A reason to pray for good weatherFor the serf and freemen, there was no rest at any point during the medieval farming year. The farmer’s struggle to survive was never-ending, and tasks continued even under the blanket of winter snow. The life of each farmer was tied to the weather and seasons, and his tasks would change or adapt according to it. There was no such thing as “good weather” – the ideal conditions changed according to what was required to advance the crops and facilitate that month’s tasks, and farmers might be as likely to pray for rain or wind as for sun. When the weather did not oblige, the family of a serf could starve.
The farming year in medieval times
|Month||Work to be done|
|January||Repairing structures and Planting early crops|
|February||Ploughing the fields, Fertilising|
|March||Sowing seeds, Weeding and some more Ploughing|
|April||Pruning, Weeding and Scaring off the birds|
|May||Weeding, Scaring off the birds|
|June||Harvesting crops, Shearing the sheep|
|July||Ploughing, resources Gathering and stockpiling|
|August||Harvesting, Tying and Threshing|
|September||Harvesting, Tying, Winnowing, Fruit picking and Milling|
|October||Sowing, Milling, Weaving and Rope making|
|November||Butchering, Salting, Smoking, and Weaving|
|December||Collecting, Digging, Skinning, Hunting and Tool Making|
Some tasks were necessary on a small-scale throughout the year, but are only mentioned above during their peak times in medieval farming year.
ButcheringButchering animals during late winter was a necessary both to provide food for the family, and to reduce the number of livestock requiring winter sustenance. During November and December, the barley and hay put aside to feed the animals during winter time would begin to run low. In order to ensure the survival of breeding stock and very young animals, the villager had to slaughter a significant part of its flock, leaving only those that he couldn’t afford to lose.
Farmers spent most of their time with their animals in their house and, it is documented, that in many instances they formed bonds that resembled the modern pet-owner relationship. Killing the animals, contrary to popular opinion, was done with great respect and quite humanely. The farmer would use the back of his axe to first render the animal unconscious, before cutting its throat and hanging it from the ceiling in order to drain the blood out.
Bleeding the animal helps to the process of skinning and, later on, provided drier meat for preservation by salting or smoking. No part of the animal was left unused.
Collecting & GatheringGathering resources like wood, twigs, straw, dung and, of course, tasty eggs, was an important part of a villager’s life throughout the medieval farming year. Wood was used as fuel for the fire to warm the house during winter. Twigs, animal dung, and straw were used as building materials for repairs on the house and all their tools, and straw was also used as bedding. Finally, animal dung was used to both fertilise the vegetable garden, though usually there wasn’t enough to be used in the fields.
Composting was also a part of the collecting and gathering process. Animal dung, and other biological matter which could not be eaten by the villagers or their animals, was collected in piles which were turned occasionally in order to rot evenly. Rotted matter (manure) then was used to fertilise the crops. It is worth noting that fresh manure applied directly to growing plants will kill them, a the ammonia content is too high; the rotting process breaks this down into usable nitrates for plants.
DiggingWho doesn’t love a bit of digging? In the instance of the medieval serf, grabbing a shovel and digging away was more a requirement than a favourite pastime. Digging trenches ensured that flood water will not water-log fields, which greatly improved the chances of a good crop. In areas where rainfall was low, irrigation ditches were dug in order to bring the water of nearby rivers closer to the crops. In some locations, digging was also used to cover human excrement in order to dispose of it in a sanitary way (normally it was just thrown in the same stream that villagers were also drinking water from – mmmm, delicious).
FertilisingContrary to popular opinion, most of the fields were not fertilised using manure. Fertilising a whole field meant that you had enough animals to produce a significant amount of manure, which was rarely the case. Another technique used was “marling”. For marling, farmers spread clay containing lime carbonate onto their soil. Clay was not available everywhere, but where it was, enriching the soil with it provided a great boost on the fertility of the field.
Manure was used mostly to fertilise the patches the farmers had around their house, which provided the family with fresh fruit and vegetables throughout most of the farming year.
Fruit pickingFruit picking, like strawberries, raspberries, cherries, apples, lemons and apricots, was done mostly during late autumn and it was one of those jobs that the young members of the family could do without supervision and enjoyed the most. Fruits and nuts could easily be preserved by creating marmalade or by drying them out, which made them an excellent supplement to the diet of the villager during the winter.
HarvestingThe time of harvest was a time of hard work and celebration. During harvest, twice a year, during August and September, the whole of the family would take to the fields to gather the grains and legumes that were seeded. It was important that the crop was harvested as quickly as possible to prevent rain and cold damage. The villagers would work from the break of day to dawn every day, in some cases even on Sundays. It was common that, if a family was struggling, the rest of the villagers would help them out after they were done with their own fields without any pay – that’s how important it was to have a good harvest. Though originally the sickle was the harvesting tool of choice, it was quickly replaced following the introduction of the more time-efficient scythe.
When all this was done, it was time to celebrate. Even better was the fact that ‘Harvest Home’ was one of those rare celebrations which the Lord of the Manor would have funded in its entirety.
If the Lord of the manor owned a mill, all the milling of the village would have happened there and would have been taxed with a portion of the flour milled. If there was no mill available, the villagers would have used a hand-operated mill (quern) which was comprised of two stones – one above the other – and a handle to grind the top stone over the bottom one. The top stone had a hole in the middle, where the grain was poured slowly. As the stone moved in a circular motion, the grain would slowly break down into flour; this process could have taken hours. It is calculated that, in order to have enough flour for one loaf of bread, an adult had to spend around four hours milling flour.
PlantingIf the fields were used for grain, barley and legumes, the gardens, also known as tofts, of the villager’s house were used to grow vegetables and fruit. Planting took place during late winter and early spring and, for some vegetables like lettuce, continued throughout summer and autumn. The vegetables planted provided the family with their daily pottage (stew).
Another part of the planting process was the harvest of seeds from plants that were “gone to seed” – intentionally left in the ground since the last year in order to provide seed for the next year.
PloughingFrom all the tasks of the medieval farming year, ploughing was, without argument, the most arduous of them all. Ploughing was the process of preparing the fields by breaking, aerating and turning over the top soil, revealing the more fertile undersoil for planting. In order to achieve this the farmer would use (preferably) a heavy plough dragged by oxen or, in the worst case, a shovel and hours of unending, back-breaking labour. Ploughs were heavy, intricate and expensive, and oxen needed a large amount of food; in many cases, villages would own communal ploughs and oxen and take turns in using them during ploughing seasons in February and July.
PruningPruning was the process of preparing the trees to fruit; cutting away old growth promoted new vigour, and was also a chance to remove diseased branches. Pruning also included propping up and supporting branches which were extending further from the trunk, and which would otherwise put strain on the tree and reduce its yield. All this was done to ensure that trees produced the maximum amount of fruit or nuts. It was a task normally carried out by women and children, who were taught at an early age. Young trees would be pruned in April/May, whilst established trees are pruned in the winter when dormant.
RepairingMedieval houses were homemade, and frequent repairs were necessary to repair damage from high winds, humidity, extreme weather and even the passage of time. Re-thatching, replacing wattle and daub, or providing additional support for preexisting structures, were all necessary jobs. Repairs were frequently postponed until the winter, simply because there were fewer chores than in the rest of the medieval farming year, and inclement weather house maintenance less unpleasant than outdoor work.
Rope makingRope-making was possible only when there were the appropriate materials – flax or hemp – grown locally. The process including separating the fibres of the plant, and weaving them together. Ropes would also sometimes be waxed for additional strength. This would also happen during the cold winter, when the whole family would stay inside to help.
Salting and SmokingSalting and smoking took place after the of slaughtering animals or fishing. Smoking was not just for meat products, but also for alliums such as onions and garlic. Smoking was more common in serfs’ households than salting, due to the very high price of salt. In areas far from the sea, salt would have come from the peddler or rarely, from mineral salt mines. Serf houses were chimney-less and thus meat would smoke simply by hanging it from the rafters near the roof.
Scaring the birdsWhy use an inanimate scarecrow if you have children with bells, gongs and rattles? Preventing the birds from eating the newly sown seed was vital to increase the yield. Noise makers of various types would have been used for this task, or even simply shouting and clapping.
Shearing and SpinningVillager’s clothes were largely made of wool (probably un-dyed), since it was cheap and readily available. Wool was shorn from the sheep using shears, and this was often a task for the women. The quality and quantity of wool depended on the health of the sheep, which was directly related to the amount of food they were supplied with. Wool would then have to be washed to remove some of the greasy lanolin and muck. It was combed using vicious-looking iron-toothed combs. Wool would then be spun and woven, or otherwise felted to give fabric for clothing.
SkinningNo part of the animal was wasted, and after butchering the animals, the skin would be carefully removed. It would either be sold to a skinner, or if the villager had the knowledge and equipment himself, he could treat it. Animal skins require curing to make fur and pelts; skins could otherwise be tanned to produce leather.
SowingSeed sowing took place after the ploughing, and was done by hand. A harrow (or rake, for small areas) would then be used to cover up the seeds with aerated soil.
Tool making and MaintenanceDuring the winter time, tools would have been thoroughly cleaned to prevent rust. Any broken tools would have been repaired, and extra nails would have been added to fix tool-heads onto hafts. In addition, new tools would be created as required – these requirements might change as children matured to working age.
TyingThis refers to tying the bushels of wheat and hay together. It was part of the harvest process and would have been done primarily by women. Tying made transportation and storage easier.
WeavingBasket weaving ensured that there would be proper storage for food, and also create receptacles to carry things in. It was a time-consuming process and, again, mostly carried out by women. Materials used included willow and rushes or reeds. Weaving techniques were also necessary to create wattle-and-daub structures, fences, and supports for climbing plants.
Wool weaving was another way to create fabric for clothing, in addition to felting and, in the late medieval era, knitting. Before the invention of the spinning wheel in the 15th century, knitting would have been done with a simple drop spindle.
WeedingThroughout the year – before ploughing, during the growing season, and just before harvest – weeding was a necessary task. other plants completed for the same nutrients, light and space as the crop, and had to be removed. This would have been done by hand, and by the whole family; it was a tedious and back-breaking task.
Winnowing and ThreshingThreshing was the process used to separate the delicious grain from the husks and chaff of the plant (the stalks, seed casings etc.). Cut grain-heads would be hit with a flail to knock the grain out. The whole mix of grain and chaff would then be put load-by-load onto a winnowing basket and flung into the air. The heavier grain portion would fall downwards (either into the basket or onto the floor) whilst the lighter chaff and husks would be blown a few feet away by the wind. These were not wasted, but used as animal fodder.
As always, if you have any questions or something you need us to expand on please do let us know and we will do our best to answer your questions.
Did you find a mistake or something that required elaboration? Please do let us know. We really enjoy hearing from you.
Read related Articles
The Role of Agriculture in Economic Development: The Lessons of History by Søren Kjeldsen-Kragh
Life in a Medieval Village by Frances and Joseph Gies