The Emergence of Villages in Ancient and Early Medieval Europe
By Frances and Joseph Gies
In the modern world the village is merely a very small town, often a metropolitan suburb, always very much a part of the world outside. The “old-fashioned village” of the American nineteenth century was more distinctive in function, supplying services of merchants and craftsmen to a circle of farm homesteads surrounding it.
The medieval village was something different from either. Only incidentally was it the dwelling place of merchants or craftsmen. Rather, its population consisted of the farmers themselves, the people who tilled the soil and herded the animals. Their houses, barns, and sheds clustered at its center, while their plowed fields and grazing pastures and meadows surrounded it. Socially, economically, and politically, it was a community.
In modern Europe and America the village is home to only a fraction of the population. In medieval Europe, as in most Third World countries today, the village sheltered the over-whelming majority of people. The modern village is a place where its inhabitants live, but not necessarily or even probably where they work. The medieval village, in contrast, was the primary community to which its people belonged for all life’s purposes. There they lived, there they labored, there they socialized, loved, married, brewed and drank ale, sinned, went to church, paid fines, had children in and out of wedlock, borrowed and lent money, tools, and grain, quarreled and fought, and got sick and died. Together they formed an integrated whole, a permanent community organized for agricultural production. Their sense of common enterprise was expressed in their records by special terms: communitas villae, the community of the vill or village, or tota villata, the body of all the villagers. The terminology was new. The English words “vill” and “village” derive from the Roman villa, the estate that was often the center of settlement in early medieval Europe. The closest Latin equivalent to “village” is vicus, used to designate a rural district or area.
A distinctive and in its time an advanced form of community, the medieval village represented a new stage of the world’s oldest civilized society, the peasant economy. The first Neolithic agriculturists formed a peasant economy, as did their successors of the Bronze and Iron Ages and of the classical civilizations, but none of their societies was based so uniquely on the village. Individual homesteads, temporary camps, slave-manned plantations, hamlets of a few (probably related) families, fortresses, walled cities—people lived in all of these, but rarely in what might be defined as a village.
True, the village has not proved easy to define. Historians, archeologists, and sociologists have had trouble separating it satisfactorily from hamlet or settlement. Edward Miller and John Hatcher (Medieval England: Rural Society and Economic Change, 1086-1343) acknowledge that “as soon as we ask what a village is we run into difficulties.” They conclude by asserting that the village differs from the mere hamlet in that “hamlets were often simply pioneering settlements established in the course of agricultural expansion,” their organization “simpler and more embryonic” than that of the true village.1 Trevor Rowley and John Wood (Deserted Villages) offer a “broad definition” of the village as “a group of families living in a collection of houses and having a sense of community.”2 Jean Chapelot and Robert Fossier (The Village and House in the Middle Ages) identify the “characteristics that define village settlement” as “concentration of population, organization of land settlement within a confined area, communal buildings such as the church and the castle, permanent settlement based on buildings that continue in use, and…the presence of craftsmen.”3 Permanence, diversification, organization, and community—these are key words and ideas that distinguish the village from more fleeting and less purposeful agricultural settlements.
Archeology has uncovered the sites of many prehistoric settlements in Northern Europe and the British Isles. Relics of the Bronze Age (roughly 3000 B.C. to 600 B.C.) include the remains of stone-walled enclosures surrounding clusters of huts.
From the Iron Age (600 B.C. to the first century A.D.), circles of postholes mark the places where stood houses and sheds. Stones and ditches define the fields. Here we can first detect the presence of a “field system,” a historic advance over the old “slash and burn” agriculture that cleared, cultivated, then abandoned and moved on. The fields, delineated by their borders or barriers, were cultivated in a recognized pattern of crops and possibly fallow.4 The so-called Celtic fields, irregular squares of often less than an acre, were cultivated with the ard, a sharpened bough of wood with an iron tip, drawn by one or two oxen, which scratched the surface of light soil enough to allow sowing.
Other Iron Age tools included hoes, small sickles, and spades. The rotary quern or hand mill (a disklike upper stone turning around a central spindle over a stationary lower stone) was used to grind grain. Crops included different kinds of wheat (spelt, emmer), barley, rye, oats, vetch, hay, flax, and dye-stuffs. Livestock were cattle, pigs, sheep, horses, domestic fowl, and honeybees.5
A rare glimpse of Iron Age agriculture comes from the Roman historian Tacitus, who in his Germania (A.D. 98) describes a farming society primitive by Roman standards:
Land [is divided] among them according to rank; the division is facilitated by the wide tracts of fields available. These plowlands are changed yearly and still there is more than enough…Although their land is fertile and extensive, they fail to take full advantage of it by planting orchards, fencing off meadows, or irrigating gardens; the only demand they make upon the soil is to produce a grain crop. Hence even the year itself is not divided by them into as many seasons as with us: winter, spring, and summer they understand and have names for; the name of autumn is as completely unknown to them as are the good things that it can bring.
Tacitus seems to be describing a kind of field system with communal control by a tribe or clan. The context, however, makes it clear that he is not talking about a system centered on a permanent village:
The peoples of Germany never live in cities and will not even have their houses adjoining. They dwell apart, scattered here and there, wherever a spring, field, or grove takes their fancy. Their settlements (vici) are not laid out in our style, with buildings adjacent and connected…They do not…make use of masonry or tiles; for all purposes they employ rough-hewn timber…Some parts, however, they carefully smear over with clay…They also dig underground caves, which they cover with piles of manure and use both as refuges from the winter and as storehouses for produce.6
Tacitus here is referring to the two main house types that dominated the landscape into the early Middle Ages. The first was the timber-framed building, which might, as in his account, be covered with clay, usually smeared over a framework of branches (wattle and daub), its most frequent design type the longhouse or byre-house, with animals at one end and people at the other, often with no separation but a manure trench. The second was the sunken hut or grubenhaus, dug into the soil to the depth of half a yard to a yard, with an area of five to ten square yards, and used alternatively for people, animals, storage, or workshop.
The Roman occupation of Gaul, beginning in the first century B.C., and of Britain, starting a century later, introduced two types of rural community to northwest Europe. The first was the slave-manned villa, a plantation of 450 to 600 acres centered on a lord’s residence built in stone. The second was similar, but worked by peasants, or serfs, who cultivated their own plots of land and also that of their lord.7 To the native Iron Age crops of wheat, barley, flax, and vetch, the Romans added peas, turnips, parsnips, cabbages, and other vegetables, along with fruits and the grape.8 Plows were improved by the addition of iron coulters (vertical knife-blades in front of the plowshare), and wooden mouldboards, which turned the soil and made superfluous the cross-plowing (crisscrossing at right angles) formerly practiced. Large sickles and scythes were added to the Iron Age stock of tools.9
The Romans introduced not only a craftsman’s but an engineer’s approach to farming: wells, irrigation systems, the scientific application of fertilizer, even consideration of the effect of prevailing winds on structures. The number of sheep and horses increased significantly.10 The Romans did not, however, work any revolution in basic agricultural methods, and the true village remained conspicuous by its absence. In Britain, in Gaul, and indeed throughout the Empire, the population dwelt in cities, on plantations, or dispersed in tiny hamlets and isolated homesteads.
Sometimes small pioneering groups of settlers entered an area, exploited it for a time, then moved on, whether because of deficient farming techniques, a fall in population, military insecurity, or a combination of the three. Archeology has explored a settlement at Wijster, in the Netherlands, dating from about A.D. 150, the site of four isolated farmsteads, with seven buildings, four large houses and three smaller ones. In another century, it grew to nineteen large and seven small buildings; by the middle of the fifth century, to thirty-five large and fourteen small buildings in an organized plan defined by a network of roads. Wijster had, in fact, many of the qualifications of a true village, but not permanence. At the end of the fifth century, it was abandoned. Another site was Feddersen Wierde, on the North Sea, in the first century B.C., the setting of a small group of farms. In the first century A.D. the inhabitants built an artificial mound to protect themselves against a rise in water; by the third century there were thirty-nine houses, one of them possibly that of a lord. In the fifth century it was abandoned. Similar proto-villages have been unearthed in England and on the Continent dating on into the ninth century.11
The countryside of Western Europe remained, in the words of Chapelot and Fossier, “ill-defined, full of shadows and contrasts, isolated and unorganized islands of cultivation, patches of uncertain authority, scattered family groupings around a patriarch, a chieftain, or a rich man…a landscape still in a state of anarchy, in short, the picture of a world that man seemed unable to control or dominate.”12 Population density was only two to five persons per square kilometer in Britain, as in Germany, somewhat higher in France.13 Land was plentiful, people scarce.
In the tenth century the first villages destined to endure appeared in Europe. They were “nucleated”—that is, they were clusters of dwellings surrounded by areas of cultivation. Their appearance coincided with the developing seigneurial system, the establishment of estates held by powerful local lords.
In the Mediterranean area the village typically clustered around a castle, on a hilltop, surrounded by its own wall, with fields, vineyards, and animal enclosures in the plain below. In contrast, the prototype of the village of northwest Europe and England centered around the church and the manor house, and was sited where water was available from springs or streams.14 The houses, straggling in all directions, were dominated by the two ancient types described by Tacitus, the longhouse and the sunken hut. Each occupied a small plot bounded by hedges, fences, or ditches. Most of the village land lay outside, however, including not only the cultivated fields but the meadow, marsh, and forest. In the organization of cropping and grazing of these surrounding fields, and in the relations that consequently developed among the villagers and between the villagers and their lord, lay a major historical development.
Crop rotation and the use of fallow were well known to the Romans, but how the application of these techniques evolved into the complex open field village is far from clear. The theory that the mature system developed in Germany in the early Middle Ages, diffused to France, and was brought to England by the Anglo-Saxons has been exploded without a satisfactory new interpretation gaining consensus. In Anglo-Saxon England a law of King Ine of Wessex (late seventh century) refers to “common meadow and other land divided into strips,” and words associated with open-field agriculture turn up in many other laws and charters of the Saxon period. Recent research has revealed common pasturing on the post-harvest stubble as early as the tenth century. Possible contributory factors in the evolution can be discerned. The custom of partible inheritance—dividing the family lands among children, or among male children—may have fragmented tenements into numerous small holdings that made pasturing difficult without a cooperative arrangement. A rising population may have promoted cooperation. The increasing need for land encouraged “assarting,” in which a number of peasant neighbors banded together to fell trees, haul out stumps, and cut brush to create new arable land, which was then divided among its creators. An assart, cultivated in strips, usually became a new “furlong” in the village field system. A strong and enlightened lord may often have contributed leadership in the enterprise.15
What is clear is that a unique form of agrarian organization gradually developed in certain large regions. “On most of the plain of Northern Europe, and in England in a band running southwest from the North Sea through the Midlands to the English Channel, the land lay in great open stretches of field broken here and there by stands of trees and the clustered houses of villages.”16 This was the “champion” country of open field cultivation and the nucleated village, in contrast to the “woodland” country of west and southeast England and of Brittany and Normandy. In woodland country, farming was typically carried on in compact fields by families living on individual homesteads or in small hamlets. Neither kind of landscape was exclusive; hamlets and isolated farmsteads were found in champion country, and some nucleated villages in woodland country.
In champion (from champagne, meaning “open field”) country an intricate system evolved whose distinctive feature was the combination of individual landholding with a strictly enforced, unanimous-consent cooperation in decisions respecting plowing, planting, weeding, harvesting, and pasturing.17
Scholarly controversy over the beginnings of the system has a little of the chicken-and-egg futility about it. Somehow, through the operation of such natural forces as population growth and inheritance customs on traditional farming methods, the community organized its arable land into two (later often three) great fields, one of which was left fallow every year. Within each field the individual villager held several plots lying in long strips, which he plowed and planted in concert with his fellow villagers.
Common agreement was needed on which large field to leave fallow, which to plant in fall, which in spring. To pasture animals on the stubble after the harvest, an agreed-on harvest procedure was needed. Exploitation of the scarce meadow available for grazing was at least smoothed by cooperative agreement, while fencing and hedging were minimized.
By the year 1200, the open field system had achieved a state of advanced if still incomplete development. Some degree of cooperation in cultivation and pasturage governed farming in thousands of villages, in England and on the Continent.
The broad surge, economic and demographic, that marked the eleventh century continued fairly steadily through the twelfth and thirteenth. Settlements—homesteads, hamlets, villages—were planted everywhere. The peasant villagers who formed the vast majority of the population cultivated wheat above all other crops, followed by rye, barley, oats, beans, peas, and a few other vegetables. Low and precarious crop yields meant that most available land had to be consigned to cereal, the indispensable staff-of-life crop. The value of manure as fertilizer was well understood, but so few animals could be maintained on the available pasture that a vicious circle of reciprocal scarcity plagued agriculture.
Yet there were notable improvements in technology. The heavy, often wet soils of Northern Europe demanded a heavier plow and more traction than the sandier soils of the Mediterranean region. The large plow that evolved, fitted with coulter and mouldboard and requiring several plow animals, represented “one of the most important agricultural developments in preindustrial Europe.”18 It favored the open field system by strengthening the bias toward long strips.
The Romans had never solved the problem of harnessing the horse for traction. The padded horse collar, invented in Asia and diffusing slowly westward, was joined to other improvements—horseshoes, whippletrees, and traces—to convert the horse into a farm animal. Faster-gaited and longer-working, the horse challenged the strong, docile, but ponderous ox as a plow beast and surpassed it as a cart animal. One of the earliest representations of a working horse is in the Bayeux Tapestry (c. 1087). The ox also profited from technical innovation in the form of an improved yoke,19 and refused to disappear from agriculture; his slow, steady pull offered advantages in heavy going. Indeed, the debate over the merits of the two traction animals enlivened rustic conversation in the England of Queen Victoria, though the horse slowly won ascendancy. The horse’s needs for fodder stimulated cultivation of oats, a spring crop that together with barley, peas, beans, and vetches fitted ideally into open field rotation. Stall-feeding became more prevalent, permitting more use of fertilizer, while the leguminous fodder crops restored nitrogen content to the soil.20
The cooperative relationships of the peasants belonged to what might be called the village aspect of their existence; that existence also had a manorial aspect. In Northern Europe and in England following the Norman Conquest, the countryside came to be organized into land-management units called manors. The manor is usually defined as an estate held by a lord, comprising a demesne directly exploited by the lord, and peasant holdings from which he collected rents and fees. The village might coincide with the manor, or it might not. It might be divided into two or more manors, or it might form only part of a manor.
The combination of demesne and tenants, a version of which dates back to the late Roman Empire, is first specifically mentioned in documents of the ninth century in northern France, and in the tenth century in central Italy and England. By the eleventh century it was well established everywhere.21
It fitted comfortably into the contemporary political-military order known as feudalism. Evolving in medieval Europe over a lengthy period and imported to England by the Normans, feudalism united the European elite in a mutual-aid society. A lord granted land to a vassal in return for military and other services; lord and vassal swore reciprocal oaths, of protection by the lord, loyalty by the vassal; the vassal received as fief or fee a conditional gift of land, to “hold” and draw revenue from. Older historians, including Marx, used the term feudalism for the whole medieval social order, a peasant society dominated by a military, land-owning aristocracy. Modern usage generally restricts the word to the network of vassal-lord relations among the aristocracy. The system governing the peasant’s relation to the lord, the economic foundation of medieval society, is usually designated the “manorial system.” Feudalism meant much to the lord, little to the peasant.
The relationships embodied in the feudal and manorial systems were simple enough in theory: In the manorial system, peasant labored for lord in return for land of his own; in the feudal system, lord held lands from king or overlord in return for supplying soldiers on demand. In practice the relationships were never so simple and grew more complicated over time. All kinds of local variations developed, and both peasant labor service and knightly military service were increasingly converted into money payments.
Whatever the effects of the two overlapping systems, they did not prevent villages from flourishing, until everywhere villages began to crowd up against each other. Where once the silent European wilderness had belonged to the wolf and the deer, villagers now ranged—with their lord’s permission—in search of firewood, nuts, and berries, while their pigs rooted and their cattle and sheep grazed. Villages all over Europe parleyed with their neighbors to fix boundaries, which they spelled out in charters and committed to memory with a picturesque annual ceremony. Every spring, in what were known in England as the “gang-days,” the whole population went “a-ganging” around the village perimeter. Small boys were ducked in boundary brooks and bumped against boundary trees and rocks by way of helping them learn this important lore.22
A thirteenth-century European might be hazy about the boundaries of his country, but he was well aware of those of his village.
- Edward Miller and John Hatcher, Medieval England: Rural Society and Economic Change, 1086-1348, London, 1978, pp. 85-87.
- Rowley and Wood, Deserted Villages, pp. 6-8.
- Jean Chapelot and Robert Fossier, The Village and House in the Middle Ages, trans. by Henry Cleere, Berkeley, 1985, p. 327.
- P. J. Fowler, “Later Prehistory,” in H. P. R. Finberg, gen. ed., The Agrarian History of England and Wales, vol. 1, pt. 1, Prehistory, ed. by Stuart Piggott, Cambridge, 1981, pp. 157-158.
- Butser Ancient Farm Project Publications: The Celtic Experience; Celtic Fields; Evolution of Wheat; Bees and Honey; Quern Stones; Hoes, Ards, and Yokes; Natural Dyes.
- Tacitus, De Vita Iulii Agricola and De Germania, ed. by Alfred Gudeman, Boston, 1928, pp. 36-37, 40-41.
- Chapelot and Fossier, Village and House, pp. 27-30.
- S. Applebaum, “Roman Britain,” in H. P. R. Finberg, ed., The Agrarian History of England and Wales, vol. 1, pt. 2, A.D. 43-1042, Cambridge, 1972, p. 117.
- Ibid., pp. 73-82.
- Ibid., pp. 186, 208.
- 11. Chapelot and Fossier, Village and House, pp. 61, 100-103.
- Ibid., p. 26.
- Ibid., p. 15.
- Ibid., pp. 144-150.
- Joan Thirsk, “The Common Fields” and “The Origin of the Common Fields,” and J. Z. Titow, “Medieval England and the Open-Field System,” in Peasants, Knights, and Heretics: Studies in Medieval English Social History, ed. by R. H. Hilton, Cambridge, 1981, pp. 10-56; Bruce Campbell, “Commonfield Origins—the Regional Dimension,” in Trevor Rowley, ed., Origins of Open-Field Agriculture, London, 1981, p. 127; Trevor Rowley, “Medieval Field Systems,” in Leonard Cantor, ed., The English Medieval Landscape, Philadelphia, 1982; H. L. Gray, English Field Systems, Cambridge, Mass., 1915; C. S. and C. S. Orwin, The Open Fields, Oxford, 1954.
- Joseph and Frances Gies, Life in a Medieval Castle, New York, 1974, p. 148.
- George C. Homans, English Villagers in the Thirteenth Century, New York, 1975, pp. 12-28.
- Grenville Astill and Annie Grant, eds., The Countryside of Medieval England, Oxford, 1988, pp. 88, 94.
- Georges Duby, Rural Economy and Country Life in the Medieval West, Columbia, S.C., 1968, pp. 109-111.
- Joan Thirsk, “Farming Techniques,” in Agrarian History of England and Wales, vol. 4, 1500-1640, ed. by Joan Thirsk, Cambridge, 1967, p. 164.
- R. H. Hilton, The Transition from Feudalism to Capitalism, London, 1984, pp. 15-16.
- W. G. Hoskins, The Midland Peasant: The Economic and Social History of a Leicestershire Village, London, 1957, p. 79; Homans, English Villagers, p. 368.
Excerpt from Life in a Medieval Village (Chapter 1), by Frances and Joseph Gies (Harper & Row, 1989), published under fair use for educational purposes.