Farming in the Middle Ages was done by peasants and serfs. Peasant farmers made just enough money to live on while serfs had no rights and were all but slaves to the lords whose land they lived on. Some serf farmers eventually earned rights in exchange for back-breaking work seven days a week and on-command service to their lord.
Farming Methods and Tools
Lands were farmed using a three field agricultural system. One field was for the summer crop, another for winter crop, and the third layfallow, or uncultivated, each year. The fallow land was reserved to regain nutrients for the next year.
Farmers only had a rudimentary knowledge of fertilizers. Thus, each year only an average of twothirds of a farmer’s land was usually cultivated. The other third of the land lay uncultivated or fallow. The average yield of an acre of farming in the Middle Ages was eight to nine bushels of grain.
Some farmers did have methods for fertilizing their soil. A common fertilization technique for farming in the Middle Ages was called marling. For marling, farmers spread clay containing lime carbonate onto their soil. This process restored the nutrients needed to grow crops. Farmers also used manure as fertilizer, which they got from the livestock they raised.
There were not many tools used for farming, and the tools available were rather useless. The wooden ploughs used for farming in the Middle Ages barely scratched the ground. Grain was cut with a sickle and grass mown with a scythe. It took an average of five men per day to collect a two acre harvest. Harrowing, or burying seeds, was done with a hand tool resembling a large rake.
As scientific breeding had not yet begun, farm animals were small and often unhealthy. The size of a full-grown bull reached the size slightly larger than a calf today, and the fleece of an entire sheep weighed an average of two ounces. Other common livestock included sheep, pigs, cows, goats and chickens.
The most important livestock animal, an ox, was unavailable to most farmers. Oxen were referred to as “beasts of burden” because of the amount of physical labor they could handle that humans could not. Horses also were sometimes referred to as “beasts of burden.” Villages or towns often pooled money together to buy a few oxen because they were so vital to completing important farm work. The oxen were rotated between members of the community, who looked after each other and made sure that, especially during ploughing time and harvesting time, important farm work was always finished by everyone.
Common crops produced in the Middle Ages included wheat, beans, barley, peas and oats. Most farmers had a spring and a fall crop. The spring crop often produced barley and beans while the fall crop produced wheat and rye. The wheat and rye were used for bread or sold to make money. The oats were usually used to feed livestock. The barley was often used was used for beer.
Farmers used a crop rotation system which is still used today. The way crop rotation works is that different crops are planted on the same field in alternating years. For instance, one year the farmers may plant oats and the next year they decide to plant beans. Because these two crops use different nutrients, the nutrients used by one crop (say oats) will be absorbed while that crop is growing. Those nutrients are used up when the oats finish growing. The next year, the farmers plant beans in that field, because beans use up different nutrients in the soil. Because those nutrients were not used up in that field the previous year, the field is primed for the beans.
Farming in the Middle Ages was controlled by the weather. One night of bad frost could mean a whole year of bad crops. Certain rituals and procedures also had to be performed throughout the year to ensure a satisfactory crop. A farmer’s crop, no matter the season, always had to be monitored.
A farmer’s year:
- In January, farmers hoped for rain. They focused on making and repairing tools as well as repairing fences.
- In February, farmers hoped for rain. They focused on carting manure and marl.
- In March, farmers hoped for a dry month with no severe frosts. They focused on the ploughing and spreading of manure.
- In April, farmers hoped for a mixture of rain and sunshine. They focused on sowing the spring seeds and harrowing them.
- In May, farmers hoped for a mixture of rain and sunshine. They focused on digging ditches and started their first ploughing of the fallow fields.
- In June, farmers hoped for dry weather. They focused on hay making, sheep shearing, and did a second ploughing of the fallow fields.
- In July, farmers hoped for a month in which the first half was dry and the second half was rainy. They focused on hay making, sheep shearing, and crop weeding.
- In August, farmers hoped for warm, dry weather. They focused on harvesting.
- In September, farmers hoped for rain. They focused on threshing, ploughing and pruning fruit trees.
- In October, farmers hoped for dry weather with no severe frosts. They focused on their last ploughing of the year.
- In November, farmers hoped for a mixture of rain and sunshine. They focused on collecting acorns for pigs.
- In December, farmers hoped for a mixture of rain and sunshine. They focused on making and repairing tools and slaughtering livestock.
Women’s role in farming in the Middle Ages
Farmer’s wives often helped raise the smaller livestock, such as chickens. These livestock were then killed and eaten by the family or possibly sold for extra money. Farmer’s wives also prepared and preserved all of the family’s meals. They made useful household food items such as butter and cheese as well. Some farmer’s wives also earned extra money for the family by spinning thread or learning another “stay-at-home” trade, such as brewing ale.