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.
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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 - between 80 and 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.
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. The research has been long and hard, though immensely satisfying.
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Comments, additions, corrections and criticism can be sent to me by e-mail at: andy. 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. 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-plough 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.
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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. May 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. 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.
June 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 July 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.
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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.
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