Farmers and Peasants: Food and the Harvest

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Farmers and Peasants: Food and the Harvest


Reclaiming Land. The available technology limited the size of the village. All the land its residents worked had to be within close enough walking distance for the peasant to be able walk back and forth to his field and do a full day’s work within twelve to fourteen hours. In other words, most of the land that peasants farmed was within a one-hour walk from the village, and much of it was closer. These limitations meant that a medieval village could quickly become pressed for land as its population grew, and some techniques were developed to extend a village’s arable land or at least to make it more fertile. Large-scale land reclamation in the form of dikes and other drainage projects did not occur in Europe until the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but certain areas, such as Flanders and the Netherlands, took steps in that direction in the later Middle Ages. It is possible to drain land by plowing in a direction that facilitates runoff, such as on top of a ridge, and there are examples of peasants in England and France using this technique when planning fields. Ways to increase the fertility of the soil were employed more widely than such attempts at land reclamation. The traditional and least

labor-intensive method was to leave a field alone for a season, that is, to let it lie fallow. Depending on their resources, peasants also amended the soil. In parts of England marl was spread on fields; marl is a clay soil containing a carbonate of lime, and lime increases nitrogen in the soil, accelerating plant growth. Manure mixed with straw (compost) could also be spread on fields. Yet, often neither marl nor compost was available in a quantity necessary for it to be effective. In other words, peasant resources for improving or expanding arable land were limited.

Crops and Land. Peasants used much of the arable land they controlled, beyond that around their residences, for growing grain. The type of grain and the method they used to plow and plant varied greatly depending on climate and tradition. The staple grain was whichever variety grew best in the region: rye in the mountains; wheat in lowlands; barley, oats, vetch, and others throughout Europe. By the tenth and eleventh centuries in most parts of central and western Europe, these grains were grown in rotation to maximize productivity. For example, wheat and rye were traditionally sown (planted) in the fall, while barley, oats, vetch, and peas were sown in the early spring. Crop rotation could occur two or three times a year depending on the period and the region, but generally every second or third year a field was left fallow to recover some fertility. By the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, as the European economy grew, certain regions began to specialize. For example, Burgundy and Bordeaux produced wine, while around Toulouse in southern France the peasants concentrated on growing the plants from which blue and yellow dyes were made. Northern England was known for its sheep, while northern Germany specialized in cattle. In order to support such varied styles of agriculture, the ways peasants distributed village lands were also different. In some parts of Europe a peasant’s landholdings formed a solid block of property, but the common pattern in France, England, and western Germany was for all the village lands to be divided into strips. Each landholding peasant had rights to a certain number of strips, and they were scattered all over the village lands. This method ensured that no single peasant household monopolized all the best land.

Plowing and Planting. One of the great technological revolutions of the Middle Ages was the development of the moldboard plow, which allowed a farmer to plow the land more deeply than he could using an older, traditional plow, thus making his land more arable. In the areas where the traditional plow continued to be used—and there were many—the general procedures were similar. Depending on climate, around the beginning of October a farmer began to break up the soil in his fields so that it would be ready for planting. He and his son, a male relative, another farmer, or even a female family member hitched a team of horses or oxen to the plow. While one person guided the team, the other guided the plow, and they would begin making long, straight furrows up and down their narrow strips of land. After the furrows had been made, the farmer placed his seed in a basket or bag draped across his chest and scattered the seed on the field. After all the seed had been spread, he brought the team of horses or oxen out again and attached them to a harrow, a rectangular or square metal frame with downward-facing metal spikes that raked the fields as it was pulled, leveling the furrows and covering the seed. Finally each household in the village was responsible for planting or maintaining a certain length of hedge or border around the field so that village animals could not eat the crop. All this work needed to be completed within a month, and it was repeated again in the spring, when a new crop was sown. While grown men normally did the plowing and planting because of the strength that was needed to use a mold-board plow, boys as young as seven could remove stones from the fields and chase away birds and other animals that might eat seeds or damage the crop. When they were needed, women also worked in the fields.

The Harvest. One of the peasants’ most backbreaking and important chores was harvesting their crops. At harvest time in particular all members of the village turned out to lend a hand. Women and children worked alongside husbands, fathers, and brothers to bring in the crop on which they depended; a mother with an infant would put it in a carrier that was hung from a low limb so that animals could not injure or eat the child. Those villagers who did not have sufficient land for their needs or who had no land at all worked as laborers for other villagers. Harvesters worked their way down a field using sickles to cut off the grain near its base. This grain was left to dry and turned with pitchforks, usually for a few days, depending on the climate. A sudden downpour could mean famine for a village. Once the grain was dry enough so that it would not rot while stored, it was gathered into bundles (sheaves) and brought back to buildings where it would be kept. The poorest peasants might end up carrying these bundles on their backs, but normally several wagons owned by the most prosperous peasants in the village were hired out to carry the grain. Once the harvest had been gathered, peasants opened the barriers around the fields, and cattle and other livestock were allowed to graze on the stubble (chaff).

Gathering Food. Peasants had other sources of food besides the grain they grew in their fields. In their tofts they grew garden vegetables appropriate to their climate, including radishes, celery, carrots, cabbage, onions, lettuce, and spinach. They also might have a few fruit and nut


A medieval lord prepared lists of customary rents and services that he was owed and generally bound them together in a book known in England as a custumal. The following excerpt is from the Bleadon Custumal, prepared in Bleadon in southwestern England during the early thirteenth century. It describes the duties of an oxherd who worked on the manors of St. Swithin’s Priory in Winchester.

[An oxherd] is ordained by office to keep oxen: He feedeth and nourisheth oxen, and bringeth them to leas [pasture] and home again; and bindeth their feet with landhaldes and spanells [types of hobbles] and nighteth and cloggeth them while they be in pasture and leas, and yoketh and maketh them draw at the plough; and pricketh the slow with a goad and maketh them draw even. And pleaseth them with whistling and with song, to make them bear the yoke with the better will for the liking of melody of the voice. And this herd[er] driveth and ruleth them not only to eat, but also to tread and to thresh. And they lead them about upon corn to break the straw in threshing and treading the flour. And when the travail is done, then they unyoke them and bring them to the stall, and feed them thereat.… when he fastens the cattle of the lord in the byre in winter, he must watch over them and get the hay and straw which they must eat, and he will carry it into the byre, and he will have what is left before two oxen, which is called orte, for the whole time the oxen of the lord are standing in the byre; and he will have his own ox fastened between two oxen of the lord from Christmas Eve to noon on Ascension Day; and he will watch over the oxen and cows and the other beasts of the lord in the byre day and night and he will give them to eat and will water them when it is needful.

Source: George C. Homans, English Villagers of the Thirteenth Century (New York: Norton, 1941), p. 47.

trees; apple, pear, cherry, plum, chestnut, walnut, and almond trees are frequently mentioned in medieval documents. Peasants also brewed beer or made wine from their grain or grapes. Beer in northern Europe and wine in southern Europe were staple foods. Moreover, peasants had the right to gather food in the forest, which made available to them various herbs, fruits, and nuts, as well as wild mushrooms. Peasants were, however, prohibited to hunt and often not allowed to fish, and the penalties for violating these laws could be quite severe. Such regulations meant that peasant foods, especially for poorer peasants, were mostly limited to vegetables and fruits.

Storing and Preserving Food . It is estimated that an adult man in the Middle Ages needed at least 4,500 calories a day to support his activities, a figure that is almost twice the recommended caloric intake for an average modern man. With such needs it is not surprising that the bulk of a peasant’s time was devoted to gathering and preserving food. Moreover, much of a medieval peasant’s food supply was available only seasonally. Fruits and nuts were harvested when they were ripe, and certain seasons were known by what fruits appeared then. Some of whatever food was gathered needed to be kept for times of hardship, so preservation was a central problem and an important chore. Although cereals could be stored year-round in sheds, bins, or even in the rafters, there was always a chance that they would spoil or that rodents would get into them. When cereals were made into flour, they had a longer shelf life. Because beans and peas could be dried for use year-round, they were staples in a peasant diet. Peasants also preserved cow and goat milk by making it into butter and cheese; butter was packed in salt, and the reduced water content of cheese made it keep better. When meat was available, it was salted and dried, and before it was used it had to be soaked in water several times. Meat was also a seasonal commodity because of the expense of keeping livestock through winter. November was known as butchering month, when elderly and excess livestock was killed, and meat was salted. As a result of their methods of obtaining food and their means of storing it, peasants had an extremely uneven diet, with feasts and famines occurring within months of one another.

Daily Meals. Although peasants had access to various foodstuffs, basic peasant food was quite simple. Generally meals were cooked over the fire in a pot into which had been put water, grains, and peas or beans. The mixture could be made more appetizing by adding herbs, other vegetables, fat, oil, or even a pinch of salt—depending on their availability and a peasant’s wealth. Medieval peasants generally did not eat breakfast. Normally, the first meal was eaten between 10 A.M. and noon—after a morning’s work had been accomplished. Supper was eaten in the early evening. The first meal was usually the largest, and if extra foodstuffs such as meat were available, they would appear on the table then. When meat was to be served, it was roasted beside the fire, and a wooden platter or container was placed under it to catch the drippings. This fat was useful in cooking and as grease for other household uses, such as softening chapped hands and oiling shoes. Beer and wine were another source of vitamins and calories for peasants, with the choice of beverage depending on region. The production of beer and wine for household use was most frequently women’s work, although by the thirteenth century wine production had become more commercialized. It is estimated that a medieval European drank approximately a gallon of ale or a half-gallon of wine a day, although many peasants would have probably drunk less because of the cost. The alcohol content of medieval wine and ale, however, was substantially lower than their modern equivalents. Bread was another product that became less of a luxury during the Middle Ages, but it was still less common than grain porridge because of the cost in time, materials, and expertise to produce it. Because peasant homes did not contain ovens or did not have ready ways of maintaining the consistent heat necessary to produce bread, bread was often baked at a village bake house, and only a fairly large and prosperous village could support one. Moreover, the danger of fire led many lords and village committees to set strict regulations on the kinds of fires allowed in peasant homes and how hearths should be maintained and used.

Livestock . Aside from a peasant’s house and land, his greatest investment was in livestock. Cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, and poultry were expensive to maintain and often the first sacrificed in times of famine. The largest domesticated animals peasants used regularly were horses or oxen, which were needed to pull the heavy moldboard plow. Although medieval treatises about plowing often called for a team of eight horses or oxen, it seems that most peasants worked with four animals. Oxen were cheaper to obtain and could tolerate coarser feed, but horses did not require any more feed and did half again as much work, making horses preferred draft animals. Given the costs of such animals, peasants combined their resources to buy a team or rent one from a prosperous neighbor. One reason that horses or oxen were expensive to support was that medieval peasants rarely cultivated hay just to feed their animals. Farmers relied on that natural hay that grew near rivers and streams, or in other low, wet places, and mowed these areas when they could. It was also common to allow cattle and horses into harvested fields to eat the chaff left after harvesting, a practice that had the advantage of scattering manure—that is, fertilizer—on the fields. A town bull was allowed to run loose in the town to impregnate cows. While the ownership of this bull and rights to a percentage of its calves’ value was originally a noble’s privilege, by the thirteenth century the village priest or a village committee also seems to have had this right. Medieval documents do not mention a town stallion, so it is not entirely clear how medieval villagers bred their horses.

Small Animals. Peasants often owned livestock such as pigs, goats, and poultry. Women generally tended these animals, as well as dairy cattle, and processed many of the animals’ products. They clipped hair from sheep and goats to make cloth. They milked cows and churned the milk to produce butter and eggs. They collected eggs from chickens, which laid them all around the chicken yard and sometimes pecked at the egg gatherers. While many animals were kept in the farmyard around the peasant residence, others grazed on common lands, and some escaped from their enclosures. For example, pigs and other smaller livestock ran half wild. Many villages and even cities had individuals whose job it was to turn the villagers’ livestock into the woods in the morning so that pigs and other animals could fatten themselves on the nuts and plants there. At times the livestock was gathered in the evening, but certain animals, such as pigs, might be left in the woods for weeks at a time. Peasants identified their animals by brands or by marks carved into the animal. Cats and dogs were also part of a village, more as working animals than as pets. Dogs guarded the property and helped with herding and managing the livestock. Cats killed the rodents that tended to live in thatched roofs and got into the grain supply.


Robert Fossier, Peasant Life in the Medieval West, translated by Juliet Vale (Oxford & New York: Blackwell, 1988).

George C. Homans, English Villagers of the Thirteenth Century (New York: Norton, 1941).

Del Sweeney, ed., Agriculture in the Middle Ages: Technology, Practice, and Representation (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995).