The Medieval Agrarian Economy

by Tim Harding

This striking image depicts the three main classes of medieval society – the clergy, the knights and the peasantry.[1]  Tellingly, the cleric and the knight are shown talking to each other; but the peasant is excluded from the conversation.  Even though the peasants comprised over 90% of the population, they were in many ways marginalized socially and economically.  So who were these peasants and what was their daily life like?

striking

Source of image: Wikimedia Commons

The term ‘peasant’ essentially means a traditional farmer of the Middle Ages, although in everyday language it has come to mean a lower class agricultural labourer.  In the Central Middle Ages, that is the period from 1000 to 1300CE, European peasants were divided into four classes according to their legal status and their relationship to the land they farmed.  These classes were slave, serf, free tenant or land owner.  The first two classes were usually much poorer than the second two.

There were several factors that influenced the lives of peasants during this period.  The reciprocal benefits of agricultural labour and warrior protection gave rise to closely settled manorial and feudal communities.[2]  More land was brought under cultivation by the communal clearing of forests, draining of swamps and the building of levees or dykes.[3] (Drafting note: I’ll leave it to Corey to provide text about the relevant social and legal relationships).  

The invention of a heavier wheeled plow enabled deeper cultivation of soils, including the burying of green manure from fallow land and also stubble from previous crops.  The deeper furrows also protected seed from wind and birds.[4]

plough

Source of image: Wikimedia Commons

There was also a period of warmer temperatures, milder winters and higher rainfall at this time, resulting in longer growing seasons.[5]  Another important factor was the replacement of the Roman two-field rotation system by a more efficient three-field system, enabling two-thirds of the land to be under cultivation at any one time, instead of only half the land.  This image shows the three cropping fields (West, South and East) of a typical rural community, with the remaining quarter devoted to pasture, the Manor house and Church.[6]

rural community

Source of image: Bennett, Judith M., Medieval Europe – A Short History
(New York: McGraw-Hill, 2011). p. 142.

Interestingly, the typical length of a plow-strip was 220 yards, called a furlong (a word still used in horse racing today).  The width of a plow-strip was a rod, and a rectangle of 4 rods by one furlong became an acre.[7] (Four rods later became a ‘chain’ of 22 yards, so an acre was an area one furlong by one chain).

The resulting increases in agricultural yields raised farm production above subsistence levels for the first time in centuries.   These surpluses not enabled not only trade, but also the storage of produce such as oats for the feeding of horses.  This in turn enabled the replacement of plow-pulling oxen by horses that required less pasture that could be reallocated to cropping.  Horses also moved and turned faster than oxen, resulting in even more efficiencies.[8]

Crop yields for wheat improved to an estimated four times the quantity of grain sown.  Typically, one quarter of the yield was reserved for the next planting, one or two quarters went to the lord of the manor as rent, and the remainder was either consumed as bread or beer, stored for the winter or sold at local markets.[9]

Few peasants could afford meat to eat – they mainly lived on bread, beer and vegetables grown by women and children in small cottage gardens, plus eggs from chickens and milk from cows and goats.  Those living in coastal areas also ate fish. [10]

 Bibliography

Backman, Clifford R., The Worlds of Medieval Europe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).

Bennett, Judith M., Medieval Europe – A Short History (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2011).

Endnotes

[1] Bennett, Judith M., Medieval Europe – A Short History (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2011) p.135.

[2] Backman, Clifford R., The Worlds of Medieval Europe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015) p.215

[3] Bennett, p.140.

[4] Backman, p.218.

[5] Bennett, p.139.

[6] Bennett, p.140-142.

[7] Backman, p.217.

[8] Backman, p.218.

[9] Backman, p.219.

[10] Backman, p.220.

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