A Green and Pleasant Land - Part 3

Being a communally based society the Anglo-Saxons ensured that each farmer and his family got a fair deal; farmers having several strips spread across both good and bad land so that the burdens of poor soil were shared. Sometimes the empty spaces between the furlongs became lanes, and in later times would become the boundary line on which 'enclosure' hedges would be planted, thereby fixing the shape of the original furlongs and field systems.

Land then, as it still remains today, was a way of determining a person's wealth and status. In more northerly territory occupied by the Danes a 'thane' would have owned five or more hides of land (a hide being about 100 acres of land), a freeman churl had a least one, while geburs and cotsetlans were tied to their lord even though they may have had land to farm.

In some areas such as Scotland and northern England an 'infield-outfield' system of land use occurred. Fields nearest to a village [the 'infields'] were permanently used for cropping while those beyond [the 'outfields'] were grazed. Beyond the 'outfields' there would be waste land for common pasture, or moorland in the case of upland areas. These waste lands (in both highland and lowland situations), were the only source of new land and were frequently reclaimed [a process called 'assarting'] to form new enclosed farm holdings. Many of these holdings eventually became split up over time - through communal sharing out of land strips (where clearing of the waste had been a group effort), or through the inevitable breaking up among heirs and successors.

As with all land - the way a village farmed the surrounding land was based on how the land was best suited, but also on local inheritance customs. At it simplest level there were two field systems, but there were also three and four-field systems, and some even larger ones. The result of this was a huge amount of variation in land use and rights around Britain.

Although we think of hedges as being a natural part of Britain's landscape in the middle ages it is likely that there were few hedges in our landscape; the terrain being composed of large open fields which were also known as 'champion' fields - derived from the french word 'campagne' [meaning countryside]

One of the inevitable consequences of breaking land into ever smaller holdings, as the population grew, was the impracticability of farming small plots, and so 'Common field' systems developed, becoming a well established feature of land management by 13th century.

Closing act...
The Black Death provided the catalyst for a major change in land usage and appearance. Individuals had frequently settled parts of the communally held waste lands, pasture and grazing, as well as the land beyond, but after the depopulation of rural communities following the Black Death, many landowners took the opportunity to 'enclose' pastureland and consolidate land holdings. However, the level of 'enclosure' of this period was nothing in comparison to devastating acts of the 18th and 19th century.

At the same time there was a switch from grain to sheep and, more importantly, higher value wool production. Enclosure provided another benefit over 'champion' (open) fields - control of sheep. The growth of the cloth industry in medieval times also meant that farmers could grow dye crops such as madder and dyer's rocket on a commercial basis.

The 16th century saw the dissolution of the monasteries [1538] which released huge tracts of land previously held by the Church, and gave fresh impetus to enclosure and consolidation. This consequently lead to an increase in arable farming; landowners able to fulfil the grain requirements of a population which was only just returning to levels prior to the Black Death [1348].

'Specialisation' began to take place as cities like London grew in size - Norfolk produced malt, Sussex grew wheat, Suffolk specialised in dairy produce, Hampshire raised sheep, and Kent provided fruit, vegetables and hops. In the Weald, the iron industry boomed, huge quantities of timber being felled to provide charcoal for smelting, while many villages constructed 'ponds' to store the water which powered machinery used in the iron-making process.


If you're one of the frequent visitors directed to this section by a search engine when looking for a history of the British countryside, take a moment to look around the rest of the website. We also have a piece on Britain's place names within the 'Places to Visit' section.

Copyright © 2000-2011