What was medieval farming like?

How did they follow the seasons? What tools did they use? How long did they work? How much were they payed?

During the Middle Ages in England, more than 90% of the population were impoverished, hard labouring peasants. Because farming was absolutely crucial to the society, from the bottom of the hierarchy all the way to the top, England was an enormously agricultural nation, much like other European nations of the time.

There was hardly a moment in the year when there was nothing to do – always tasks, big or small. Frequent repairs on houses were necessary as they were fairly brittle and often torn down by powerful weather.

The New Year and Spring was a fairly busy period, as the fields had to be cleaned and repaired before they were ploughed for the seeds. Using metal tipped ploughs the soul was turned to make it soft for new plants and to spread the dirt nutrients evenly. Usually the ploughs were pulled by groups of oxen, or just one ox, because the primitive but heavy machinery was hard to pull. As oxen were expensive, villagers would contribute as much money as they could afford to the purchase of one of the beasts.

After the ploughing had been completed, harrows would need to be dragged across the soil to split up the larger, tough clumps of earth which will trap or crush a sprouting plant.

It was absolutely normal for farmers to collaborate as the work was a town effort and everyone was required to labour to their full ability. This is why shepherds are often depicted as white, old folk because the least able in the Medieval village were made to do the least painful jobs.

There were two fields within active use, and one that was left fallow for the coming year. However, occasionally there would be more fields. Citizens worked together on the same fields to plough, sow and weed, but the land was actually owned by the Lord. Therefore most of the produce was given to the village manor, as well as a tax-like payment to the Church that was a legal religious requirement if villagers were to remain on God’s good side.

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As good, affordable fertiliser did not exist in Medieval times, manure was used to cultivate the fields. There were other meadows for cattle and animals; their excrete was collected for use on the crop fields.

Summer was the time of crop growth, and absolutely crucial for being able to harvest for the winter. Moreover, it was a very tense and risky time as conditions had to be just right for the cereals to grow efficiently. If there was lasting spring ice, then the seeds would die in the earth. On the other hand, if the sun was too hot, the plants would be promptly scorched.

While there was a certain danger of extreme heat and cold, it was possible for a destructive summer shower to flood the fields and flatten the produce. Depending on the size and ferocity of the storm, this could be disastrous for the village – and the Lord. A resulting bad harvest would cause starvation, as the village would depend on all food harvested throughout the winter.

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Every day the farmers would leave their homes to weed the fields whilst their children shouted and banged on makeshift drums to scare the pesky birds away. During the summer, the sheep were often sheared so that their coats could be made into clothes and fabric. Wool was twisted on a spindle and then woven into cloth.

During Augustus and September, teams of men would spend hours in the sun cutting the grain and cereals with scythes and sickles, and tying them into bundles to be sent off for storage in the barns. Otherwise, they’d be used straight away, eg. for pounding into flour.

If the harvest failed, it wasn’t common for many peasants to die of starvation simply because either a) no one had enough food or b) the Lord took all the harvest. It was difficult to supply the village with enough crop let alone other vegetables, fruits and meat. The quantity of produce per acre of land in the Middle Ages was painful. Although up to 12 hours per day was spent cultivating, weeding, planting, harrowing and harvesting, it often still wasn’t enough – consequently the peasants would have to set to work on other farm jobs.

During Autumn, they collected acorns to fatten their pigs on. Pigs were one of the most popular sources of meat, because they were fairly common in the surrounding woods. Unfortunately, if the pigs were mainly located in the Lord/King’s private hunting grounds, then it may have resulting in someone attempting to steal animals from property that did not belong to them. There were heavy fines, torture and potentially execution for hunting ground thief’s. The rule applied for felling wood, collecting berries and bundling firewood in private territory also.

Normally, a peasant family would own a small garden patch outside their wattle-and-daub hut, and this could be used to grow beans, peas and lentils. Portage was extremely important in the diet of a poor medieval person, so it was necessary that the vegetable garden was kept in prime condition so that it’s produce could add to the main crop from the fields.

The family also often owned a cow or two, which would remain within the house instead of some other barn, simply because most people could not afford it. Manure from the animals contributed to the overall terrible smell within a peasant home.

When the farming year was completed with the successful conclusion of a harvest, the Lord would hold a kind feast to celebrarte the achievements and hard work of his people. After all, he was taking the majority of their crop, so it was only fair that he share it once or twice.

However, because there was the risk of some peasants slacking off, a reeve was often hired by the Lord to ensure that everyone was working efficiently and quickly. If they didn’t, they’d be punished accordingly. The Medieval Farming Year was long and difficult, plagued with endless tasks, disasters and back-breaking work, all day, every day. And for what they got out of it, it seems like an awfully bad deal.

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