Essays on Medieval Demographics and Agriculture | farmers, serfs and villeins, oh my!
How Many In That Kingdom? | Medieval Economics | The Medieval Manor | Life in a Medieval Castle | Medieval Crop Yields | Fantasy Agriculture
How Many In That Kingdom? | by S. John Ross
Population Density | Town and City Population | Population Spread | An Example Kingdom | Merchants and Services | Agriculture | Castles | Miscellany
Fantasy worlds come in many varieties, from the "hard core" medieval-simulation school to the more fanciful realms of high fantasy, with alabaster castles and jeweled gardens in the place of the more traditional muddy squalor. Despite their differences, these share a vital common element: ordinary people. Most realms of fantasy, no matter how baroque or magical, can not get by without a supply of ordinary farmers, merchants, quarreling princes and palace guards. Clustered into villages and crowding the cities, they provide the human backdrop for adventure.
Many worlds, however, both "home-grown" and professionally designed, lack consistency when it comes to the spread of normal people and their businesses. Fantasy villages of 400 countryfolk can be seen supporting a dozen taverns and a brothel without blinking an economic eye. And when something like that appears in a respected game-supplement, it takes on the mantle of Common Knowledge, and gets repeated.
Of course, doing the research necessary to find out how common a large city should be, or how common castles are, or how many shoemakers can be found in a town, can take up time not all GMs have available. To the end of more plausible and satisfying world design, this article has been prepared.
The information in this article is drawn from a variety of historical sources, focusing on results, rather than on the thousands of details that create them. The rules here are meant to serve as a baseline, to be deviated from at need, not to cast numbers into iron. The figures employ documented data from 12th-14th century England, France, Germany and Italy. When a "default" was needed, rather than an average, I opted for France more often than not.
Population Density: How Many In That Kingdom?
Unless the kingdom is quite young, it is likely riddled with villages, a mile or so apart, covering every inch of the countryside. This is a different picture than that in most published fantasy settings, which frequently feature villages isolated by many miles of monster-haunted wilderness. It is important to remember that agrarian communities on the scale of the village or hamlet are not self-supporting in any real sense; they exist in vast networks.
The only notable exception to this rule is frontier country, where isolated towns have no choice but to exist. But these towns will tend to be large and walled—a people huddled together for safety. On the frontier, food and goods are usually delivered by merchant caravans rather than produced by local agriculture. This is especially true when the wilderness is inhabited by monsters!
The average population density for a medieval country is from 30 per square mile (for countries with lots of rocks, lots of rain, and lots of ice—or a slave-driving Mad King) to a limit of about 120 people per square mile, for countries with rich soil and favorable seasons. No land is wasted if it can be settled and farmed. There are many factors that determine the population density of a land, but none as important as arable land and climate. If food will grow, so will peasants. If desired, exact density can be rolled randomly, and land arability reverse-engineered from the result. A roll of 6d4, multiplied by five, will do the trick nicely.
Some Historical Comparisons: Medieval France tops the list, with an estimated 14th-century density of 105 people/sq. mile. The French were blessed with an abundance of arable countryside, waiting to be farmed. Modern France has more than twice this many people. Germany, with a slightly less perfect climate and a lower percentage of arable land, averaged 87 people per square mile. Italy was similar (lots of hills and rocky areas) with 86. The British Isles were the least populous, with only 42 people per square mile, most of them clustered in the southern half of the isles.
Hexes: It may be important for some GMs using this article to know how much land is in a hexagonal area! To determine the area of a hex, multiply its width by 0.9306049, and square the result. Thus, if your game-map has hexes 30 miles across, each hex represents about 780 square miles. Put a hex like that in the middle of medieval Germany, and it supports an average of 67,800 people.
Town and City Population: How Many In Those Walls?
For purposes of this article, settlements will be divided into Villages, Towns, Cities and Big Cities (known as "supercities" in the parlance of urban historians).
Villages range from 20 to 1,000 people. Most kingdoms will have thousands of them. Villages are agrarian communities within the safe folds of civilization. They provide the basic source of food and land-stability in a feudal system. Usually, a village that supports orchards (instead of grainfields) is called a "hamlet." Occasionally, game writers use the term to apply to a very small village, regardless of what food it produces.
Towns range in population from 1,000-8,000 people. Culturally, these are the equivalent to the smaller American cities that line the interstates. Cities and towns tend to have walls only if they are frequently threatened.
Cities tend to be from 8,000-12,000 people, with an average in the middle of that range. A typical large kingdom will have only a few cities in this population range. Centers of scholarly pursuits (the Universities) tend to be in cities of this size, with only the rare exception thriving in a Big City.
Big Cities range from 12,000-100,000 people, with some exceptional cities exceeding this scale. Some historical examples include London (25,000-40,000), Paris (50,000-80,000), Genoa (75,000-100,000), and Venice (100,000+). Moscow in the 15th century had a population in excess of 200,000!
Large population centers of any scale are the result of traffic. Coastlines, navigable rivers and overland trade-routes form a criss-crossing pattern of trade-arteries, and the towns and cities grow along those lines. The larger the artery, the larger the town. And where several large arteries converge, you have a city. Villages are scattered densely through the country between the larger settlements.
Okay, so you know how big your kingdom is, and how many people live there. How many people live in the cities, and how many cities are there? How many live in villages?
89% of the country's population live in villages. Divide the Village population by 700 to determine the approximate number of villages. Individual village populations should be determined randomly or by fiat. About 2% of the country's populace will live in settlements too small to be called villages—isolated dwellings, or collections of huts with a total population of under 20—or will be itinerant workers and wanderers.
About 6% of the populace lives in Towns. Divide this figure by 5,000 to determine the approximate number of towns.
The remaining 3% of the people live in either Cities or Big Cities. Make a note of the total "City Population," but do not divide it by anything yet.
Determine the population of the largest city in the kingdom. This is equal to (P times M), where P is equal to the square root of the country's population, and M is approximately 15 (or a roll of 2d4+10).
Subtract the largest city's population from the total City Population. The remainder should be divided up into other Cities and Big Cities, as the GM sees fit. A realistic rule of thumb: the second-ranking city will be from 25-75% the size of the largest city; each remaining city will be 10-20% smaller than the previous one, until the 10,000-12,000 range is hit. When that happens, find the remaining city population and divide it by 10,000 for the rest of the cities.
An Example Kingdom: Chamlek
Chamlek is a smallish island kingdom with an area of 70,000 square miles, with a good climate and only a few rocky hills disturbing a well-watered countryside. Her population is 5 million, for an average density of about 71 people per square mile.
Using the formulae above (and average values), we can determine the following about Chamlek: It has 4.45 million people living in approximately 6,400 villages and hamlets, and 300,000 people living in 60 significant towns. 100,000 people live on the road or in isolated dwellings, and the remaining 150,000 live in cities.
Chamlek's largest city, Restagg, has a population of 33,500. The next-ranking major cities are Volthyrm (17,000), McClannach (15,000), Cormidigar (14,000) and Oberthrush (12,000). These principal cities account for 91,500 of the 150,000 city-dwellers. The remaining 58,500 are divided into six cities with populations averaging 9,750. This amounts to an average distance between cities of 80-90 miles (three or four days on foot).
Merchants and Services
In a village of 400 people, just how many inns and taverns are realistic? Not very many. Maybe not even one. When traveling across the countryside, characters should not run into a convenient sign saying "Motel: Free Cable and Swimming Pool" every 3 leagues. For the most part, they will have to camp on their own or seek shelter in people's homes.
Provided they are friendly, the latter option should be no trouble. A farmer can live in a single place all his life, and he will welcome news and stories of adventures, not to mention any money the heroes might offer!
Each type of business is given a Support Value (SV). This is the number of people it takes to support a single business of that sort. For instance, the SV for shoemakers (by far the most common trade in towns) is 150. This means that there will be one shoemaker for every 150 people in an area. These numbers can vary by up to 60% in either direction, but provide a useful baseline for GMs. Think about the nature of the town or city to decide if the numbers need to be changed. A port, for instance, will have more fishmongers than the table indicates.
To find the number of, say, inns in a city, divide the population of the city by the SV value for inns (2,000). For a village of 400 people, this reveals only 20% of an inn! This means that there is a 20% chance of there being one at all. And even if there is one, it will be smaller and less impressive than an urban inn. The SV for taverns is 400, so there will be a single tavern.
Business SV Business SV Shoemakers 150 Butchers 1,200 Furriers 250 Fishmongers 1,200 Maidservants 250 Beer-Sellers 1,400 Tailors 250 Buckle Makers 1,400 Barbers 350 Plasterers 1,400 Jewelers 400 Spice Merchants 1,400 Taverns/Restaurants 400 Blacksmiths 1,500 Old-Clothes 400 Painters 1,500 Pastrycooks 500 Doctors 1,700* Masons 500 Roofers 1,800 Carpenters 550 Locksmiths 1,900 Weavers 600 Bathers 1,900 Chandlers 700 Ropemakers 1,900 Mercers 700 Inns 2,000 Coopers 700 Tanners 2,000 Bakers 800 Copyists 2,000 Watercarriers 850 Sculptors 2,000 Scabbardmakers 850 Rugmakers 2,000 Wine-Sellers 900 Harness-Makers 2,000 Hatmakers 950 Bleachers 2,100 Saddlers 1,000 Hay Merchants 2,300 Chicken Butchers 1,000 Cutlers 2,300 Pursemakers 1,100 Glovemakers 2,400 Woodsellers 2,400 Woodcarvers 2,400 Magic-Shops 2,800 Booksellers 6,300 Bookbinders 3,000 Illuminators 3,900 *These are licensed doctors. Total doctor SV is 350.
Some other figures: There will be one noble household per 200 population, one lawyer ("advocate") per 650, one clergyman per 40 and one priest per 25-30 clergy.
Businesses not listed here will most likely have an SV from 5,000 to 25,0000! The "Magic Shop" means a shop where wizards can purchase spell ingredients, scroll paper and the like, not a place to buy magic swords off the shelf.
At the medieval level of technology, a square mile of settled land (including requisite roads, villages and towns) will support 180 people. This takes into account normal blights, rats, drought, and theft, all of which are common in most worlds. If magic is common, the GM may decide a square mile of land can support many more people. Please note that the number of people a square mile of agricultural land will support is not the same as the maximum population density for a kingdom.
Once you have decided the ability of the land to support people, you can determine the amount of wilderness/unfarmable country in the kingdom by working backwards. Take the example kingdom of Chamlek again, the island kingdom with 70,000 square miles and 5 million citizens. With one square mile supporting 180 people, that means there is approximately 27,800 square miles of farmland—about 40% of the total area of the isle. This offers a graphic example of just how sparse the population really is. The remaining 60% of the country is wilderness, rivers and lakes.
Even if Chamlek had the maximum population density (120 people per square mile), the farmland would be a whopping 66.66% of the total land, leaving one-third of the country to wilderness (mostly forested hills between the farms) and waterways. This is the maximum achieved on Earth, though higher is theoretically possible if the GM determines that the entire country is arable.
While the average distance between population centers can be derived from the total land area, the average walking distance from one village to the next is more realistically determined by considering only the settled land. Thus, in Chamlek, the average distance between villages is not 3.6 miles, as Chamlek's total land area might first suggest. The real average distance to the next village is more like 2.2 miles (considering only settled land area)—perhaps a 50 minute walk. This is because villages and towns tend to cluster tightly along the arteries of travel defined by the lines between the cities—leaving gaps of wilderness in the middle.
Okay, we now completely understand the lay of the land as regards civilization, the cities and farms. Nearer to the heart of the adventurer, however, is the castle, or better still, the ruined castle. Once again, how many should there be?
Ruins, first of all, depend on the age of the region. The following formula is only a guide. The frequency of ruins in Europe varied greatly depending on military history and remoteness of the area. To determine the approximate number of ruined fortifications, divide the kingdom's population by five million. Multiply the result by the square root of the kingdom's age. If the kingdom has changed hands a lot, use the total age—the number of years that castle-building people have lived there, regardless of the Royal Lineage.
Chamlek, our island kingdom, has five million people today, which makes the first part of the formula very simple. Chamlek has been populated by castle-building folk for 300 years. She has 17.32 ruined forts or castles, which means 17 for sure, and a 32% chance of an 18th.
Active castles are much more common; ruins are rare because the solid ones are constantly put back into service! Assume one functioning castle for every 50,000 people. The age of the kingdom is not really a factor. Chamlek would have 100 active castles of various stripes, approximately.
75% of all castles will be in the civilized areas of a kingdom. The other 25% will be in the "wilderness."
The role of these castles is something too world-oriented to be reduced to formula. Most will mark the landholdings of Barons and Dukes, but some may be bandit strongholds, or the outposts of Goblin warlords. It is all up to the GM.
City Size: Cities and towns of the Middle Ages cover one square mile of land per 38,850 people, on average. This is a density of about 61 per acre or 150 per hectare, so the land within the walls of a typical city of 10,000 would be 165 acres—hardly a city by modern standards, in terms of population OR size. Some very large cities may have had up to twice this density.
Law Enforcement: A well-kept medieval city will have 1 law officer (guardsman, watchman, etc.) for every 150 citizens. Slack cities will have half this number. A few rare cities will have more.
Institutions of Higher Learning: There will be one University for every 27.3 million people. This should be computed by continent, not by town! This figure assumes entirely scholarly universities, not those dedicated to the arcane arts. Whether or not magical universities are separate institutions, and how common they are, is a matter for GM decision.
Livestock: The livestock population, on the whole, will equal 2.2 times the human population, but 68% percent of this will be fowl (chickens, geese and ducks). The rest will be dairy cows and "meat animals:" Pigs are superior as food animals, since they eat less individually, and are not picky eaters. Sheep will be extremely common if the region has a wool market (like medieval England, which was built on wool). Cattle for labor and milk will be found occasionally, but cattle raised specifically for meat are only found in very prosperous areas.
Medieval Economics | by Philip McGregor
Wages | Prices
When I recently saw Phanarzul's article on Economics (NFB22) I was interested to see his conclusions on how to revise the pitifully inadequate economic system provided in D&D. While it was an interesting article, I felt that it did not explain as fully as possible the reasons which make a Medieval economy the most realistic to use in a Fantasy or D&D style world.
Before I am drowned out by the many anguished howls from those DMs who will claim that "my world is not Medieval - so it doesn't need a medieval economy" I would like to point out that the term 'Medieval economy' does not merely refer to that which existed in Europe in the period after the fall of the Roman Empire - what it does refer to is a pre-industrial economy. Thus if your society is pre-industrial it will have the following general characteristics: a population that is mostly involved in subsistence agriculture (85% or more), with the few Urban dwellers involved in at most handcraft level industries that rarely employ more than 2-3 workers. The general level of technology is fairly low due to a lack of a large enough leisured middle class to stimulate industry into creating technological advances.
Unless your society is reasonably close to the above structure you are moving towards the process of industrialization that resulted in the great technological and scientific advances of the Renaissance - something D&D is not suited to fit in with.
The major limiting factor in a Medieval/pre-industrial society is the extreme fragility of the urban concentrations that provide what limited amounts of manufactured goods there are - as well as providing the basis for future development into an industrializing society. As I have noted above, 85% or more of a county's population will be involved in more or less subsistence agriculture. In fact, some conservative estimates show that it required at least 10 farmers to support every urban dweller. The obvious factor here is that any reduction of the number of farmers, whether by war or by plague, is going to result in a similar reduction in the number of Urban dwellers, mainly through starvation but also because of a loss of rural markets for their manufactured goods.
There were 4 major reasons for this fragility. Firstly, the initial lack of a suitable plough, which limited cultivation to thinner, less fertile lands until about 1000 AD. Secondly, the use of biennial crop rotation, which left half of all cultivable land fallow each year until the introduction of triennial rotation about 800 AD, which left only a third fallow. Thirdly, the use of oxen as draught animals rather than the twice as efficient horse, due to poor harnesses which which tended to choke a horse limiting loads to about 250lbs. In the 800's a new type of harness was introduced that increased load capacity fivefold. Finally, the very low agricultural productivity which varied between a return of 3 to 4.7 times the amount of grain sown, and from which next year's seed had to be taken.
The limited chemical knowledge of the time meant that only the richest bullion mines could be operated. This, coupled with the fact that a token currency had not yet been thought of, meant that there was not enough gold or silver to go round. This in turn meant that frequent and massive currency debasements were necessary to meet the growing need for currency that increasing trade and industry demanded. The problem became so bad that at one stage 'silver' shillings minted in Germany contained no silver at all. These problems naturally caused a roller coaster ride of depressions and recoveries, as well as limiting economic development and growth.
Two final limiting factors are also important to note. These were the shortage of iron and the uncertainty of transport in the Medieval period. Iron was in very short supply due to inefficient working methods and because deep shaft mining was impossible without powered water pumps. This meant that iron tools and utensils were rare, and were used mainly by the rich and well-to-do, with bronze items being used by the great mass of the people. The shortage of iron also meant that chain or scale mail was easier and cheaper to make - despite the long hours of labor involved - than full plate, which would have been incredibly expensive, even if enough iron could be found to construct it. The shortage was so acute that many ironworkers depended on scrap metal for raw materials for much of the period involved.
Since the breakdown of law and order that came with the fall of the Roman Empire the major and the safest form of transport became sea transport. Yet even this medium was not all that it could have been, as the compass had not yet been invented and thus sea travel was limited almost totally to coast hugging except for a few well known routes, mainly in the Mediterranean.
These then were the major limiting factors on the development of the Medieval world that a DM should keep in mind when developing his D&D campaign. But what do they mean in game terms, one might well ask...? Well, Chaots can no longer go around slaughtering innocent farmers, unless they wish to starve to death. Famine is a real possibility with the margin of cereal production so low. Heavy land transport will move at the slow pace of teams of oxen, and ships will be very slow also, hugging the coastline all the time. Finally, most warriors will be armed in chain or scale mail at best, unless they are incredibly wealthy (successful Dungeon adventurers maybe?).
Wages | The important thing to remember is that actual money (coinage) was scarce - and only those who possessed it could buy manufactured goods. This meant that Serfs/Villeins/Peasants operated on a barter economy, doing without manufactured goods for the most part. The market for such items was limited to the richer peasantry (Yeomen), the landed Gentry, rich merchants, and the Nobility. However, even within these classes money wasn't plentiful, and the supply could dry up very quickly (especially after a bad harvest, when all free coinage went towards buying food - after all, you can't eat a new sword!) making the Demand Factor for manufactured goods very elastic.
As already indicated, the only item for which demand cannot be cut by too much is, of course, food. During the Medieval period, the major type of food consumed was cereal (wheat, corn, maize etc) with meat and fish being relatively scarce. Fortunately we can determine that the average annual consumption of cereals worked out at 300kg per person, or 1200kg for the average family of four. We also know the average number of working hours available annually, and with these two pieces of information it becomes easy to work out average wages - if we know food prices.
|England 1320 160kg cereal cost 37 shillings||France 1339-69 100kg of cereal cost 50 shillings|
Thus in England the minimum hourly wage had to be 1.75d. Similarly in France it would be 2.5d. In most cases of course this food would have been grown by the family themselves, or in the case of laborers in cities provided by their employers. On top of this, there would almost certainly have been a payment in cash; to the farmer this would have been in the form of extra crops for barter. Such pay merits would probably have been on a similar scale to that suggested next:
This gives an average conjectural weekly wage as follows:
Those persons who are self-employed would have to pay for their own food as well as making a bit extra if possible out of their profits.
Prices | Now that we have an idea of the wages paid to laborers, we can work out what items would have cost if we know how long it took to produce a particular item. For instance, Chain mail took 12 months to produce (a suit down to the knees, with long sleeves and integral hood and mittens) and Plate Armor took 24 months - probably by a team consisting of a Master Craftsman, Skilled Craftsman and two Skilled Laborers Thus Chain mail would cost about 676 shillings in labor alone; it is reasonable to assume that profit and materials would boost this by 100% giving us a 'for sale' cost of 1352 shillings, or about £67. Plate Armour would cost about twice as much, say £134.
If we also remember that the major armor producing areas (for Plate Armour anyway) were in Italy and Germany, we must add middleman profits depending on distance end safety of travel of say 50-100%, bringing us to £201 - £268. This latter price tallies with the known price paid by an English King for a suit of Plate during the Hundred Years War of 5000s.
Of course armor was a luxury item and profits were charged accordingly. Second or third hand Armour may have cost a quarter of the new price. Other items would probably have less excessive profit margins, being from 10-50% at each step. NB - DON'T use the times for production given by TSR or Judges Guild, as they are more the result of wishful thinking than any real knowledge of Medieval production times.
Medieval Wages and Prices (£1 = 20s | 1s = 16d)
|English army 1316-1415, per day, not including any share of loot and plunder|
|Armoured Infantry||6d||Foot Archers||3d|
|English Goods, 1321-1420|
|French Goods, 1339-69|
|5lb Twisted Candle||7/6d||2oz Medicine||1s|
The Medieval Manor
The Moldboard Plow | Social Adjustment | The Manor | Importance of Manorial Agriculture | Social Classes within the Manor | The Manorial Farming Year: Spring | Summer | Fall | Winter
Manorialism is the other side of the feudal coin. You could say that the economic base of feudalism was manorial agriculture.
The reason for this is to be found in the climate and the topography. Agricultural techniques were quite different in northern Europe from Mediterranean lands. It is no surprise that feudalism and manorialism never really developed in the south of Europe. In the north you could sow grain both in fall and the spring, so the work could be more evenly distributed during the course of the year.
Because the land was much more fertile in the north you could have larger farms in the north than you could in the south. In England the average farm contained 30 acres, but in Greece the farming unit at the most consisted of 10 acres. Oats and rye could be grown up north. This was important for cattle raising and also the human diet. These crops gave lower yields per acre than wheat and barley but they required larger fields, which were available up north. In the south they had to depend on the traditional olives and grapes.
The Moldboard Plow | The moldboard plow, as distinguished from the scratch plow, created a revolution in agriculture. It makes deep furrows and thus provides the necessary drainage for early use of the land. The moldboard plow was invented in Germany probably long before the invasions of the fourth and fifth centuries. It came into gradual use in Merovingian and Carolingian times in the area between the Rhine and the Elbe rivers.
In the Romanized areas of southwestern Europe there were certain social obstacles to adoption of the moldboard plow. In these regions formerly a part of the Roman Empire, Roman conceptions of private property in land and slaves prevented the development of private farming. Also few individual farmers could own the necessary number of draught animals to pull this heavy plow. It took anywhere from four to eight oxen to pull a full-sized moldboard plow.
There was also the problem of turning several teams and a rather cumbersome plow around when you got to the end of the field. This led to strip farming, or long-acre farming in the north. Each strip was roughly one acre in size. The Romans had always used square fields, which were somewhat smaller. These sorts of tradition were hard to overcome. In south of Europe there was therefore no comparable change in agriculture.
Social Adjustments | New agricultural techniques brought about certain social adjustments. Since it took 6 to 8 small oxen to pull a moldboard plow, the pooling of resources became necessity. This led to cooperative cultivation of the soil. By the 10th century most of Europe was divided into farming units known as manors. Manors come from two sources: 1) the villa estates of the Romans; and 2) the German villages after the migrating tribes settled down.
The Roman villa estates were worked by groups of slaves who lived together in a separate unit on the grounds. The Germanic villages were essentially groups of peasants huddled together for cooperative work on the land. So new agricultural techniques and the rise of a military and aristocratic class creates a society of basically two social groupings: knights and serfs. The knights were the lords of the manor or manors. This established a uniformity in the regions where the moldboard plow was used.
The Manor | Manors usually had four parts to them: arable land, meadow land, waste land, and the village. Each part had a specific purpose and none could be dispensed with if the manor was to survive.
The arable land was utilized by the three-field rotation system which prevailed in most of Europe. This meant that one third of the arable land always remained fallow in order not to exhaust the soil. There was plowing the year round, except when the ground was frozen or at harvest time. This made maximum use of the most important tool the serfs had, the moldboard plow. The value of manor was determined for the most part by the number of plows and teams of oxen it possessed. Each individual pleasant strip was about one acre in size. It took about one day to plow a single strip.
Crops and peasant field assignment were scattered in 3 fields throughout the manor. Plowing and planting was fixed by custom. There was also uniform cropping. Thus no innovation was possible. It kept things the way they were for almost one thousand years.
Meadow land was as important as arable land. It was necessary to feed the draught animals. The idea of sowing and harvesting hay to feed the animals had not yet occurred to them. There was thus a chronic shortage of winter fodder. This meant that there was a constant danger of losing the cattle and sheep. It was never successfully overcome.
The waste land was used for summer pasture for animals of the whole manor, watched by children or lowly attendants. So-called wasteland also provided wood for fuel and building materials for peasant huts. In addition it provided an important part of the food supply: nuts, berries, honey, rabbits.
So, it should be obvious that the manors were relatively small clearings among large stretches of forest and wastelands. The vast expanse of the fertile European plain was never fully exploited and helps to account for the backwardness of medieval economic life.
Most of central and northern Europe was blanketed with a vast forest of tall trees or unhealthy swamps. The village itself was usually located in the center of the arable land, somewhere near the most convenient water supply: rivers, natural lakes or drained swamps. Although it should be remembered that there was precious little draining of swamps until well into modern times. The cottages where the serfs lived were made of mud brick reinforced with straw and had earthen floors and thatched roof. Usually they consisted of single rooms not very large in floor space or height. There were usually small adjoining gardens where some vegetables and fruits were grown. Little time and ground was wasted on flowers or decorative shrubs. Chickens, dogs, and ducks maintained a precarious existence in the streets.
Importance of manorial agriculture | The vast majority of the European population lived on land far into the 19th century. For most of that time they farmed the soil cooperatively. In a way you could say that European peasants are no strangers to a form of primitive socialism.
Until a hundred years ago all food came from fields tilled by peasants in this manner. Only in Poland and England was pattern of cooperative village farming broken early. So northern Europe provided a fundamental distinction from the grape-olive-grain-complex of the Mediterranean lands. This in fact means that agriculture was adjusted to the geographic conditions that prevailed in northern Europe. This also meant that northern Europe surpassed the Mediterranean countries in wealth and power.
Social classes within the Manor | An aristocratic class rose in Europe in 8th, 9th and 10th centuries which drew economic support from manors by preempting rents and services from peasants. There were only lords and peasant. Social status was defined by obligations to the lord of the manor.
The lord had a right to the products from some part of the land. There was the so-called lord's close and there were certain strips of the best arable land set aside for the lord. This was called the lord's demesne or farm run by the lord's bailiff. The lord also got dues from the serfs: sheaves of grain and other dues in kind. These dues varied from manor to manor, but they were fixed by custom. Everything was fixed by custom. The lord got the best animal when the head of the family died, for instance. He collected fees from the serfs for using his still, wine press, bake oven and other utilities. Fines were assessed by the manor court for various infractions of custom and rules.
Thus the peasant class of medieval Europe can be classified into three groups: free men, serfs (villeins), and cotters. Free men had certain fixed dues which they had to pay or deliver. Serfs had the same dues, but also had to provide labor services for the lord on his land. Cotters were essentially squatters with no rights to arable land whatsoever. They worked for some sort of wage in kind.
The church played an important role in all this. The peasants had to pay tithes or harvest products to the church in order to maintain it. These tithes (1/10th of total income) were collected by the parish priest or the lord's agent.
The conditions of peasant life were extremely bleak. Poverty and hardship, famine and disease, stalked their daily existence. In times of war they suffered additional troubles, such as requisitions of food and animals, and worse yet, forced labor. But the lord needed them. So the lord helped the serfs by providing grain for planting and clearance of land for additional strips. Sometimes the lords helped to introduce improvement of agricultural methods, but that was fairly rare. The lord did protect the serfs from thieves and marauding bands. Both lord and peasant benefit from this system, but vastly different ways.
The Medieval Farming Year | "To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted..."
It is hard for us to imagine the importance of seasonal cycles to our ancestors. Our fridges and our freezers are stocked with fresh and frozen foods brought in from around the world. No matter what the time of year, our favorite foodstuffs from around the world are available on the supermarket shelves. Only minor variations in price mark the changing of one season to another. Our central heating and air conditioning alleviate the winter cold and the summer heat; when the nights draw in we switch on a light and carry on as normal.
Not so for medieval people. The turning seasons marked the fundamental rhythm of their lives. The time of year determined what they did, the length of the working day and what they ate. The vast majority of people - between 80 and 90 per cent of the population - were directly involved in agriculture. There was no rapid transportation and there were few ways of preserving food. Even the medieval urbanite was more in tune with the yearly cycle than we in the developed countries will ever really understand.
When using the calendar you should be aware firstly that it concerns England during the 12th to 13th centuries, although it should be fairly valid for northern France and Germany. Secondly, the exact timing of the works described would be decided by villagers (or by the reeve and the lord or his representative in the case of demesne lands) depending on the local ground conditions and the weather. Finally, it assumes the "classic" midland system of open field farming with two or three great fields worked in common with heavy ploughs. The midland system was not the only one used in medieval England, never mind Europe, nor was it the most efficient.
The Works of Spring | April Many medieval English country people held that New Year began on Lady Day, March 25, for it marked the time when work began in earnest after the winter lull. Plough teams began the first ploughing of the fallow field in April when the soil was soft enough to turn easily. Each team consisted of a heavy plough pulled by eight oxen, guided by a ploughman and an ox-goader. The team was expected to plough an acre a day. I
n the later medieval period pairs of horses were combined with the oxen on lighter soils, or even used exclusively. The innovation which marked the heavy plough from the earlier ard-plough (also known as a scratch- or hook-plough) was a mouldboard mounted on the right hand side, behind the ploughshare, which turned the sod. Because of the difficulty in turning the plough, the team worked in long strips, turning clockwise several times before starting on a new strip. This method resulted in the sod constantly being thrown in towards the middle of the strip, creating a pattern of ridge and furrow. While the plough teams were busy on the fallow field, preparations began for the sowing of spring crops (barley, oats, peas, beans and vetches).
In a two-field system the spring crops would be sown on half the active field (winter crops, sown the previous autumn, would already be growing on the other half); in a three-field system the spring crops would have a field to themselves. Grains - barley and oats - were sown by the broadcast method, and were sometimes sown together in a mixture known as dredge. Peas and beans were painstakingly dibbled, the seeds being placed in a series of small holes made by poking a stick (known as a dibbler or dibbling-stick) into the ground. Choosing the right amount of seed to sow was a delicate matter which depended on soil quality and, to some extent, local custom. Too little seed and the weeds would choke the growing crops; too much and the crops would choke themselves. A working guide is that barley would be sown at four bushels to the acre and oats, peas and beans at three bushels to the acre.
May Ploughing the fallow and sowing spring crops continued into May if necessary. Children would defend the newly-sown seed from crows and other marauding birds with slings: only the lord's doves were sacrosanct and killing one brought a heavy penalty. The doves could cause considerable damage to crops and they were a hated symbol of the lord's power. The seed was quickly protected by harrowing to cover it with soil. The simplest, cheapest and most ineffective harrows were bundles of brushwood dragged behind a horse - sometimes even tied to its tail. More sturdy harrows consisted of wooden pegs fixed into a wooden frame; iron-toothed harrows were virtually unknown, and certainly well beyond the means of peasants. Sometimes the harrow was unable to break up heavy clods, and these were broken up with mallets.
Gardens also required attention. They were used not only to grow such staples of the peasant diet as cabbages and members of the onion family (onions, leeks and garlic) but also cash crops such as flax and hemp. Dyeplants like madder (red), woad (blue), dyer's greenweed (green) and weld (yellow) were also grown in gardens, probably for home use as well as for sale initially, but increasingly as a cash crop as the clothing industry became more urbanized in the 13th century. Culinary and medicinal herbs detected by archaeobotanists include parsley, fennel, celery, camomile, mint, summer savoury, catmint, mustard, opium poppy and coriander.
Cows came back into full milk as pastures took over from sparse winter fodder. Between May and Michaelmas (September 29) each cow was expected to produce seven stone (98lb) of cheese and a stone (14lb) of butter. Any time left over was spent on maintenance work - hedging, ditching, repairing fences and buildings.
June Haymaking was the main event of June, and it was a communal activity. Meadows were relatively rare, and those outside the lord's demesne were often held by the villagers in common. Haymakers used long-handled scythes to cut the grass close to the ground. Teams of men moved down the meadow in lines, each expected to mow about an acre a day. Women and children followed to turn the hay behind them to ensure it dried evenly. Finally the hay was gathered into large stacks.
In some areas custom dictated that haymakers could carry away as much of the lord's hay as they could lift on their scythes without letting it fell - letting any part of the scythe or bundle touch the ground resulted in forfeiture. The hay crop was vitally important to the village economy, for it provided the main winter fodder for animals. If the crop was bad fewer animals could be kept over winter; a good crop could mean a relatively steady supply of fresh meat over winter, a good supply of breeding stock or a surplus for sale. Lambs were weaned as early as possible, for sheep's milk was rich and highly prized.
Shearing began late in June. The best fleeces came from wethers (castrated males), and fleeces taken earlier were often finer and more valuable than those taken later in the year. Lambswool is extremely fine, but medieval sheep did not start to produce decently-sized fleeces until their third or fourth year. In areas where three ploughings of the fallow field were the norm the second was generally begun in late June. This ploughing was a little deeper than the first to expose the roots of weeds, and as much manure as was available would be spread on the field before the teams began their work.
The easiest way of getting the dung onto the field was to pasture beasts there. Each acre could support two sheep; cattle required about two acres each. Manorial lords often insisted that beasts were folded on demesne lands overnight to ensure they got most of the valuable manure. The beasts were not permitted to graze the meadows until at least a month after the haymaking to give the grass a chance to recover.
The Works of Summer | July Between the hectic days of haymaking and the summer harvest the loathsome task of weeding the crop-bearing fields was the most important task. Thistles were among the most common weeds, and tradition held that thistles cut down before St John's Day (June 24) would multiply threefold before the main harvest. Other weeds common in medieval grain fields were dock, dead-nettle, charlock and corn cockle. Corn marigolds grew among spring-sown barley, and cornflower was associated with rye. Weeding called for special tools. The most common were a pair of long-handled sticks, one with a Y-fork at the end and the other with a small sickle blade: they were used together to cut the stem of the weed at ground level.
With manure in short supply, careful and dedicated weeding was probably the most effective way of increasing the harvest yield, but the sheer quantity of weed remains found in archaeological contexts shows medieval techniques were far from perfect. Flax and hemp matured in the gardens, and required careful preparation to extract the fibers. Both plants were pulled up, roots and all, rather than cut. They were laid in the sun to dry before being retted: placed in a stream to rot away the fleshy parts of the plant. Once the fibers were clean they were beaten to separated them and hung up in strikes to dry thoroughly. Hemp was then ready to be wound into rope or cord, and flax to be placed on a distaff and spun into yarn.
July was the hungry month. Grain stores were at their lowest ebb, awaiting replenishment from the forthcoming harvest, and peasants in need eked out their diet by foraging and many no doubt by poaching. There is even a theory that rye infected with the hallucinogenic mold ergot was deliberately baked into bread to ease the gnawing hunger with a drug-induced daze.
August The main grain harvest began in early August if the weather allowed and would usually be completed by the end of the month. The winter crops (wheat and rye) ripened and were harvested first, followed by the spring grains (barley and oats). The timing depended very much upon the weather - not only were weeks of warm sun and gentle rain needed for a good crop to grow, but several dry, sunny days were required to bring the harvest in. In a pinch unripe or rain-dampened grain could be harvested and placed in special corn-drying ovens, though these were more common in upland areas where the growing season was short. Wheat was harvested with a sickle, used to cut a couple of hands-breadths below the ear of corn, leaving the long stubble standing in the field. The other grains were cut closer to the ground with a long-handled scythe.
A team of five people - four reapers and a binder - could harvest two acres of crops a day. The process was not terribly efficient, and some of the grain fell to the ground; the poorest peasants often had the rights to glean the fallen grain from the fields after the harvest was brought in and before livestock was released to graze the stubble. Gleaning rights were hotly contested and seem to have been of considerable benefit to the recipients. Church tithes - one sheaf in every ten - were collected from the field before peasants carted their crop to their barns and houses.
Medieval harvest yields have been widely studied, and often hotly debated. They varied widely from year to year, depending largely on the weather conditions. In intensively farmed areas they could reach 1:10 or even higher, but were nowhere near as respectable in the open fields of the midland belt. Except where noted the following figures are based on averages for the Winchester estate between 1209 and 1270 AD, quoted in Christopher Dyer's Standards of living in the later Middle Ages (see bibliography). Yields given are after tithes have been deducted and threshing performed.
|Crop Seed (bu/acre)||Seed:Yield Ratio||Yield (bu/acre)|
¹The quantity of rye sown is my guesstimate. Yield is derived from returns for the abbey of Cluny in 1156 (from Rösener, Peasants in the Middle Ages).
² Figures for Peas/Beans are derived from returns for Bishops Cleeve c1299 AD (from Dyer, Standards of Living...).
According to Titow's study of the Winchester data between 1209 and 1350, bad harvests (where the yield was 15 per cent or more below the average) occurred about one year in eight and good harvests (where the yields were 15 per cent or more above the average) about one year in 20.
September If poor weather delayed the start of the grain harvest, it would be finished in early September before the peas, beans and vetches were harvested. Work was not finished when the harvest was complete, although the pressure eased a little once the sheaves were safely brought indoors.
But the grain still required processing. First it was threshed with a flail to separate the individual grains from the ear. The grainflail consisted of two lengths of wood, the handstaff and beater, joined by a leather thong. A worker could thresh about seven bushels of wheat in a day, or eight bushels of rye, 15 of barley or 18 bushels of oats. After threshing the grain was winnowed to remove the chaff and straw. This could be done by throwing the grains on a winnowing sheet and letting the wind blow the lighter chaff and straw away, or by using a special winnowing fan. The chaff and straw was not wasted but carefully collected to use as animal fodder. Finally the grain was sieved to remove the smaller weed seeds.
It was then ready to be stored. It would last several years if kept dry and free from vermin, but this was not always easy. Flour had a much shorter shelf-life, and milling the grain was done as and when necessary. Beans and peasecods were carefully dried as a source of both food and animal fodder over winter. Pottage was a staple of the peasant diet, and a pot of it was generally kept cooking at all times, topped up with new ingredients as required. An old English nursery rhyme is not far off the mark: Pease pudding hot, pease pudding cold - pease pudding in the pot, nine days old.
A substantial portion of the grain processing had to be completed by Michaelmas (September 29), which marked the start of the new financial year and was the day for settling debts, rents and dues. The idea of a wide-ranging Michaelmas slaughter of livestock is largely myth; animals not wanted as breeding or working stock were generally sold at market earlier in the year. In general only pigs, which lived largely on scraps and by scavenging, and beasts at the end of their working lives were candidates for slaughter on the manor, and not usually until Martinmas (November 11).
The Works of Autumn | October The third and final ploughing of the fallow field was carried out prior to the sowing of winter crops of wheat and rye. Wheat was sown at about two bushels per acre. I have been unable to find a reliable reference indicating how much rye was sown, so I have assumed it was the same as wheat. Harrowing was performed after sowing (see May, above, for details).
By mid-September beechnuts and acorns were ripening and falling, and swineherds drove their charges into the woods to forage for them, a process known as pannaging. Pannage rights were generally paid for by a small cash fee on top of a peasant's normal dues, and provided a valuable means of fattening swine up for slaughter. Pannaging generally lasted for six weeks, ending in mid-November. Whatever wild fruits and nuts were available were also collected for human consumption. Wheat stubble, which had been left standing in the fields, was gathered in to mix with hay as winter fodder.
November Martinmas (November 11) was the traditional day for slaughtering and salting old stock and swine to provide a supply of meat, however meager, for the coming winter. Little of the pigs were wasted - flesh provided meat which preserved well by salting or smoking, skin could be cured into tough leather and even the blood was carefully saved to make black puddings. Ox-hide was also cured into leather.
By mid-November preparations for the hardships of winter were well underway. Firewood was collected from the woods; peasants were generally forbidden from taking anything but dead wood for their own personal use, and the amount they were allowed to take was often limited by local custom. Taking wood for sale generally resulted in a fine, but it did not stop people trying. In some areas turves and peat were cut and stacked to dry for the winter fire. Reeds and sedges were cut to be dried for thatching, and bracken was gathered to use as winter bedding for cattle. Threshing and winnowing continued whenever the weather was too wet to do outside work.
December By now almost all the outdoor work was complete, and little grain processing remained unfinished. Cold and rain largely confined peasants indoors, where they performed whatever tasks they could to while away the hours and perhaps earn a little cash: women spun, men performed handicrafts.
The Works of Winter There seems little point in breaking the works of winter down into monthly tasks. Whatever maintenance could be done was carried out, and animals cared for. Dung from the barns was carefully stockpiled to be mixed with marl and spread upon the fields, though the peasants never had enough to fertilise more than the closest strips. Lambing began in late February and in March the plough teams went out to prepare the fields for the spring sowing (see April, above).
Life in a Medieval Castle
The Hall | The Kitchen | Accommodations | Water | The Chapel
The Hall | Whether on the motte, in the bailey, inside the walls of the shell keep, or as a separate building within the great curtain walls of the 13th century, the living quarters of a castle invariably had one basic element: the hall. A large one-room structure with a loft ceiling, the hall was sometimes on the ground floor, but often, as is Fitz Osbern's great tower at Chepstow, it was raised to the second story for greater security.
Early halls were aisled like a church, with rows of wooden posts or stone pillars supporting the timber roof. Windows were equipped with wooden shutters secured by an iron bar, but in the 11th and 12th centuries were rarely glazed. By the 13th century a king or great baron might have "white (greenish) glass" in some of his windows, and by the 14th century glazed windows were common.
In a ground-floor hall the floor was beaten earth, stone or plaster; when the hall was elevated to the upper story the floor was nearly always timber, supported either by a row of wooden pillars in the basement below, as in Chepstow's Great Hall (shown left), or by stone vaulting. Carpets, although used on walls, tables, and benches, were not used as floor coverings in Britain and northwest Europe until the 14th century. Floors were strewn with rushes and in the later Middle Ages sometimes with herbs. The rushes were replaced at intervals and the floor swept, but Erasmus, noting a condition that must have been true in earlier times, observed that often under them lay "an ancient collection of beer, grease, fragments, bones, spittle, excrement of dogs and cats and everything that is nasty."
Entrance to the hall was usually in a side wall near the lower end. When the hall was on an upper story, this entrance was commonly reached by an outside staircase next to the wall of the keep. The castle family sat on a raised dais of stone or wood at the upper end of the hall, opposite to the entrance, away from drafts and intrusion. The lord (and perhaps the lady) occupied a massive chair, sometimes with a canopy by way of emphasizing status. Everyone else sat on benches. Most dining tables were set on temporary trestles that were dismantled between meals; a permanent, or "dormant," table was another sign of prestige, limited to the greatest lords. But all tables were covered with white cloths, clean and ample.
Lighting was by rushlights or candles, of wax or tallow (melted animal fat), impaled on vertical spikes or an iron candlestick with a tripod base, or held in a loop, or supported on wall brackets or iron candelabra. Oil lamps in bowl form on a stand, or suspended in a ring, provided better illumination, and flares sometimes hung from iron rings in the wall. If the later Middle Ages had made only slight improvements in lighting over earlier centuries, a major technical advance had come in heating: the fireplace, an invention of deceptive simplicity.
The fireplace provided heat both directly and by radiation from the stones at the back, from the hearth, and finally, from the opposite wall, which was given extra thickness to absorb the heat and warm the room after the fire had burned low. The ancestor of the fireplace was the central open hearth, used in ground-level halls in Saxon times and often into later centuries. Such a hearth may have heated one of the two halls of Chepstow's 13th-century domestic range, where there are no traces of a fireplace. Square, circular, or octagonal, the central hearth was bordered by stone or tile and sometimes had a backing of tile, brick or stone. Smoke rose through a louver, a lantern-like structure in the roof with side openings that were covered with sloping boards to exclude rain and snow, and that could be closed by pulling strings, like venetian blinds.
There were also roof ventilators. A couvre-feu (fire cover) made of tile or china was placed over the hearth at night to reduce the fire hazard. When the hall was raised to the second story, a fireplace in one wall took the place of the central hearth, dangerous on an upper level, especially with a timber floor. The hearth was moved to a location against a wall with a funnel or hood to collect and control the smoke, and finally, funnel and all, was incorporated into the wall. This early type of fireplace was arched, and set into the wall at a point where it was thickened by an external buttress, with the smoke venting through the buttress. Toward the end of the 12th century, the fireplace began to be protected by a projecting hood of stone or plaster which controlled the smoke more effectively and allowed for a shallower recess. Flues ascended vertically through the walls to a chimney, cylindrical with an open top, or with side vents and a conical cap.
The Kitchen | In the 13th century the castle kitchen was still generally of timber, with a central hearth or several fireplaces where meat could be spitted or stewed in a cauldron. Utensils were washed in a scullery outside. Poultry and animals for slaughter were trussed and tethered nearby. Temporary extra kitchens were set up for feasts. In the bailey near the kitchen the castle garden was usually planted with fruit trees and vines at one end, and plots of herbs, and flowers - roses, lilies, heliotropes, violets, poppies, daffodils, iris, gladiola. There might also be a fishpond, stocked with trout and pike.
Accommodations and Domestic Buildings | In the earliest castles the family slept at the extreme upper end of the hall, beyond the dais, from which the sleeping quarters were typically separated by only a curtain or screen. Fitz Osbern's hall at Chepstow, however, substituted for this temporary division a permanent wooden partition.
Sometimes castles with ground-floor halls had their great chamber, where the lord and lady slept, in a separate wing at the dais end of the hall, over a storeroom, matched at the other end, over the buttery and pantry, by a chamber for the eldest son and his family, for guests, or for the castle steward. These second-floor chambers were sometimes equipped with "squints," peepholes concealed in wall decorations by which the owner or steward could keep an eye on what went on below.
The lord and lady's chamber, when situated on an upper floor, was called the solar. By association, any private chamber, whatever its location, came to be called a solar. Its principal item of furniture was a great bed with a heavy wooden frame and springs made of interlaced ropes or strips of leather, overlaid with a feather mattress, sheets, quilts, fur coverlets, and pillows. Such beds could be dismantled and taken along on the frequent trips a great lord made to his castles and other manors. The bed was curtained, with linen hangings that pulled back in the daytime and closed at night to give privacy as well as protection from drafts.
Personal servants might sleep in the lord's chamber on a pallet or trundle bed, or on a bench. Chests for garments, a few "perches" or wooden pegs for clothes, and a stool or two made up the remainder of the furnishings. Sometimes a small anteroom called the wardrobe adjoined the chamber - a storeroom where cloth, jewels, spices and plates were stored in chests, and where dressmaking was done. In the early Middle Ages, when few castles had large permanent garrisons, not only servants but military and administrative personnel slept in towers or in basements, or in the hall, or in lean-to structures; knights performing castle guard slept near their assigned posts. Later, when castles were manned by larger garrisons, often mercenaries, separate barracks, mess halls, and kitchens were built.
Except for the screens and kitchen passages, the domestic quarters of medieval castles contained no internal corridors. Rooms opened into each other, or were joined by spiral staircases which required minimal space and could serve pairs of rooms on several floors. Covered external passageways called pentices joined a chamber to a chapel or to a wardrobe and might have windows, paneling, and even fireplaces. (Note: When the author mentions a lack of "corridors," keep in mind he is referring to early medieval castles. By contrast, Edward I's later masterpieces at Beaumaris and Caernarfon are well known for their sets of interior passageways.)
Water | Water for washing and drinking was often available at a central drawing point on each floor. Besides the well, inside or near the keep, there might be a cistern or reservoir on an upper level whose pipes carried water to the floors below. Hand washing was sometimes done at a laver or built-in basin in a recess in the hall entrance, with a projecting trough. Servants filled the tank above, and waste water was carried away by a lead pipe below, inflow and outflow controlled by valves with bronze or copper taps and spouts.
Baths were taken in a wooden tub, protected by a tent or canopy and padded with cloth. In warm weather, the tub was often placed in the garden; in cold weather, in the chamber near the fire. When the lord travelled, the tub accompanied him, along with a bathman who prepared the baths. The latrine, or "garderobe," not to be confused with the wardrobe, was situated as close to the bed chamber as possible (and was supplemented by the universally used chamber pot). Ideally, the garderobe was sited at the end of a short, right-angled passage in the thickness of the wall, often a buttress. When the chamber walls were not thick enough for this arrangement, a latrine was corbeled out from the wall over either a moat or river, as in the domestic range at Chepstow, or with a long shaft reaching nearly to the ground.
The Chapel | An indispensable feature of the castle of a great lord was the chapel where the lord and his family heard morning mass. In rectangular hall-keeps this was often in the forebuilding, sometimes at basement level, sometimes on the second floor. By the 13th century, the chapel was usually close to the hall, convenient to the high table and bed chamber, forming an L with the main building or sometimes projecting opposite the chamber. A popular arrangement was to build the chapel two stories high, with the nave divided horizontally; the family sat in the upper part, reached from their chamber, while the servants occupied the lower part.
By the later 13th century, the castle had achieved a considerable degree of comfort, convenience, and privacy. The lord and lady, who had begun by eating and sleeping in the great hall with their household, had gradually withdrawn to their own apartments. A century later, in Piers Plowman, William Langland lamented at this change, and blamed technology: the wall fireplace, with its draft chimney, which freed the household from huddling around the central hearth of the old days: "Woe is in the hall each day in the week. There the lord and lady like not to sit. Now every rich man eats by himself In a private parlor to be rid of poor men, Or in a chamber with a chimney And leaves the great hall."
Medieval Crop Yields, c. 1086
From what I've been reading, Medieval yields for various grains are as follows:
Rye = seven-fold render (7
bushels on one acre); does better in poor soil
Wheat = 5-fold render (5 bu/acre) in poor soils...
Barley = ???
I believe the seed distribution was 1 bushel/acre for planting. Other sources indicate 2 bushels/acre, though this seems rather high to me. This didn't jive with most other estimations I received, which indicated Anglo-Saxon farm yields for wheat ranging from 6 (poor harvest) to 8 (average) to 10 (great) bushels per acre. But I think these also assumed average to good plowland.
Given the early two-field rotation system, I tried to rationalize how England could support the debated-but-seemingly-accepted historical estimates of 1.2 to 1.5 million inhabitants. Basically, the Domesday survey showed 67,000 some odd "hides", "sulungs" or "carucates" under plow... Each unit can be rounded off to representing 120 acres (though this varied *greatly* depending on all sorts of variables...) That's about 12,600 square miles under plow... or 8,000,000 acres (very rounded figures). Given 50% utilization for rotation (I'll use the other 50% for pasture below), that's 4,000,000 acres.
Okay. Here we go... Given a bad harvest year (famine, but people aren't dropping like flies), that'd be equivalent to a 6 bu/acre render minus 1 bu/acre for replanting = 5 bu/acre for food, or 4 million x 5 bu = 20 million bushels of grains. I've heard that a typical human being requires about 24 bushels of food per year (which would create a loaf a bread a day). But that means 1.5 million people x 24 bushels = 36 million bushels food/year!
Even 1.2 million (the low-ball accepted value) = 28.8 million bushels/year. So somewhere I'm only 50-75% towards the dietary needs of the population. Even if you break down this equation to the individual farmstead, which we have very explicit survey results for, the equation doesn't work too well. The typical farm has about 4 households per "hide" of 120 acres. Estimates of family size are ~4-5/household. Given 16-20 people per 120 acres = (16 to 20) x 24 bu required = 384-480 bushels equiv. required versus 120 x 50% x 5 = 300 bushels produced! Only 62%-78% the way there...
At the same time, I didn't decrease grain yields to account for the significant losses due to requirements for brewing into alcohol. (I've heard *all* sorts of wild guesses for that figure...) Or take into account losses due to pestilence in storage, spillage, losses in milling, etc. So somehow people were able to live without starving to death... So my next thought: "must be their consumption of vegetables and meats!"
But the figures don't support this. Or do they? Gardens were disappointing. Crofts, gardens and other growing areas were rated at no greater than 10% of the arable. Most locations didn't even rate a mention of such. What is the typical vegetable garden's yield? Given an equivalent "5 bushels/acre" yield to grain, then we'd get to add another 5-10% towards our goal...
Now we stand at about 55% (worst case) to 88% (best case) of our needs -- or roughly two thirds the way there. Now let's turn to the animal part of the diet...
From a sample of 1.7% of the population (taken from the richest and best-victualled nobles' farmsteads), I came up with the following stats: 2.3 oxen per family (Can't eat 'em... these were the plow beasts) 0.24 head of cattle per family 0.04 horses per family (Mostly for the wealthy... I only included them since I was trying to figure out how the *heck* people'd survive in the lean years.) 0.23 goats per family 0.61 pigs per family 4.02 sheep per family (Alas, chickens and ducks were not compiled by the tax collectors!
The meadow and pastureland statistics also bear out the above numbers for livestock. For instance, most meadow -- reserved grazing land for oxen -- amounted to 5-20% of the arable. As mentioned already, common pasture was often the rotated crop land, but some locations were also lucky enough to rate set-aside pastures for their cattle, but not much.
Now, I haven't butchered enough animals, but this does not seem like enough victuals to make up 30% of your dietary needs over a year. The sheep are the most promising, but I don't think that'd last you more than a couple of months. How many "bushels" equivalent does 4 sheep, a half-a-pig, and a quarter-of-a-cow equate to? Also, remember that you cannot eat the whole of the available livestock, lest you then have *nothing* left for future years... I would assume you could consume no more than 30-50% of your available animals (depending on the type, gestation period and rate of maturation per beastie) if you do not want to adversely affect the overall economic and ecologic system.
I also considered hunting and fishing, but I don't have any idea how much that would change the equation. Rabbit was probably available widely, and venison to those authorized to hunt in the King's forests. (Poachers were also quite likely ;-) Renders of eels, fish, sesters of honey and other food were mentioned, but not enough to make "great unified theory" equations. So far, so good. Given some good hunting, we can just about scratch our heads and give them the benefit of the doubt.
Now here's the tricky part: TAXES. Food renders were made -- usually 10% of the harvest -- to the church every year. If I knock 10% off my values, well... now things *really* look bleak. As well, agriculture renders as "valet" -- taxes -- were about 1-2 pounds/hide, or roughly 1.6 to 3.2 pence per acre. And these weren't paid in coinage, but in renders of food as well! And no, I'm sorry; the clergy did *not* make up 10% of the rural population of England... More like 1 in 260 -- about what you'd expect! Similarly those who were getting the taxes were not statistically equivalent to the amount of goods that were being delivered to them. The ratio of taxes would be about 15% of the yield (if, as I've guessed, a bushel as worth 2 pence). This also matches the taxes of "one sheep/pig in seven" that was collected by the king's men. And, by the way, this 15% rendered as taxes was split amongst only 5% of the population -- I think they were *quite* set!
So I scraped to get to 100% of food, only to be brought back down by 25%. How well does a population survive on 75% of it's annual requirement? Famine would obviously claim some lives.... but I can't see it being an even-percentage exchange. Surely there's some resiliency towards undernourishment. Otherwise, England would have been nearly depopulated after a relatively short number of drought or pestilence years.
Cattle & Oxen | Horses | Donkeys & Mules | Camels | Pigs | Sheep & Goats | Chickens | Ducks & Geese
Farming Methods | Serfs & Freemen | Hunter-Gatherers
ANIMALS | Cattle & Oxen | Cattle cost anywhere from $1,000 for a strong young Ox (40% of what a Draft Horse costs) to $5-600 for a middle aged milk cow. An Ox can do about 2/3 of the work (in terms of pulling) that the Draft Horse can do. It is slow, given to problems with rocks in it's cloven hooves, and fair to poor eating (after a life as a draft animal). Cattle are cheap to graze with no special needs. The Ox is a poor man's draft animal; sturdy, slow and easy to care for, and able to use a crude and simple harness.
But cattle/oxen are of no use as riding animals and little use as a long distance transportation source. Six to eight Oxen can pull a heavy plow thru very dense clay soils (lack of a heavy plow means subsistence farming at best in these soils) while lighter soils can be plowed with two or at most four Oxen if the grounds very wet or has not been turned in two or more years. An Ox is a Bull that has been castrated. A Steer is a young Ox. An Ox can exert about 900-1,000 pounds of tractive pull and it will not carry much of anything on it's back. They weigh as much as 2,500 pounds (figure weight divided by 32 equals ST) and can be up to ST 80; their relatively poor pulling ability is due to skeletal limitations. Cattle live up to 20 years, although most go to slaughter by 15. They are relatively expensive to maintain as Beef sources alone, so those that are raised, are for milk or draft animals and go to slaughter when they no longer produce milk/work efficiently.
Cheese is an important byproduct of milk and some farms are set up to produce dairy products as a significant portion of their output. This is an unusual case, though. Most cows produce 1.5 gallons of milk (about 5 liters) twice a day. Milk fat runs about 4% and there is a definite light yellow tinge to normal milk. There are no specific breeds, although some farmers are noticing that certain cattle have certain better attributes than cattle from other areas.
1 sq. Km. of land can graze no more than 8 Cows/Oxen, and fewer would be desirable. Note that Cattle cannot graze land after sheep, as the sheep crop everything down to the ground. These numbers are for average land and weather, twice as many could be grazed under very good conditions. Cattle that graze are not as good eating as grain fed cattle, but at 16 pounds of grain per pound a Cow/Ox gains, you can see why they weren't raised for food.
Horses | The Draft Horse is comparatively expensive, costing 2.5 times ($2,500) as much as an Ox. It can pull twice as much, but only if it is provided with a specially designed harness that will not choke it. It is limited to about 550 pounds (250Kg) of pull without this harness. With the harness a draft horse can exert a pull of about 2,500 pounds (1135 Kg). A pair of draft horses should be able to pull about 11,000 pounds (5,000 Kg) of free rolling load with out too much trouble. Note that total load pulled can exceed the amount of tractive effort (pull) by several times, so long as there are no steep or long hills to be negotiated.
Working Horses require grain (oats, barley, beans, apples or wheat; no corn) and hay, in addition to limited grazing, for extra energy. Large quantities of green grass can cause the horse digestive problems (bloating) and limit it's ability to work. Another problem is that Draft Horses are very closely related to what the Knights ride, due to their load carrying ability; in time of war, many of the better draft animals may be taken into service.
A large horse can carry up to 500 pounds, while smaller horses carry about 210 (ST X 6) to 350 (ST X 10) pounds on their back (see B144). Horses range from 5 to almost 7 feet at the shoulder and are about 8-9 feet long from nose to tail. A medium riding horse will range from 950 to 1,400 pounds, while a Draft (or War) Horse will go anywhere from 1,800 to 2,300 pounds. They require about 2 pounds of feed per hundred pounds per day, 1/3 of which is grain, fed in at least three smallish meals. Grain provides many more calories per pound than hay or grass, making it the most efficient feed, but no more than 4 lbs should be given at one time. Hay is preferable to grass/grazing for riding animals as this reduces gas & bloating, although they may be turned out to graze when the grass is available.
It takes around 6-8 hours for a horse to graze up enough food in good grass land, for 1,200 pound horse to eat as well as it would with the 24 pounds of hay (about a half a bale) and 8 pounds of grain it would get if being ridden or worked to any extent. An example of a day in a trip by horse might be: before the players eat their breakfast, the horses are fed 3-4lbs of grain. While the players are eating their breakfast, the horses are allowed to graze, providing another 4-5lbs of fodder. The horses should not be worked hard for at least an hour at the beginning of the day. For example, a walk should be all right, a gallop is probably a bad idea. When the players stop for lunch, before the players eat, they feed the horses another 2-3lbs of grain, and again allow them a small amount of grazing during the players lunch. Finally, at dinner, the remainder of the grain should be available, as well as grazing to the horses content.
Horses don't graze much during the hours of darkness, so don't count that as feeding time. Failure to feed grain to a working horse, or allow enough time to graze means it suffers effects similar to that of a human. The first day should make the creature uncomfortable, the second day, and health roll would be called for other wise a loss of fatigue, the third day, and a health roll at a minus, etc. The horse does not normally (and should not be allowed to) eat a large amount at one time, as it might try to do if not fed regularly.
This also applies to water, if the horse has gone several hours without drinking. If a horse does eat or drink without control they founder (get ill, have cramps and can't be ridden or worked) for 2D hours, if doubles are rolled, keep the total and roll again adding the two rolls for a total number of hours the Horses are incapacitated. Riding horses are generally cheaper than Draft animals, although specialized & pure breeds can be much more expensive. The average nag suitable for riding will cost about $1,000 (40% of what a good draft horse runs), if you want a better animal with some ability to run well, expect to start at $1,500.
Donkeys and Mules | The Donkey is considerably smaller than the horse (3.5-5 feet at the shoulder, about 7 feet long and up to 550 pounds) and more sure footed on narrow, rocky or slippery paths. It is a less fussy eater and can get along on minimal feed and water for long periods (if it's not being worked hard), but still benefits from some grain in it's diet (figure 2 pounds of hay/grass per 100 pounds of animal weight; substitute up to 25% of this with grain). It will suffer a harness but will not work together with another Donkey, making it of limited use as a draft animal. It can be ridden (but watch that weight) and will pull a small cart with up to 800 pounds (365 Kg) on it. It is not strong enough to pull a plow, and since it won't work with another of it's kind, it can't be teamed up to do anything. It does make a fine pack animal, carrying up to 250 pounds (112 Kg) maximum (ST X 10, Pg B144) and 100 pounds less for long distances (more than 3 or 4 hours travel), but handlers must be alert around other donkeys, lest they fight. It is not fast, in comparison to a horse, and it can be feisty and difficult with it's owner. It is perfectly able to give a potent kick any antagonist or unwary passer-by, if angered (kick = 2d+2 Cr).
Despite it's stubborn nature, it is its inability to carry the heavy loads of the Horse, that is it's major failing, or it would be far more popular as a caravan and draft animal. Donkeys come in colors ranging from grey to reddish brown and the mane and tail will be wiry and a darker shade.
The Mule is a cross between a Horse and a Donkey (or Ass). The more prevalent method is to have a male Donkey mate with a female Horse. This gives a horse sized animal (1,200 to 1,500 pounds, ST= Weight divided by 30), which resembles a horse in color, but with a shorter, thicker head and long ears like the Donkey. It brays like a Donkey, but can do 65-70% of the work of a draft horse with less upkeep/special food and the like (it requires 2 pounds of food for every 125 pounds it weighs and will not require grain, though it will fatigue more easily without it (calculate grain as for the donkey)). It can be used in teams, can be ridden and carries a considerable load (400-450 pounds) as a pack animal. It is not as fast as a horse in a run, but will outlast a Horse in stamina over long periods of travel and work.
The other method is to have the Male Horse impregnate the female Donkey. This gives an animal generally called a "Hinny" . This animal will be smaller (800-1,200 pounds, ST= weight divided by 30) and resembles a Horse more closely in shape, to include it's head and short ears, but it will have coloration of a Donkey along with it's stripe across the withers (not always present). Hinnies are more difficult to breed than Mules, and since they are smaller and less able to carry/pull heavy loads, they are also less desirable. They do make a better riding animal, although they cannot carry a very heavy rider (160-240 pounds maximum load depending on ST). Normally male Mules and Hinnies are sterile; although they may still display a normal sex drive. Occasionally a female Mule or Hinny will come into heat and produce a foal. Mules and Hinny's will cost anywhere from 40 to 75% of what a draft horse costs. Mules can carry the same load as a large horse, while Hinny's can carry less and do the work of a small riding horse.
Camels | The Camel is valuable only in the desert, where it's ability to live off the moisture found in plants and stored in it's body is of paramount importance. It is uncomfortable to ride, has a nasty disposition (and the inclination to spit on handlers), smells bad and carries about the load of a large a horse (400-500 pounds, double that in overload for short distances). It can be ridden, can be harnessed to pull small wagons, although it's tractive effort is only 25% that of a horse, and works well in caravans.
A novel trait is that it's smell will startle and unnerve horses unused to it, making it useful in fighting cavalry from non-desert climates. A Camel is a bit slower than a horse (80% of the speed) but it can out run almost anything on soft sand due to it's wide hooves. It is 1.5 times as fast as the best horse on soft sand. It must be well cared for and fed after a long journey as it will have used much of it's fat reserves to augment the limited rations it is normally fed. Figure a day of rest for every two on the trail and a pound of feed for every 100 pounds of weight plus all the water it wants (this is roughly double rations); more time at those rates will be needed if the trip was harsh. While on the trip, the camel can do with out water and survive off 4 pounds of food a day for as long as twelve to fifteen weeks (if it's not fed at all, it loses 1 HT every other day after the third day without food).
Pigs (Swine) | Pigs can be raised on about 9 pounds of grain per pound of animal weight gained. Obviously no Lord could afford this, so Pigs are herded through the local forests and fields where they can forage on their own. Some care must be taken lest the pigs get free and become feral, since a feral pig is as dangerous as a wild boar. Pigs are frequently taken through the fields after the harvest and anywhere else it looks like they could be fattened up a bit at no cost. Because of their relative ease of feeding and low cost, pigs are popular animals on the farm/ manor.
Sheep & Goats | It takes about 1 sq. Km. of grazing land to raise 40 sheep, assuming average conditions. Sheep can graze behind cattle with some loss of food, say 20 sheep can live off a sq. Km. after cattle have grazed it. Note that these numbers are for average lands / weather; in a very good case three times this number could be sustained. A sheep gives about 1/3 of a pound of wool each spring. It takes about 8 pounds of feed for each pound a sheep gains, fortunately this can all come from grazing. Sheep are popular farm animals, offering wool, meat and milk/cheese at a limited cost in care. The numbers and uses for the goat are very much the same as for sheep. Goats can live on much poorer land than sheep, but do not provide as much or as good quality of wool.
Chickens | Chickens are relatively easy to raise, provide an egg every day or two per hen on whatever they can scrounge up in the farmyard plus about a 1/2 pound of feed a week in the warm months. In the winter, it's feed requirements go up to 1.5 pounds a week, and it must be provided a draft free, dry nesting place. Egg production falls off in the winter, as it is driven by the amount of daylight. A Chick will grow to a useful eating size in about 8-10 weeks depending on how much outside forage it can find. Figure about 4 pounds of grain/food for each pound a chicken gains, again, the grain requirement is much reduced if the chickens can forage on their own.
Chickens are not smart and are fair game for every sort of predator that lives near by. A farmer can spend a lot of effort trying to keep them alive long enough for him to eat them. Wings are sometimes clipped to keep them ground bound, although even with full feathers, a chicken will not fly far, typically they are able to fly up to about 10 feet high or about 15-20 feet horizontally. This can be a pain for a farmer, however, if the chickens start laying in the rafters.
In the winter, the Chickens feed requirements are greater than the potential "gain", so flocks are thinned down by getting rid of all the Roosters (except maybe one). The Farmer may sell some off and eat the rest over the fall. A Farmer will let any setting hen alone, so many of the eggs hatch. A flock of 5 hens will normally hatch about 30 chicks a year. Chickens are very popular farm animals.
Ducks & Geese | Ducks & Geese are basically the same as chickens although they both require more feed per bird and some sort of pond/water. Geese are often kept as "watchdogs", something they do very well. Their bite is painful, although hardly lethal, but they can strike a sharp blow capable of breaking an arm with their wing. Ducks & Geese must have their wings clipped to keep them from flying off. These birds take about 5 pounds of grain per pound they gain, which of course is much reduced if they can forage. Since these animals prefer water, they are less favored than Chickens, although if there is water around, they are popular.
FARMING | Farming Methods | The early method of farming was a two crop rotation, with one field planted and the next fallow (unplanted, unplowed and just resting). This was typical of feudal times in the Middle Ages, where the Lord's fields were mixed in among the serfs' and freemen's. In difficult country (mountains for example) the closer fields would be extensively and intensively cultivated; using manure, compost and plant material brought in from outer fields to enrich the soil. Slag from iron smelting and other additives were used to help maintain soil quality.
The outer fields were used to graze the animals. The newer and better technique that first occurred around 1000 AD, was to use a 3 field rotation, with one in vegetables, one in a winter grain and one fallow. The fallow field could be used to graze the animals, gaining the benefit of their manure, while the winter grain might be oats to support horses, or winter wheat. The two field rotation generally yielded a 2.5 fold return on the seed used to plant it. The shallow plowing and planting were typical for an early feudal society using Oxen. It will work much better in warmer (semi-tropical and tropical) climates and provide a bit better return.
The later three field system came hand in hand with the use of the horse as a draft animal, and the deep plow to turn the earth from as far down as 18 inches. The three field system was designed to feed the horses it took to pull the deep plow and returned 4 times the seed used on average. With it, came the first step in the downfall of the feudal system, as the lords fields were now separated from the others.
The next step was to fence or hedge around the fields to control entry and grazing of the animals. Where in a feudal system the animals were all herded together over the grazing fields, they were now separated out according to who owned them, and grazed on the owners lands more often than not.
The Renaissance/Colonial period gave us water meadows (1635) which gave the cows and horses hay to eat, followed by the turnip (1662), and the utilization of clover (circa 1660) as a fertilizer. I have given average yields in average soil, given average weather, but much higher yields were known in better soils, and in better weather. A really good crop on excellent soil could yield 10 or even 15 times the seed used. This is still well short of modern yields, but it was worth a lot in those times!
A 100 meter X 100 meter (1 hectare or 2.471 acres) patch of wheat, yielding a return of 4 times the seed used, would produce about 2,000 pounds of seed/grain. Allowing for one fourth to be saved for the next year, and at least one fourth of the remaining seed/grain to be given to the land holder/lord, the farmers would have enough off this plot to feed three people (although not very well). If the land were planted in Barley, a slightly smaller return might be expected (say 3 times the seed). A Bushel of Wheat is approximately 48 pounds, while a bushel of oats is 24 and a bushel of barley is about 42 pounds. Most dried Beans are about 42 pounds a bushel as well. Prices vary, but in a farming area, a bushel of wheat might bring $40, while a bushel of oats would be around $25 and barley around $30. Beans are normally about $12 a bushel, but all these costs can fluctuate wildly (as much as 50%) with bumper crops driving them down or prices going way up in a city where everything has to be brought in.
Serfs & Freemen | A typical serf might have two to three patches of 100 sq meters of ground, or as many as five or six; some under grain, plus other area's growing vegetables, and still others grazing animals. In good years, most all of the surplus would go to the land holder, but the serf would certainly be allowed some of the bounty to ensure his continued efforts.
A freeman would keep most of the bounty, if any, although he would pay 6-12% in transfer taxes to the local Lord when he sold his surplus off, as well as a portion of his harvest for the cost of the Lords protection. You can assume that the freeman ended up losing about one fourth of his "average" harvest to the local Lord. He might have anywhere from 5, to as much as 25 or 30 100X100 meter patches (i.e. 2.5 to 3 sq Km.). With some in grazing, some in grain, some in vegetables and maybe a small area of fruits/orchard, he could hope to live a hard working but decent existence.
Hunter-Gatherers | For comparison, a hunter-gatherer society in a cold, northern temperate climate could need as much as 2.5 square km per person (that's over 960 acres or 1.5 square miles) to provide for a reasonable amount to eat, and long winters would be hard indeed, although special cases might alter this (the Indian tribes in the Pacific Northwest did little more than gather abundant shellfish and sea foods and eat them). In a tropical climate, a hunter gatherer society would need about 1 acre/person to gather more than enough food to eat. Obviously, as you head toward the poles, the amount of available food per given area of land drops. Consider the latitude, vegetation, and special local conditions (such as fishing or hot springs that lure winter birds/animals) as well as severity of the seasons to determine how tough the hunter-gatherer might have it. Hunter-Gatherers are not going to stay where life is too hard, so if they live in an area, you must have a reasonable means for their survival.