Last week, I talked a bit about the relationship between a medieval village and its lord. This week, I’m going to look at the land of the village, how it was organised and used. As with last week’s post, the information is taken from Frances and Joseph Gies’s Life in a Medieval Village, which looks particularly at the village during the 12th, 13th and 14th centuries.
The whole raison d’etre of the medieval village was to produce food – for the villagers themselves to live on, for their lord to live on and accommodate his staff and guests, and for trade. The system of fields around the village was a complex patchwork of plots owned by different people.
As a basic rule, land was divided between the lord and the villagers. Unfree villagers, or villeins, had to work the fields constituting their lord’s demesne – maybe two days a week, or longer during harvest time – as well as their own land. Free peasants didn’t have this responsibility and could farm their own land.
Villagers could be rich or poor, and the primary aspect of their wealth was how much land they owned. Some owned enough that they couldn’t farm it themselves and would either hire labour or make deals with other peasants – in effect, become lords in miniature within their village.
The village buildings were clustered together in the centre of the manor in the vicinity of important locations such as the manor house, church, green or well. Homes had land attached to them – a fenced toft at the front for livestock, and a croft at the back for limited crop production (although cottages, whose occupants were cotters, had very little land attached to them).
Beyond the buildings were the fields, pastures, meadows (for hay production), marshes and forests.
Farming the Fields
A village had a small number of fields – two or three seems typical. One field would be left fallow to recover nutrients for a year; the other one or two would then be divided between spring crops and winter crops. The follow year would see the plantings rotated.
Fields were divided first into furlongs, rectangular plots ‘a furrow long’; this was the sowing unit, each furlong being sown with the same crop. Furlongs were subdivided into strips or selions, long, narrow groups of furrows. The longer the strip, the better, as it meant fewer turns of the plough for a given amount of land. Strips inside a furlong were quite uniform, but furlongs followed the lay of the land and often had unploughed patches between them that may have been cultivated by hand.
Crops planted included barley, wheat, oats, peas, beans, rye and vetch. At Elton, the village looked at in Life in a Medieval Village, barley was the largest crop – the 1286 harvest included two thousand bushels of barley, a thousand of wheat and lesser amounts of other crops (a medieval bushel was about 56 pounds).
Fields were ploughed several times a year depending on whether spring or winter crops were to be planted. Spring crops (barley, oats, peas, beans, vetch) were sown about four bushels to the acre; winter wheat about two bushels to an acre.
During the harvest, wheat was cut with a sickle, oats and barley were mown with scythes. Following the mowing, the weaker and poorer members of the village would follow on, gleaning – collecting individual stalks etc by hand. The harvest was a hugely important part of the village year. Work done by villeins on the lord’s demesne was called boon-work. The lord had a duty to feed the villagers and supply them with ale at this time.
Besides the furlong mentioned above, various units were used to measure land; however, there was apparently no uniformity regarding the size of these units from place to place. A village would have consisted of something on the order of ten hides – a hide usually being 120 acres (an acre was defined as the amount of land able to be ploughed by an ox in one day – and therefore varied according various factors).
Land was also measured by the virgate. A virgate was theoretically the amount of land needed to support a peasant family and varied in size from 18 to 32 acres. According to one study, a fifth of villagers were virgaters (owners of a virgate), a third had between a half and a full virgate; the bulk of the remainder had even less, and a fraction had extensive holdings.
Next week, I’ll look at the people themselves and their professions.