I have just finished reading Landscape Archaeology of Anglo-Saxon England, edited by Nicholas Higham and Martin Ryan (Boydell Press, Woodbridge, 2010) and this blog is by way of trying to think through some of the issues raised by the many excellent chapters in this important book.
Many of the chapters deal with aspects of the emergence of open field systems and so I suppose I should begin by outlining a simplified model of said field system, partly deriving from hazy memories from school, half a century ago, and partly deriving from visits to Laxton when I lived in Nottinghamshire in the 1970s. www.laxtonvisitorcentre.org.uk/
By the high middle ages, open field systems were characteristic of large swathes of the English midlands and were found across a broad band of the country running diagonally from Cornwall in the south-west to Yorkshire in the north east. Typically (and here I simplify to extremes), there were three large open fields associated with a nucleated village. Each field was divided into multiple long strips and each household farmed strips in all of the fields. Cultivation was rotated, one field being left fallow every year to be grazed, and manured, by the community’s animals.
When I was a child there was still some doubt as to when this system was introduced, but the chapters in Higham and Ryan seem to indicate a consensus that open field systems began to appear some time during the so-called ‘long eighth century’. However, there does not yet seem to be any consensus as to why and how they were introduced. The theories, though, are legion, and part of the uncertainty seems to revolve around what is cause and what is effect.
Open fields are associated with cultivation by heavy wheeled ploughs, drawn by oxen, which are difficult to turn. One of the fascinating pieces of information I filed away was that, unlike horses, oxen cannot cross over their legs! I had always thought the turning problem was due to the size of the plough-teams (regularly as many as eight oxen, if the Domesday Book is to be believed, although illustrations often show two or four). I particularly enjoyed David Hill’s chapter: ‘The Anglo-Saxon Plough: A Detail of the Wheels’. He argues that one wheel was bigger than the other (as shown in the Bayeux Tapestry), because one wheel ran on the un-ploughed land and the other in the cutting made by the coulter, sliced underneath by the share and turned over by the mould board (the furrow). This may be one of the incidental triumphs of experimental archaeology. Hill and his colleagues worked this out when re-constructing an Anglo-Saxon plough. The only problem I have with this is that it is the left-hand wheel which would need to be smaller, whereas the illustration from the Bayeux Tapestry shows the right-hand wheel as smaller – and drawn by a mule, and with no mould board, or a mould board on the left. (So far as I am aware, mould boards were always on the right). Anyway …
The link below has info on a seventh-century coulter that was excavated last year, as well as another summary of the open field story. Essentially, it confirms the consensus in the Higham/Ryan volume that the shift in technology took place during the long eighth century.
So open fields, which typically have the long and relatively wide ridges, with a furrow on either side, associated with ploughing up one side and down the other multiple times, so that the mould board always throws the soil up into the middle, seem to be inextricably associated with the heavy wheeled plough. A lighter plough, the ard, with just a plough share that makes a cut, can be pulled by a single animal or even, in extremis, by a person. It does not turn the soil; it does not produce a ridge and furrow; it is not much use on heavy soil; but it is perfectly efficient to use on smallish, squarish fields such as seem to have existed all over Britain before about the eighth century and continued in use in the south-east and north-west throughout the medieval period. But despite various hypotheses, there no longer seems to be a convincing case that open fields came into fashion just to make room for the heavy plough.
In her chapter: ‘In the Sweat of thy Brow Shalt thou eat Bread: Cereals and Cereal Production in the Anglo-Saxon Landscape,’ Debby Banham offers an interesting explanation. She examines the relationship between three major changes during the long eighth century: the move to open fields, the adoption of the heavy mould-board plough and the transition from growing barley to growing wheat. Her argument is complex and draws on evidence of climatic change as well as changes in diet, and on the growing characteristics of barley versus wheat. This is not, as I had always thought, just a matter that wheat needs a longer, drier summer. It does well on clay, but needs good winter drainage – which ridge and furrow provides. Her argument is too complex to go into here and draws on material in an earlier chapter by Tom Williamson (The Environmental Contexts of Anglo-Saxon Settlement), which highlights that both heavy clays that behaved badly when ploughed wet and light sands and chalks that needed lots of manure were characteristic of the areas where open fields became common. Anyway, Banham’s most interesting point is that she thinks the change to a preference for wheaten bread over barley is what came first, precipitating the other changes in the landscape. I am not entirely convinced, but it is a very interesting idea all the same.
Oh, writing historical fiction is such fun!