This copy of a medieval manuscript illustration shows a peasant using a very modest version of the heavy plow. Larger plows would be equipped with wheels and would require twice as many oxen and a substantial crew. Medieval fields were characteristically very long and narrow because peasants wanted to plow the longest furrows possible before they were required to turn the plow around, a cumbersome process.
With the collapse of Roman administration in Europe the larger aristocratic land-holding system was gradually replaced with smallholdings – self-sufficient family farms.
During the late Roman Empire, agricultural production had been focused largely on the great estates of powerful aristocrats. Known as latifundia, these plantations were typically specialized, producing whatever might generate the highest profits for their owners, but they were also not very productive. Roman agriculture was “extensive,” meaning that it required relatively little labor or other resources, and relied on sheer size to compensate for low yields. Slaves or impoverished tenant farmers worked these farms, with little investment in their success or failure. With the collapse of Roman administration in Europe, however, and the arrival of new German landlords in the early Middle Ages, this system was gradually replaced with smallholdings – self-sufficient family farms. These employed intensive agriculture in which labor, fertilizer, and other techniques enhanced productivity. This, along with the fact that many of these farmers were now free and therefore more personally invested in how well their farms did or did not do, made farmers receptive to agricultural innovation, and early medieval peasants embraced technologies that had either been unknown to the Romans or previously underutilized.
The so-called heavy plow provides an excellent and important example of this process. Roman farmers used a lightweight scratch plow called an ard ; this was basically just a pointed stick that was drawn through the soil to create a shallow, narrow furrow for planting. This worked well enough in the light, dry, sandy soils of the Mediterranean, but much less well in the dense, wet, clay soils common in Northern Europe.
In contrast, the heavy plow was both massive and complicated; its simplest version consisted of a sharp coulter to cut into the soil and a trailing iron ploughshare and wooden moldboard. This plow dug a deep furrow and turned over the soil, burying weeds, enhancing fertilization and improving drainage. Exactly where the components of this plow originated is hard to say, but the fully developed European heavy wheeled plow was almost certainly the work of European farmers, who were experimenting with different plow configurations at least as early as the seventh century. A relevant and lasting consequence of Charlemagne’s empire was that new ideas and techniques passed easily from place to place, and by the year 1000, the heavy plow in various forms had become common throughout Europe.
As is so often the case, one technological change begets others. Because the new plow was extremely heavy, it required a team of as many as eight oxen to draw it. When added to the already considerable cost of the plow, this meant that economics encouraged or even required peasants to work together and pool their resources in order to plow the fields efficiently. On one hand, this increased productivity because animal power was replacing human labor; on the other hand, however, it also encouraged lords to impose a common set of obligations on all of their tenants, free and serf alike, that demanded they work together for their master’s benefit . This was a crucial step in the development of what is called “the manorial economy,” in which a manor’s lord exercised almost complete legal, economic, and social control over those who farmed the land. In some respects the manor resembled the old Roman latifundium, in that aristocrats exploited the labor of their peasants, both serf and free, who were required to devote two or three days of each week to farming their lord’s personal fields in addition to paying rent and a bothersome assortment of special fines and dues. At the same time, though, lords tried to ensure that their peasants derived at least some benefit from their efforts, which was not only nice but also good business. Manorial farming evolved to be extremely resource intensive; it required substantial investments in specialized labor, equipment, fertilizer and drainage. The willing cooperation of the peasants was therefore essential to having a productive farm.
Thus, a good harvest benefited everyone on the manor, which encouraged further innovation. Horses gradually replaced oxen as the draft animal of choice because horses could plow more land more quickly. (This change also depended on an improved horse collar, imported from China, that permitted the animal to breath easily while pulling a heavy load, while horseshoes, another invention new to the European middle ages, further improved equine efficiency as they (or horseshoes) reduced hoof breakage.) European farmers embraced a new suite of crops better suited to their climate and growing conditions than the old Roman staples of spelt and barley, including oats and rye in addition to wheat, and to take advantage of the different planting seasons of these crops, they also adopted a three field system of crop rotation: one third of the land was sown with wheat in the autumn; one third was planted in the spring; and one third was allowed to lie fallow, while being fertilized by grazing animals. By growing different crops at different times, farmers could minimize the risks of bad weather, pests, and disease. Taken all together, these innovations constituted a kind of “technological complex” involving tools, techniques, suites of crops, and modes of life, all in complex interrelation.7 No single person was responsible, nor was this a sudden technological “breakthrough” or revolution; rather, this was an incremental transformation in agriculture, made possible mainly by the work of simple farmers using their accumulated agricultural knowledge, along with new and existing tools and techniques, to maximize their productivity.
- For this transition, see Jean-Pierre Devroey, “The Economy,” in Rosamund McKitterick, ed., The Early Middle Ages (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 97-129).
- This is an argument first brought to prominence by Marc Bloch in 1931, but then popularized by Lynn White in Medieval Technology and Social Change (London: Oxford University Press, 1962), 39-78; Thomas Barnebeck Anderson, Peter Sandholt Jenson and Christian Volmar Skosvsgaard, “The Heavy Plow and the Agricultural Revolution in Medieval Europe,” Journal of Development Economics 118 (2016): 133-149, tend to validate White’s economic and demographic claims, but see George Comet, “Technology and Agricultural Expansion in the Middle Ages: The Example of France North of the Loire,” in Medieval Farming and Technology: The Impact of Agricultural Change in Northwest Europe, Grenville Astill and John Langdon, eds. (Leiden: Brill, 1997), 11-39.
- Thomas Glick, Seven J. Livesey, Faith Wallis, eds., Medieval Science, Technology, and Medicine: An Encyclopedia (NY: Routledge, 2005), 269-70; Anderson et al, 135-136.
- Devroey, 119-120.
- Georges Raepsaet, “The Development of Farming Implements Between the Seine and the Rhine From the Second to the Twelfth Century,” in Astill and Langdon, 41-68; although the horse collar is much beloved in these sorts of accounts, Raepsaet argues that it was actually not very important at all; rather, it was a combination of collar with other elements of horse furniture “collar, shafts, girths, followed by the swingletree – which constitute a remarkable innovation…,” 56.
- Comet, 29. Comet argues that this was the chief benefit of this system and that the three field method did not, in itself, substantially improve yields.
- Christopher Dyer, “Medieval Farming and Technology,” in Astill and Langdon, 293-312; 294.