Feeding an Expanding World

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Feeding an Expanding World


The heavy plows needed to productively till the heavy soil of northern Europe's fertile valleys were not widely adopted until the Middle Ages, when the breeding of large draft horses began. More efficient plowing and the advent of three-field crop rotation resulted in a tremendous increase in agricultural productivity by the twelfth century. With larger farms starting to cluster in the valleys, village life flourished and larger populations could be sustained. Communal government and economics, manifested in the system of feudalism, became more important in the lives of the people.


In the early Middle Ages, the aratrum, a simple wooden scratch-plow, was generally used to till fields in Europe. This type of plow worked well enough for the light soils of the Mediterranean, but was not well suited for the moist, heavy soil of northern Europe. If the soil was not plowed deeply enough, seed would blow away and crops would fail to thrive.

A better type of plow had existed since ancient times, and had been described by the Roman writer Pliny the Elder (a.d. 23-79), but was not in general use. The three-piece plovum was made of iron, and usually was equipped with wheels. It had a vertical sod-cutter, or coulter, a horizonal cutting blade, or plowshare, and a tilted moldboard for turning over the soil. This efficient plow, which cut deep furrows and dug up more weeds, had two major problems. First, iron was expensive, although improvements in metallurgy around the turn of the millenium had resulted in iron tools that were not only less expensive but stronger as well. Still, the iron plow was too heavy to pull with the draft animals available to most farmers. A team of as many as eight oxen, or castrated bulls, could haul it, but oxen were very slow and costly to buy and feed.

Since horses were primarily used for transportation and warfare, they had been bred mostly for speed. The swift breeds that were valued were neither the largest nor the strongest. They were not well suited for use with the heavy three-piece iron plow. But knights wearing increasingly heavy armor began requiring stronger horses, and size and strength became more important in horse breeding. Finally farmers began breeding an offshoot of the Carolingian charger for agricultural work. These horses were three or four times faster than oxen, stronger, and more versatile. Meanwhile, other advances had made it possible to use them more effectively.

In about the tenth century, the non-strangulating horse collar was developed. The horse collar distributed a heavy load around the animal's chest and shoulders, allowing it to pull much more weight than it could with a traditional harness. At about the same time, the nailed iron horseshoe was adopted. Horseshoes enhanced weight distribution and traction while protecting the horse's hooves. The cultivation of oats became more important, since oats made up the bulk of the horses' diet.


The increase in plowing capacity brought about by the introduction of the draft horse and the re-discovery of the three-piece iron plow made it possible for farmers to institute the most important agricultural advance of the Middle Ages, three-field crop rotation.

Crop rotation is a system in which the crops grown in particular fields are alternated from year to year with periods when a field is uncultivated, or fallow. A single crop tends to pull the same nutrients out of the soil until it becomes depleted of those nutrients and is no longer fertile. By growing plants that require different nutrients, or allowing a field to lie fallow, it is possible to reduce the depletion of the soil. Fallow fields served as pasture for animals, and their manure was plowed into the soil to act as a fertilizer.

In the early Middle Ages, farmers generally employed the old Roman system of two-field crop rotation. Three-field crop rotation, in which each field lies fallow in successive seasons, increased productivity by 50%, since two-thirds of the land was under cultivation every year rather than only half of it. Correspondingly, more plowing was required, which was not practical with the scratch-plow. With faster draft animals and the iron plow, the peasant family could farm more fields. They could plant a wider variety of crops, allowing them to spread their work out over the spring and autumn planting seasons.

The iron plow also allowed farming to move down into northern Europe's valleys, where the land was more fertile but the soil was too heavy for the scratch-plow to be an effective tool. The scratch-plow had encouraged farming in the uplands, where the lighter, less fertile soil had to be cross-plowed in square fields, gone over twice at right angles. Now many of these fields were abandoned, and the valleys were plowed up in long open strips. This resulted in the typical ridge-and-furrow pattern that is still familiar today. By the twelfth century, the three-piece plow and open strip farming had been adopted across most of northern Europe.

Since they could work more efficiently with the three-piece iron plow, farmers could take the time to clear more land for fields. They cleared thousands of square miles of forests and drained large tracts of Low Country (now Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg) marshes to create more farmland. The population increased, and became more concentrated. Sometimes an area grew overpopulated, and even more land had to be cleared to provide sustenance. Political and economic institutions grew up to regulate the division and working of the land and the distribution of the crops that were produced. The result was the manorial economy of the late Middle Ages, the full maturity of the feudal system.

Under the feudal system, stewardship of land flowed down from the king under a complex hierarchy of loyalty and obligation. The lord of the local manor was himself a vassal, or subordinate, of a higher-ranking seigneur. The petty lord generally had charge of a few square miles of estate called a fief, and peasants worked it communally under his authority. The amount of work each peasant owed the lord depended on his individual status.

Each peasant household was also permitted to work a plot of land as its own. These plots usually consisted of groups of strips, not necessarily adjacent, scattered around the open fields. The distribution helped to reduce individual households' risks from freak hailstorms, differences in soil quality, or other local conditions that might affect a particular section of land.

Manorial life was essentially communal. Often the peasants had worked together to clear new fields, or assarts, and they were used to working together on the lord's fields. The high costs of owning draft animals often encouraged shared efforts on the "private" fields as well.

Although village elders also played an important role, the lord controlled most aspects of everyday life. The village was part of his domain, and its church often paid him a portion of the peasants' tithes. His heavily fortified manor house or castle was the linchpin of the community's defense. He ran the mill in which grain was ground into flour and the ovens in which it was baked into bread.

The agricultural advances of the Middle Ages did not banish the threat of starvation. Bad weather, plant and animal diseases, and other problems still frequently resulted in famines. The Great Famine of 1315-1322 brought disaster across much of northern Europe. Still, the overall effect of the new farming technologies was a more plentiful and dependable food supply. In some areas, agriculture was productive enough to free some of the villagers from subsistence farming. Their efforts could be channeled into other pursuits, especially crafts. Products such as textiles and metal implements were manufactured for trade as well as for local use. In this way, medieval innovations in farming set the stage for the growth of industry.


Further Reading

Hallam, H., ed. Agrarian History of England and Wales. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Jordan, William Chester. The Great Famine: Northern Europe in the Early Fourteenth Century. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996.

Latouche, Robert. The Birth of Western Economy. E.M. Wilkinson, transl. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1961.

White, Lynn Jr. Medieval Technology and Social Change. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1962.


Sometime in the eleventh or twelfth century, Europeans were surprised and delighted to be introduced to a device with a pair of handles, a wheel, and a place to carry things resting on the wheel. This was, of course, something found in nearly every gardener's tool shed, every construction site, and every farm throughout the world today: the wheelbarrow. Its introduction was revolutionary—using a wheelbarrow, a single man could carry as much as any two men without this device. The benefits to farmers, the men building the day's castles and cathedrals, and ordinary tradesmean were phenomenal.

What was new to Europe, however, was a Chinese tradition going back over a millennium. The first known wheelbarrow was introduced in China in the first century b.c. Although only a few basic wheelbarrow designs and uses were ever used in the West, in its birthplace the wheelbarrow saw a profusion of forms and uses that have still not been matched elsewhere in the world. In particular, the Chinese use of wheelbarrows in warfare was ingenious: they used wheelbarrow convoys to transport supplies to the front lines, and used wheelbarrow-mounted shields to great advantage in warfare. Even today, many of the wheelbarrow designs in common use in China have not been adopted in the West.