In the loveliest town of all, where the houses were white and high and the elm trees were green and higher than the houses, where the front yards were wide and pleasant and the back yards were bushy and worth finding out about…where the lawns ended in the orchards and the orchards ended in fields and the fields ended in pastures and the pastures climbed the hill and disappeared over the top toward the wonderful wide sky
… from Stuart Little by E.B. White
Stuart Little would have loved the little rural towns between Connecticut and the Canadian border. Back roads in this section of New England still exhibit remnants of the old English version of the town common—a central green, a meeting house or church at one end, and a surround of high white clapboard structures on the other three sides, with pastures and forests beyond. Just the sort of place E.B. White’s wandering mouse hero enjoyed.
The vernacular settlement pattern known as the common is—or more accurately was—an excellent model of community conservation of green space, an example of mutually accepted preservation without debate or vote. The common was once a cultural fact of life, it was what you did if you wanted to lay out a village, and it was an ideal that still endures in the American psyche. The image appears everywhere, from Christmas cards to ads touting wholesome family life.
The archetype of this idealized town has its roots deeply planted in English history, but in North America it is unique to New England. In its most basic form, the English village (from the Old French term vill) was no more than a collection of houses, barns, and outbuildings surrounded by cultivated fields and pasturelands, with a forest beyond. Under the old feudal system the whole of this was under the management of the lord, who was responsible for the safety of his underlings who had gathered themselves together under his protection to save themselves from the raiding armies of invaders, such as the Vikings or Normans. Small landholders in this system surrendered whatever rights they may have had to the control of the lord in order to protect their croplands, the source of their livelihood.
In a typical feudal holding, some two to three hundred acres around the vill would have been cleared from the native forest of beech, ash, and holly. About sixteen to twenty families would be living in the village—all told around 200 people. The system worked communally. The families would have owned a number of plows between them, and they would have had teams of oxen, also shared, to pull the plows. They may have had community fishponds on the local streams, and weirs, and even a water mill. The fields, which began at the forest edge and ran to the border of the village, consisted of one, long, open stretch. The patchwork division of small fields and pastures that you see today in England would come later in the seventeenth and eighteenth century with the acts of enclosure.
This great open field cultivation was ploughed in strips that were roughly ten times as long as they were wide. The design, known as a furlong—a standard furrow's length (220 yards)—came to pass because of the difficulty in turning a team of oxen. The long strips of arable land were planted to grains, barley, and peas, and were altered on a three-year system of rotation, allowing some strips to lie fallow in any given year. Each family planted and harvested its own crop on a given section of land, although the strip a family cultivated might not be the same piece of land each year. Under this system, fields of different quality would be equitably distributed among the farmers over a period of time. Unless you were a serf—essentially the equivalent of a slave—you would be guaranteed a certain amount of land. The distribution of these arable lands was decided each year at a meeting known as the annual allotment.
In addition to the great fields, each family would have maintained, close to their house, a small privately cultivated plot for a garden, and a yard for hens and geese and a few fruit trees.
Surrounding the cultivated fields of grain were the pasturelands, where each day the herds of cattle, sheep, and goats were driven out to graze. These lands were also held in common by the village but not divided into lots.
Beyond the pasturelands was the forest, which was held, in effect, by no one. Here the local peasants went to gather nuts and firewood, here they turned out their swine to forage, and here also they hunted rabbits, deer, and boar for their larder. This so-called waestland, or wilderness, was the dark forest of European myth and folktale. It was the known domain of goblins and witches and hideous imaginary creatures, as well as all-too-real escaped criminals and robbers, such as Robin Hood. It was, in effect, the opposite of the comfortable, managed, public space of the common.
In 1066, William the Conqueror, as Anglophiles will attest, at once altered this primordial village system and refined it to his liking. One of his earliest violations of the traditional Anglo-Saxon structure was to declare the forest his private hunting domain. Locals who were discovered in his greenwood collecting faggots, digging out rabbit warrens, or, worst of all, killing deer—his deer mind you—were severely punished. William’s ruthless protection of “his resources” altered the ecological makeup of the forest in those areas where it had been heavily used by the peasants. In fact, excluding people from the forest may actually have had a beneficial ecological effect, at least around the villages, but it was not good for the local peasantry.
In the time of William, rents for lands were paid in-kind. That is, you supplied a certain amount of grain to the lord of the vill each year according to the amount of land you were using. You rendered unto the lord a certain amount of work each year, or military service. You applied each year to renew your holding, and the terms of your arrangements were set. Rights of use of land formed a great theoretical pyramid, with the king at the top; the serfs, or cottars, at the bottom; and various tenants and thanes, villeins, earls, and lords in the middle and upper reaches. “From the Crown, all titles flow,” as the phrase had it.
All this more or less came to an end about the time that the Pilgrims and Puritans came to North America. By this time, in the mid-1600s, the old tenure system requiring payment in-kind or in personal services had faded. The King granted the lands of the Massachusetts Bay Company common socage, which meant that the rights of use of the land could be paid in rent rather than grains or firewood, or knights’ service to the King.
Common socage was actually not an unusual form of payment for land in Kent and also in East Anglia, where many of the Puritans came from and where the feudal system had less of a footing than in other sections of England. Even before this time, peasants in England were able to maintain certain rights under what was known as the allodial system, which had been in practice as far back as the Roman period elsewhere in Europe. This held that no matter who was in control, no matter which king or queen sat on the throne, or who was lord, the peasants could continue on their traditional lands. There were no laws stating this, it was simply a reality, but it was such an enduring one that it has been at the root of the private-property system even into our time. It was from this concept that the idea of the common began to erode.
This idea of holding private property in fee simple, that is to say, as the absolute ownership of a piece of land that can be bought and sold, is actually a fairly recent development in legal history. The idea of land as property, something you own, as you would a book or a piece of furniture, did not come into full use until the eighteenth century. Before that, in English law at least, what you bought and sold was land held of someone; you bought the right to live there, or the right to use it. You did not actually own the ground.
By the eighteenth century in Britain, the common rights associated with land—pasturing cattle, for example, or cutting timber or turf—began to give way to a rigid set of regulations based on private outright ownership of property, and the tradition of the common began to fade. This was the same period as the Acts of Enclosure, when some six million acres of commonly held lands—meadows, open fields, and forests—were transferred into private hands by parliamentary approval and were hedged and fenced for private gain.
Here in New England, even though the idea of the commons was still ingrained in the colonial soul, the concept of the private plot, of each man as lord of his own manor, flourished in the wide-open spaces of the New World. Within a few decades of settlement, in communities such as Plymouth and Sudbury, the great fields and the pasturelands, and even the wild forest beyond, switched from common land to private holdings.
Nevertheless, the primordial idea of a public green space, a commonly held tract of land at the heart of the village, has endured. And although sadly diminished, the old town commons can still be found by anyone willing to shun the superhighways and poke around a little on back roads. As one of the characters tells Stuart Little, “A person who is looking for something doesn’t travel too fast.”