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Open Fields

Open fields

Open-field farming was a communal affair. Each field was divided into a number of lands, divided by furrows. Villeins rented more than one virgate or yardland, containing between forty and eighty lands or strips scattered around two or three fields. They rotated their crops in unison, leaving one field fallow for grazing; more prosperous farmers held more than one virgate and often rented land in neighbouring tithings. Open Fields were divided into strips, called lands, which averaged one-third of an acre in size.  Groups of lands with parallel furrows were called furlongs.

Diagram showing terms used for features of open fields.

The lands were ploughed clockwise, pushing soil in front of the plough; as the blade was lifted for turning, the soil formed a foot-high ridge in the centre and two flat sides called furrows which were curved towards each end as the plough prepared to turn. Cultivated strips were called ridges. Baulks were unploughed strips, which formed pathways through the ploughed areas; headlands were raised banks formed by the turning of the plough at right angles to the end of strips. Leys were grassland and meadows were permanent pastures lying near rivers and streams subject to winter flooding.’


Domesday noted that Menes Hundred had land for 64 ploughs and ‘in lordship’ 8 ploughs, while Mene Ecclesia had land for 5 ploughs and in lordship 1½ ploughs. As in Anglo-Saxon times, the ploughs were drawn by oxen and were shared among the community. Immediately after sowing, the land was harrowed to cover the seeds; activities were regulated, including hay cutting, gleaning, breaking up fallow land and so on. Possession of a yardland automatically implied rights in the meadow. Most farm workers led a cow or two each morning to the pasture meadows where joined the common herd which was tended by a ‘hayward’ whose job it was to prevent them from trespassing on to crops; after Lammas, when the harvest was in, animals were allowed onto both demesne lands (directly farmed by the diocese) and tenanted fields. No separate private herd could be kept, all animals being part of the common herd during the day; they returned to the village farmsteads at night. Hay cutting, breaking up fallow land and so on were also regulated, as were the rights of gleaning.

Wheat, barley, rye and occasionally oats were the chief support of the rural classes. An average crop gave about a fourfold return on the seed sown, and a quarter of this was set aside for next year’s sowing. Tithes were levied on the maximum potential crop so that if the yield was four times the seed sown, the peasant had for his family’s consumption 65% of what he had produced … if only twice, he only had only 40%.

The Winchester Pipe Rolls show us that in the mid-fourteenth century, 473 acres in East Meon were cultivated as arable, combined with livestock, mainly sheep. During the period 1345 – 1433, across all the lands held by the Diocese of Winchester, about 40% of the demesne acreage sown was under wheat, up to 24% under barley and between 35% and 24% was under oats. Of other crops, legumes were the most important with 7-8% of sown acreage … a mixture of wheat and rye called ‘mancorn’ had been popular but was declining. Crops were rotated by arrangement between the tenant farmers: typically, one field would be put down to wheat, a second to barley and a third left fallow.

The following year, the fallow field would be ploughed and planted with wheat, the field that had been harvested for wheat would be ploughed and planted with barley, and the field that had been used for barley would be left fallow. The entire community had common grazing rights on ploughland when it lay fallow and on land that was deemed ‘wast’, including the common. The 1301 Pipe Roll records that ‘Issues of the manor’ that year included nearly £3 from pannage, which bought the right to turn pigs out for fodder in the woods or park, with the caveat that this year there was ‘no mast in the park’ for the pigs to eat (beech-nuts, acorns, chestnuts and other fruits of the forest). In September, pigs were at their fattest and the oldest were turned into sausages and pies.

The wheeled plough was the foundation of life in the Middle Ages: a development of the Saxon mouldboard, it opened the soil to the air and water, enabling soluble minerals to reach deeper levels, while rooting out weeds and tossing them aside to wither in the open air. Ploughs were still drawn mainly by oxen which were lean and rangy; medieval farmers ploughed land to feed humans – they would have been shocked at the thought of producing animal feed. The meat contained three times as much protein as fat (the reverse of the modern ratio). Eight-ox teams were used to prepare for winter and spring sowing, which was done by hand as were weeding, harvesting, stacking and threshing the corn. Some horses were used for ploughing and also used to draw carts but they needed a more varied diet than oxen, and regular shoeing. Moreover, oxen did not lose their value after retirement since they could be fattened for meat.

The Middle Ages saw an increase in sheep flocks; the mean size of the flock in East Meon manor in the fourteenth century was 2,000. The most common breed was the ‘Hampshire’, a big, hardy animal with a light frame; it could walk easily up and down steep hills.

Medieval illumination of shepherds, with wheeled hut

Shepherds lived by their sheep in wheeled huts; the sheep were ‘folded’ into temporary enclosures made of wattle hurdle and constantly moved on both to prevent over- grazing of pasture and to distribute the manure. Sheep manure was its best in the spring and it was usual to fold the wheat field from harvest time until about mid- October, when the flock was sometimes withdrawn to the downs for a month. Then the sheep-folds were moved to the fallow barley fields and stayed there until early May, when they passed to the summer fields.