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Open and Closed

In the Middle Ages, desperate but clever peasants developed a new method of managing the land they worked that proved to be the biggest agricultural advance of that era. They instituted the open-field system, a way of using all available land in and around a village for the good of the entire village while retaining some sense of ownership over the land. As time passed, farmers fine-tuned the open-field system so that the land produced more crops. Eventually, though, the small landowners were strong-armed by wealthy landowners into selling their small plots of land. It didn’t put every peasant farmer out of work, as many feared it might, but there were consequences from selling the land to the wealthy landowners, who fenced off the land and did away with the open-field system.

The Open-Field System

Under the open-field system, the land in and around a village was divided into large, open fields that were then subdivided into long, narrow strips of land. The community of peasants worked the open, unfenced fields year in and year out. While this system was actually an improvement over the primitive farming methods used before the Middle Ages, there were serious drawbacks. The peasant farmers had no true understanding of how nutrients like nitrogen had to be in soil in order for crops to grow and be productive. But, although they didn’t know that planting the same crop in the same field year after year exhausted the nutrients that crop needed, they did know that, eventually, that crop would fail.

Eventually, the peasants developed a system of crop rotation, often called the three- field system and then the four-field system. In the three-field system, farmers planted two different crops in two different fields and left the third field fallow. After a few years, the farmers would rotate the crops through the fields so that a new field would be left fallow, the previously fallow field would be planted, and the remaining field would be planted with a different crop.

Crops most frequently planted in the fields included grains like wheat or rye and then perhaps beans. There were problems inherent in the system. For example, even though fallow fields didn’t need to be tended the way other fields did, they still needed to be plowed several times each year to keep the weeds under control. Also, because animals like horses and oxen were necessary for working the land, some common fields were set aside for pasturing the animals; the commons, or large tracts of centrally located land, were accessible to everyone not only for grazing but for gathering firewood and the like.

In many cases, because of the pastureland and the fallow fields, scarcely more than 50 percent at a time of the arable land was actually used for farming. The acres that were farmed produced pathetically little yield relative to the energy put into the land, which explains why so many peasants went to bed hungry. It’s important to note, though, that the open-field system combined with crop rotation was a welcome improvement over any farming methods used in Europe before.


Owners of relatively large amounts of land, particularly in England, forced many poor peasants to sell their strips of land. The impetus for the large landowners to begin the enclosure movement, in full swing by the mid-eighteenth century, was the noticeable increase in yield compared to the previous centuries. The causes for the increase were the innovations to which the Agricultural Revolution is largely attributed. The consolidation of land formerly scattered throughout the larger fields proved to be efficient and also contributed to higher yields. By enclosing large tracts of land, managers of the enclosed crops were able to keep unwanted grazing down, practice selective breeding, prevent the spread of crop disease from one field to another, and employ progressive techniques with entire fields. To be fair, even though the large landowners moved forward with enclosure and people other than common farmers led the way in innovation, the tenant farmers were the ones who put the innovations into practice and made them work.

Would You Believe?

Some wealthy landowners were hesitant to embrace enclosure because it required large investments in land that certainly was not guaranteed to be productive.

The peasants were coerced to sell their land not by force but through a legal system dominated, of course, by the large landowners. Peasants resisted as long as they could, but the pressure became too great. As the landowners amassed vast amounts of land, the fields were fenced or enclosed and access to the commons restricted.

The peasants weren’t kicked off the land completely, though, because the wealthy landowners certainly weren’t going to till and sow and harvest the land themselves! The landowners rented the lands back to the peasants.

The peasants resented enclosure for a number of reasons. First, peasants lost access to the commons. Second, the peasants who were forced to give up their land were suddenly landless, the worst possible state of existence in Europe. Third, the peasants had no choice but to pay the rents, which often seemed unfairly high.

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