[Sunflower logo of the Kansas Heritage
Group]The Peasants: Advances in Agricultural Technology, 800-1000

1. The Medieval Village

Medieval farming was not based as it now is on individual family farms situated in fenced blocks of fields, woods, and pasture. In the year 1000, a bird's-eye view of Europe would have consisted of a green sea of forest with scattered brown islands of human habitation. Each of these islands would have consisted of a nucleated village surrounded by two large and unfenced open fields. The village would have consisted of several small huts. These huts were built with whatever local materials were most common. They might be built of whitewashed sod or wattle and daub (woven reeds plastered with clay). 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. Attached to each hut was a messuage, about half an acre of land used by the family for a garden, chicken coop, pig pen, bee-hives and so forth.

The huts were sometimes grouped around a central open place, or green, in which the peasants might graze 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.

Most villages had a church with its own grounds clearly distinguished, perhaps with a fence or even a wall from the village lands. There might also be a larger fortified house of the lord or his steward. If the villages were populous enough, the lord might have had built a stone mill along the stream and even a village bakery set apart from the peasant huts with their highly flammable thatched roofs.

2. Agricultural Technology

The villages were organized for the growing of grain, wheat in most places, but oats, rye, barley or whatever the soil and climate permitted. The peasants lack some of the basic tools upon which the productivity of modern agriculture depends. They had no chemical fertilizers and lacked the resources to raise a sufficient number of animals to provide an adequate supply of manure. Soil exhaustion was a constant problem, and the peasants were usually engaged in the laborious process of clearing new land to supplement their old, worn-out fields. They lacked pesticides and often made do by providing homes for pigeons and doves who would not only eat insects, but provide a small but highly-concentrated amount of fertilizer for use in the gardens. They also lacked an herbicide, and weeds were always ready to invade their fields. The basic organization of village agriculture was conditioned by the need to overcome those difficulties.

The village acted as a plowing cooperative since the cost of plow and draft animals was too great for a single family to bear alone. Each family owned portions in both of the two fields into which the arable lands of the village were grouped. There were no fences between properties - which is why this arrangement is called the "open field system" of agriculture - although brush hedges were piled around the field under cultivation. 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. Click here if you would like to know more.

One of the fields was plowed in the early spring and planted in grain. The other field was then plowed, but left unplanted to let the air and sunshine restore some of its fertility. Weeds were allowed to grow. The weeds diverted some of the attention of insects and provides pasture for the villages animals who would manure the field as they grazed. Just before the weeds in the fallow field were ready to seed, the field was plowed a second time and the weeds turned under. The process was reasonably effective in achieving the goal of restoring fertility and holding back weeds. But the system carried a heavy price. The villagers could utilize only half of their land each year but had to expend the effort of plowing fallow land.

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 as taxes, and part by the church as a tithe, so taxes and seed grain took about 60 percent of each harvest. That being the case, a peasant might be able to gather as his own only a bushel or two from each of his strips. A family of four needed about 35 bushels a year to survive, so it was imperative that the village be able to plow between thirty and forty acres for each household. Given the relative scarcity of plows and animals, and the possibility that the plowing season might be cut short by a long winter or a rainy Spring, peasant life was a meager and precarious thing. In that turbulent period between the Carolingian Empire and the emergence of Feudal Europe, however, the European peasants introduced new agricultural technologies that greatly improved the efficiency of agriculture.

3. Improvements in Agricultural Technology

One group of innovations centered on plowing and the extended use of the old German heavy wheeled 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 to make more soil minerals possible, and could plough the heavy but fertile soils of northwestern Europe. The problem with using a heavy plow is that it took a great deal of tractive power. Teams of animals were needed and, since the operation required so much more capital investment, those teams had somehow to plow more land in less time than oxen, the traditional draft animals, would cover the necessary distance. This difficulty was overcoming by using horses as draft animals. Horses were faster and had greater endurance than oxen and could be controlled by voice commands, thus 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 as oxen do, and harnessing. The peasants also 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 the heavy plow.

Another set of innovations centered on field utilization and involved the development of a rudimentary but effective system of crop rotation. Peasants started using peas and beans as a complement to their grain crops. Peas and beans are legumes and so restore nitrogen to the soil; they are vines and so choke out weeds; the vines and pods are succulent and so provide excellent silage for winter stock feed; and their vines cover the ground so thickly as to keep the soil friable and thus make plowing easier. Added to all of these advantages was the fact that they were an excellent addition to the diet of humans. They could be dired and kept indefinitely - no small advantage in an era in which food preservation was a constant problem - and, although this was beyond the peasants' ken, were a source of relatively good protein.

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.

3. Results

These innovations not only increased production, but also increased the peasants productivity to such a degree that a smaller portion of the population had to be directly engaged in the raising of food. The increased production of food not only permitted an increase of population but provided better nutrition to the population as a whole. The increased productivity of the peasants permitted the some people to devote themselves to the full-time pursuit of small-scale manufacturing and processing,


Lynn Harry Nelson
Emeritus Professor of
Medieval History
The University of Kansas
Lawrence, Kansas

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