The Structure of Medieval Farming
Tres Riches Heures of the Duke of Berry
There was not one structure, but several. It should not be surprising that how land was held and worked was dictated largely by the type of crop, which in turn was largely dependent on natural factors such as soil type and climate. The fundamental structure was modified over time through the influence of manorial lords, accidents of inheritance and disaster, legal disputes, and shifts in demand.
The stereotype of the medieval village is one in which the lands were divided into narrow strips. Any one peasant family held strips that were scattered around all the lands. The land was worked by the village more or less in common, and the harvest was divided by how many strips the family held.
The stereotype was true enough, but it's nowhere near a complete picture. In the first place, the picture was always in flux, always being re-drawn. Each peasant family did what it could to acquire more land, not only to increase wealth but because it was constantly parcelling out land to the next generation. Similarly, peasants were constantly losing land, through a failure of heirs, deaths, or indebtedness. Those strips of land were forever changing hands.
Furthermore, the legal relationships were shifting. Beginning in the 13th century, more and more obligations were being converted to monetary obligations. Instead of laboring a certain number of days on the lord's lands, the peasant paid a fee. Instead of giving up a percentage of his harvest, the peasant paid a fee. Lords were generally glad of this because they could use the money for a variety of purposes, and the day laborers hired to work their own lands were cheap. This changed in the later 14th century.
Moreover, the stereotype did not hold everywhere. It was most common on the north European plain—northern France and German, southern England—and was less common not only along the Mediterranean but also in less fertile uplands and in the colonized lands of eastern Europe. There, holding larger blocs of land was more common, manorial dues were less heavy to begin with, and even patterns of inheritance were different.
It needs also to be pointed out that there were other kinds of rural activities besides grain cultivation. Most notable among these were livestock ranching and viticulture. Cultivation of olive groves was another. In these and similar cases, the whole pattern of landholding was fundamentally different.
In short, there was a pattern of settlement, cultivation, and legal relationships for every condition. North and south were different, as were upland and lowland (or, more precisely, very fertile and marginal). The nucleated village with fields in strips was typical of the northern fertile lands. The dispersed village with blocs of land in freehold was more typical of Mediterranean lands.
Why should it matter? It turns out that the way in which peasants lived was very much tied up in the way they farmed. It's difficult to understand their actions, their choices, without understanding the fundamentals of how they worked the land. These factors enter in also to village organization (or its absence), beliefs and customs, market factors, and even religious practices. If you are going to look at all deeply into a village, one of the first things you'll want to know is what sort of village it was.