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Spring Agriculture

by Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno)
Orignally published in the April 1997, A.S. XXXI issue of the Dragonflyre, a publication of the Barony of Vatavia.

Spring is the time of renewal, of birth, of awaking from a long sleep. Of all human activities, farming is by necessity the most attuned to the turning of the seasons. Until the recent century, most earned their living by farming, and so regulated their lives by the seasons. To a farmer, spring is a time to go back to work.

Yoked to the seasons, the rhythms of farming have changed little over the ages. A medieval farmer plucked from his 12th century village and deposited on a modern farm would be awed by the machinery used, the size of the farm, the yields achieved but would quickly recognize the activities taking place and their whys and wherefores. And despite the language differences of the centuries, the two farmers would have no difficulty communicating.

The first activity undertaking would be the spring plowing. Depending on time and place, the fields would be partitioned into two or three areas. One of these would be plowed, but nothing planted. It would lay fallow, to rest and recover its fertility. In the two field system, if there was to not a winter crop, the second field would be plowed, and sowed with the spring crop. In the three field system, one field would carry the winter crop and the other would be planted with the spring crop. And each year, each field will change its role.

Plowing was done in long strips as the medieval plow team was very difficult to turn around. The ownership of the fields was broken up among the members of the village with the shares interspersed across the field. As a result, the plowing left a distinctive pattern on the ground known as ridge-and-furrow, which still can be seen today. The plow and plow team, some mixture of horses and oxen, tended to be communally owned. The type of plow used depended on the soil. The key innovation of the Middle Ages was the moldboard which turned over the soil. This allowed the plowing of the clayey soil that was endemic to northern Europe.

Spring crops included wheat, barley, and oats. Other grains that might be planted were rye and millet. (Grains were collectively known as corn. What we now call corn, more properly maize, is a New World plant.) These grains were meant mostly for animal fodder and brewing. The grains to be eaten were the winter crop. After the crop was sowed, by hand casting, the field was harrowed. The purpose of this was to cover the seed to reduce its loss to birds. One of the tasks of the children was to chase off birds till this was done.

Also done with the plowing was the spreading of manure that had been collected over the winter on the fields. This not only included droppings from the standard farm animals, but also human waste and bird droppings from the dovecotes that populated the landscape. Also spread on the fields was marl. Marl is a calciferous substance that reduces the acid content of the soil much improves the ability of plants to take up nutrients. The medieval farmer did not know this, but merely that the application of this substance improved his yields.

The spring work was not done when the crop was in the ground. The winter's ravages had to be undone. Fences of wattles had to be built, ditches cleared, and creek banks and hedges repaired. And these all had to be done on the lord's lands before the peasant could turn to his needs.

After the day's work is done, there is the garden. These gardens of leeks, peas, onions, and herbs were to provide the variety in a peasant’s otherwise bland diet.

This routine would vary depending on what could be grown in the area. In the wine producing areas, spring meant it was time to prune and restake the vines. In the pastoral area, it meant it was time to shear the sheep of their winter coats.

It was not all work for peasant in the spring. There were the usual holidays, including the most important of all: Easter. There were the leftover pagan rituals such as May Day. And there was the simple basic joy of just having survived another winter. The cycle of life continues.

 

Bibliography

Basing, Patricia. Trades and Crafts in Medieval Manuscripts. New York: New Amsterdam Books, 1990.

Camille, Michael. Agriculture in the Middle Ages; Technology, Practice, and Representation. Ed. Del Sweeney. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995.

Collins, Marie, and Virginia Davis. A Medieval Book of Seasons. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.

Duby, Georges. Rural Economy and Country Life in the Medieval West. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1968.

Gies, Frances, and Joseph Gies. Life in a Medieval Village. New York: HarperPerennial, 1990.

 

Copyright © 1997 - present His Lordship Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno). All rights reserved.

 

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