Story of Farming 


Development of Farming



European (middle ages)







Development of Cities























   European Farming During Middle Ages
to 1800's

    During the middle ages the main economic units were the villages and/or manors.  These were self-contained economic units which ate most of the food that was raised.  They sold the surplus food only in good years.  There were basically two levels of people in this society; the peasant and the lord or priest.  

    First were the peasants or serfs who raised the food. "Serfs were peasant farmers who were neither fully free nor slaves.  They could not leave the village, sell an ox, or marry without the lord of the manor's permissions." (#16, pg 26)

    The second level of society was the lords and priests.  The lords required taxes from the serfs in both food and labor from each family.   The church required 10% of everything the serf produced.  The largest building in the village was normally the church.  This higher level lived off the labors of the peasant class.

    Each serf would have to pay to work a strip of land.  The strip was defined by the acre.  The acre was the amount one could plow in one days work.  As well, the serf would have  a set amount of days they would be required to work on the lords land.  The system was called the open field system.  In this system, temporary hedges would be set up to keep cattle out of the fields.    The strips were only regarded as owned by the serf during the time of crop growing.   After the crop was harvested the land would revert to common land for cattle grazing.  This system was a disincentive to developing the land or conserving the soil.     

During the middle ages, they used a three or four crop rotation in their fields.  The rotation might be wheat the first year, barley the next, and the third year the land would lay fallow with nothing growing in it.  The village or manor also had lands, which were known as the commons, where all the serfs or peasants could graze their animals.  


New System of farming 1800's

    Under the Medieval system, land was communal and split into strips given out each year to different serfs.  Under the new system, known as the enclosure system, the farms were now divided up into small compact farms.   The commons of the old system were also divided up under the new system.  Now, instead of communal farming, the land was farmed by individuals.  This encouraged these individuals to experiment with new types of farming techniques and fertilizes.  The farmers now could profit from better farm production year after year. (16F)

    During the eighteen hundreds,  there was also improvement to the crop rotation system used during the Middle Ages.   "Lord Charles 'Turnip' Townshend (1674-1738) was famous for adding turnips and clover (grown for cattle feed) to the crops.  In this way, over four years the crop rotation for one field might be; year one wheat; year two turnips; year three barley or oats; year four clover."  This system eliminated the need for the soil to lay empty or fallow for a year.  The turnip crop uses different nutrients and clover help to preserver the soils properties.  Add to this, rich manure from the cattle, and it made for a very effective food production system.   With these additional crops, farmers could now keep cattle though the winter, thus providing meat year around.

    In addition to improvement in crop production, there was also improvement in live stock.  During the middle ages, the cattle were grazed in common areas which limited the possibility for any selective breeding.    In the 1700's we found a British farmer named John (Robert)  Bakewell, along with others of his time, brcame very active in breeding.  Many of the more popular breeds used in livestock today date back to this time.  Bakewell and the others bred cattle, pig and other live stock for specific characteristics such as size or milk production.  Farmers today still used selective breeding to produce the best livestock for their specific purpose.   (16F, 18F)


Common Tasks for Mediaeval Workers 

January & February - work indoors repairing hunting nets, sharpening tools, making utensils - on mild days work outdoors gather firewood, prune vines and mend fences.

March - work in the fields,  plowing and cultivating. 

April - clean ditches, pruning trees, fixing sheds, hauling timber, and repairing roofs

May -  sheep cleaning and shearing,  planting and field maintenance

June - mowing hay crop and raking it into piles

July - harvest grains, bundle sheaves, weeding gardens

August - threshing and winnowing of grains, grinding of grains into flower

September - fruits picked and dried or stored, grapes picked and pressed for juice and wine

October - gather nuts, roots, berries, and mushrooms, fields plowed and empty fields sown with winter wheat, repairing and cleaning equipment.

November - firewood gathered, split, and stacked for themselves and the lord, pigs and cows slaughtered and meat smoked,  flex and hemp processed to make thread and rope

December - trim trees, grape vines pruned, and hunting

Adapted from Nikola-Lisa, W. "Till year's good end: a calendar of Medieval Labor/" 1997
(Great Children's book on middle ages.)