Oxen Time, Multispecies Moments, and a Furrowed Field

The medieval furrow field described by the author. A green grassy field under a blue sky with an old looking building in the background

This essay about multispecies time in a medieval furrow is part of the Troubling Time series, which interrogates environmental ideas, spaces, processes, and problems through the lens of temporality. Series editors: Rebecca Laurent, Rudy Molinek, Samm Newton, Prerna Rana, and Weishun Lu.

What appears as a dense and knotted, tangled thicket that catches on coattails by the roadside is neither a mystery nor such an impassable barrier to the birds who call it home. Through the lens of multispecies history, it is, in many ways, a bridge between times. Where I live in Cambridge, England, the particular, half-wild hedgerow from which I most often disentangle myself forms a border between a modern housing development and an exceptionally well-preserved medieval ridge and furrow. 

In the foreground, a metal gate blocks the green field behind it. On the gate is a sign reading "Metal Detecting Prohibited"
A metal gate blocks the green field behind it. Photo by author, 2024.

Peering through the branches, or stopping by the gate, the field might escape notice as being in any way distinct from the surrounding agricultural lands of Cambridgeshire. But at certain angles, the discretion of the hedge gives way, and the site can be appreciated for its striking, angular features and diverse multispecies community. The wave-like topography characteristic of ridge and furrow sites (“rig[g] and furrow” in Scotland) is the remnant mark of open field agricultural practices common in Europe during the medieval period. The striations which remain tell more-than-human stories: plowed season after season by oxen, the resulting ridges which once stood over two meters in height have eroded into the remaining, less drastic rises and falls that notch this field today. 

The protections which privilege this site as an historic landmark worthy of preservation are a direct result of these patterns, the repeated inscriptions of oxen centuries before. Now flanked by a busy road on one side and more wooded, residential areas on the other three, the teams of oxen whose efforts turned the soil here again and again under the command of their masters are too often overlooked. Alongside the multi-story construction sites and machines which move earth with ease a few paces away, this site and others like it are a home for modern multispecies community and their histories. To fully appreciate this place and others like it, historians can begin with an effort to accept the deafening beat of the countless other-than-human clocks it represents.

Our sense of time is always entangled with the spinning hum of lives distinct from our own, and aspects of these experiences are mutual.

“False Husbandmen,” “Common Fields,” and Medieval Multispecies Realities

The multispecies relationships around which medieval agricultural timelines revolved were nuanced and dependent on animal labor. In open field agricultural systems, communal areas of cultivatable land were divided between peasant families and assigned into plots which ran in parallel lengths. Historically placed at the edges of medieval villages, furrows directly relied upon the entanglement of human and more-than-human populations. In the past and present, this edge effect creates unique dynamics. 

The practice of combining individual family oxen into larger, more efficient teams is thought to have been commonplace, but conflict over plant and animal life, insect activity, and land resources was also common. While “much medieval farming was a co-operative affair,” Henry Stanley Bennett reminded scholars, plowing, tending, and harvesting the so-called common fields to supply the ruling classes were stress-intensive tasks. Peasant communities responding to high and exploitative crop yield demands from the upper classes fought to maintain the minimum required resources to live lives, which were both shorter and incomparably difficult to those of modern Cambridge-dwelling humans. Desperate to provide for their own needs, “false husbandmen” might “gnaw” at a neighbor’s furrow boundary, or (even more brazenly) “steal a foot of land or a furrow” to extend their planting territory or the growing season of a crop.

Crows walking on the furrow field, which appears as a series of low grassy ridges running horizontally across the image.
Crows walking on the furrow field. Photo by author, 2024.

Despite the challenges and strain the agrarian calendar placed on medieval people and animals alike, the period was a complex (and in many ways tender) moment for more-than-human history. Animal lives on which human lives depended were valuable, and often kept close at night to avoid theft, sleeping in or around communal sleeping quarters with the families on whom they also depended. Scholars are exploring an increase in the use of oxen and cattle between ca. 850—1050 CE for its relevance to the emotional bonds between medieval humans and the animals of agriculture. One anthology of medieval field names suggests that the prevalence of names which describe oxen death are testament to their tremendous importance to society. Wild birds, a “nuisance for the fields” whose hunting was seen as “an agricultural necessity,” were actively killed and consumed, yet the extermination or hunting of the often-destructive doves of Lordship was forbidden. Chickens were abundant, dogs were common in the villages, and cats, if they could both purr and hunt mice, were (in one Irish medieval law) valued at three cows—only one (and a half) cows if the cat could only purr. 

Brambles and twigs are in focus in the foreground, with the furrow field lit in sun behind.
Brambles and twigs in front of a furrow field. Photo by author, 2024.

Ideological thought was richly dense with just such intricacies. Farther afield from the daily, multispecies dynamics of peasant villages, medieval thinkers had dynamic ideas about animal emotion. As Brigitte Resl argues, philosophers and theologians “were in agreement that humans and animals shared the capacity for emotion”—not only did “medieval Europeans [have] feelings for animals, […] they had no doubt that animals themselves had feelings.” With shifts in the dissemination of Christian doctrine in seventh-century England came a shift to the human-cattle bond: peasants who lived and worked the fields with oxen “would have been aware of the animals as individuals”; built relationships with them; named the fields where they fell; and lived in times of ideologically dichotomized views on the moral place of animals in society. Animals, also historical individuals with unique personalities and also under the stress of these systems, contributed to the community dynamic then as they do now. What approaches might historians take to better understand and serve the complexities of these entwined stories?

Time and Again: Generational Temporality

Ridge and furrow sites played host to some of the most historically-visible of the struggles of labor in medieval agrarian society—all of which played out within an entirely different temporal framework of what it meant to be human. To tend a field as a peasant was to experience life by the entangled calendars of the church and the ruling elite—but also by the growing seasons of plants, the delicate and fluid timelines of harvest, the weather, seasons, the lifespans of the zoonotic pathogenic organisms, like intestinal worms, which affected all medieval humans, and the births, deaths, sale and slaughter of animals whose lives were in every sense enmeshed with their own. Yet the animal experience of temporality, and life, is not well-represented by the pace (or linearity) of these human timelines. This makes for tangled, urgent work. 

Conscious of this need, sites like the furrow can better illustrate the extent to which the “lifetimes” of medieval humans were frenetically knotted with the more-than-human generational scales on which their human lives depended. To calibrate one medieval human “lifetime” against oxen time, cat time, dog time, bird time, or insect time is to decenter the human: under the best of circumstances, modern oxen usually live only fifteen years in working conditions. While misconceptions about the universal brevity human medieval life expectancy pervade, we might assume the average generational range of working oxen at this time to have been at least somewhat affected by working conditions and limited resources. 

A black and white drawing of the furrow field with an oxen skull on the ground. Two birds fly above the skull.
Author’s rendering of furrowed field and animals, 2024.

Research on the lives of medieval oxen describes the somatic changes which took hold after a lifetime of working the fields: the bones of their lower legs thickened, their contours and feet changed, weathering the work of seasons not all were lucky enough to see. Assuming a conservative estimate of several working ox lifespans (at the absolute minimum) for each medieval peasant lifespan, the differing experiences of temporality becomes more clearly understood within the framework of our own. But how did oxen, at the end of their so-many-seasons, conceive of their lives? How many generations of oxen—or intestinal worms—had been spent at the ridge’s tallest height? How many colonies of bees and migrating insects fertilized, pollinated, or consumed across even one ox lifetime? What, to a fly, is a century?

Considering these lifetimes alongside that of Earth—itself a geologic being—is to recognize that none of these lived experiences of history exist in a vacuum of planetaryA time. The slow erosion of a ridge and furrow’s uniquely recognizable grooves, worn lower and lower with the years, privilege these sites with human-readable stratification of the way more-than-human time is written in the earth. Yet even the stratification of soil and substrate is not so simply “stacked” here in clean, easily-defined layers as can be found elsewhere in the United Kingdom. The shifting of earth at ridge and furrow sites is distinctly different due to their unique topography, and archeologists examining these sites must actively account for the multifactorial, sliding settlement patterns of soil over time. The oxen are still writing its history.

To follow this place through linear constructions of time is an exercise in proving the limitations (or futility) of linear frameworks when engaging with more-than-human history. Methodologies (or meditations) which aim to decenter the human through considerations of more-than-human temporality do not guarantee greater clarity for human histories—nor should they be pursued for this purpose alone. A human system or community which denies the experience of animals can also more easily devalue their time, reducing them to what Nikole Brown refers to as “two-dimensional” background figures. Against the most staggering, planetary scale, or the most minute microcosm therein, the furrow shows us consideration of more-than-human experience is both necessary tithe in understanding historical forms of multi-species kinship and act of academic reconciliation.

Hedge Effects: The Multispecies Covenant

One-star Google review of the furrow field saying "There is nothing medieval or modern there"
A Google review of a furrowed field. Screenshot by author, 2024.

Contrary to the above, unflattering (if humorous) Google review, the ridge and furrow is quite touched by time, and the ancestors of the medieval animals which once lived at its boundaries refuse to be erased by it. Rabbits post crossing-guards in the road outside the furrow on lookout during evening foraging hours. Corvids bathe in its occasional puddles before using crosswalks, watching for changing traffic lights. It is a refuge for the urban fox, nesting ground of songbirds, home of burrow and of den. Owls glide into its atmosphere, mice run from predators at field’s edge, rabbits meander, evade, and play. Sometimes, a dog chases a ball as far as his human can throw it (then walks him home). Its topography, so commonly woven into verdant visions of English pastorality, and into which the stories of innumerable human and more-than-human lives, labors, loves, stories, and deaths are knotted are not appealing to everyone, but are connected to everyone.

Ridge and furrow sites played host to some of the most historically-visible of the struggles of labor in medieval agrarian society.

Centuries later, the future of the local ridge and furrow, its unique, edge effect ecology, and the way we write its histories are still dictated by these oxen-rendered patterns. The site maintains command of a more-than-human calendar to no small extent: birders await and tag migrations, observe breeding season behaviors, and geolocate fledgling activity, uploading timestamped photographs in apps. In Cambridge and beyond, protected sites like these feel anachronistic alongside development plans at their edges. While other green space in the United Kingdom (like the greenbelt) is actively reduced, well-protected sites like the ridge and furrow become home to a diverse ecology of British animal life in an age of climate crisis. As climate scientists, locals, activists and journalists warn developers that Cambridge is at risk of a water crisis in years to come, the furrow may be analogized to a timepiece once again, perhaps, as an hourglass, or water clock: the site of species converging to its puddles as other resources dry up, are built up, or become too noxious to inhabit. Our clocks, and our histories, are wound by more-than-human means.

The relationship between place and time is often described in terms of relational accessibility and interest for humans. When something is both visually remarkable and possesses a so-called perfectly preserved historical value, it is often marveled at as “out of” or “untouched by” time, and reinforced by boundaries which render it isolated or even inaccessible. Inaccessible to whom? Certainly not the more-than-human. A hedge makes for a fantastic nesting ground, but a poor way to sequester history (birds are very chatty people). To feel that when something is complex it must be untangled or dissected to be understood risks destroying fine tapestry to tame the passementerie. Places which make visible the tense weave of these histories are, in this way, a reminder of the value of a patient hand: our sense of time is always entangled with the spinning hum of lives distinct from our own, and aspects of these experiences are mutual. To unbraid the hedges which now surround it (or tell its story without them, even if they are out of scope) would be a very human act. 

If time feels as though it has stopped here, perhaps it is because our clocks are no better suited to turn time than Earth itself: their gears no freer to turn in a threaded loom than the backs that broke on the balks for the transcription of a timeless multispecies covenant.

Featured Image: The medieval furrow in Cambridge. Photo by the author, 2024.

Caroline Abbott (she/her) is an independent scholar whose work engages animal and environmental histories of the long nineteenth century. She is an editor at NiCHE, where she curates work which engages historical, multi-species connection, and holds a Masters by Research from Glasgow University (English Literature), through which her Victorianism evolved to center intersectional, ecocritical readings. She creates, cultivates, and writes in Cambridge, England. Website. Instagram. Contact.