The Medieval Farming Year
“To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted…”
Ecclesiastes, Ch 3, v 1-3
© Andy Staples, 1999, 2023
It is hard for us to imagine the importance of seasonal cycles to our ancestors. Our fridges and our freezers are stocked with fresh and frozen foods brought in from around the world. No matter what the time of year, our favourite foodstuffs from around the world are available on the supermarket shelves. Only minor variations in price mark the changing of one season to another. Our central heating and air conditioning alleviate the winter cold and the summer heat; when the nights draw in we switch on a light and carry on as normal.
Not so for medieval people. The turning seasons marked the fundamental rhythm of their lives. The time of year determined what they did, the length of the working day and what they ate. The vast majority of people – around 90 per cent of the population – were directly involved in agriculture. There was no rapid transportation and there were few ways of preserving food. Even the medieval urbanite was more in tune with the yearly cycle than we in the developed countries will ever really understand.
This article is my attempt to redress the balance, at least in my own mind, and it is far from perfect. But whatever its faults, it is the most complete and detailed overview of medieval agricultural methods available on the Web at the time of writing – this I know because I have searched long and hard without success for something like it to save me the effort. It is based both on medieval English sources such as Walter of Henley’s Husbandry, and on the work of modern historians derived from these sources, primarily H.S. Bennett’s Life on the English Manor, supplemented with a little input from archaeological evidence. A full bibliography is given at the end of this file.
When using the calendar you should be aware firstly that it concerns England during the 12th to 13th centuries, although it should be fairly valid for northern France and Germany. Secondly, the exact timing of the works described would be decided by villagers (or by the reeve and the lord or his representative in the case of demesne lands) depending on the local ground conditions and the weather. Finally, it assumes the “classic” midland system of open field farming with two or three great fields worked in common with heavy ploughs. The midland system was not the only one used in medieval England, never mind Europe, nor was it the most efficient, but discussion of other systems is beyond the scope of this article.
The Works of Spring
Many medieval English country people held that New Year began on Lady Day, March 25, for it marked the time when work began in earnest after the winter lull. Plough teams began the first ploughing of the fallow field in April when the soil was soft enough to turn easily. Each team consisted of a heavy plough pulled by eight oxen, guided by a ploughman and an ox-goader. The team was expected to plough an acre a day. In the later medieval period pairs of horses were combined with the oxen on lighter soils, or even used exclusively.
The innovation which marked the heavy plough from the earlier ard (also known as a scratch- or hook-plough) was a mouldboard mounted on the right hand side, behind the ploughshare, which turned the sod. Because of the difficulty in turning the plough, the team worked in long strips, turning clockwise several times before starting on a new strip. This method resulted in the sod constantly being thrown in towards the middle of the strip, creating a pattern of ridge and furrow.
While the plough teams were busy on the fallow field, preparations began for the sowing of spring crops (barley, oats, peas, beans and vetches). In a two-field system the spring crops would be sown on half the active field (winter crops, sown the previous autumn, would already be growing on the other half); in a three-field system the spring crops would have a field to themselves.
Grains – barley and oats – were sown by the broadcast method, and were sometimes sown together in a mixture known as dredge. Peas and beans were painstakingly dibbled, the seeds being placed in a series of small holes made by poking a stick (known as a dibbler or dibbling-stick) into the ground. Choosing the right amount of seed to sow was a delicate matter which depended on soil quality and, to some extent, local custom. Too little seed and the weeds would choke the growing crops; too much and the crops would choke themselves. A working guide is that barley would be sown at four bushels to the acre and oats, peas and beans at three bushels to the acre.
Ploughing the fallow and sowing spring crops continued into May if necessary. Children would defend the newly-sown seed from crows and other marauding birds with slings: only the lord’s doves were sacrosanct and killing one brought a heavy penalty. The doves could cause considerable damage to crops and they were a hated symbol of the lord’s power.
The seed was quickly protected by harrowing to cover it with soil. The simplest, cheapest and most ineffective harrows were bundles of brushwood dragged behind a horse – sometimes even tied to its tail. More sturdy harrows consisted of wooden pegs fixed into a wooden frame; iron-toothed harrows were virtually unknown, and certainly well beyond the means of peasants. Sometimes the harrow was unable to break up heavy clods, and these were broken up with mallets.
Gardens also required attention. They were used not only to grow such staples of the peasant diet as cabbages and members of the onion family (onions, leeks and garlic) but also cash crops such as flax and hemp. Dyeplants like madder (red), woad (blue), dyer’s greenweed (green) and weld (yellow) were also grown in gardens, probably for home use as well as for sale initially, but increasingly as a cash crop as the clothing industry became more urbanised in the 13th century. Culinary and medicinal herbs detected by archaeobotanists include parsley, fennel, celery, camomile, mint, summer savoury, catmint, mustard, opium poppy and coriander.
Cows came back into full milk as pastures took over from sparse winter fodder. Between May and Michaelmas (September 29) each cow was expected to produce seven stones (98lb) of cheese and a stone (14lb) of butter.
Any time left over was spent on maintenance work – hedging, ditching, repairing fences and buildings.
Haymaking was the main event of June, and it was a communal activity. Meadows were relatively rare, and those outside the lord’s demesne were often held by the villagers in common. Haymakers used long-handled scythes to cut the grass close to the ground. Teams of men moved down the meadow in lines, each expected to mow about an acre a day. Women and children followed to turn the hay behind them to ensure it dried evenly. Finally the hay was gathered into large stacks. In some areas custom dictated that haymakers could carry away as much of the lord’s hay as they could lift on their scythes without letting it fell – letting any part of the scythe or bundle touch the ground resulted in forfeiture.
The hay crop was vitally important to the village economy, for it provided the main winter fodder for animals. If the crop was bad fewer animals could be kept over winter; a good crop could mean a relatively steady supply of fresh meat over winter, a good supply of breeding stock or a surplus for sale.
Lambs were weaned as early as possible, for sheep’s milk was rich and highly prized. Shearing began late in June. The best fleeces came from wethers (castrated males), and fleeces taken earlier were often finer and more valuable than those taken later in the year. Lambswool is extremely fine, but medieval sheep did not start to produce decently-sized fleeces until their third or fourth year.
In areas where three ploughings of the fallow field were the norm the second was generally begun in late June. This ploughing was a little deeper than the first to expose the roots of weeds, and as much manure as was available would be spread on the field before the teams began their work. The easiest way of getting the dung onto the field was to pasture beasts there. Each acre could support two sheep; cattle required about two acres each. Manorial lords often insisted that beasts were folded on demesne lands overnight to ensure they got most of the valuable manure. The beasts were not permitted to graze the meadows until at least a month after the haymaking to give the grass a chance to recover.
The Works of Summer
Between the hectic days of haymaking and the summer harvest the loathsome task of weeding the crop-bearing fields was the most important task. Thistles were among the most common weeds, and tradition held that thistles cut down before St John’s Day (June 24) would multiply threefold before the main harvest. Other weeds common in medieval grain fields were dock, dead-nettle, charlock and corn cockle. Corn marigolds grew among spring-sown barley, and cornflower was associated with rye.
Weeding called for special tools. The most common were a pair of long-handled sticks, one with a Y-fork at the end and the other with a small sickle blade: they were used together to cut the stem of the weed at ground level. With manure in short supply, careful and dedicated weeding was probably the most effective way of increasing the harvest yield, but the sheer quantity of weed remains found in archaeological contexts shows medieval techniques were far from perfect.
Flax and hemp matured in the gardens, and required careful preparation to extract the fibres. Both plants were pulled up, roots and all, rather than cut. They were laid in the sun to dry before being retted: placed in a stream to rot away the fleshy parts of the plant. Once the fibres were clean they were beaten to separated them and hung up in strikes to dry thoroughly. Hemp was then ready to be wound into rope or cord, and flax to be placed on a distaff and spun into yarn.
July was the hungry month. Grain stores were at their lowest ebb, awaiting replenishment from the forthcoming harvest, and peasants in need eked out their diet by foraging and many no doubt by poaching. There is even a theory that rye infected with the hallucinogenic mould ergot was deliberately baked into bread to ease the gnawing hunger with a drug-induced daze.
The main grain harvest began in early August if the weather allowed and would usually be completed by the end of the month. The winter crops (wheat and rye) ripened and were harvested first, followed by the spring grains (barley and oats). The timing depended very much upon the weather – not only were weeks of warm sun and gentle rain needed for a good crop to grow, but several dry, sunny days were required to bring the harvest in. In a pinch unripe or rain-dampened grain could be harvested and placed in special corn-drying ovens, though these were more common in upland areas where the growing season was short.
Wheat was harvested with a sickle, used to cut a couple of hands-breadths below the ear of corn, leaving the long stubble standing in the field. The other grains were cut closer to the ground with a long-handled scythe. A team of five people – four reapers and a binder – could harvest two acres of crops a day. The process was not terribly efficient, and some of the grain fell to the ground; the poorest peasants often had the rights to glean the fallen grain from the fields after the harvest was brought in and before livestock was released to graze the stubble. Gleaning rights were hotly contested and seem to have been of considerable benefit to the recipients. Church tithes – one sheaf in every ten – were collected from the field before peasants carted their crop to their barns and houses.
Medieval harvest yields have been widely studied, and often hotly debated. They varied widely from year to year, depending largely on the weather conditions. In intensively farmed areas they could reach 1:10 or even higher, but were nowhere near as respectable in the open fields of the midland belt. Except where noted the following figures are based on averages from manorial records in the London region from 1288-1315, quoted in Campbell et al, A Medieval Capital and its Grain Supply (see bibliography below). Yields are before church tithes have been paid (the church took 10% of all grain harvested).
|Crop||Seed (bushels/acre)||Seed : Yield Ratio||Yield (bushels/acre)|
According to Titow’s study of the Winchester data between 1209 and 1350, bad harvests (where the yield was 15 per cent or more below the average) occurred about one year in eight and good harvests (where the yields were 15 per cent or more above the average) about one year in 20.
If poor weather delayed the start of the grain harvest, it would be finished in early September before the peas, beans and vetches were harvested.
Work was not finished when the harvest was complete, although the pressure eased a little once the sheaves were safely brought
indoors. But the grain still required processing. First it was threshed with a flail to separate the individual grains from the ear. The grainflail consisted of two lengths of wood, the handstaff and beater, joined by a leather thong. A worker could thresh about seven bushels of wheat in a day, or eight bushels of rye, 15 of barley or 18 bushels of oats. After threshing the grain was winnowed to remove the chaff and straw. This could be done by throwing the grains on a winnowing sheet and letting the wind blow the lighter chaff and straw away, or by using a special winnowing fan. The chaff and straw was not wasted but carefully collected to use as animal fodder. Finally the grain was sieved to remove the smaller weed seeds. It was then ready to be stored. It would last several years if kept dry and free from vermin, but this was not always easy. Flour had a much shorter shelf-life, and milling the grain was done as and when necessary.
Beans and peasecods were carefully dried as a source of both food and animal fodder over winter. Pottage was a staple of the peasant diet, and a pot of it was generally kept cooking at all times, topped up with new ingredients as required. An old English nursery rhyme is not far off the mark: Pease pudding hot, pease pudding cold – pease pudding in the pot, nine days old.
A substantial portion of the grain processing had to be completed by Michaelmas (September 29), which marked the start of the new financial year and was the day for settling debts, rents and dues.
The Works of Autumn
The third and final ploughing of the fallow field was carried out prior to the sowing of winter crops of wheat and rye, both sown at about about three bushels per acre. Harrowing was performed after sowing (see May, above, for details).
Autumn-sown crops would ripen and be ready for harvest a week or two before spring-sown crops. Bitter cold and deep ground-frosts might damage the seedlings, reducing the yield, but extreme weather aside the seedlings are dormant through winter, growing once the temperatures increase in spring.
By mid-September beechnuts and acorns were ripening and falling, and swineherds drove their charges into the woods to forage for them, a process known as pannaging. Pannage rights were generally paid for by a small cash fee on top of a peasant’s normal dues, and provided a valuable means of fattening swine up for slaughter. Pannaging generally lasted for six weeks, ending in mid-November. Whatever wild fruits and nuts were available were also collected for human consumption. Wheat stubble, which had been left standing in the fields, was gathered in to mix with hay as winter fodder.
Martinmas (November 11) was the traditional day for slaughtering and salting old stock and swine to provide a supply of meat, however meagre, for the coming winter. Little of the pigs were wasted – flesh provided meat which preserved well by salting or smoking, skin could be cured into fine leather and even the blood was carefully saved to make black puddings. Ox-hide was also cured into leather. The idea of a wide-ranging Martinmas slaughter of livestock is largely myth; animals not wanted as breeding or working stock were generally sold at market earlier in the year; the meat of young beasts fetched a higher price. In general only pigs, which lived largely on scraps and by scavenging, and beasts at the end of their working lives were candidates for slaughter on the manor. Archaeologists have found the bones of young animals predominate in towns, where they were sold at market, and the bones of older animals in villages. In general, the peasants ate the old stock, selling the young stock to butchers in towns, where their tender meat fetched a higher price.
By mid-November preparations for the hardships of winter were well underway. Firewood was collected from the woods; peasants were generally forbidden from taking anything but dead wood for their own personal use, and the amount they were allowed to take was often limited by local custom. Taking wood for sale generally resulted in a fine, but it did not stop people trying. In some areas turves and peat were cut and stacked to dry for the winter fire.
Reeds and sedges were cut to be dried for thatching, and bracken was gathered to use as winter bedding for cattle. Threshing and winnowing continued whenever the weather was too wet to do outside work.
The Works of Winter
There seems little point in breaking the works of winter down into monthly tasks. Whatever maintenance could be done was carried out, and animals cared for. Dung from the barns was carefully stockpiled to be mixed with marl and spread upon the fields, though the peasants never had enough to fertilise more than the closest strips.
Lambing began in late February and in March the plough teams went out to prepare the fields for the spring sowing (see April, above).
Bibliography and Sources
Anyone interested in serious research is strongly urged to check these sources rather than rely on this article, which really represents my working notes at my current state of knowledge and understanding. I am an amateur medieval archaeologist, not a farmer or an agricultural historian, and I expect this working file to contain errors and omissions. I intend to correct, expand and otherwise modify it as time passes.
Astill, Grenville, & Annie Grant (eds) The Countryside of Medieval England (Blackwell, London, 1988).
Aston, Mick Interpreting the Landscape: Landscape Archaeology and Local History (Routledge, London, 1985)
Aston, T.H. (ed) Landlords, Peasants and Politics in Medieval England (Cambridge, 1987)
Bennett, H.S. Life on the English Manor (Cambridge, 1937)
Campbell, Bruce M.S..; Galloway, James A.; Keene, Derek; Murphy, Margaret A Medieval Capital and its Grain Supply: Agrarian production and distribution in the London region c. 1300 (Historical Geography Research Series Number 30, 1993)
Carlin, Martha & Joel T. Rosenthal (eds) Food and Eating in Medieval Europe (Hambledon, London, 1998).
Duby, Georges Rural Economy and Country Life in the Medieval West (Columbia, 1968)
Dyer, Christopher Standards of Living in the Later Middle Ages: Social Change in England c.1200-1520 (Cambridge, revised edition 1998)
Gies, Joseph & Frances Life in a Medieval Village (HarperCollins, 1991)
Hallam, H. E. Rural England 1066-1348 (Fontana, 1981)
Jordan, William Chester The Great Famine: Northern Europe in the Early Fourteenth Century (Princeton, 1996)
Oschinsky, D. Walter of Henley and other Treatises on Estate Management and Accounting (Oxford, 1971)
Rösener, Werner Peasants in the Middle Ages (Polity Press, Cambridge, 1992).