Medieval farming could be summarized as endless work. For a serf on an estate, there was always something that needed doing. Sloth was not tolerated because if the harvest failed, the whole village could face starvation in the winter.
That is not to say that the tasks were monotonous. Medieval farming followed a cycle throughout the year.
Peasants had to make their own houses during the Medieval Period. They used mud and sticks for the floor and walls and the roof was thatched with straw.
Bad weather and high winds would easily damage the houses and it was essential that repairs were carried out as soon as possible. However, because of the vast number of jobs that needed to be done throughout the year, it was often only in the Winter months that the peasants would have time to do proper repairs, the rest of the year they would just patch their houses up.y good it would be difficult to find straw needed.
Wood and twigs were used to make repairs to the walls of the peasant’s houses. They were woven together to make them as strong as possible. The roofs were thatched with straw so if the harvest was not very good it would be difficult to find straw needed.
During the late winter and early spring, vegetables were planted in the peasants’ gardens. Later in the year, in April and May, new fruit trees might be planted in the orchard.
Peas, beans and onions were grown in the peasants’ gardens (tofts). These vegetables were used to make a thick type of stew called pottage.
Apple and pear trees were planted in the orchard or in the peasants’ own gardens to provide fruit.
Berry bushes were sometimes also planted to ensure a supply of berries.
Weaving was one of the main Medieval ways of making things. Twigs were woven together to make fences and house walls or baskets and thread was woven into material.
Baskets were often woven out of willow. Willow rods know as ‘withies’ were harvested during the winter months when the leaves had dropped.
The first stage is to weave the base of the basket. Next the upright withies are put in place. Finally withies are woven in and out of the uprights to make the basket.
The willow can also be dyed using natural products such as berries or vegetables.
The wool taken from sheep during shearing was used to make clothes. The first stage was to card the wool to remove any tangles. After that it had to be spun to make it into thread.
Before the invention of the spinning wheel in the 15th Century, wool had to be spun using a drop spindle.
Wool fibres are twisted into thread with one hand and fed onto the spindle where it is wound into one long thread ready to use for weaving cloth.
When the wool had been spun it was then ready to be woven into cloth. A loom was used to hold the threads in place.
Before the seeds could be planted, land had to be ploughed. Ploughs were shared by the villagers and were pulled by teams of oxen.
The fields were ploughed in the early spring and also in the Autumn after the harvest had been gathered in. The village plough or ploughs were often kept in the church.
As the plough is pulled across the field, the two metal projections dig into the soil and break it up ready for planting.
In order to ensure a good harvest and a good crop of vegetables, it was necessary to fertilise the soil before the seeds were sown.
Horse, oxen and pig droppings were collected throughout the year so that there was enough to dig into the fields before the seeds were sown and vegetables planted.
Sometimes, human droppings would also be used.
The sowing of seeds was another important job that had to be done during the Medieval farming year.
Once the fields had been ploughed, seeds had to be scattered into the earth. It was important to spread the seeds evenly so that there was a good crop.
There were no machines to do this job so it had to be done by hand.
As soon as the new seedlings started to grow, weeding was a full-time job. Children, men and women all helped with the weeding.
It was very important to remove weeds from the soil as soon as possible.
Weeds take moisture and goodness from the soil that is needed for the crops if they are to grow into a good harvest.
If the weeds are allowed to grow taller than the crops they will prevent light from getting to the seedlings.
The apple and pear trees that were grown in the orchard had to be pruned each year.
Pruning a fruit tree means cutting away some of the tree’s branches to encourage it to grow more quickly and produce more fruit.
However, pruning needs to be done carefully because cutting too much, or not enough, away can result in either a poor crop or no fruit at all.
Young trees are pruned in April or May, but large, well established trees can be pruned in the winter time when the tree is dormant (not growing).
Scaring the Birds
Once the seeds had been sown it was very important to make sure that birds did not eat all the seeds.
This boy is using a drum to make a noise to scare birds away from the fields
Children as young as three or four would be sent out into the fields. Their job was to run, shout and clap their hands to scare the birds away.
Drums, bells and sticks would also be used to make a noise that would scare the birds.
In June, the sheep that were kept on the common land, were shorn for their wool. There were many more sheep than people in England in the Middle Ages and wool was the most commonly used material for clothing.
Wool was sold at market to merchants who would send English woollen cloth to other European countries.
Because sheep were so important for their wool, it was important to make sure that they were protected from predators such as wolves and dogs.
The job of shepherd would be given to someone who was unable to do hard physical labour.
There were two harvests during the Medieval farming year. The first was the hay harvest during June. However the main, and busiest, event of the farming calendar was the wheat harvest that took place at the end of the summer during August and September. The Lord of the Manor would often provide food and drink for the peasants to have a festival once the harvest was gathered in.
Harvest Festival, also known as ‘Harvest Home’ is still celebrated today. Everyone had to work long hours during harvest time – from the time that the sun rose in the morning until dark. Men, women and children all worked together to make sure that the harvest was gathered in.
If the harvest was not finished on time then the wheat would be destroyed by the cold and rain and the village was likely to fact starvation.
This picture shows a woman cutting wheat using a scythe
There were no machines in the Middle Ages and harvesting had to be done by hand using a scythe. It was back breaking work as the peasants were bent double from morning to night, often with only a very short break for lunch.
Collecting and Gathering
Collecting was an all-year activity. Baskets woven during the Autumn and Winter months were used to collect fresh eggs from the peasants own chickens.
The baskets were also used during the late Summer and Autumn to collect berries from the hedgerows and fruit from the trees planted in the orchard.
Wood for fires had to be collected throughout the year to make sure that a good stock was built up before the cold winter months. The children would be sent to the woods to collect twigs and branches, while the men would use axes to chop down trees for wood.
Some of the wood might be used to repair their houses.
As the wheat was harvested it had to be tied into sheaves to dry. This job was often done by women. The sheaves of wheat would then be transported, by horse drawn cart, to a barn for storage.
During harvest time the fields would be full of sheaves of wheat waiting to be transported to the barn for storage.
The carts of wheat were pulled by horses or oxen. This could be a dangerous activity for the driver of the cart because carts were piled high with sheaves of wheat and often toppled over.
Winnowing is the name given to the process of separating the grain from the chaff (outer casing). However, before winnowing could take place the wheat had to be threshed (beaten) to separate the grain from the stalk.
A sieve was often used to separate the grain from the chaff. The wheat heads were put into the sieve and were then either shaken from side to side or tossed into the air. The chaff would then be blown away by the breeze or, if there was no wind, by another person wafting a sheet.
Once the grain had been separated it could then be milled into flour which was used to make bread.
Milling is the name given to the process where grain is turned into flour. In the earliest times this had to be done by hand using a mortar and pestle to grind the grain into flour. However, by the Medieval period, most towns and villages had a mill.
The cogs that turned the grindstones were initially powered by animals, but during the Medieval period, animal power was replaced by either wind or water power.
The first record of a windmill in England is a mill in Yorkshire that dated from 1185.
The mill was owned by the lord of the manor and it was his responsibility to make sure that there were enough mills to grind sufficient grain for all his people. The lord also had a say in who used the mill and when and it was forbidden to use any other mill. The lord also charged a fee for the use of his mill.
In the twelfth century, Pope Celestine III stated that the air used by windmills was owned by the church and so a tax must be paid to the church for their use.
Watermills were more reliable than windmills because they did not depend on the weather.
However, watermills had to built next to a stream with running water if they were to operate.
A watermill is called a watermill because it is powered by water.
In November and December some of the animals had to be butchered to provide meat to eat through the winter. It was also necessary to salt or smoke some of the meat to make sure that it lasted through the winter.
Peasants had to kill their own animals.
Some of the meat would be roasted over a spit and some of it would be preserved for use during the winter months by salting or smoking it.
It was essential that there was a good supply of meat for the winter as there were no vegetables or fruits available.
Salting and Smoking
It was necessary to salt or smoke some of the meat that was butchered during November and December to make sure that it lasted through the winter.
Salt in rock form
Some of the meat would be salted to preserve it through the winter. However, salt was very expensive and it was unlikely that the peasants would have had access to much of it.
In Roman times salt had been used as money and the English word salary comes from the latin word for salt.
It was more usual that the peasants would smoke meat to preserve it through the winter.
Peasants lived in one roomed houses and the fire was in the middle of the room. Consequently the room became smoky when the fire was lit. Meat could therefore be smoked by hanging it from the rafters in the roof.
There were a variety of digging activities that had to be carried out during the Medieval period:
Drainage ditches had to be dug to prevent damage to crops by flooding.
Peasants also had to dig their own gardens (tofts) before they could plant vegetables, and if they were not able to hire or borrow a plough they would also have to dig their fields (crofts).
A scythe and hoe of the type used during the Medieval period.
All tools made during the Medieval period would be made by the blacksmith.
Garden and farming tools would be made from wood and iron.
This article is part of our larger selection of posts about the medieval period. To learn more, click here for our comprehensive guide to the Middle Ages.