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Explore England's Past

Medieval Farming

Ridge and furrow earthworks at Hylton Castle, Sunderland

Prior to the 16th century much of the country was subject to the manorial system, in which landowners held land (the manor) which they either worked directly (the demesne) or let to tenants, usually under restrictive forms of tenure (copyhold). Tenants sometimes worked on the demesne as well as on the land they held. This system never covered the whole country, but it reached a peak around 1200.

However, in the aftermath of the Black Death (1348-9 and subsequent revisitations through the 14th century) landowners found it increasingly difficult to discipline their tenants, who often departed for other manors. The system gradually fell apart with lords having to employ paid labour on their demesnes and the manor courts, which had exercised both tenurial functions and also civil jurisdiction, gradually losing their powers except for the transfer of title. Although copyhold tenure (‘copy of the court roll’, or tenancy admission document) remained widespread the farming system gradually moved in the direction of a stronger emphasis on straightforward money tenancies at market value (rack renting). The manorial system was not good for productivity, which generally remained low, and few farmers had much incentive to innovate when their landlord siphoned off much of the profit. The Nottinghamshire village of Laxton, near Newark, still retains its manor court and open fields, although it has had to adapt the farming system to modern needs.

Theme Items

Volunteers surveying a farmyard at Broford, Dulverton

Ridge and furrow near Withypool, evidence of medieval arable cultivation of the moorland.

Although sources for Exmoor's medieval history are scarce compared with neighbouring areas there is some interesting material.

The hill today is a large stretch of open heather moorland between the rivers Barle and Exe.

The fortuitous survival of two great surveys, Boldon Book, and Bishop Hatfield's survey, drawn up some two hundred years apart, has provided us wit

Frith Wood is a 75 hectare wood, owned and managed by the Forestry Commission.

For centuries, the Wylye Valley was an area of sheep farming and barley production, where the sheep were used to dung the land.

Sheep were washed and shorn in June and the wool sorted for sale.

Domesday Book, the most famous record in England’s national archive, and one of the oldest, has been available in printed form since 1783.

In the 1820s and 30s if you looked north from Basingstoke town centre two structures would dominate the top of the slope north of the River Loddon.