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Lectures for A Medieval Survey

Lynn H. Nelson

The Peasants

ca. 800 - 1000

1. Medieval farming was not organized as it is at present with an individual family farm situated in a fenced block of fields, woods, and pasture. In the year 1000, a bird's-eye view of Europe would have consisted of a geeen sea of forest with scattered brown islands of human habitation.

Each island consisted of a nucleated village surrounded by two large and unfenced open fields. The village would have had a church, perhaps a larger fortified house of the lord or his steward, and several huts.

The huts were usually small, and perhaps made of whitewashed sod, or wattle and daub. They often housed the family's animals also. There would be one or two rooms, with a loft for storage. The family lived in a single room, in the center of which was a few flat stones on which the fire was placed. The roof was thatched, with a hole at the top through which the smoke escaped. There were probably no windows, and light came in through the smoke hole and an open door.The floor was dirt, sometimes covered with leaves or rushes. The furniture was a trestle table, a few stools, and a storage chest or two for whatever pallets the family might spread on the floor as their beds. Each hut had a messuage, about half an acre of land for a garden, bee-hives, etc. attached.

The huts were sometimes grouped around a central open place, or green, in which the peasants often grazed their animals. There was usually a source of water nearby, and a stream might run through the green, perhaps ponded to raise fish, ducks, and geese. Along the stream grew tall grass that the villagers mowed regularly to store for winter feed for their animals. Not too far away was the forest or brush in which the villagers pastured their pigs, gathered nuts, berries, herbs, and other things, and, when allowed to do so, picked up sticks and twigs to use as fuel.

I am now going to discuss the open field system of agriculture. There is a village in England by the name of Laxton that, for various reasons, never had its open fields broken up. The people in Laxton still till their open field in much the same manner as in medieval times. If you would like to see this village, click on the village name to visit their website.

The open fields of the village were used to grow grain, usually wheat. They consisted of a large number of adjacent strips, each about 33' Wide and 660' long, the amount of land that could be plowed in half a day. Each villager, the lord, and the local church owned several of these strips, and the strips that an individual owned were located throughout the field. The greatest labor was that of plowing, and the village would plow and plant and entire field cooperatively. Since there were no chemical fertilizers or herbicides, the soil was exhausted quickly, and weeds were a constant problem. To meet these concerns, the peasants planted only one of their fields each season. The other was left fallow. The village animals would graze on the weeds, deposit their manure, and, before the remaining weeds had seeded, the peasants would plow them under.

Weather was a constant worry. Wet springs could cut plowing time, rot seed in the ground, and so reduce the harvest. Fall rains could wet the grain before harvesting and make it impossible to dry and thresh. Production was not great -- seven to ten bushels per acre was considered good, and two or three of those bushels had to be saved for seed. Part of the peasants harvest was taken by the lord as taxes, and part by the church as a tithe, for perhaps a total of three or four more bushels out of ten. So a peasant might gather as his own only a bushel or two from each of his strips. A family of four needed about 35 bushels a year, so families went hungry when there was a harvest shortfall. Most relied upon their garden to give them some variety in their diet and to save them in case of a failure of the wheat crop.

2. Improvements in agrarian technology

During the period between about 800 and 1000, the medieval peasants made several innovations in farming the increased production and productivity greatly.

1. The use of horses for plowing. Horses are faster and have greater endurance than oxen and can be controlled by voice commands, eliminating the need for an additional man in the plow team to guide the ox or oxen with a sharp pole. Several innovations were needed to make use of horses, however: horseshoes to keep the horses' hooves from softening in the wet earth of plowing time, the horse collar, since horses do not have well-defined shoulders like oxen, and harnessing. The peasants developed tandem harnessing, which allowed as many horses as one had to be hitched to the same vehicle. This gave the medieval peasants almost unlimited tractive power and made possible the widespread use of

2. The heavy, or mould-board, plow. This plow had an iron plowshare that could cut through the earth and a mould-board that turned the sod over. This made the traditional criss-cross double plowing of fields unnecessary. The mould-board plow could also plow deep -- as long as sufficient tractive power was available -- to make more soil minerals possible, and could plough the heavy but fertile soils of northwestern europe.

3. The peasants started using peas and beans as an alternative crop to grain. Peas and beans restore nitrogen to the soil, choke out weeds, provide excellent silage for winter stock feed, and their vines keep the soil friable and thus make plowing easier. Many villages divided their two fields into three, and planted them in a rotating sequence of beans, winter wheat, summer wheat, and fallow. With good planning, this could result in three annual harvests in place of the traditional one.

These and other innovations increased both production and productivity. Cultivated land produced more and there was surplus labor that was used to bring new lands under cultivation. The agricultural revoluton was underway. Population began to increase, and some of the increase began to concentrate in towns and cities and turn their energies to manufacture and commerce.

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