Archaeology: The importance of field work: David Keys reports on Britain's only surviving medieval agricultural system

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The Independent Culture
ARCHAEOLOGISTS have just completed the most comprehensive survey ever made of Britain's rarest medieval 'monument'. However, it is not a castle, nor an abbey, nor even a long-forgotten and deserted medieval village. The site in question consists of three fields of farmland in the heart of Nottinghamshire.

What makes them unique is not the land itself, but the way it is being farmed. Laxton, 30 miles north of Nottingham, is home to England's only surviving traditionally run medieval farming complex.

Known as the 'three-field system' and administered by a special village court, it used to be typical of the way most farmland in England was worked in medieval times.

But between the 16th and 19th centuries, at least 10 million acres of land were taken over - known as an enclosure - by the larger landowners.

Between 1760 and 1830, most new enclosures took place by an Act of Parliament - and during those 70 years, there were 4,000 such pieces of legislation.

In total, tens of thousands of small farmers were driven off the land by the enclosures. Land which had previously been communally used was privatised on a massive scale.

The survival of Laxton, despite the destruction wrought by enclosures on the rest of the country's rural population, is perhaps fitting, as the village was the administrative centre for Sherwood Forest, the legendary realm of Robin Hood.

The 'three-field system' is a semi- communal form of farming. Each field is divided into dozens of strips, and every farmer in the village works strips in each field. The fields are farmed on a three-year rotation basis, with a different field being left fallow each year.

After the harvest is gathered in, everybody in the village is still, theoretically, allowed to utilise the field for grazing livestock for about a month.

The system is administered by a 'jury' of villagers sworn in each November, and a special village court of law known as a 'court leet'.

Although there are a handful of other courts leet in Britain, only the Laxton court still retains its power over the village's agricultural life.

And indeed that power has just been given new impetus. The government quango, the Countryside Commission, has decided to help preserve Laxton's heritage by launching a rural stewardship scheme there - and the body it has signed the agreement with is the village court leet, not the actual owner of the land, which since 1981 has been the Crown Estate.

England's courts leet used to be relatively powerful judicial bodies - certainly as far as local people were concerned. Up until the 1680s, they had power to impose fines for such offences as drunkenness, swearing, minor theft and, at Laxton, 'carrying live coals'.

Laxton's court leet can, however, still impose fines for agricultural offences. The jurors check annually to ensure that the farmers do not encroach on to communal paths or on to their neighbours' strips.

The scheme will provide finance to help ensure the economic viability of the system. It was launched late last year, following a full archaeological survey funded by English Heritage and carried out by the Nottingham University-based Trent and Peak Archaeological Trust.

The survey, directed by archaeologist Keith Challis, recorded in detail for the first time all the physical agricultural and other features surviving from the medieval period.

The archaeologists mapped many factors of so-called 'ridge and furrow' undulations in the fields - features caused by centuries of medieval and post-medieval ploughing.

They recorded all the banks, ditches, hedges and footpaths associated with the village and its three- field system. Also mapped in great detail were all the woodland, orchard and meadow areas - and some earthwork features, including old mounds on which windmills had once stood.

Additionally, the survey included the 13th-century fishpond (once used to provide the lord of the manor with fresh fish) and the earthworks of a Norman castle.

Laxton has probably been inhabited more or less continuously for at least 2,000 years. The earliest known habitation of the site was a Romanfarmhouse. An Anglo-Saxon village developed in the Dark Ages and was flourishing by the time of the Norman Conquest.

At the time of the Domesday Book of 1086, the village probably had a population of more than 100, and some 720 acres of farmland strips arranged in two fields.

By around the year 1300, however, there were three fields with a total acreage under cultivation of almost 2,000. This had dropped to around 1,430 acres by 1635 and declined further to 1,313 acres by 1725, and 1,143 acres by 1736.

Small-scale enclosures were nibbling away at the edges of Laxton's communal three-field system, and by 1903 only 899 acres were left. Five years later this had fallen yet again - this time to 509 acres. Today the village has just 483 acres in its ancient three-field system, a quarter of what it had 700 years ago.

Laxton's agricultural system has survived (albeit in reduced form) through a mixture of good luck, bad fortune and benevolence. First, between the 1830s and 1850s a squabble between the two major aristocratic landowners prevented them agreeing on how to enclose London's fields.

Then, in the 1870s, economic depression removed the pressure to enclose land, and finally in 1903 the local vicar launched a campaign to preserve the village's by-then unique agricultural heritage.

Sadly, however, Laxton's three- field system and its ancient court leet are under threat. Despite the fact that the village has been listed as a conservation area, the local authority - Newark and Sherwood District Council - has allowed some highly controversial building works to take place within the village.

If further works are allowed in the future, the village may become more attractive to Sheffield- or Nottingham-based commuters. The resulting social changes would be likely to undermine the economic viability of the village's now unique medieval agricultural system.

(Photograph omitted)