Evolving Economy and Management

During the medieval period the parish was divided between several large landowners, each holding a 'manor'. Crowlands Abbey near Peterborough was the dominant landowner. However, the manors were not, for the most part, distinct geographical units, and most of the agriculture was carried out on a parish wide basis, so that all parties had a share (by no means always an equal share!) in the different types of land and what they produced.

The presence of large areas of pasture always made Cottenham ideally suited for keeping animals, and the dung that they produced helped to fertilise the arable open fields. In the early medieval period Crowlands Abbey used Cottenham as a centre for cattle breeding. The fourteenth century was a particularly difficult time; not only was the population reduced by the black death, but water levels rose and much of the fen pasture was temporarily lost. From the fifteenth century drainage began to improve, but Crowlands never returned to the centralised, hands-on management of the earlier period, more often letting their lands.

After the dissolution of the monasteries in 1539 the Crowland estate reverted to the Crown, who sold it in 1563 to Francis Hinde of Madingley, who also bought Lisles manor and half of Sames manor. The next thirty years was a turbulent time as Hinde attempted to get the most out of his new possession, while the other landowners and peasants defended their own interests. Hinde was trying to increase his flock of sheep, and to fence off, or 'enclose', as much of the common land as possible as private 'sheepwalks'. Sheep were potentially highly profitable, particularly for landlords with big flocks. Crowland had kept flocks of varying sizes through the medieval period but, in contrast to neighbouring Landbeach, sheep never came to dominate agricultural production; it is possible that the less free-draining soil of Cottenham made them more subject to disease, but it is also clear that the other landowners and villages vigorously defended their rights. This they continued to do, and by 1596 were essentially victorious, conceding relatively small areas of enclosure to the landlord in return for a detailed agreement on how the remaining resources of the parish were to be shared out.

This 1596 agreement dominated, and perhaps fossilised, the economic life of the parish for the next 250 years in a manner that seems extraordinary today. Hinde and his successors were effectively excluded from the management of the parish, which was taken over by a group of elected 'overseers' who in turn appointed 'ordermakers' to mangage the day to day running. This agreement is often hailed as an early example of democracy - in many ways this is true, but one suspects that the real power in the village lay with an oligarchy of the wealthiest.

Numbers of animals were carefully regulated and access to different areas of the fens restricted to particular times. To ensure that all things were equal, cattle had to be kept in one huge 'common' herd - it was not permitted to keep separate 'bye' herds. Pigs were severely restricted and had to have a ring in their nose to prevent rooting. The Lotts and Smithy Fen were divided up annually, by temporary fencing, into plots to be mown by each farmer. Peat cutting was also tightly controlled.

The quantity and quality of Cottenham's pastures and mow fens made it into a centre for dairy farming, supplying Cambridge and surrounding area with milk, butter and the distinctive Cottenham cheese (a little like Stilton). The giant milking herd of over 1,000 cows was usually pastured on the 'hards' near to the village and driven into the village for milking - each cow turning into its own farmyard. Most farmers were relatively modest, with just 10-20 cows.

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