The Medieval Review 15.06.21

Hall, David. The Open Fields of England. Medieval History and Archaeology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. pp. xiv, 381. £85.00 (hardback). ISBN: 9780198702955 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

S. Jay Lemanski
Missouri Western State University

Anyone who has studied English medieval rural society or agricultural history is familiar with David Hall, currently the general editor at the Northamptonshire Record Society. He has written books and articles dealing with local field surveys, the nature and extent of open-field use in England, as well as Late Anglo-Saxon agriculture. His work contributed greatly to what has been called the Quantitative Revolution, the flurry of field surveys and village excavations that began in the 1980s. This flood of new information was both a blessing and a bane. While providing a great deal of new information regarding field regimes, it also created a mass of individual local studies from which drawing a broader picture of the medieval landscape would require extensive research and reading on the part of any individual scholar. This book by Hall seeks to redress that problem; he has collated and synthesized these extensive studies (to which the 27-page bibliography attests), and provides a Gestalt of the overall field regimes of England and the systems of each major region, as well as a more nuanced description of field practices within each region. The result is a tome that will be indispensable for anyone researching the agricultural practices and social structures of medieval rural England.

The book is comprised of an introduction and six chapters followed by a gazetteer of the field systems of England organized by county, which comprises over one-third of the book (215-343). After the gazetteer Hall provides a two-page glossary of terms, which while extremely helpful, could have been substantially expanded (those unfamiliar with the material word of medieval agriculture might not know, for example, what a "drove" is). In true medieval fashion, Hall prefaces every chapter, and even many subsections of chapters, with an argumentum, a brief summary of that section's material. This is particularly helpful since his chapters are filled will examples from specific surveys and excavations, and the summaries help the reader keep the fundamental points in mind in the midst of such detail.

The introduction provides a brief overview of the study of medieval field systems (1-6). He begins with a concise historiographic discussion of the main studies regarding English agricultural systems. This is followed by a description of the three main agricultural regions, each known for different field systems: Western, Central, and Eastern regions. This division is hardly new, and Hall points out that Gray (1915) had proposed a similar tripartite division. The Central region is characterized by what had come to be known as "champion agriculture": large open-fields surrounding a nucleated village, with tenants holding strips of land intermixed in the open fields. The people in these communities cooperated with each other and had complex regulations (later written down as field orders) overseeing planting, plowing, and the use of meadow and pasture. The Eastern and Western regions, on the other hand, do not follow this pattern, but are comprised of dispersed settlements each with compact block holdings. These blocks of land are often held in severalty (i.e. individual ownership). There are few if any communal regulations regarding the cultivation of arable land or the management of meadow and pasture, as is the case in the Central region. Hall then introduces the reader to the basic physical features of the agricultural landscape: yardlands, strips, ridges, and furlongs.

Chapter one gives a more detailed description of the land systems in the three main regions (7-34). The focus is on the township, a land-unit comprising a "complete, self-contained field system" (7), which would be more familiar as a "vill." He begins by describing in more detail the townships outside of the Central region, and provides examples from actual local surveys. Since most of the book is devoted to the management of arable land, it is here that Hall describes in some detail how meadow and pasture were managed in the three regions. He points out that in the non-Central regions characterized by extensive pastures and networks of droves in contrast to the Central region. Since the Central region dedicated so little land solely to meadow and pasture in the Central region, Hall describes how not only fallow or stubble fields, but every spare patch of land (balks between furlongs, green furrows between strips, and rick platforms) was utilized for pasture and meadow.

In chapters two and three Hall describes the field morphologies and management regimens of the Central region and the non-Central (i.e. Eastern and Western) regions respectively. Rather than the simple "champion" Midlands, Eastern, and Western region trichotomy, Hall provides a more refined description of the physical layout and use of fields, pasture, and meadow, noting important differences within each of these regions, and thus providing a more nuanced understanding of field and pasture use within them. Hall illustrates these various field systems with examples from actual townships, which helps the reader clearly visualize the physical layout of these systems.

In the following chapter discussing open-field structure and management, Hall beings with the demesne. He notes that in the Central region the trend is to have the demesne lands dispersed among the holdings of the tenants in the open fields, while in the Eastern and Western regions, the norm is a compact, block demesne. He also provides a list of such block demesnes by county. Hall suggests that the block demesne represents an earlier form, reflecting a time when the lord's farm was separate from those of the tenants (104). He then describes the open-fields systems found not only in the Central region, where they are dominant, but also in the Eastern and Western regions as well. Hall suggests that the few remaining undispersed yardlands found in the Central region may represent Saxon-period severalty farms that predated dispersed fields (116). However, he does caution that these fields may also be the result of assarting that occurred during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The chapter concludes with a discussion of the complex regulations that open-fields developed managing issues of field rotation, stinting of cattle on pasture, as well as when stubble plowing should begin.

A central concern for those studying medieval English rural history is the nagging question of when open-fields systems and nucleated villages were established in the "champion" region of England. Here Hall shows himself to be a careful and conservative scholar. He does not assume that nucleation and the adoption of open-field systems were a single, concurrent phenomenon. Instead, he looks at the evolution of settlement patterns and the origins of open-fields systems separately, and discusses them in chapters five and six respectively, although the way Hall organizes the material, there is a degree of overlap in the two chapters.

In chapter five Hall notes that beneath the current open fields lie many Middle Saxon period (i.e. 650-850) settlements. Arnold and Wardle (1981) proposed that beginning in the seventh and the eight centuries these settlements were deserted and moved to new centers. Hall, however, suggests that these observations fail to take into account excavations within existing villages, and that the occupants of these small settlements eventually moved to the largest or most important existing site that was located in an area with good soil and easy access to water (141). Hall mentions that there is charter evidence from the tenth century that such villages (vills) were already well established. The increase of alluvium deposits resulting from run-off from large fields indicates that beginning in the Late Saxon period (i.e. 850-1066) there was a significant increase in arable land. Similarly pollen evidence retrieved from bogs shows that between the eighth and the tenth centuries, there was a considerable increase in cereal production (148). The chapter also points to charter evidence that attest to the existence of intermixed strips from the mid-tenth century on. He concludes that by the Late Saxon period there were already nucleated villages with dispersed arable land held in common.

After a brief discussion of previous scholarship regarding the development of open fields in England, Hall, in chapter six, states that there can be no historically satisfactory account for their origins. Nevertheless, the existence of Middle Saxon period sites beneath open fields suggests that their development could not be dated as far back as the fifth century (182). He suggests that the original field morphology of the Central region was the same as found in the Eastern and Western regions, i.e. dispersed settlements with each with block fields without intermixed strips. However, by the twelfth century, the Central region is defined by large two- or three-field arrangements. Hall is cautious, warning that the "great replanning" (the desertion of small settlements and the move to larger villages) is not necessarily to be associated with the rise of open fields (193). Nevertheless the evidence indicates in the Central region the move to open fields was a long process beginning in the eighth century and continuing unto the Conquest (195), which does coincide with the abandonment of smaller settlements and the move to larger ones. Hall is reluctant to propose a "monocausal explanation" for these changes. As an example of one possible dynamic he looks at the estate of Crick (Nhants.), which had four fields: one a block demesne (hall field), two with both demense (hall field) and tenant (hain field) strips intermixed, and a fourth field that was either hall field or hain field "according to type" (187). Hall suggests that there were originally two fields, one the demesne (hall field) and the other tenant holdings (hain field). The fields expanded into the township pastures by agreement between the lord and the tenants. Each maintained their own core and shared the new lands, which became two new great fields (210). Nevertheless, Hall stresses that the process of change is still open to debate, and we should not assume that changes in settlement and field structure occurred together in a single operation (213).

One issue that Hall disappointingly does not address is that of fragmentation. T. H. Aston in 1958 first proposed that original estates grew into "discrete estates," which other scholars have dubbed "multiple estates," i.e. a large township with multiple settlements and individual fields (first fully described by G. W. S. Barrow in1973, and further discussed by G. R. J. Jones in 1979). These large estates were later broken up into smaller townships. Rosamond Faith (1997) connects this process to the assessment of land in hides and argues that fragmentation was the impetus for the introduction of boundary clauses in charters. By examining when boundary clauses began to be used in charters, Faith concluded that the process of fragmentation has begun in the eighth century and picked up momentum in the subsequent two centuries. Clearly there is a correlation between fragmentation, the changes in settlement patterns, and the rise of open-field regimens. This reader is disappointed that Hall did not explore how the archaeological evidence might shed light on this important process.

The book concludes with a gazetteer organized by county. Under each heading Hall describes the field orders and farm management to be found in that county, whether there were irregular fields or ridge and furrow fields. In some entries when evidence is available, he also discusses the type of work-service to be found there. Since each county is different and the evidence not equally distributed, the information provided under each heading will be somewhat varied. When possible, Hall also provides a bibliography regarding surveys and studies for that particular county.

When historians think of material artifacts the mind initially turns to things such as buildings, sculpture, pottery, etc. However, fields are also part of material culture--artifacts as much produced by human effort, imagination, and social forces, as any silver platter or statue. In this book Hall helps to give a clearer understanding of that world in which the majority of the people of the Middle Ages lived and worked--the fields. Having coordinated all the studies and surveys of specific townships, Hall is able to provide the reader with a bird's-eye view of the fields systems used in each of the three major regions, while still noting important variations in each. Yet, at the same time he also equips the reader with the tools and information needed to study smaller, local field morphologies and systems of management. Hall's book is, therefore, a sine quo non for anyone working on medieval English rural or agricultural history.

Copyright (c) 2015 S. Jay Lemanski

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