ISSN 1357-4442Editor: Simon Denison

Issue no 33, April 1998


Medieval fields in their many forms

There is far more to ridge and furrow than meets the eye. David Hall explains

One of the most recognisable features of the English historic landscape, particularly in the Midlands, is `ridge and furrow'. This gives pasture fields an undulating, corrugated appearance, and in most cases marks the remains of medieval strip fields that were once under the plough.

Most people know something about the typical pre-enclosure farming system, in which villages were surrounded by large, hedgeless `open fields' that were farmed in strips. An individual farmer's holding, called a yardland in the South and an oxgang in the North, typically consisted of about 20 acres of land lying in 70 or so strips, or ridges, scattered throughout a township, no two ridges lying together. Typically each ridge measured a quarter of an acre in area - 11 yards (8m) wide, and 220 yards (200m) long, its length coming to be known as a `furlong', even though the term technically refers to a block of ridges, of whatever number, lying together within an open field.

This scattering of an individual holding was intended to ensure an even distribution of ridges across the fields, which were usually cultivated on a three-year crop rotation, carrying wheat and barley in the first year, beans and peas the next, and left fallow in the third year.

Some of the details of ridge and furrow, however - its purpose, date, distribution, and various identifiable peculiarities - are not so widely understood. Ridges were not created accidentally, but were cast up in order to create a self-draining seedbed. The furrow also acted as an open drain and served as an ownership demarcation between ridges.

The ridges were made by ploughing in a clockwise spiral, starting in the middle of the strip and eventually ploughing around the outside edge, with the plough constantly throwing the soil to the right. An anti-clockwise motion was adopted in the fallow season to cast some soil back towards the furrow and prevent cutting too deeply into infertile subsoil.

Ridge and furrow is associated with the Midlands, from Leicestershire to Buckinghamshire, where the largest areas are still to be found. It was originally found in a central swathe across England from Durham to Somerset on the lower lying land, and examples still survive in most of the region, the eastern counties generally having the least. Particularly well-preserved examples can be seen at Shuckburgh in Warwickshire and Ludgershall near Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire. Outside of this central swathe, ridge and furrow can be found in Shropshire, Cheshire and Northumberland.

Whether ridge and furrow existed outside this central swathe is controversial. It is argued that most of south-eastern England had little or none of it, although arable land was cultivated in the same-sized strips as in the Midlands. Norfolk still has a few examples of ridge and furrow, and recent work has shown that ridges were once more widespread there but were levelled by flatploughing in the 18th century. Some scholars claim that Suffolk never had ridges; nor Kent, perhaps because, in the later Middle Ages at least, the reversible plough (which throws soil either way and therefore creates no ridges) was introduced there by the 16th century.

One could also argue, however, that with the ubiquity of single-direction ploughs throughout the early period, most areas probably did have ridges that have since been destroyed. Certainly one must suppose that areas with some surviving ridges, such as Norfolk and Hampshire, originally had many more. It may be, on the other hand, that ridges were more common on heavier clay soils, where good artificial drainage was especially important.

Regional variation occurs in parts of Yorkshire, particularly the Wolds and Holderness, where there are slightly ridged lands of normal width but up to 1000m long. This, I assume, was the typical length of ridges throughout England in the early period - each ridge extending from the farm to the parish boundary - which was typically modified elsewhere for reasons of better drainage. In the chalky Wolds, with excellent natural drainage, such modification was less important. Examples of these long strips are known from soil-marks on aerial photographs and from 18th century maps. Such long strips, in fact, remained the norm on the Continent in the Middle Ages, and many present-day farms in Germany and Austria retain this same length.

The silt fenland around the Wash was quite different again, and had long, wide, ditched strips up to 15m wide and 1,500m long, ploughed flat. Some date from the late Saxon period and again reflect an early expansion of farming into the area.

A remarkable survival is at Laxton in Nottinghamshire, where three open fields are still farmed in strips by the village's farmers, according to rules supervised by a manorial court consisting of the villagers, which meets in the local pub. The strips have been ploughed flat, however, so cannot be defined as ridge and furrow.

Pre-enclosure strip fields are not straight, but have curved ends making the overall shape of an elongated reverse-S. This arose because of the tendency of the ploughteam to pull to the left in preparation for making the turn. At the end of each ridge a small amount of soil accumulated (a `head'), and where two furlongs abutting end-to-end have ridges lying in the same orientation, a double row of heads can be seen forming a humpy boundary (a `joint'). Furlongs meeting at right angles had these end-heaps smoothed out and worked into the first ridge which was called a `headland'.

Modifications of furlongs were made over the years. From the late 14th century narrow strips of greensward were left to mark off important groups of strips such as the manorial home farm (the demesne) or the land belonging to the church (the glebe). Some groups of strips were left unploughed and became permanent grass, called leys. These areas now have a lower profile than ridges that remained arable until enclosure.

Not all surviving ridges relate to pre-enclosure fields. There are two other types that commonly occur, both dating from the 19th century. Wide ridges were sometimes ploughed within enclosed fields, again for reasons of drainage; they are distinguished from open-field ridges in being generally straight, rather wider (often 20m), not so steep and always parallel to at least one field hedge. An outside furrow going all round the field completed the ploughing technique. Good examples survive at Naseby in Northamptonshire (they can be seen from the A14), and other examples are known in Kent.

Another type of 19th century ploughing, most common around Manchester and in Cheshire, has very narrow ridges, 2m - 3m wide. The narrowness distinguishes them from pre-enclosure types; they too fit within present-day hedged fields.

Historical records, particularly open-field maps and detailed ridge-by-ridge surveys amplified by lists of open-field orders or regulations, reveal much interesting information about ridge and furrow. The scattered distribution of strips across a township was often managed in a regular pattern, so that if there were 40 yardlands in each township, a ridge belonging to one farm would be placed at every 40th position, and the farmer would always have the same people farming the ridges either side.

Ridge and furrow is generally regarded as `medieval' but the age of surviving remnants is strictly the date when they were last ploughed, that is when a township was enclosed. For many Midland places this was in the period 1730 - 1840, with examples known as late as 1895 and 1901. Away from the Midlands enclosure was usually much earlier.

The date of open-field origin can be estimated from archaeological and historical data. Archaeological evidence, for example from Milton Keynes, shows that furrows cut into, and are therefore later than, features of the Middle Saxon period (say c AD850). Saxon charters of the 10th - 11th centuries - making grants of blocks of land and containing descriptions of the land's boundaries - refer to furrows and headlands, some coinciding with kinks in present-day parish boundaries, suggesting they are describing the same estates. An example, one of many, is Hardwick in Berkshire.

More remarkably, the fiscal rating of each township in the Domesday Survey can be shown to be related to the number of yardlands in the township. Invariably, wherever there is evidence to back it up, a township with a rating of say four hides would contain 40 yardlands, taking ten yardlands to the hide. A township of five hides would have 50 yardlands. This implies that field-systems were already in existence in a highly structured way before 1086. Their creation would seem, therefore, to belong to the late Saxon period in many cases.

Although ridge and furrow was once very widespread, it has been much diminished over the last 50 years, by the impact of urban development, quarrying and modern agriculture. A recent study that I conducted on behalf of English Heritage, as part of the Monuments Protection Programme, has identified only 41 townships in nine Midland counties that have blocks of ridge and furrow exceeding 150 hectares.

One hopes that some of this may be preserved, especially where the fields lie next to the earthworks of the parent village and where good historical records survive. From an archaeological viewpoint, it seems ridiculous that millions of pounds are spent to compensate farmers for leaving featureless modern arable fields uncultivated in the `set aside' scheme, yet ridge and furrow and village earthworks can be ploughed away without reference even to the planning process.

David Hall is the Manager of the Fenland Project, funded by English Heritage, based at Cambridge University

Further reading: Medieval Fields, David Hall (Shire, 1982); Field Systems of the British Isles, RA Butlin and AH Baker (CUP, 1973).

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No carefree life for Mesolithic people

Hunter-gatherers worked much harder for their living than has previously been thought, writes Rob Young

Until recently archaeologists were confident that they understood how Mesolithic people used the landscape during the long period from the end of the last Ice Age to the advent of settled farming (c 10,000 - 4,500BC).

The traditional view was of small bands progressing through the forested countryside, often exploiting coastal and inland / upland areas, in a seasonal round prescribed by the movements of animals and the ripening cycles and availability patterns of plants. Within this scheme of things, there may have been attempts to manipulate these resources through forest clearance.

The general picture, fleshed out from the study of modern foragers, was that things were fairly laid-back with abundant resources making life `easy'. Current research, however, is challenging this view of the last hunter-gatherers in the British Isles, and suggests that Mesolithic people worked harder for their living, in a far more organised way, than has previously been thought. Most of the evidence is dated to the mid - later Mesolithic period, but there is no reason to assume it does not broadly apply to the period as a whole.

The basic models of social organisation have been criticised on the grounds that their interpretations were borrowed wholesale from anthropological studies of modern hunter-gatherer groups. Now, computer-based, analytical techniques such as GIS (geographical information systems), as well as a number of outstanding recent finds, are transforming our understanding of Mesolithic settlement and food-procurement; refinements in techniques of pollen and charcoal analysis have demonstrated that the impact of hunter-gatherers on the contemporary forest cover may have been much more intensive than was previously thought; and direct analysis of human and animal skeletal remains is changing our ideas about what people ate and when.

From the Western Isles to the uplands of the North and South Pennines and right down on the south coast of England, new field projects have shifted the focus away from the examination of individual sites towards the integrated study of whole landscapes, emphasising the highly complex, organised, and intensive way in which Mesolithic groups made a living.

Work in the Western Isles by Steven Mithen and his colleagues from Reading University, and in North-East England by Chris Tolan-Smith of Newcastle University, has highlighted some of these developments. Field walking in Islay and the Tyne Valley has shown distinctive areas of repeated land-use in the Mesolithic, with certain sites used again and again for the same purpose - which contrasts with the older view of unorganised groups driven pell-mell across the landscape by chance and circumstance.

One particularly interesting discovery came through Mithen's excavation at Staonsaig on Colonsay, which revealed evidence for long-term, intensive plant food processing on the east coast of the island dating from c 7000BC, including the shelling, roasting and storage of hazelnuts and the tubers of the lesser celandine (see BA, June 1995).

The potential importance of plants as an element of the Mesolithic diet has been played down, or largely ignored, until recently. This is due, in the main, to archaeologists' tendency to be `meat-fixated' when they think about Mesolithic subsistence. It is also a reflection of the fact that plant remains rarely survive and that when they do they are difficult to recover. The Colonsay evidence clearly shows how intensively, and purposefully, plants were exploited, even in areas removed from the mainland. Moreover, in Scotland and Ireland pre-Neolithic cultivated cereal pollen has been recovered, suggesting early experiments with the growing of crops.

The most innovative aspect of the work in the Western Isles, though, was the use of GIS to model the nature of the Mesolithic landscape, and to set the recorded sites into a broader context.

A GIS is a computerised database which allows detailed information about the spatial relationships of features in the landscape to be stored and manipulated. It can operate at the scale of individual sites, at the general landscape level and at the national level. From a Mesolithic research point of view it permits details of the location of finds - flint scatters in the main - to be analysed in a multitude of ways. In particular a GIS allows the location of sites to be examined in relation to things like distance to permanent water, changes of slope, extent of view, contemporary vegetation cover, and so on.

The Islay project has used the technique to examine the extent of views from certain Mesolithic settlement and hunting camps. This `viewshed' approach, as it is known, suggests that sites were recurrently and intentionally placed in similar sorts of locations on the island - such as rock spurs and high ground overlooking valley bottoms. This in turn permits speculation about developed hunting strategies which allowed for the observation of game movement in certain parts of the landscape.

The technique has also been applied by Penny Spikins of Newcastle University to map, from pollen evidence, the vegetation cover that may have existed across the whole of Britain. The impression is of a landscape that was difficult to move through, and that rivers were the principal channels of movement between lowland and upland areas. Groups of hunter-gatherers were forced, by this difficult environment, to adopt survival `strategies' rather than relying merely on chance.

All of these innovations in settlement and landscape study have to be set against the background of a massive increase in knowledge about the complex nature of Mesolithic forest clearance.

It has long been accepted that Mesolithic groups did manipulate the vegetation cover, particularly in the upland parts of Britain, largely by fire. This may have been done for a variety of reasons. For example, setting fire to an area of woodland would have made hunting easier, by attracting animals to graze in cleared areas as the young shoots regenerated. It may also have been done to drive animals in a particular direction in the course of hunting expeditions, or to encourage the growth of plantfoods like hazelnuts, as the light-loving hazel plant is one of the first shrubs to recolonise a cleared area.

In the past such clearances were regarded as one-off events, unrepeated and planned for short-term gain. The development and application of what is known as `fine resolution pollen analysis' (FRP), however, has shown just how intensive this kind of environmental manipulation may have been, and how much more regularly it may have taken place. A conventional pollen diagram is prepared by sampling a vertical core of peat, for example, at intervals as widely spaced as 10cm - 15cm, to give an idea of vegetation change over time. Minuscule deposits of charcoal in the core provide evidence of forest-burning. Because of the wide sampling intervals, however, this provides only rough information. With FRP, samples are taken at intervals of 1mm - 2mm, which has the potential to give us a much more detailed knowledge of vegetational change, almost on a year by year basis.

A pioneer of this reseach is Ian Simmons of Durham University. His work on the North York Moors has shown that what appear, on conventional pollen diagrams, to be single episodes of Mesolithic forest burning are in fact often regular, repetitive, almost cyclical small-scale events. Mesolithic people were returning again and again, following deliberate planning, to the same areas. Such repeated usage of the same places may seem odd, considering the underpopulation of Britain as a whole, but it suggests that Mesolithic groups had a strong sense of place and of their own territory.

Another area of research that will contribute significantly to the debate about seasonality is the work on Mesolithic diet by Rick Schulting and Mike Richards, postgraduates at Reading and Oxford universities. Using a technique known as stable isotope analysis, they are looking in detail at both human and animal skeletal remains for evidence of the varying amounts of terrestrial and marine resources in the diet, measuring rates of protein uptake among other things. Early results are that, perhaps unsurprisingly, a great deal of sea-fish was eaten on Mesolithic Colonsay, and also on Caldey Island off the South Wales coast at a period thought to be Mesolithic. By contrast, Mesolithic remains from inland sites such as Thatcham in Berkshire or Aveline's Hole in Somerset suggest very high meat diets with little contribution from fish - even freshwater fish. Interestingly, work on Neolithic bones suggests that no seafood was eaten at all, either on the coast or inland. Overall, however, this work is set to have a dramatic impact on the accepted models of Mesolithic seasonal movement and resource exploitation.

The concept of seasonal movement of Mesolithic groups, from one camp to another, is still with us. But it has been refined, as we have begun to understand the intensity and sophistication with which Mesolithic people exploited the landscape for their own ends.

Dr Rob Young is a Senior Lecturer in Archaeology at the University of Leicester

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Literate culture of `Dark Age' Britain

People continued to use sophisticated Latin in early medieval western Britain, writes David Howlett

Some books about the end of Roman Britain imply that after the departure of military and civilian administrators in AD410 the Roman way of life ended suddenly, with gentlemen farmers abandoning their villas to live in holes in the ground and everyone becoming illiterate.

Evidence for survival of a flourishing literate culture exists, however, in the works of the Romano - British writers Pelagius (died c 430), Saint Patrick (died c 461), and Faustus of Riez (died c 490), and on stones designed and inscribed by post-Roman Britons. Classicists, historians, and epigraphers have all cited these inscriptions as evidence of declining standards of culture, but a new appraisal of the stones reveals a drastically different picture.

The first inscription survives on a small stone in the parish church at Penmachno in Caernarfonshire.


The inscription is preceded by the chi rho sign, which marks it as a Christian composition, probably not later than the end of the 5th century. A classicist translating this as `Carausius here lies in this heap of stones' might see an ungrammatical sentence exhibiting clear evidence of a decline into barbarous Latin, with iacit for the expected iacet (`he lies'), and in hoc congeries, for the expected in hac congerie (`in this heap').

As iacit appears in scores of inscriptions throughout Britain and elsewhere, however, one cannot consider it an error. But one need not suppose the inscription to exhibit error in any form. Assuming a sentence break after hoc, the inscription reads: `Carausius here lies in this. A heap of stones. '

The name Carausius, borne earlier by the British rebel emperor (AD289 - 93), is a Celtic man's name. If the etymological element of the first syllable was imagined as Welsh câr (`dear one, relative'), like Latin carus (`dear'), one might see play in the first and last syllables of the inscription, car-um. There is further play, if one reads the text backwards:


Arranged thus, an apparently unmetrical inscription makes a line of hexameter verse with faultless metrical quantities.

This reconstruction might, at first sight, seem far- fetched, but the 7th century Irishman Virgilius Maro Grammaticus advocated scinderatio phonorum, or `scrambling of sounds', and it may have been a game played by 5th and 6th century Britons. This inscription, which at first suggests ignorance of rules, really illustrates knowledge of rules deep enough to play with them.

In AD540, in De Excidio Britanniae, the writer Gildas attacked five tyrants, the last of whom was the insularis draco Maglocunus, Maelgwn of Gwynedd, `dragon of the isle' of Anglesey, charged with sexual licence, madidus vino de Sodomitana vite expresso, `drunk with wine pressed from a Sodomitic vine'.

Maelgwn's great-great-grandson, Cadfan, King of Anglesey, was also a bit of a lad, and was commemorated in a sepulchral inscription of the last third of the 7th century in the parish church of Llangadwaladr on Anglesey.

CATAMANUS REX Cadfan the king,
OPINATISIMUS most highly esteemed
OMNIUM REGUM of all kings

The inscription is craftsmanly. There is rhyme between adjacent lines and between the first and last lines. Each line consists of two metrical feet, of various standard types.

But the inscription is also crafty. One may doubt whether a king of Anglesey really merited the double superlative, especially as the first was applied in the 6th century Annales Cambriae to Gildas himself (`Gildas Brittonum sapientissimus'), and again in the Annals in the Book of Leinster (`Gillas Sapiens'). The last two words of the inscription are quoted from Gildas's De Excidio Britanniae (chapter 33). As Gildas applied the words regum omnium Regi to God, the epigraphist's application of the words omnium regum to Cadfan is not only a reversal, but a deliberate misappropriation - one aspect of the provocative outrageousness of this inscription.

A third inscription, probably from the fourth quarter of the 7th century, commemorates two Brycheiniog princes, and survives in the churchyard of Llanlleonfel in Breconshire. Again, it can be arranged as two lines of hexameter verse:


Mute in the shroud Ioruert and Ruallaun in sepulchres
look in peace for the awesome advent of the judgement

Allowing for some elision and synizesis (the compression of two vowels into one syllable), the lines contain only one metrical false quantity (muti). We have rhyme and alliteration, both within the lines and between them. In the first line there are six words, 15 syllables and 40 characters; in the second line there are six words, 15 syllables, and 40 characters.

A fourth inscription was found on a flat stone dug up in the priory grounds of Caldey Island, off the south coast of Pembrokeshire, before 1811. It has been described by an earlier authority as an example of `illiterate Latinity', its sense `not easy to grasp'; but in truth the sense is perfectly comprehensible and the style admirable.

ET SINGNO CRUCIS With the sign of the Cross
IN ILLAM FINGSI I devised on that [church]
ROGO OMNIBUS I ask from all
AMMULANTIBUS those walking
IBI EXORENT there that they pray
PRO ANIMA E from within for the soul
CATUOCONI of Catuoconus.

The first word is an early example of et as a preposition meaning `with'. The first n in singno (usually signo) represents a widespread nasalized pronunciation of -gn-. The demonstrative pronoun illam (`that') refers to some feminine noun such as ecclesiam (`church'), presumably a structure elsewhere on the site of the island priory, or on the mainland which is visible from the island.

Our author clearly understood the orthographic systems of Celtic languages, in which the x of Classical Latin finxi (`I devised') could be represented by cs or gs. The -mm- of ammulantibus (usually ambulantibus, `from those walking') represents an ordinary Brittonic pronunciation spelling. The genitive form of the name Catuoconus is governed by the noun anima rather than the preposition e, which I have translated as `from within'. There is nothing irregular, certainly nothing erroneous, in this inscription.

The archaeologist Charles Thomas has suggested identification of Catuoconus with the Demetian ruler who figures in a genealogy in the British Library (MS Harley 3859) as Catgocaun map Cathen map Cloten, and in one in Jesus College, Oxford (MS 20) as Cadwgawn map Caden map Keindrec merch Ruallaun. If Catuoconus was the great-grandson of the Ruallaun mentioned in the preceding inscription he may have been born not long before AD700. This inscription could then be safely dated to a period early in the 8th century.

The verse form consists of adonics - each line containing a dactyl (long-short-short) and a spondee (long-long) - and may be compared with those of the 8th century Englishman Alcuin and the 8th century Irishman Columbanus of Saint-Trond (known as quantitative metrical adonics), and with those of Brian mac Con Catha (known as rhythmic syllabic adonics). As the quantitative metrical adonic verses of Ennodius seem not to have been known in the West before the 780s at the Carolingian court, one infers that our author may have read quantitative metrical adonic verses of earlier writers on the curriculum, notably Boethius and Martianus Capella, either devising the form of rhythmic syllabic adonics himself or imitating their use by earlier Cambro-Latin writers. The verses on this stone are the earliest example of rhythmic syllabic adonics I know.

Finally, a sepulchral inscription survives at Eglwys Dewi Sant, Llanddewi Brefi, in Dyfed, from the year 806.

HIC IACIT IDNERT Here lies Idnert,
FILIUS IACOBI son of Iago,
QUI OCCISUS FUIT who was slain
PROPTER PREDAM as a result of an act of plunder
SANCTI DAVID of Saint David's.

Again allowing for some synizesis and elision, this inscription can be scanned as five lines of dimeters (consisting of two metrical feet), the first two dactylic, the last two spondaic, and the central line containing one spondee and one dactyl. The central idea, qui occisus (`who was slain'), occurs in the very centre of the verse, judged in numbers of words, syllables and characters.

These lines of dimeters illustrate the continuing vigour of a tradition of composition in Classical Latin prosody in a form less common than the usual hexameters.

This survey considers the merest fraction of competent inscriptions surviving from the British `Dark Age'. During this time Latin remained what Gildas had called it, lingua nostra, `our language', and not among a tiny minority of isolated clerics. The Carausius inscription preserves the ancient Roman epigraphic tradition; and the admixture of Insular forms in later inscriptions, often interpreted as a sign of declining culture, really affords clear proof of literacy in a culture in which script was transferred from manuscripts to stones.

As few intending to commemorate either the living or the dead would compose either prose or verse inscriptions for public monuments in a language that would not be understood, we may infer the existence of a class of Britons who could readily understand spoken Latin and construe written Latin in the centuries after the departure of Roman civilian and military administrators.

Moreover, the very remoteness of the sites of some of these inscriptions suggests that designers and executors and readers alike relied not upon imported or itinerant composers and carvers, but upon the internal resources of a continuous, cumulative, uniquely self-possessed, and brilliantly inventive Cambro-Latin tradition.

Dr David Howlett is Editor of the Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources at the Bodleian Library, Oxford

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