Thursday, October 30, 2014

Medieval Age Developments in Agriculture

The backbone of the Medieval Europe’s economy was agriculture. Most of the Europeans were farmers. Feudalism was based on land as property used for farming in order to sustain the needs of the nobles and the serfs themselves. The Medieval Ages was sometimes dubbed as the Dark Ages, which was in reality not true. Innovations continued to be made during this period.

From 800 to 14th century, conditions in Europe was good enough for an agricultural revolution. Earth’s temperature began to rise. Once wet marshes and cold tundra lands became arable for farming. Also, threats from barbarian onslaught, like the Vikings began to weaken during the 11th century. Peace and security allowed European peasants to settle and concentrate once again to their primary livelihood – farming. With focus turning to agriculture, problems with farming techniques were being discovered and solved. Also, discovery of information allowed for improvement of farming practices.

Among the first improvements was on land use. About 800, farmers from northern Europe, especially France, began the practice of three-field system. Before, most farmers practiced slash-and-burn farming. Half of their fields were annually used under the practice. But the farmers soon discovered that planting the same crop in a year in the same soil resulted to the quick depletion of soil nutrients. Thus, under the practice of slash-and-burn, harvest decrease quickly as time went by. In order to preserve the nutrients of the soil, they turned to the three-field system. Under the system, villages were divided into three parts. One part was planted whit either wheat or barley, and the other, also was planted with either as long as the two were not the same. The last one-third was left to rest. This was repeated on the following year but rotation of crops planted was done. In some areas, variations were made. Instead of just grains, in one-third of the two-third arable plots, other types of crops could be planted. Under the three-field system, two-thirds of the farm were utilized, alongside with increase of acreage, the soil was given rest in order to regain lost nutrients. This system flourished and spread across Europe.

Following developments in land use, tools also developed. In the past, farmers used wooden plows. This type of plows were light, but weak and doesn’t dig deep into the soil. Then, as the Medieval Age went on, farmers developed iron plows which worked better than its wooden counterpart.

Other than tools, animals used for farm work also saw change during the Medieval Age. Oxen were first used by farmers. They cheap and easy to feed but they work slowly. Then, about 1100, horses started to replace the oxen. The shift was made possible by development in the harnesses put into the horses. In the past, horses had their harnesses in the neck, which sometimes caused the strangulation of the animal. But about 1100, a new harness placed on the shoulders of the horses allowed it to move freely and to be controlled easily. Plows could then be attached to the harness, and farmers could continue with their work. The horses even made more reliable when horseshoes were placed in the hoofs for protection. Although, horses were particular on their feeds, which meant more expensive and harder, it worked more than an oxen. Horses could plow a land three more times than an oxen.

And because of horseshoes and iron plows, a new artisan began to appear in every single villages in Medieval Europe – blacksmiths. Blacksmiths had the knowledge of metallurgy, that was needed to make horseshoes and iron plows. Blacksmiths became in charge of providing repair services for plows, as well as making iron plows. They were also capable of making horseshoes and attaching it the hoofs of the horses.

During the Medieval Ages, mills also saw developments. Wind and water mills began to be seen in the villages of Europe. Because of huge numbers of fast flowing rivers throughout Europe, about 1000, farmers were able to utilize this energy by building new mills. This mills were powered by the rotation of a wheel placed in the rivers banks and moved by the flow of water. Windmills on the other hand, worked with a wheel place on top of the structure, rotating as the wind pass through it. In both mills, the rotating motion powered the grinding stoned inside the structure that process the grains.

As a result of these developments in farming, Medieval Europe saw an increase in food production. With the increase of food production, prices drop and more European children could survive their childhood. Thus, population soared. In 1000, the population of Europe was estimated to less than 40 million. But in 1340, population of Europe increased to over 75 million. Moreover, increase in food production also resulted to the rise of towns. Farmers flocked in town markets to sell their surplus produce. And with the increase of activity in markets, commercial activity also flourish, giving rise to merchant classes and guilds. The developments in agriculture led to changes in the economy and society of Europe.

Beck, R. et. al. World History: Patterns of Interaction. Florida: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Pub. Co., 2012.

Hansen, V. & K. Curtis. Voyages in World History. Boston: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2013.

Palmer, R. A History of the Modern World. Massachusetts: McGraw-Hill, 2002. 

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