The New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics

2018 Edition
| Editors: Macmillan Publishers Ltd

Open Field System

  • Donald N. McCloskey
Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1057/978-1-349-95189-5_1390

Abstract

The open field system was the arrangement of peasant agriculture in northern Europe before the twentieth century into scattered strips communally regulated but privately owned. The system shares features with much peasant agriculture worldwide, especially in its scattering of strips. Dissolved gradually by ‘enclosure’ (Turner 1984), first in England and Scandinavia and later in France (Grantham 1980), Germany (Mayhew 1973), and the Slavic lands (Blum 1961), it has been seen as an obstacle to agricultural development. The system is most thoroughly documented in England (Gray 1915; Ault 1972; Baker and Butlin 1973; Yelling 1977; and hundreds of local studies). The English case has long been disproportionately important because it has provided a rich set of myths for other cases of traditional agriculture and reform. (The Russian version, the mir, is important for the same reason; but its unique feature – the periodic redistribution of the strips among families – arose in the eighteenth century out of the need to pay taxes, not out of the ancient community of cousins.)

The open field system was the arrangement of peasant agriculture in northern Europe before the twentieth century into scattered strips communally regulated but privately owned. The system shares features with much peasant agriculture worldwide, especially in its scattering of strips. Dissolved gradually by ‘enclosure’ (Turner 1984), first in England and Scandinavia and later in France (Grantham 1980), Germany (Mayhew 1973), and the Slavic lands (Blum 1961), it has been seen as an obstacle to agricultural development. The system is most thoroughly documented in England (Gray 1915; Ault 1972; Baker and Butlin 1973; Yelling 1977; and hundreds of local studies). The English case has long been disproportionately important because it has provided a rich set of myths for other cases of traditional agriculture and reform. (The Russian version, the mir, is important for the same reason; but its unique feature – the periodic redistribution of the strips among families – arose in the eighteenth century out of the need to pay taxes, not out of the ancient community of cousins.)

The scattering of strips within two or three large, unfenced (hence ‘open’) fields, perhaps a thousand acres each, implied common grazing on the stubble: fencing of the typical landholder’s seven or so plots, an acre or so each, was otherwise too expensive. The common grazing implied in turn common decisions on what was to be grown and when. The grazing herd forced all the villagers to plant and harvest on a common schedule.

The word ‘common’ has led to a misunderstanding of the system by economists and geographers unfamiliar with the history (Hardin 1968; Baack and Thomas 1974; Cohen and Weitzman 1975). The ‘commons’ famed in nursery rhyme and academic fantasy were the waste land suitable only for grazing, usually absent or tiny in the open field regions, and to be distinguished from the main fields, the ploughed lands grazed ‘in common’ after the harvest (confusingly named ‘the common fields’). The ‘common’ grazing and ‘common’ cropping did not mean that cattle and sheep were socialized or that cultivation was accomplished in communal gangs. The commonness was in coordination, not in ownership; in regulation, not in reward. Land, labour and capital were wholly private and rent-earning, not (as economists have imagined) ‘common pools’ or ‘fisheries’. The inefficiency of open fields, therefore, was not the inefficiency of a primitive socialism but of an imperfect capitalism.

The inefficiencies of open fields arose from spillovers and lack of specialization (the loss of land in boundaries and the loss of time in commuting from strip to strip were unimportant). Court records of quarrels between neighbours, and the poetry of the time, speak eloquently of the inconvenience of propinquity. In Piers Ploughman (c1378) Avarice boasts ‘If I go to the plough, I pinch so narrow/ That a foot’s land or a furrow to fetch I would/ Of my next neighbour, take of his earth;/ And if I reap, overreach, or give advice to him that reap/ To seize for me with his sickle what I never sowed.’ Three centuries later, after voluntary enclosure had narrowed the system (which anyway had not existed in highland areas), Thomas Tusser recommended ‘several’ (that is, consolidated) farming over ‘champion’ (that is, open field), because ‘Good land that is several, crops may have three,/ In champion country it may not so be:/ …/There common as commoners use,/ For otherwise shalt thou not choose.’ Although the open field village as a whole could introduce novelties, the lone villager bound by the decision of the commoners could not. The system lasted in the Midlands of England into the eighteenth century, the last of it dissolved slowly by special acts of Parliament. Arthur Young was typical of this latter age, and of historians looking back, in scorning the inefficiencies of the system, railing against ‘the Goths and Vandals of open-field farmers’.

With a complete set of markets, as A. Smith, R. Coase, and K. Arrow have explained, the Goths and Vandals would have traded away their inefficiencies. An explanation of open fields must depend therefore on some trade being blocked. The oldest explanation, imagining a spirit of fellowship within the primitive Germanic community, asks ‘Who laid out these fields? The obvious answer is that they were laid out by men who would sacrifice economy and efficiency at the shrine of equality’ (Maitland 1897). Evidence has accumulated since the nineteenth century that the fields in question were not laid out at once and the men laying them out did not worship at the shrine of equality. Yet even if they did, and did lay out the fields, they could have exchanged their scattered strips to achieve rational holdings later. An egalitarian explanation of persistent open fields depends therefore on a failure in the market for land. Here again, however, the evidence testifies to the contrary: villages in medieval England and in much of Europe had in fact a cheap and active market in parcels of land.

The same difficulty lies in the way of any other explanation of scattering. Scattering has been explained as arising also from egalitarian inheritance (Dovring 1965), common ploughing (Seebohm 1883), common grazing (Dahlman 1980), scheduling of harvest work (Fenoaltea 1976), and diversification of local risks (McCloskey 1976). These depend on market failures respectively in land, ploughing services, grazing rights, labour, and insurance. None of these is immune from the criticism, and few have faced it.

Insurance has been tested most thoroughly. The scattering of strips strikes the eye of an economist as diversification. Anthropologists, trained to take seriously the reasons proffered by their people, report the Hopi scattering corn lands to diversify against floods and Swiss peasants diversifying across altitudes. Furthermore, the amount of local variation in England was great: a wet year flooded clay lands in the valley while the chalk hills drained; infestations of insects and the paths of hailstorms were local. The portfolio that a peasant bought by having scattered strips can be calculated from medieval evidence of yields and modern evidence of agronomical experiments. The optimal number of plots proves to be roughly the same as the observed number.

The insurance argument, like the rest, can be criticized for ignoring a market, the market in this case for insurance (Fenoaltea 1976). It may well be that scattering was a form of insurance, but most social institutions anyway have an element of insurance, more so in the fourteenth century than now. A peasant could insure by sharecropping, by entering an extended family, by taking loans from the landlord, by purchasing liquid assets, and by storing grain. At the margin, however, the return from each form of insurance would be the same as any other. The scattering of strips incurred costs of about 15 per cent of output. The one other form of insurance whose costs are easily calculable is storage of grain (McCloskey and Nash 1984). A year’s worth of grain storage in the fourteenth century cost 40 per cent of the value of the crop, largely because interest rates were 30 per cent a year (by 1600, after interest rates had fallen, the cost was only 15 per cent: enclosure proceeded apace). For insurance, at least, we have a measure of the great imperfection in its market and therefore an explanation of the persistence of open fields.

Precise conclusions aside, the recent explanations all agree on a picture of the medieval peasant differing sharply from the romantic one drawn by nineteenth-century German scholarship. The new picture is market saturated (Popkin 1979) and individualistic (Macfarlane 1978); at any rate it is more so than the ‘natural economy’ once thought to prevail in medieval Europe and the ‘moral economy’ now thought to prevail in poor countries today.

See Also

Bibliography

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Copyright information

© Macmillan Publishers Ltd. 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Donald N. McCloskey
    • 1
  1. 1.