms lying next to a river. The lands of the farms laid in a regular order. Fig. 4.3 gives plans of four more infields lying within their ring fences

5. Petrie Talvitie, University of Helsinki. “Open-field Farming in Finland.”

Finland is the most northern country in the world to operate farming. Studies are helped by the cadastral surveys with c. 3,500 maps made in the 1630s (online Finnish open fields were small cultivated areas surrounded by large areas of forested land as described for Sweden. Rye was grown in the south east, mapped on Fig. 5.2, using the technique of swidden, “burn-beating.” Ash from pine forests was spread on the land, which produced two or three crops and was left for twenty to forty years to recover. The burn bake areas had dispersed settlement. Rotation systems used in the eighteenth century are given on Fig. 5.5. The south-west had animal stinting. Crop rotations were organized and settlements were small. The solskifte system was often applied to the lay-out of village houses as well as lands. Some fields in the south-west date from the thirteenth century.

6. Hans Renes, Utrecht University. “Open-field Landscapes and Research in the Netherlands and in Europe.”

Three-field systems occurred in the south-east Netherlands. The greater part of the country has sandy soils, which had limited arable broken by commons of heath and wood, mapped on Fig. 6.7. Fig. 6.8 shows an example of an open field village with its fields surrounded by a large common heath, but most settlement was dispersed. Fig. 6.12 is regional map illustrating a variety of landscapes — see the example of Vlijtingen, Fig. 6.13. Figure 6.14 widens the discussion to all Western Europe with an interesting map of landscapes, which is not quite the same as a map of field systems. It does perhaps need dates. The central belt of England was the intensively cultivated open field area; but all of England apart from hilly ground had open fields of different types until enclosed at dates before 1700.

7. Erik Thoen, Ghent University. “Open Fields, Capital and Labour in Medieval and Early Modern Flanders.”

Flanders occupies the northern part of Belgium. Its fields are classified into five types, mapped on Fig. 7.1. Type 1 were called cultura (Flemish kouter) which were not the same as “furlongs.” They were up to 60 ha, in area lying on the best quality ground, and were equivalent to block demesnes. Often belonging to monasteries, they were intensively cultivated and can be identified from the ninth century. Later they were associated with “village kouters” used by the village on a convertible husbandry system. Type 2: “Kouters in bocage” was an infield outfield system used on poorer land, which soon got enclosed, illustrated on a map of 1773, Fig. 7.3. Type 3: “Kouters in felden” developed out of type 1, and had small areas of open fields, set out originally in a regular form (Fig. 7.4). Type 4: “Dorpsakker” were small areas of arable, 10-30 ha, that developed in the late Middle Ages, with much common land which was used for fuel, Fig. 7.5. Type 5: The reclaimed land of the polders, dates from the twelfth century onwards. The holdings were cultivated in severalty with no recognizable open field and became very market orientated. The article concludes with a discussion of social and economic aspects.

8. Nicholas Schroeder, Universite Libre de Bruxelles. “Medieval and Modern Open Fields in Southern Belgium: A Summary Review and New Perspectives.”

The author gives a map of the geographic regions and field systems; there are examples of double field systems. Archaeological and historical evidence has been used for discussion of the origins of the fields. Three-course rotations occurred on culturae (demesne) in the ninth century. Extensive open fields occurred in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries in fertile regions. Leases specify that crops sown were to be the same as their neighbors, implying an agreed cropping system operated. Fig. 8.3 shows the fields of Thisne, near Liege, in the fourteenth-fifteenth centuries with two fields and a block demesne. Field orders and regulations exist from the fourteenth through eighteenth centuries giving evidence of farmers’ involvement, and there are seventeenth century examples of a village running its own agriculture. The article concludes with a critical summary of the literature and a plea for more local studies.

9. Hanne Cottyn, Ghent University. “The Open-field System and the Persistence of Communal Land Systems: Lesson from the Andes.”

The central Andes have a very extensive dry plain lying above 4,000 meters. It was unattractive to European immigration and its communal field systems linked to pastoralism survives little changed from before Inca times in the thirteenth century. At the high zones, peat lands offer grazing for llamas and alpacas, in 3500-4000m zones root crops can be grown, and lower down maize. The variety of essential crops necessitated a communal tenure system to have access to resources. The study takes as an example the Carangas area of Bolivia, which is the size of Belgium with only 50,000 people (map Fig. 9.1).

10. Junichi Kanzaka, Soke University, “The Scattered and Intermingled Field System of Japan Compared to the Open-field Systems of Europe

Fragmented agricultural lands have been known in Japan since 1603, although some blocks existed as well. A seventeenth-century map of Sariake illustrates the landscape. Some communal control was necessitated by the shared use of irrigation and drainage. The author discusses various agricultural changes in recent centuries and the pressure to consolidate holdings, referring to German and French nineteenth-century models, although their context is very different to the landscape of Japan. The boundaries of the land-units shown in Fig. 10.2 before and after, is not an enclosure. Dispersion, opposing enclosure, was encouraged so that members of one family could undertake the labor-intensive tasks that had to be done quickly in the paddy fields, since water flowed into them at different times.

The editors give a short summary of their view of the book’s contents, dividing it into useful sections headed, “sources, defining open fields, chronology, who made the fields, why were they created and maintained and why did they end.”

Among my criticisms are the absence of an index and glossary. The photographs have not always reproduced well. Section 1 is described as an overview, but is primarily concerned with the much written about English “Midland System.” There are no descriptions of the very different field systems of Kent, Cornwall, and the Fenlands of Eastern England. I must take issue with the author about his interpretation of “Saxon” (early medieval) settlement sites, c. 400-650 AD, since it uses my original data for Northamptonshire. It is mistakenly supposed that all the data for the county were available, and the argument is completely flawed (see Hall 2014 p.136 giving a valid interpretation).

Nevertheless, the book contains a series of interesting and readable accounts of dispersed arable agriculture, well-illustrated by plans. The constraints of topography and climate lead to varying degrees of communal control. The essays suggest that the rationale of open fields was principally the sharing of land quality and the necessary supporting resources. The book gives a good account of the state of research on open fields in northern Europe, and brings out the enormous differences found in the field types of different countries.

David Hall is general editor of the Northamptonshire Record Society and author of The Open Fields of England (Oxford University Press, 2014). He was field officer and secretary of the English Heritage Fenland Survey (1976-95), based at the University of Cambridge.

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