FC63: The agricultural revolution in medieval Europe


FC63 in the Hyperflow of History.
Covered in multimedia lecture #6966.

Until this century, the vast majority of people spent their lives involved in one basic occupation:  getting food, either through hunting and gathering, herding, or agriculture.  When these people could produce a surplus, they were freed to do other things, which provided the basis for towns, cities, and civilization.  Without the ability to produce surplus food, no civilization would be able to survive.  Therefore, it should come as no surprise that the first step in building a new civilization in Western Europe was developing ways for producing a surplus of food.

Europe (c.1000 C.E.)

Before discussing these new agricultural techniques, it is useful to look at the state of Medieval life and agriculture in the Early Middle Ages.  The vast majority of peasants were serfs, bound to the soil and service of a lord who owed them protection in return for work in his fields.  These serfs lived in villages, isolated pockets of farmland in the midst of a vast wilderness of forests, thickets, and marshes.  Typically, a village would have several acres of cultivated fields, a wooden castle or manor house for the lord, a peasant village, a parish church, and a mill.  A village might be equivalent to a manor, the economic unit given to support a noble.  However, it could just as well be divided into several manors to support several nobles or be only one of several villages making up a large manor.

The village had to be self-sufficient because it was virtually cut off from the outside world.  Roads were poor and brigands or local lords constantly threatened travel.  Raids from neighboring nobles and such invaders as the Vikings, Magyars, and Moslems also kept most people huddled under the safety of their lord's castle walls.  As a result, the flow of trade and commerce was reduced to a fraction of what it had been during the Pax Romana.  Compared to the thriving Byzantine and Islamic cultures to the south and east, Western Europe was a fragile outpost on the western fringe of civilization.

Europe’s agriculture reflected this low level of culture.  The plow used then was still the scratch plow that worked fine in the thin dry soils of the Mediterranean, but was not very suitable for the wetter, deeper soils of Northern Europe.  Such a plow might be reinforced with iron, or it might be nothing more than a curved digging stick.  The main source of power for pulling the plow was the ox hooked up by a yoke harness that pulled at the neck.  Although slow, the ox was more than some peasants could afford.  As a result, they had to pull their own plows or dig with spades (known as delving).  Finally, the peasants used the two-field system, where one field lay fallow to reclaim the soil's nutrients while the other field was being cultivated.  This left only fifty percent of the farmland for use in any given year.  As a result, crop yields were very low.  In the Roman Empire, for every bushel of seed grain planted, four bushels would be harvested.  In the Early Middle Ages with the poor techniques being used, this ratio dropped to one and a half or two to one.  In other words, a full half or more of a peasant's harvest had to be saved as seed grain for next year's planting.  In years of famine, this led to serious difficulties.  Given these limits, it should come as no surprise that population remained low and grew at a very slow rate, if at all.

One has to be very careful when generalizing about what techniques were used where.  This is because we have little evidence to go on, especially concerning the peasants, whose lives were of little concern to the monks writing religious histories.  Also, the poor communications between manors meant that widely different techniques and tools might be used in a fairly local area.  However, it does seem likely that the light scratch plow, oxen, yoke harness, and two-field system were in general use in Western Europe in the Early Middle Ages.  Then came some changes that would lay the foundations for more advanced civilization.

First stirrings of revival

It is impossible to say when population first started expanding in Western Europe, although we can make some educated guesses.  For one thing, the climate seems to have turned warmer in the 800's.  We base this on tree ring evidence and the fact that the Vikings could sail in northern latitudes unobstructed by ice.  The warmer climate meant longer growing seasons, better harvests, and thus a healthier and growing population.  Major plagues that had hit intermittently since the later Roman Empire also ceased after 743 C.E.  This might be partly a result of the better-fed population having more resistance to disease.  Finally, a certain amount of political stability had returned to Western Europe by 1000 C.E.  The feudal system, whatever its faults, was providing at least a minimal amount of security to Europe.  Along with this, the invasions of Vikings, Magyars, and Muslims were letting up by this date.  The increased stability created by all these factors helped provide the conditions needed for population growth and economic revival.  This brings us to new farming techniques that would greatly expand food supplies and lead to the rise of towns.

An agricultural revolution

The first of these techniques was the three-field system.  Originally, the spread of civilization to Northern Europe brought with it the two-field system.  This was well suited to the climate of the Mediterranean with its hot dry summers and one growing season in the cooler, wetter winters.  The more temperate climate of Northern Europe allowed growing seasons in both summer and winter.  However, planting two crops a year would exhaust the soil if peasants used the old two-field system.  As a result, peasants divided their farmland into three fields, one for winter crops, one for summer crops, and one to remain fallow.  The use of the fields was rotated each year.  A second part of the system, in order to prevent soil exhaustion, was to use different crops that took different nutrients from the soil.  The winter crop typically would consist of winter wheat or rye, and the spring crop would be either spring wheat or legumes (beans or peas).  The greater variety of crops provided people with a more balanced diet.  Also an advantage of legumes is that they take nitrogen out of the air rather than the soil, and when buried, actually replenish the soil with nitrogen.  (The Romans referred to this as "green manuring".)  The following charts show how the two systems work.

Field 1 Field 2
Year I Winter crop Fallow
Year II Fallow Winter crop
Year III Winter crop Fallow
Field 1 Field 2 Field 3
Year I Winter crop Summer crop Fallow
Year II Fallow Winter crop Summer
Year III Summer crop Fallow Winter crop
Year IV Winter crop Summer crop Fallow

Consider what the changeover from the two-field system would have meant to a peasant village farming 60 acres.  In the old system only 30 acres would be planted each year.  In the new three-field system 40 acres would be planted, an increase of 33%.  Also, peasants would plow the fallow land twice to keep weeds down.  In the two field system this mean plowing all 60 acres once plus the 30 fallow acres again, 90 acres of plowing in all.  The three-field system, involved plowing all 60 acres plus only 20 acres of fallow again, a total of only 80 acres of plowing.  Thus while producing 33% more food, the peasants were plowing considerably less, especially considering what hard work plowing was back then.  The extra time saved could be used for clearing new farmland from the surrounding wilderness, which, of course, meant even more food.  Likewise, the extra food meant more people from population growth, who would also clear new lands to produce more food, and so on.  Eventually, enough new land would be cleared and surplus food produced to support population in towns.

Another major development in farming was the heavy plow that could cut through the deep, wet, and heavy soils of Northern Europe much better than the light scratch plow.  It had three basic parts:  the coulter or heavy knife that cut through the soil vertically, the plowshare that cut through the soil horizontally, and the mouldboard, which turned the soil to one side.  Some models had two wheels that acted as a fulcrum to keep the plow from getting stuck.  There were two advantages to this kind of plow.  First, it cut the soil so violently that there was no need for cross plowing as there was with the scratch plow.  This saved time, which could be used for, among other things, clearing more land and producing more food.  Second, the heavy plow created furrows, little ridges and valleys in each plowed row.  In times of drought, water would drain into the valleys and ensure some crops would survive.  In times of heavy rains, the crops on top of the ridges would not get flooded out.  As a result, peasants could usually look forward to at least some crops to harvest even in bad years.  The furrows the heavy plow created also meant that the rich alluvial bottomlands by rivers could be farmed without their frequent floods doing too much damage.  As with the three-field system and crop rotation, the heavy plow also fed into the feedback cycle of more food, population growth, etc.

The heavy plow had an impact on peasant society and land holding patterns.  Being heavy, it required as many as eight oxen to pull it compared to two oxen on the scratch plow.  Since few peasants could afford their own teams, they would combine their ox teams and hook them to one plow.  Occasionally, disputes might arise as to whose land would be plowed first, especially if the weather had been bad and it was doubtful that all the fields could get plowed in time for a good crop.  As a result, peasants split their lands into long strips and interspersed them among other peasants' and the lord's strips.  Some peasants might have 50 or 60 strips spread out over the manor.  The advantage of this was twofold.  First of all, it ensured that everyone got at least some land plowed.  Second, the long strips of land meant that the plow team did not have to turn as much, one of the most difficult aspects of plowing, especially with four rows of oxen to increase the turning radius.  The heavy plow also created a more cooperative peasant society and caused small hamlets to combine into larger villages in order to share ox teams.

The last major development in farming was a new source of power, the plow horse.  Several factors allowed the use of the horse in Western Europe.  The invention of the horseshoe (c.900 C.E.) prevented the hooves of the horse from cracking in the cold wet soil.  The horse collar let the horse pull from the chest rather than the neck.  This increased the horse's pulling power from about 1000 lbs. (with the yoke harness) to as much as 5000 lbs with the horse collar.  Finally, cross breeding to make larger warhorses also provided the peasants with larger plow horses.  Although it could not pull any more than an ox, the horse did have two advantages.  It could pull up to fifty percent faster than the ox, and it could work one to two hours longer per day.  The one drawback was that the horse ate a lot.  Overall, despite eating more, the plow horse could increase farm production as much as 30 percent for those peasants who could afford horses.  As with the three field system and heavy plow, this led into the feedback cycle of producing more food, population growth, and developing new lands for even more food production, etc.

There were some interesting side effects of the use of the horse.  Being fifty percent faster than oxen, horses could bring food into a town from outlying villages fifty percent farther away without taking any more time than before with an ox team.  Increasing the radius of the surrounding farmland supplying a town by fifty percent more than doubled the area of farmland and amount of agricultural produce available to support that town, and, subsequently, the potential size of the town itself.  In addition, the replacement of the two-wheeled cart with the four-wheeled wagon with a hinged post for greater maneuverability increased the amount of grain a peasant could bring into town.

We should keep in mind the limits to medieval agriculture.  While a yield to seed ratio of four to one was good back then, farmers today expect at least ten times that.  What this means is that for centuries it took ten farmers to create enough surplus to support one townsman.  Still, along with the greater stability brought by feudalism, the increased food production brought on by the agricultural revolution of the Middle Ages was essential for the revival of towns, without which our own civilization would not have evolved.