Published on Feb 8, 2020

Open Field Background Images

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The open-field system was the prevalent agricultural system in much of Europe during the Middle Ages and lasted into the 20th century in parts of western Europe, Russia, Iran, and Turkey. Under the open-field system, each manor or village had two or three large fields, usually several hundred acres each, which were divided into many narrow strips of land. The strips or selions were cultivated by individuals or peasant families, often called tenants or serfs.

The holdings of a manor also included woodland and pasture areas for common usage and fields belonging to the lord of the manor and the church. The farmers customarily lived in individual houses in a nucleated village with a much larger manor house and church nearby. The open-field system necessitated co-operation among the inhabitants of the manor.

The Lord of the Manor, his officials, and a Manorial court administered the manor and exercised jurisdiction over the peasantry. The Lord levied rents and required the peasantry to work on his personal lands, called a demesne.


In medieval times, little land was owned outright. Instead, generally the lord had rights given to him by the king, and the tenant rented land from the lord. Lords demanded rents and labour from the tenants, but the tenants had firm user rights to cropland and common land and those rights were passed down from generation to generation. A medieval lord could not evict a tenant nor hire labour to replace him without legal cause. Most tenants likewise were not free without penalty to depart the manor for other locations or occupations. The rise of capitalism and the concept of land as a commodity to be bought and sold led to the gradual demise of the open-field system.

The open-field system was gradually replaced over several centuries by private ownership of land, especially after the 15th century in the process known as enclosure in England. France, Germany, and other northern European countries had systems similar to England, although open fields generally endured longer on the continent. Some elements of the open-field system were practised by early settlers in the New England region of the United States.

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