Many moons ago, as a teenager, I plumped for ancient history and archaeology on my university applications. In response, another lad said something along the lines of, “I don’t really get history myself – it’s all been and gone, hasn’t it?” It’s not an uncommon response, and in many ways it’s not unreasonable: why are history and archaeology interesting and important when they are, by definition, backwards-looking?
There’s a number of good responses to the question. One – that old, forgotten wisdom is wisdom nonetheless, and might be pertinent today – is not always convincing, especially to those whose default assumption is that folk tended to think the wrong things in the past. Another response is that history and archaeology help to explain how we got to where we are today (whilst also prompting the sobering thought that we’re not the pinnacle, we’re just the present). A good counter-thrust to this response would be to point out that a lot of what happened in the past has indeed been and gone, leaving little discernible trace on landscapes, cultures, politics, people, places… you name it.
Which brings me to the open fields.
Open field systems were once the farming setups of choice for huge expanses of medieval England. They were chiefly characterized by fairly tight-knit villages and large, open fields. And if you’re thinking that all villages are tight-knit, and all fields are pretty open, then you’ve got a point. But Open Fields in the strict sense are so open that even the bits owned by different people aren’t separated from each other. Agriculture sans frontières. Everyone has some strips, and the strips are spread out and intermingled so that everyone gets a share in the different soils, everyone gets a share in the harvest, and everyone gets a share in the labours and ploughing. Not so much a car share as a ploughshare (ho ho). Hence the tight-knit (“nucleated”) villages, so that the peasants could coordinate their activities, jointly planning which crops to sow, where and when, and which fields to leave fallow, when and where to graze their sheep, and all that sort of thing.
As far as I know, relics of this kind of system survive only in two places in modern England: Braunton in Devon and Laxton in Nottinghamshire. The rest were gradually broken up between (roughly) the 16th and 19th centuries in a process known as enclosure (or inclosure). This made the old open-field landscapes more like an allotment writ large: you have your patch to yourself, and you do what you like with it.
All of this comes under the general heading of “what every schoolboy used to know”. But I didn’t know it when I was a schoolboy, and I’m guessing that I’m not alone in that respect, so please bear with me if I’ve been teaching you to suck eggs thus far.
Enclosure is pretty well documented. But the origins of open field systems predate well-documented history, and so have provided fuel for historians’ debates for over a century (and counting). Estimates for their emergence range from around the 8th century to around the 12th. Estimates for the speed of their development range from a ‘village moment’ – a spurt of collective enthusiasm – to a long-drawn-out process lasting hundreds of years. Suffice it to say that nobody really knows how open field systems came into being, but everybody wants to know. And so, finally coming back to my preamble, I think it’s the near-extinction of open field systems – that very fact that they have been and gone – that makes them such an enduringly fascinating, obsessive topic in landscape history. At some point in the Anglo-Saxon or Norman periods, people made a really radical change to the landscape that lasted for centuries and, despite enclosure, still subtly shapes much of the English countryside today.
Like I say, the debate has been raging for more than a hundred years and, although new perspectives are still emerging, new evidence isn’t. Scholars keep finding ingenious ways of using place-names, charters, old maps and so on, but entirely new kinds of evidence are not forthcoming.
Until perhaps now.
A new project at the Universities of Oxford and Leicester, of which I am privileged to be part, is taking a radically different approach to this topic by studying excavated farmsteads, animal bones, charred grain and pollen deposits. We’re hoping to shed new light on the whole question of when, where, how and why medieval farmed landscapes developed in the distinctive ways that they did. It’s called Feeding Anglo-Saxon England (or “FeedSax” for short) and you can follow our progress at the official blog: http://feedsax.wordpress.com
I hope you enjoy it.