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The "Midland System "

Open Fields. Already, then, by the time of the Conquest, a great variety of types of settlement had grown up. The best known of these, and that on which most historians, until lately, have dwelt almost exclusively, when discussing the" medieval village "or the " open field system ", was the one prevalent over all the central part of England and which we may perhaps call the Midland system. The typical village was nucleated - a cluster of houses or hovels, close together. The land surrounding it was split into two, or three, great fields; each year one of these would lie fallow while the remainder was cu1tivated. Each family in the village, apart from the very poorest and perhaps some slaves, the conquered or their descendants, had initially an equal share in the available land; but these holdings were not all in one compact piece. They were divided up into small strips scattered higgledy-piggledy in the open fields.

This is most readily explained by the circumstances in which land had to be brought under cultivation. Communal ploughing was the rule, since few, if any, peasant households could have made up a plough alone. If each household's share had been a compact block, then those whose land was ploughed earliest would gain an unfair advantage. Splitting it up into strips ensured that even after a single day's ploughing each family had some 1ad ready for further cultivation; and that good and bad soil was distributed fairly. At first the land may have been divided afresh each year, but very early each peasant seems to have obtained a lasting title to a given collection of strips, which passed intact at death to his eldest son or another holder.

Sowing and other operations had also to be carried out in a manner determined by the whole community. Each year part of one field, or the whole of one if there were three, would be sown with wheat or rye. Sometimes both would be sown and reaped together; the mixture of grains so produced was known as maslin. The rest, except for the fallow field, would be sown in spring with a crop such as barley or pulse (peas and beans). Turnips and swedes, and that later stand-by the potato, were unknown. Technique was primitive; the ploughs were made of wood, with at most an iron share, and were drawn by four or sometimes eight oxen.

Upon the fallow field all the year round, and on the stubble of the other fields between harvest and seedtime, were grazed the villagers' livestock - oxen, sheep, goats, and may be a horse or two - under the charge of a village official. This common pasturing of beasts in a compact fallow field is perhaps the chief convenience of the Midland system as compared with others; for the problem of feeding livestock was acute for the medieval peasant. There might, in riverside villages especially, be meadows--though before the time of scientific land drainage they might be hard to distinguish from marshes - but hay for winter feeding was scarce; so that all the cattle except a remnant kept for milk or breeding had to be killed off in the autumn and salted down for winter food.

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Geography and Tribal Tradition

Whether people lived in one type of settlement or the other depended chiefly on two factors, those of geography and of tribal tradition. Where the land was rich and fertile, so that a small acreage was enough to keep 'a family, there would - in general - be found nucleated villages; in poor or mountainous country, or clearings made from heavy natural woodland, or in newly settled areas generally, scattered hamlets were more likely to be formed. Large-scale maps of different parts of England, such as the 1-inch Ordnance Survey, show that in general the first type is found in the South and East, the second... see: Geography and Tribal Tradition

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