Introduction | Exploring Medieval Village Territories | The Evolution of Post-medieval Village Territories | The Creation of Village Territories | The Development of Medieval Village Territories | Late Medieval Village Territories | Conclusions

5.2 The introduction of the open field system

Whatever the form of settlement retained or constructed in the early years of the Whittlewood villagescapes, the single most important factor in the maintenance of early patterns was the development of the open field system. For so extensive were these fields in area, particularly in relation to the smaller land units in which they were developing, and so strictly did they need to be managed in order to allow for regular crop rotation and fallowing, that they effectively locked the settlements that they surrounded in place. While the dating of the introduction of this method of arable cultivation remains a matter of debate (e.g. Oosthuizen 2005), there can be no doubt that in Whittlewood, at least, little time elapsed between the establishment of the settlements and territories and the laying out of the open fields. Indeed the two may have occurred simultaneously. It is not impossible to envisage a situation in which territorial redistribution was grasped by communities, both new or of long standing, as the occasion for the reorganisation of their fields.

5.2.1 Dating

The introduction of the open fields in Whittlewood must be deduced from negative evidence [see Fieldwalking data]. The clearest archaeological marks of past ploughing activity are the spreads of pottery found across the cultivated zone, deriving from the practice of manuring the soil with animal dung and household rubbish accumulated on the muck hill in the farmyard. The presence or absence of different pottery fabrics within any field assemblage thus provides a valuable indicator for when the land was worked or taken out of cultivation. The use made of pottery-rich manure was particularly strong when the fields lay in close proximity to the farmsteads from which they were worked, at times when pottery was readily available to the rural consumer. Under such circumstances, for example during the Roman period, clear manuring patterns can be detected, with areas immediately around the farmstead apparently receiving high densities of manure, attested by large quantities of surviving pottery, while more remote areas received less (Gaffney and Tingle 1989). Similar patterns are also visible during the period AD 400-850 although there were fewer pots in use and therefore less breakages to put on the rubbish heap, and again following the re-siting of farms out among the fields following private and Parliamentary enclosure. In this instance, however, the pattern was confused by the growing use of other fertilizers which have left chemical but not archaeological traces (e.g. Parry forthcoming).

Under the open field system, however, landholdings and farmsteads became separated. Individual strips within the peripheral furlongs of each field might lie up to a mile (1.5km), and on occasion further, from a ready source of household waste. Carting manure such long distances became uneconomic and this, together with the breaking of new ground yet to be exhausted by prolonged ploughing, and other parts of these fields lying over earlier settlement sites rich in nutrients, appears to have prompted a change in manuring strategy. Household waste, it would seem, was used exclusively to fertilize the gardens and enclosures near the farms, while animals were used as the principal manurers, spreading dung on the hoof during periods of fallow or after harvest. This shift in practice leaves a clear signature in the archaeological record: the use of particular pottery types in the farmstead is attested by their recovery on or adjacent to the toft, while by contrast these fabrics appear absent from the field collections (Jones 2005 [Archive copy]). In Whittlewood this disjuncture occurs during a two-hundred-year period between 850 and 1050. The introduction of new fabrics into the area, such as St Neots ware, brought in from the Bedfordshire/Cambridgeshire border, is demonstrated by finds made within all the settlement cores systematically investigated, yet not a single sherd appears within the field assemblages. A close local correlation in dates thus exists between this economic transition and the reorganisation of the administrative landscape, and in turn these appear to have restricted the choices communities could make about where they might now live, fixing settlement patterns at whatever developmental stage they had reached.

5.2.2 How and why?

Although the introduction of the open field system can now be observed from the archaeological evidence, precisely how and why they developed remains a matter for debate. Communities adopted open-field farming for different reasons which varied according to both time and place. In parts of the central Midlands, for example, there is good reason to accept that open fields offered a solution to an overcrowded countryside, with associated problems of boundary disputes, access to resources, and movement through the landscape. By concentrating farmsteads together in a single agglomerated settlement, the land was freed up for the laying out of the new, more extensive fields. Certainly, so great were the changes wrought by the open fields, and so disruptive must they potentially have been to the local economy during the transition, that the likelihood that necessity drove the first communities to try this alternative farming method remains a highly attractive hypothesis (Lewis et al. 1997).

In other places, open field farming might have been born not from crisis but pragmatism. It has been suggested, for example, that the system was adopted as settlement economies shifted from specialised production feeding into the more extensive estate structures, as attested by place names such as Shapwick (sheep farm) or Berwick (barley farm), to the more largely self-sufficient and varied economies of the manor, parish or vill. Open field agriculture offered an opportunity to develop large arable areas within these smaller units while retaining sufficient grazing for livestock (Fox 1981). How the change was implemented might also have varied. The identification of the so-called 'long furlong', strip systems that ran for several hundred metres in length ignoring local topography, suggests that some of the new fields seem to have been planned from the outset, and laid out in a single episode following an overarching grand schema (Hall 1995). Elsewhere, the open fields could well have developed in piecemeal fashion with individual furlongs being added to the arable core in a more organic way, a process that might have taken many years, perhaps several generations, to achieve. As the success of early open field communities became apparent it seems likely that the stimulus to the further spread of the system lay in imitation. In areas of low population, or where territorial redistribution had not forced farmers to adopt this method of land exploitation, it would seem that they either chose or were coerced into making changes in order to enjoy its benefits.

What lay behind the creation of the open fields of Whittlewood remains unclear. Their contemporaneous development with territorial reorganisation might suggest some causal link relating to changes in the economic bases of the new villagescapes. Certainly, there is little in the record to suggest that this was a landscape in crisis. Population levels appear to have remained low and neither space nor resources ever seem to have been at a premium. On the other hand, while there is some evidence from place-names suggesting that some settlements had specialised administrative functions, there is little to suggest that any concentrated upon one particular agrarian product, and thus were in need of radical reform after the constitution of the villagescapes. Indeed their rather late introduction (in some parts of neighbouring central Northamptonshire, for example, a pre-850 date is posited for their establishment (Brown and Foard 1998)) might equally offer the possibility that the template for open field farming in Whittlewood was copied from models already well established elsewhere.

What can be stated with more confidence, however, is that when first conceived, the open fields of Whittlewood remained rather restricted in area, rarely extending beyond a mile (1.5km) from the principal settlement, and that the rather confused patchwork of interlocking furlongs that developed within them seem to imply that no grand plan was followed. Indeed excavation below headlands within the open fields of Silverstone, Wick Dive and Lillingstone Lovell all suggest that these furlong divisions might have developed over the top of much older Romano-British or early medieval field boundaries. All these factors help to explain how existing settlement plans were largely retained: there was sufficient space for fields to develop and expand around settlement cores without their removal, while their modular furlong structure meant that they could be fitted like pieces of a large jigsaw into the irregular spaces around the settlement, within the bounds set by hills and valleys.


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Last updated: Mon Sep 4 2006