Sub-types of commons

Common arable – common field – open field

The terms common arable, common fields or open fields refer to land whose primary use was arable (i.e. for the growing of crops). In its classic form in north-west Europe, this land was held in long thin strips. Each farmer held a number of strips scattered around a field system, and the farmers cultivated and harvested their own strips. However, after the harvest and in years when the land was uncultivated or fallow, the land was used for common grazing. The individual strips were grouped into blocks called furlongs, and in turn, furlongs were grouped into larger fields. The fields were management units for the purposes of crop rotations. Such field systems could contain two, three or more fields, but were usually cropped according to a two- or three-course rotation, meaning that every second or third year respectively each field was left fallow.

Open field is a frequently used term for this arrangement, alluding directly to the physical openness of a landscape devoid of internal hedges or fences. Most writers use the terms common field and open field interchangeably. However, others have distinguished the term common field from open field on the grounds that in some areas (such as Kent in south-east England) open fields were not subject to common rights.  These fields then were physically open but not common (Thirsk, 1964). In the context of common land the word ‘field’ is generally used in English to refer to arable land rather than meadow or pasture or waste. By contrast, enclosed or private land whether arable, pasture or meadow may be referred to as a field. 

(De Moor et al. 2002, 17-8)

Common meadow

‘Meadow’ refers to grassland used for the production of hay. Common meadow was generally open to common grazing after the hay harvest, but was usually divided into separate blocks in individual ownership in the same way as common arable.  However, in some places the harvest rights in the common meadow were reallocated at random each year by the drawing of lots.

(De Moor et al. 2002, 17-8)

Common pasture – common waste – common woodland

Permanent grass-land used for common grazing has been referred to as common pasture.  The terms common waste or common refer to common land on which a wider range of resources may have been available. More often than not this was grass land used mainly for common pasture. But on some common wastes, rights to gather wood, gorse, heather, and bracken, or to dig peat might also be important (and sometimes more important).

In England waste is sometimes used with the connotation of uncultivated or unimproved land, whether subject to common rights or not. ‘Common’ is of course the most widely used shorthand for this kind of land, and often a reference to the ‘commons’ is simply a reference to an area of ‘common waste’.

In the northern English uplands in the Early Modern Period some of the better common pastures on the lower slopes were physically enclosed (normally by stone walls) from the more extensive common waste.  These enclosed areas remained common pasture but were physically distinct from the common waste and this allowed them to be used differently. 

In England ‘waste’ could also encompass wooded areas, which was not always the case elsewhere. In these continental areas, woodland subject to common rights was often treated as distinct from non-wooded areas.

(De Moor et al. 2002, 19)

The subtypes compared

Type (click on type for description)AppearanceOwnershipCommon rights
Common arableArablePrivateOpen after harvest / in years when land was uncultivated
Crop rotation
Common fieldArablePrivateOpen after harvest / in years when land was uncultivated
Crop rotation
Open fieldArablePrivateOpen after harvest / in years when land was uncultivated
Crop rotation
Common meadowGrassland (producing hay)PrivateOpen to grazing after harvest
Common pastureGrasslandCollectiveGrazing
Common wasteUncultivatedCollectiveGrazing
Gathering wood, gorse, heather, bracken, peat
Common woodlandWoodlandCollectiveGrazing, gathering wood, other usages

These commons maintained similar rules and sanctions, e.g.:

  • Limits on commercial activity with resources obtained from the commons
  • Limits on the amount of resource units that users can take and the harvesting/use methods
  • Restrictions on the timing of access to the resources
  • Enforcement of collective exploitation/regulation of the management