The existence and persistence of the open-field system in much of Northern Europe from at least the Medieval period to the 19th century has created great interest among economic historians because of the apparent inefficiency of this system. Donald McCloskey, has catalogued the possible costs to operating such a system.

The scattering of the plots of individual cultivators:

  • imposed costs on cultivators through unnecessary journeys by workers and their animals between plots,

  • reduced the incentive to control vermin and weeds since these would intrude from neighbours plots.

  • created costs from the theft of output through encroaching on neighbours’ land in ploughing or reaping,

  • created costs from the problem of draining such plots where the runoff would be onto neighbours’ land.

Even where the plots of individual cultivators were consolidated within the open fields there were still costs because:

  • each plot, no matter the special circumstances of its soil or location, was to some extent ubject to the standard cultivation regime.

  • there were the problems of disease with common stocking,

  • there were difficulties of selective breeding,

  • there were problems of achieving optimal levels of grazing.

The magnitude of these losses in medieval times is hard to quantify, but we can assume them to have been at least several percentages of output.

Enclosures of the open fields in the 18th century were accompanied by large increases in the value of the land (though it has been argued that much of these rent increases represent redistributions of income and not increases in efficiency. Even in the Middle Ages such records as exist, show enclosed demesne arable to be worth more than open-field demesne arable on the same manor. Tentative calculations indicate, that the difference in rent between open-field and enclosed arable in the early 14th century represented about 8-10% increase of the net value of output.

Why then did the open fields arise and why did they persist for so long? Over the past 100 years there have been a number of explanations of the open field system, including plough sharing, egalitarian impulses, partible inheritance, and fixed mould-board ploughs, risk aversion, transactions costs, and the high interest rates of medieval Europe which underpinned the openfield system.,%20Cost%20of%20Capital.pdf