Visiting the Laxton Map

Classic open field farming, once so prevalent in central medieval England, is all but extinct. Gone are the three-field rotations, the undivided strips, the communal decision-making… except at Laxton, the famously unique village in Nottinghamshire which has never entirely given up its open field system. True, it does not retain the medieval ways in every particular, but the principles are very much there. Local farmer Stuart Rose explains more on his website.

Labours of 1635 – detail from the Laxton map

But it isn’t just the modern farming legacy that makes Laxton special. It’s also the survival of an astounding survey of every piece of land in Laxton in 1635, the work of one Mark Pierce, commissioned by the merchant Sir William Courten who had purchased the manor. The survey consists of a huge, beautiful map and an accompanying ‘Booke of Survaye’ known as a terrier (an inventory of ownership, occupany and acreage, rather than a dog). Not only is this a valuable account of the minutiae of a functioning open field village in the 17th century, it’s also a work of art: the map is adorned with trees, stooks, sheep, cattle (some being milked), horses (some being ridden), birds, forests, huntsmen, shepherds, ploughmen, scythers, haywains, windmills… In short, it gives us a colourful view of a living landscape populated by lively animals and active, Lowry-esque villagers. Time has been collapsed in these pictures, such that agricultural labours from different seasons are all shown together.

Loading up the wain – a detail from the Laxton map

We’re privileged that these spectacular pieces of parchment are now curated by the Bodleian Library in Oxford. During (and despite) the Second World War, the late Dr C.S. Orwin arranged the purchase of the map for the University of Oxford, recognizing its huge value to historians.

And so it came about that the Oxford contingent of the FeedSax team was able to visit the map and terrier, and examine them at first hand in the Weston Library, through the good offices of the maps librarian Nick Millea.

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Needless to say this was a wonderfully exciting and informative chance to see a unique and valuable resource up close. And if you want to step back in time to 17th-century Laxton yourself, you can: the map and terrier have been digitized by the Bodleian and can be freely accessed online.

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Be sure to look at the ‘title cartouche’ panel – the figures in the margins, Nick said, might well be self-portraits of Mark Pierce himself.

And as for the snails at the bottom, one wonders if they might represent the slow pace of work surely needed to produce such a big but detailed piece.

If a job’s worth doing…

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