What is Medieval Ridge and Furrow?

Medieval Ridge and furrow is a term employed to depict the raised earthbanks and intervening depressions that result from prolonged ploughing activities.

The consistent action of the plough over time leads to the accumulation of soil into regularly spaced banks extending along the field’s length.

Moreover, the observable curvature of these banks, forming a distinctive reversed ‘s’ shape, serves as evidence of the angle at which the plough team turned. This characteristic curvature can still be discerned today in the meandering course of certain field boundaries.

Additionally, the width of the ridge and furrow formations can provide valuable clues regarding the time period when they were originally created.

For instance, the narrow dimensions of the “cord rig” pattern are associated with late prehistoric ploughing techniques, exemplifying how the width of these formations can offer insights into their historical context.


This agricultural pattern is particularly synonymous with the open-field system and is predominantly referred to as rig (or rigg) and furrow in the North East of England and in Scotland.

Open Field System

Lidar screenshot of medieval ridge and furrow
Lidar screenshot of medieval ridge and furrow

Today, surviving instances of ridge and furrow topography can be found not only in Great Britain and Ireland but also in various other parts of Europe.

These surviving ridges are characterized by their parallel alignment, typically spaced between 3 to 22 yards (3 to 20 meters) apart, and standing up to 24 inches (61 centimeters) in height – a considerable contrast to their former stature during active use.

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It is worth noting that older examples of ridge and furrow often exhibit curvilinear configurations.The formation of ridge and furrow topography was a direct outcome of ploughing practices involving non-reversible ploughs on the same designated strip of land year after year.

This field of curving ridge and furrow is a great example of ridge a furrow.
This field of curving ridge and furrow is a great example

Consequently, this distinctive pattern becomes discernible on land that underwent ploughing during the Middle Ages but has since remained untouched by subsequent ploughing activities.

No currently cultivated ridge and furrow systems exist. In terms of its historical and practical significance, the ridges or lands created through this method assumed pivotal roles within the framework of landholding and agriculture in medieval societies.

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They served as fundamental units of land tenure, facilitating the assessment of ploughing efforts, and played a crucial role in the harvest season, aiding in the reaping of crops during the autumn months.

Medieval Plough

Conventional ploughs are designed with the ploughshare and mould-board positioned on the right-hand side, causing the soil to be turned over to the right as the plough advances.

Consequently, this configuration prevents the plough from retracing its path along the same line for the subsequent furrow. Instead, the ploughing process unfolds in a clockwise manner around an elongated rectangular area referred to as a “land.”

Ridge and furrow Baughton, Worcestershire, England
Ridge and furrow near Dunstall Farm. Baughton, Worcestershire, England Beyond are two bare trees, with Pheasant Wood behind and the Malvern Hills on the horizon.

Upon completing the ploughing of one of the long sides of the strip, the plough is lifted from the ground at the end of the field. It is then transported across the unploughed headland, which denotes the shorter end of the strip. Subsequently, the plough is repositioned into the soil to commence ploughing along the opposite long side of the strip.

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Notably, the width of the ploughed strip is deliberately kept relatively narrow to minimize the distance the plough needs to be maneuvered across the headland. This sequential process yields the effect of gradually shifting the soil within each half of the strip by one furrow’s-width toward the center line with each successive ploughing cycle.

How the Ridges Were Formed

During the Middle Ages, the agricultural landscape featured a system in which each strip of land was under the management of a single family. These strips were situated within expansive open fields collectively managed by the community, and the specific locations of these strips remained consistent from year to year.

Diagram of medieval ridge and furrow
Diagram of medieval ridge and furrow

Over time, the continual movement of soil, season after season, resulted in the gradual elevation of the central portion of each strip, forming a raised area known as a “ridge.” In the depressions between these ridges, commonly referred to as “furrows” (distinct from the smaller furrows created by each pass of the plough), moisture would accumulate.

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The process of raising these ridges was termed “filling” or “gathering” and, at times, was undertaken before the commencement of ploughing. This technique had particular benefits in regions with a damp climate, as it improved drainage.

Moisture would naturally flow into the furrows, and because the ridges were arranged on a slope, any excess water in sloping fields would ultimately collect in ditches positioned at the bottom. However, it’s important to note that on well-drained soils, fields were sometimes left flat.

ridge and furrow
Medieval ridge and furrow formations can still be found in various parts of England. Image Credit: Gordon Hatton

In areas with damp soil conditions, particularly at the base of the ridges, alternative crops like pulses such as peas or beans, or a mixture known as “dredge” consisting of oats and barley, might be sown instead of wheat. This adjustment in crop choice helped prevent waterlogging, as recommended by Thomas Tusser in the 16th century.

Read More: What are Prehistoric Barrows? You Have Passed Many

This strategic crop selection allowed for optimal land utilization, considering the varying soil characteristics and climate conditions of the medieval period.

Over Many Centuries

The depressions, often referred to as “dips,” frequently served as demarcations between individual land plots. These strips of land, though variable in their dimensions, typically adhered to a traditional measurement known as a furlong, approximately 220 yards or about 200 meters in length.

They spanned in width from approximately 5 yards (4.6 meters) to as wide as a chain, equivalent to 22 yards or approximately 20 meters. This range in width resulted in land areas varying from 0.25 to 1 acre (0.1 to 0.4 hectares).

ridge and furrow
A scene that a medieval peasant would recognise today, thou he may be scratching his head at the power lines.

Over many centuries, ploughing practices persisted in most regions, and subsequent advancements, particularly the adoption of reversible ploughs, led to the gradual eradication of the ridge and furrow pattern.

Nevertheless, in certain instances, the cultivated land was transformed into grassland. In areas where this conversion took place and the land remained untouched by ploughing since, the ridge and furrow pattern often remained intact.

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Surviving ridge and furrow features may exhibit a height difference ranging from 18 to 24 inches (approximately 0.5 to 0.6 meters) in specific locations, imparting a distinctive undulating appearance to the landscape.

During active use, these height discrepancies were even more pronounced, exceeding 6 feet (approximately 1.8 meters) in some areas.

That Distinctive Carve

During the early Middle Ages, ploughing practices entailed the use of substantial teams of small oxen, typically consisting of eight oxen organized into four pairs.

The plough itself was predominantly crafted from wood and was of considerable size. Consequently, when considering the length of both the team and the plough together, they spanned many yards.

This arrangement had a distinctive impact on the formation of ridge and furrow fields.

This field of curving ridge and furrow is a great example of ridge a furrow.
This field of curving ridge and furrow is a great example of the ‘S’ shape

As the ploughing team approached the end of a furrow, the foremost oxen were the first to reach the furrow’s termination point. They were then turned to the left, proceeding along the headland, while the plough itself continued its course within the furrow.

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In this process, the sturdiest oxen, situated at the rear of the team, could momentarily pull the plough on their own for the short distance along the headland.

By the time the plough eventually reached the furrow’s end, all the oxen were aligned, facing leftward along the headland. Subsequently, each pair was turned around to walk rightward along the headland, crossing the end of the land strip.

Curved Field Boundaries

Then, they began descending the adjacent furrow. By the time the plough reached the commencement of the new furrow, the oxen were already lined up, prepared to pull it forward. This process resulted in a slight twist at the end of each furrow, causing the earlier ridge and furrow formations to adopt a subtle reverse-S shape.

Ridge and furrow, Kites Hardwick. Medieval ridge and furrow patterns revealed by the low sun in this pasture west of Kites Hardwick.
Ridge and furrow, Kites Hardwick. Medieval ridge and furrow patterns revealed by the low sun in this pasture west of Kites Hardwick.

This distinct shape persists in certain regions, where curved field boundaries serve as a lasting testament to this historical agricultural practice, even when the original ridge and furrow patterns have faded from view.

Read More: The Forgotten Roman Roads

If the oxen had been directed to the right at the furrow’s end, they would have immediately had to make another right turn into the returning furrow.

Along the Headland

This would have led to the oxen’s path intersecting with the ploughed strip’s top, potentially dislodging the plough from the ground before reaching the furrow’s conclusion. Additionally, managing two adjacent lines of oxen moving in opposite directions would have presented logistical challenges.

Conversely, if the oxen were aligned rightward along the headland, some would have already advanced beyond the beginning of the new furrow, necessitating awkward lateral adjustments to position them within the furrow for ploughing.

Ridge and furrow
Once part of the open field system of feudalism. The Black Death was the turning point of this way of life in medieval England

Opting for a leftward turn enabled a sequential and more efficient process, avoiding the need for complex maneuvers. As time progressed, oxen grew larger, and ploughs became more efficient, necessitating smaller teams. These reduced the space required on the headland, simplifying the process of straight-line ploughing.

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The introduction of heavy horses in the later Middle Ages further facilitated this transition towards straight-line ploughing. Consequently, late medieval ridge and furrow patterns evolved into a more linear configuration.

Surviving Medieval Ridge and Furrow

Medieval ridge and furrow formations can still be found in various parts of England. These historical agricultural patterns have left enduring imprints on the landscape, offering valuable insights into the agricultural practices and land use of the Middle Ages.

Ridge and furrow field at Chapel Haddlesey, North Yorkshire.The standing water emphasises the furrows when they might not otherwise be apparent.
Ridge and furrow field at Chapel Haddlesey, North Yorkshire.The standing water emphasises the furrows when they might not otherwise be apparent.

The survival of medieval ridge and furrow in England is particularly notable in regions where the land has not been extensively ploughed or developed since that period. Some areas, especially in rural and less industrialized parts of the country, have preserved these patterns due to limited modern agricultural intervention or urban expansion.

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Notable regions in England where medieval ridge and furrow remains can be observed include parts of the Midlands, East Anglia, and the North of England. Here, you can find field systems with well-defined ridge and furrow formations that continue to evoke the historical past.

These surviving ridge and furrow landscapes are of great interest to historians, archaeologists, and landscape enthusiasts, as they offer a tangible link to the agricultural practices and land tenure systems of medieval England.

Exploring these areas allows for a deeper understanding of the rural history and the communities that once thrived in these regions.