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Open Field

For a thousand years, from Roman times to around the 16th century, much of the lands of Northern Europe, and in particular England, were organized by an ‘open field system.’


Determined by the king and handed down through lords, manors and churches, these un-fenced agricultural patchworks supported upwards of 600 people.





Before private, fenced, property was mainstream, serfs and peasants would be beholden to a lord, and designated a strip of land of which they could work upon. They were called ‘open fields’ as there was no fences and the land was subdivided to different families. Handed down from generation to generation, many families were in debt to their lord, subservient to taxes and while they couldn’t be evicted, they also couldn’t leave the land.


In one such English village: “The tenants on the manor did not have equal holdings of land. About one-half of adults living on a manor had no land at all and had to work for larger landholders for their livelihood. A survey of 104 13th-century manors in England found that, among the landholding tenants, 45 percent had less than 3 acres. To survive, they also had to work for larger landowners. 22 percent of tenants had a virgate of land (which varied in size between 24 acres and 32 acres and 31 percent had one-half virgate. To rely on the land for a livelihood a tenant family needed at least 10 acres.”





Once referred to as the “tragedy of the commons” by economists, the system did last for a thousand years and some open fields systems exists to this day in parts of England. But capitalism and privatization did win out, as the thinking of the time was that a common use of land only created a more competitive use of the land, creating long-term impacts of over-grazing. With good management from the manor this wasn’t always the case, but in time, land was treated as a commodity, fenced off, and sold to the highest bidder.





In the 18th centuries most governments of Northern Europe abolished the open-field system in favor of private lands, but not before some open field systems existed across the big pond in New England.


The earth is marked by the pattern of politics and economy.


How has the land been used, manipulated and conceived through the lens of ownership? How does ownership determine landscape, land use, and land markings?




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© 2019 by J. Matthew Thomas

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