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Research article - Peer-reviewed, 2023

Fenced open-fields in mixed-farming systems: spatial organisation and cooperation in southern Sweden during the seventeenth century

Karsvall, Olof; Jupiter, Kristofer; Wästfelt, Anders


The organisation of fields and fences in agriculture that emerged during the Middle Ages and the early modern period was a complex system that combined individual ownership of and communal practices in arable land, meadows and pastures. It was adapted for small and mid-size family-based farming and was a different way to organise agriculture than the medieval estates (demesnes) and the larger coherent fields of the eighteenth century and onwards. The past decade of research in historical geography and economic history has highlighted the origin of this system, which is often referred to as the open-field system; it was open in the sense that it promoted communal farming of primarily arable land. This premodern farming system was, however, in many areas a physically closed landscape - a landscape where fences stood out as significant elements. This article investigates the use of fences in a part of early modern western Sweden. The empirical base is a reconstruction of fence-organisations from detailed large-scale maps dating from the mid-seventeenth century. Using historical maps, this study focuses on the collaboration and interaction among farms and settlements. We argue that the open-field system cannot be fully understood without regard to an in-depth analysis of the fences and the institutions holding the complex collaboration together. The occurrence or absence of fences in relation to openfields involves several questions: What are the characteristics of the fences in the farming systems known as open-field? What can be said about the spatial distributions and connections between the settlements sharing the same open-field? Can agrarian landscapes where fences were prominent elements be considered open-field? The results show that fences appear to be a key factor in understanding settlement patterns and open-fields in Scandinavian regions. A large number of fences created small fenced open-fields. Moreover, the divisions of the arable plots had less importance in the creation of open-fields, which included arable land, meadows and pastures. Instead, cross-settlement collaborations and arrangements are central for the open-fields in the study region. The regional differences within the open-field system provide an understanding of the preconditions and organisation of mixed farming, which combined small-scale arable land cultivation and large-scale pastures.(c) 2022 The Authors. Published by Elsevier Ltd. This is an open access article under the CC BY license (


Open -field; Fences; Large-scale maps; Mixed-farming; Seventeenth century

Published in

Journal of Historical Geography
2023, Volume: 80, pages: 18-31

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      Human Geography

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