Sunday, January 11, 2009

In the early Middle Ages the vast majority of the population of Europe was dedicated in some fashion or other to food production, which invariably involved agriculture. In early medieval Europe, as well as in later medieval and modern Europe, agriculture involved both crop farming and animal husbandry—a unique combination compared with agriculture in other parts of the world. In the economy of barbarian Europe, farming and animal husbandry existed in a symbiotic arrangement, in which specific crops were cultivated for animals, which in turn provided food and fertilizer. Despite the attention to agriculture, and the labor put into it, crop yields were generally small—the result of limited technology—and thus the vast majority of the population lived barely at the subsistence level.

In the agricultural villages of early medieval Europe the agricultural practices of the ancient Romans and their barbarian invaders came together to form the uniquely European agricultural tradition. One aspect of this, perhaps the result of the more pastoral nature of the barbarians who settled in much of the old Western Roman Empire, was animal husbandry. A number of different animals were bred, although not selectively as they were in Roman times, by early medieval peasants. The animals—including cows, oxen, horses, and pigs—provided a supply of both food and ready labor. Although little meat was eaten by the peasants, it was a welcome addition to an otherwise meager diet. But perhaps more important was the labor animals provided in the fields where various cereals were grown. Oxen and, eventually, horses were used to pull the plows that tilled the soil in early medieval villages. Peasants also grew oats specifically for the horses when the horse came into widespread use as a draught animal at the very end of the early medieval period. Cattle were often allowed to graze on the stubble found in the fields after the harvest, and their manure helped revitalize the fields. Also, hay and various grasses grew in the meadows of the villages, and the animals were allowed to wander in those meadows to eat the grasses.

Although animal husbandry was a significant practice of the peasants in barbarian Europe, it was far less important, and provided a much smaller amount of food, than farming. Some distinctive crops were produced in different parts of Europe because of climatic differences. Notably, grapes were grown in the warmer climates but were seldom found in the cooler climate of northern Europe. Despite this variety, the fundamental food crop was some type of cereal, which was often consumed in the form of bread and beer. Various types of wheat were grown in the village fields, as were barley, oats, rye, and spelt. The crop yields were quite poor, averaging a yield of between 2.5 to 1 to 3 to 1 to seeds planted. There were often times when this meager yield was even smaller, and thus famine was not an uncommon phenomenon; hunger was almost constant for the peasants. One means to make up for the poor production of the grains in the fields, however, was to plant small gardens near the home. These gardens often supplied foods that added valuable vitamins and minerals to the diet; the peasants grew root vegetables, peas, beans, and other legumes in their gardens.

Thus even though early medieval peasants spent much of their time cultivating grain, they also found time to grow a variety of vegetables to bring to the table.

Along with hunger, the greatest problem the peasant farmers of the early Middle Ages faced was soil depletion. In order to produce even the minimal yields they did, the peasants had to find some way to revitalize the fields they planted. One solution, of course, was to manure the fields, which they accomplished by allowing their livestock to graze in the fields and fertilize it while feeding. The early medieval peasant also collected manure from stables and spread it on the fields. But dependence on manure for fertilizer was an inadequate solution because of the smaller size of most farm animals during this period and because most animals were sold or slaughtered every fall (since the peasants did not have enough food to keep the animals through the winter). The most effective way to allow the soil to replenish itself was to let it lie fallow. Peasants in barbarian Europe were forced to leave part of their fields unplanted each year so that the soil could be revitalized and continue to return at least the small harvests that the peasants needed to survive.

Because of the need to let some fields lie fallow each year, the peasants practiced a regimen of crop rotation as well as rotation of fields to be planted. In the drier climates and even in the wetter north the standard practice until the ninth century was a two-field system of crop rotation. In this approach, half of the available land was plowed and half was left fallow, and in the following year the situation was reversed. Although this practice enabled the soil to replenish itself, it did leave much of the farmland uncultivated, which worsened the already difficult problem of food production. A series of Carolingian documents from around the time of Charlemagne (surveys of the great estates called polyptychs) reveal a new three-field rotation system emerging at that time. Even before then, and even in the drier regions, a second planting sometimes occurred; beginning in the ninth century, the new practice of dividing the fields into thirds became more widespread.

The most obvious advantage of this system was that it brought more land under cultivation each year, thus increasing the productivity of the fields; it also enabled the peasants to plant different crops. In this approach one third of the field was left fallow, another third was planted with winter wheat, and the other third was planted with a spring crop, generally oats or barley and sometimes legumes. The new system of planting did not completely replace the old two-field practice and was used mostly in northern Europe, where the soil was moister and the climate wetter. Although it was not introduced universally, the new three-field planting regimen was a great benefit to those who used it, and they enjoyed better yields of seed to crop than those who did not.

Peasants used a variety of tools in their daily farm labors, but for much of the period were hindered by the simplicity of design and the materials used to make them. The farmer’s tools were often made of wood, which was a less durable material than metal. Iron came into more general use only later in the early medieval period; when it did, it offered a great improvement in the quality of farming tools. The most important of all farm implements was perhaps the plow. The most common plow used by peasants in the post-Roman world of western Europe was the Roman or scratch plow. This was a simple, light tool that could be easily operated by the farmer with a small team of oxen, generally two. The scratch plow, as the name suggests, did little more than break the surface of the soil without turning it over. In areas like Italy where the soil is dry or sandy, this plow was often sufficient for the farmer’s needs, but in northern Europe where the soil is moist and heavy, this plow alone was inadequate. Often digging by hand was necessary to supplement the furrow made by the scratch plow.

Probably in the Carolingian age, a new more efficient plow appeared, better suited to till the soil in northern Europe. This plow, known as the carruca in contemporary documents, was a wheeled plow that was fitted with a moldboard and needed as many as eight oxen to work it. It was a more complex and expensive tool, but it also was furrowed and turned the soil over, thus aerating the soil and making it more fertile. Although a technological improvement, the carruca did not immediately replace the scratch plow even in the north; nevertheless, its gradual spread improved agricultural productivity.

The peasant farmers of early medieval Europe used a number of other tools as well. By the Carolingian period, water and wind mills were coming into more general use to grind the grain that was such an important part of the diet. Even before these mills appeared, hand-operated mills, which were much more labor intensive to operate, enjoyed widespread use by early medieval farmers. Finally, there were several handheld tools that were generally found on early medieval farms, including spades (a useful supplement to the plow for digging in the fields), axes, hoes, sickles, and scythes.

The tools and practices medieval farmers used, especially the plow, dictated the way they farmed and the shape of their fields. Most fields in early medieval villages were long narrow strips because of the difficulty of plowing them, especially when the carruca came into more widespread use. It was a difficult and time-consuming job to turn the team of oxen and plow around and so, to accommodate the new plow, the fields were long and narrow instead of short and wide. Also, medieval farmers fenced in their fields or sometimes built wide ditches to manage the livestock that were allowed to graze on the fields. The fences and ditches were intended both to keep livestock in and out so that they would not overgraze some fields or wander off to another village.

Agriculture in the early Middle Ages, therefore, was focused primarily on farming various grains. Peasants also practiced animal husbandry and planted small gardens where they grew beans and leafy vegetables. The level of farming was barely above subsistence and hunger was not unknown. The early medieval peasant, nonetheless, survived in the face of various difficulties through cooperation with other peasants and various techniques developed during that time. Use of animal fertilizer was not uncommon as was the use of animals, especially horses and oxen, as draft animals. Early medieval farmers also gradually developed a heavy plow for the rich soils of northern Europe, and they also practiced crop and field rotation.


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