Medieval Farming

The feudal system during the medieval period was the basis of almost everything in the country. It was based mainly on the exchange of lands for services. It became the way of the people for it fostered the movement of towns and countries. The Lord and his family, including his servants were supported by the income generated from his properties.

These properties were estates that comprised of agricultural lands, villages, other estate properties and the manor where the lord and his family lived.  Since the majority of the property was composed of crop lands, the lord would need farmers and other workers to cultivate the land. Thus, medieval farming became most of the medieval people’s primary occupation.

Medieval Farming History

Farming was a way of life for medieval people and It dominated the lives of most people in the middle ages. Medieval Peasants who worked the lands of the lords were very important during this period in Medieval history. Medieval Peasants played vital roles in growing and harvesting crops for their family and the Lords’ families as well.
There were plenty of lands for farming especially in the villages. By modern standards, medieval farming was very rudimentary and unsophisticated. Farmers did not have access to modern machinery and modern farming tools such as tractors and harvesters. They also had to strictly follow what they called “the farming year or calendar”.

Medieval Field Ploughing and Crop Rotation

The Medieval 3 Field Farming system also known as crop rotation was used in medieval times

Medieval Farming Methods

Because Medieval farmers didn’t know how to enrich the soil then, farming methods during the medieval era lacked sophistication. They only cultivated two-thirds of the lands to allow some part of the land to fallow and recover its fertility and as a result, were only able to generate relatively limited harvest. Crop rotation and division had become a common practice. Lands were mostly divided into three to four big fields where medieval peasants could plant different kinds of crops.

One section was allotted for wheat in the winter, the second one would have rye sown on it, while the third smaller sections would have barley and or oats during springtime. Meanwhile, the last section of field could be left empty to allow the soil to recover its natural strength and nutrients. Farmers in the middle ages also used crop rotation where they planted different kinds of crops on each segment each year.

Medieval Farming Tools

Since modern farming machines and tools had not been invented yet during the medieval period, farming tools were also still crude and very simple. There were in fact very few of them and were quite clumsy to use. The most common one was the wooden plough that could only do as much as scratch the ground. Farrowing was done with a simple hand implement that worked a little better than a rake, while grain was cut with a sickle made of clay.

Some farmers were able to secure metal tipped ploughs that helped them turn the soil over. They also had harrows to help them with covering up the soil after seeds were sown. Animal manure was the most basic means of fertilizing the soil as artificial ones were not yet available.

Reeve and Serfs - Medieval Farming

A medieval Reeve was in charge of the organisation of the farm

Medieval Farmers – Reeves, Peasants and Slaves

Reeves managed the villages. They made sure that everything was in place and that serfs completed their services. Reeves had local power and were known as military leaders to their communities and villages. They were given these responsibilities by the lords for a military reason. There were many different kinds of reeves and all of them have different responsibilities. There were manor reeves, port reeves and shire reeves. In the middle ages, peasants were at the bottom of the class system. However, they were still considered higher than slaves even if they lived difficult lives. Some peasants were bounded to an oath that they will be obedient to the lord and pay taxes for the lands that they work. However, there are other peasants who were free from these kinds of obligations.

Medieval Farming Year

A farmer’s struggle during the middle ages was never ending as they would be needed to work either under the scoring heat of the sun or the blanket of deadly winter. A farmer’s life was tied to the seasons and the weather, and more often than not, there was no such thing as good weather as conditions during the medieval period were constantly changing. And when the weather became less cooperative, these poor families could starve.

Below reflects the common activities on each month of the Medieval Farming year.

  • January – Repairing structures and Planting early crops
  • February  – Ploughing and Fertilizing
  • March – More Ploughing, Sowing seeds and Weeding 
  • April – Pruning and more Weeding
  • May – Scaring off the birds, Shearing the sheep
  • June – Harvesting
  • July – Ploughing, Gathering resources and Stockpiling
  • August – Harvesting other crops, Tying and Threshing them
  • September – Harvesting, Tying, Winnowing, Harvesting fruits and Milling
  • October – Sowing, Milling, Weaving, Rope-making
  • November – Butchering, Salting, Smoking, and Weaving
  • December – Collecting, Digging, Skinning, Hunting and Tool Making
Medieval Farming and the 3 field system

In medieval farming a 3 field crop rotation system was used that was deemed the best system to grow crops

Medieval Farming Preparing Fields, Ploughing & Seeding

The peasants during the medieval period worked together on large tasks such as ploughing and hay-making. They mostly ploughed the fields in Autumn with a team of oxen pulling a small plough. Ploughing was considered a difficult and tedious job then primarily because of the lack of more sophisticated tools in the medieval era. After ploughing comes seeding. When the large lumps of soil had been broken up, farmers scattered the seeds by hand. Small boys helped their farmer fathers scattering corn seeds.

Medieval Farming Fertilizer, Protecting Crops

Farmers only had rudimentary knowledge about farming in the middle ages. This was the reason why only two-thirds of the lands on average were cultivated then and their average yield was only about nine bushels of grain. Ultimately, farmers needed to fertilize the soil and so they had acquired a common fertilization technique called marling. This method required the farmers to spread lime carbonate containing soil into the lands which restored the nutrients of the soil. They had also used manure from their livestock as fertilizers.

Harvesting, collection & Gathering

Harvesting usually began in August. It was when the weather allowed harvesting which was usually completed by the end of the month. The winter crops such as rye and wheat ripened and were harvested first. This was followed by barley and oats which were spring grains.  The harvest in the medieval period highly depended on the weather. A combination of warm sun, dry sunny days and good rain were important to growing crops in the middle ages. Timing of the activities, from ploughing, seeding and harvesting was very crucial. Unripe grains were harvested and placed in special drying ovens. This method was common in areas where the growing season was shorter than the required time to get the grain ready for good harvest.

Medieval Farming Crop rotation 3 fields

This image shows a plan of a medieval manor and shows how the fields were used for farming

Medieval Farm Animals

Animals played a very significant role in medieval farming. Because the tools were crude and their knowledge of farming were limited and basic, farmers depended largely on the help of farm animals.
The most important farm animal was the ox, which ironically was not available to most farmers. Oxen were called beasts of burden because of the amount of physical labour they could handle especially in the field. What farmers did was to pool money together to buy a few oxen as they were vital to completing a lot of farm work.

Medieval Farming Summary

Farming was the primary way of life in the middle ages. It was the most common work of the people during the medieval period. Peasants and serfs worked the lands which was critical to the survival of peasant families in the medieval era. Most of these peasants lived in villages and these villages comprised mostly of agricultural lands. This was the primary source of food for the villages and towns. Methods of medieval farming were crude and the farmer’s knowledge about farming were very basic and elementary. Because of this and weather changes, farmers had to follow a farming year and cultivated the lands based on crop rotation to maximize their yield.

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