Between the 900 and 1300 there was a massive expansion of the open field system to produce grain to accommodate the dramatic increase in population and to support the urbanisation of medieval England. Open fields, which continued in use in many townships right up to the 19th century, were made up of many long narrow strips, each typically in different ownership. Groups of strips all running in the same direction were called a furlong and these furlongs were grouped into great fields, for purposes of crop rotation. Open field farming was communal, with most townships operating a rotational three field system whereby two of the fields were in crop while one lay fallow. However, as in many other respects, the forest townships could be very different, some having many more great fields. The usual rotation was wheat, peas or beans and fallow. A map of Harringworth in 1732 shows just such a pattern with the fields colour coded according to the crop, wheat blue, peas red and fallow yellow.
Ridge and furrow earthworks still survive in some areas to show the pattern of strips which made up the open field systems of all our villages. Here at Braybrooke both rood (quarter acre) and half acre strips can be seen, with a small area of unploughed meadow towards the bottom of the picture (reproduces with permission of Northamptonshire County Council)
By 1300 almost everything that could be ploughed was ploughed. Pasture for stock was at a premium and so every corner of land not cultivated because it was too steep, too wet or was along the access ways, was laid down to grass and used for pasture. But in the townships lacking meadow and woodland the arable laid down to fallow each year provided essential grazing for the stock, as well as helping to fertilise the soil.
A typical medieval farm was called a yardland or virgate. This included a house and its garden in the village together with approximately 25 acres of land, though the exact amount varied from between different townships and sometimes between different farms in the same township. Yardlands were made up of strips scattered throughout the township, typically with no two strips lying side by side. In this way everyone had a share of the good and bad land and of the arable and fallow.
An individual holding also gave rights to the meadow, where it existed. Like arable land it was divided into strips and allocated to each yardland. Some meadows, called dole meadows, were allocated by lottery, so each holding could have a different piece of meadow each year unlike the ridge and furrow where the composition of each yardland was always fixed. Meadow land was sited along rivers and streams where the regular addition of rich silty soil during times of flood producing the best grass and hay. Townships along the major rivers typically had large tracts of meadow while those away from the valleys might have little or none. Meadow was an invaluable resource for stock and its land value was greater even than arable. Tenants had rights over their own piece of meadow until the hay as gathered in, but afterward it was opened to common grazing until the spring, when the animals were taken off again to allow a new crop of hay to be grown.
Land use in Ashley, Weston and Sutton in circa 1750
The regulations for use of the open fields were set by manorial court in the village. The court regulated such things as the number of beasts that could be kept by each tenant on the common, which fields or furlongs were to be under what crop that year, as well as deciding many minor legal matters. Communal duties were assigned whereby tenants were expected to maintain and repair roads, ditches, bridges and, where they existed in later centuries, hedges between townships. The court also appointed officers such as the Hayward who had charge of the common herd. The courts also fixed the number of days and type of work service the tenants were expected to do for the lord of the manor on his demesne or home farm, as rent for their own farms. This varied considerable from township to township.