Posts tagged ‘farming’

Monday Masterclass: The Medieval Village and Its People

Once again, this week, I’m going to take a quick look at an aspect of life in a medieval village – information that comes, appropriately enough, from Life in a Medieval Village by Frances and Joseph Gies.

Occupations

As noted previously, the village in the 12th to 14th centuries was almost entirely geared towards food production, whether it be crops, livestock or dairy. Many villagers worked both on their own land and on their lord’s demesne. Cotters, who had little  or no land of their own, worked as labourers. Other villagers were free, land-rich men who hired others to work their furlongs. Most were somewhere in between.

Craftsmen were generally based in the towns, but there were plenty of itinerant traders and workers who provided services. Just about every villager was a farmer of land and livestock – but there were plenty of other occupations, too, either full-time or part-time.

Almost as important as producing food, was the production of ale. A lot of the barley grown in a village was used for producing the malt for ale – although other cereals were also used. Malt was dried in a communal kiln, but ale was brewed in large cauldrons in people’s homes – most often by women. Once a batch was brewed, the family would put a sign outside their house and establish a temporary tavern.

Ale-taster was an important rôle in the village; ale-tasters were elected on an annual basis – and were also often female. Ale had to come up to certain standards of strength and measure, otherwise the seller could be fined.

Bread – or, more specifically, the milling of flour and the baking of bread – was an important source of revenue for the lord. Mills and ovens were seigneurial monopolies. Villagers were fined for baking their own bread, while millers were regulated quite strictly and could also be fined for inappropriate behaviour, such as accepting payment in kind.

Religion and Village Life

Every village had a church, or, at least, was part of a parish centred around a church belonging to a bishop, a monastery or even a wealthy layman who commissioned a church for his family and tenants. The priest was employed by the church’s owner and, as a literate man, was useful to villagers for witnessing documents and suchlike. Funds raised by the church went to the owner.

Villages were also visited by travelling preachers, who could often be more entertaining than the local pastor. The parish vicar would give the mass in Latin, which, of course, the villagers did not speak. The mass would become something of a social event, with women being fashionably late, and lots of gossiping and flirting going on.

Mendicant friars, Franciscans and Dominicans, gave more engaging sermons. Life in a Medieval Village gives this amusing example:

[T]hese roving brothers preached in the parish church with the permission of the rector, or failing that, in the open air, where their sermons offered a lively alternative  to the routine of Sunday services. Illustrated with personal experiences, fables, and entertaining stories, the encouraged the participation of the congregation. A preacher might call out, “Stop that babbling,” to a woman, who did not hesitate to reply, “What about you? You’ve been babbling for the last half hour.” Such exchanges brought laughter, applause, and more friendly heckling.

In this period of the Middle Ages, the family had become the most important social unit, superseding previous clan and other loyalties. Families resembled the modern ideal of a nuclear family – mother, father and two or three children. Old people may have lived with their families or may have continued to live by themselves. Some even paid pensions to be looked after in their old age by monks at a monastery.

Marriage was achieved by the bride and groom making vows to each other and didn’t need witnesses, although, of course, the Church preferred such vows to be in public. A wedding would typically have the couple say their vows at the church door, followed by a mass inside the church and a ‘bride ale’ in a tavern or house.

Clandestine marriage also occurred, with the couple saying their vows in secret in the woods or elsewhere – which led to men sometimes taking advantage of a woman, speaking vows he didn’t mean in order to have sex with her. Pre-marital sex was illegal and subject to the typical sixpence fine, but wasn’t especially stigmatised. Women may have deliberately allowed themselves to become pregnant before marrying their partner in order to establish their fertility.

Another important area where religion affected everyday life was the regular cycle of feast days. On such days, the lord would lay on feast for some of his villeins, and the villagers would prepare special foods, play games and sports, sing and so on. Christmas was a two-week holiday, while Easter lasted a week. Other holidays included All Hallows (1st November), Martinmas (11th November), Rock or Plough Monday (first Monday after Epiphany), May Day, Whitsunday (Pentecost – seven weeks after Easter), St John’s Day (24th June), Lammas (1st August) and a Wake Day celebrating the local saint’s day.

Conclusion

While the medieval villager’s life was dominated by farming and related trades, there were also plenty of diversions from such hard work. Frances and Joseph Gies book, Life in a Medieval Village, was an interesting read that corrected a few erroneous ideas and put a lot of flesh on the stereotypical image one has of life at that time. I certainly recommend it, and I’d like to move on to some of their other books, such as Life in a Medieval Castle.

What thoughts do you have on the village and on the medieval era? Speak your brains in the comments section.

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Monday Masterclass: The Medieval Village and Its Land

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.

Use

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.

More Measurements

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.