I grew up in the Middle Ages. Well, not the Middle Ages exactly, but in Kentucky, which is close, and with a father who believed that if you didn’t have garden soil under your nails, you just weren’t working hard enough. We lived in the middle of town, but he was determined his girls would have as much good, wholesome farm experience as he could contrive to give us. We grew berries and vegetables, canned tomatoes and made jam, chopped wood and spread mulch; and when I wasn’t imagining I was really a princess in exile amongst the surly serfs, I gained an appreciation for the timeliness of growing things.
This is something modern America doesn’t have to think about much. I can go to the supermarket in the middle of February and buy peaches if I want to. I can buy hunks of meat that in no way resemble the animals they once were. Winter is about scraping ice off my car, fall and spring are pretty if I have the time to notice them, and summer gets spent ducking from one air-conditioned building to another. The seasons make up, at most, the background of daily life.
Not so in medieval Europe (as opposed to Kentucky). Life was defined by the seasons, and by specific agricultural tasks that had to take place at specific times of year. Look at any medieval calendar or book of days — the “Tres Riches Heures” of the Duke de Berry is a great one — and you’ll see people engaged in the same activities each year, mowing in June or July, plowing in September, killing pigs in November, everything at its proper time.
Because most of us no longer perform these tasks ourselves, it is not obvious what they are or what order they should fall in. Four years ago I began producing a medieval fantasy comic book called Amy Unbounded, and discovered that even with my basic gardening knowledge there were things I simply didn’t know. If I had a story taking place in June, for example, what activities could my characters plausibly be engaged in? If I wanted to do a story involving the birth of lambs, when would that be? Good fantasy, in my opinion, contains a solid grain of truth, so an overview of the medieval agricultural year would be a good resource for a writer of medieval fantasy. Make no mistake, even your city dwellers were subject to this cycle.
Not content to say things once, I am going to tell you everything twice. First I will explain the yearly cycles of various crops and animals, letting you understand what was involved. Then I will give you a calendar, a to-do list of sorts, letting you see what was happening when. Finally, there will be a bibliography of further reading so that you, never content to merely skim the surface, may read up on these subjects and learn even more.
Four grains were widely cultivated during the Middle Ages: wheat, barley, rye, and oats. Of these, wheat was most valued because it had the gluten content necessary to make good bread. All four could be sown in fall for harvest the following summer. This so-called winter crop, however, could be easily lost to a particularly cold winter or stormy spring, so to hedge their bets medieval farmers would plant a second crop in the spring. This crop would not produce quite as well since it hadn’t had as much time to grow. It was planted just as early as the farmers could get their plows into the ground (generally March), and would be harvested in early fall.
Several steps were involved in planting a grain crop. Medieval farmers worked on a three-field rotation system: one field for grain, one field for hay, and a third left fallow, which frequently meant it was sown with a legume which would be plowed under to enrich the soil. The fields themselves were long narrow strips of land, and one would cultivate strips which were not contiguous, the idea being that that way nobody would be stuck with all the bad land. The soil would be enriched throughout the winter with lime, chalk, manure, and by plowing under burnt weeds. A sport called “camping,” which involved two teams trying to take each other’s men prisoner, was sometimes played on fallow fields and was encouraged as a means of breaking up clods. The fields were plowed with a good old medieval ox-drawn mouldboard plow, the seed was broadcast by hand, and then a device called a harrow — a square wooden frame with wooden spikes pointing into the earth — was dragged across the field to cover the seed. Sometimes they harrowed a field before the seed was sown in order to break up clods.
The crop would be weeded once or twice in spring and summer, and then harvest began in late July for the winter crop and in August for the spring. Ripened grain is delicate and falls easily off the stalk, so they harvested it carefully with a hand sickle, bound it into sheaves, and carefully arranged the sheaves into stacks. The stacks didn’t stay out too long, but were brought indoors for winter storage. Grain was frequently stored just like that, still on the stalk, partly so it would draw up the last moisture from the stalk and become heavier, but mainly because threshing and winnowing are good indoor activities for bad weather, and would keep people warm and occupied throughout the winter.
Threshing took place in an open area of the barn where a special wooden floor was set up. Flails were used to beat the stalks, thereby causing them to shed their grain. The straw was then removed, and the grain scooped up with a wide, shallow winnowing basket. By tossing the grain into the air and fanning it, the lighter chaff (inedible husks) blew away until only the heavier grain remained. The heaviest grain fell closest to the winnower and was saved to plant next season. Grain that was to be eaten was dried in a kiln and taken in sacks to the mill.
Concerning Pulses and Other Garden Crops
Pulses (peas and beans) were sown as field crops in late spring. The seeds were allowed to dry completely on the plant, like our split peas, and were harvested in fall for food. The rest of the plant could be harvested and stored for winter fodder or could be plowed back under to enrich the soil. Other spring vegetable crops included cabbages, onions, leeks, parsnips, beets, and carrots, all of which would be ready to harvest throughout the late summer. Turnips were usually planted in August after an earlier crop had been harvested, and would be left in the soil when mature and harvested as needed into early winter.
Medieval people also grew flax and hemp as fiber crops, planting in March or April and harvesting in July. Flax plants produce beautiful pale blue flowers in the spring, and must have brightened up the countryside considerably. The harvesters would pull the flax up by the roots and pile the plants in shallow water where the outer husks would rot away. The central fibers were then separated out by beating and were combed into usable strands.
In addition to field crops, a medieval rural household would have had a smaller garden plot during the summer for herbs and salad greens. Parsley, mint, dill, fennel, chives, sage, basil, thyme, and rosemary were all in cultivation along with other plants we don’t commonly eat as herbs anymore, such as daisy, dandelion, nettle, and wormwood. Salad plants included lettuce, spinach, cress, borage, rocket, and primrose buds.
Concerning Vines, Hedges, and Trees
Grapes were cultivated primarily for wine, although in less suitable climates (such as England) it could be hard to get a good crop. Not a problem — the grapes could be used instead to create a kind of vinegar called verjuice, which was in widespread use and could also include unripe apples. Pruning and staking of the vines occurred in February, and the harvest and other winemaking activities took place in October.
Hedges came into use as boundaries in the later Middle Ages, as strip cultivation gave way to larger enclosures. Hedges required yearly maintenance — pruning, training, and clearing of the ditches that ran alongside them — and this happened in February. February was also considered a good month for planting willow, whose thin, flexible branches were used for everything from baskets to fencing to wattle. Coppicing was another tree cultivation practice — they would cut down a tree in early spring but leave its live roots in the ground so that suckers sprouted from the root stock. The suckers were allowed to grow for a year or two, until they reached the desired size, and were then chopped off and used in fencing or other construction. New suckers would continue to grow from the root stock.
Orchards existed, but were generally associated with large estates or monasteries, where they were even planted over graveyards. I imagine a smaller-scale farm would have had a fruit tree or two. Fruit trees were propagated from cuttings and by grafting. It was common to prune the fruit trees in February, and to prune the roots as well by digging at the base of the tree and then adding new soil. Apples and pears were common, of course, but other fruits included cherries, quince, mulberries, walnuts, and chestnuts. Where the climate permitted, they could grow almonds, peaches, and plums, and in Spain and Italy they could grow citrus fruits.
Medieval people raised cattle for milk, meat, and for use as draft animals. Cows were brought to bull in fall so that they would calve in the early spring. Calves would nurse for about a month and then be separated from their mothers and fed by hand until they learned to graze on their own. Ideally, the calves would be weaned just as the pastures began showing some good growth, but in a cold spring the farmer would just have to hope he had enough hay stored up. Milking, cheese making, and butter churning were in full swing by April. Cows were milked twice a day, morning and evening, from April through September, when they began to run dry and were bred again. If a cow wasn’t bred and was well cared-for, she could sometimes keep producing milk through the winter, but more typically a farmer would try to breed one or two cows later than the rest. The late breeders would then deliver late and still be producing milk through the next winter. Excess stock were sold at markets in the fall, and cows that had dried up and were no longer breeding were usually slaughtered, the better to save hay for expectant mothers and good draft animals.
Sheep also bred in the fall, a little later than cattle, and started dropping their lambs as early as January. Ewes were milked for human consumption as well, but the milk was not as valuable as cow’s milk (and it took a lot more ewes to fill a bucket!). The sheep were sent out to pasture as soon as there was enough greenery to accommodate them, and it was important that they be marked, with notches on the ear and/or a splotch of dye on the back, since grazing land for sheep was often used in common. In June they would be washed and shorn, and lambs would sometimes also be shorn, but a little later in the summer.
Pigs were the third major type of livestock. Sows were bred in December or January and would deliver their piglets in March or April. Piglets stayed in the farmyard with their mothers until about August, when they were considered strong enough to be driven out to forage. Throughout the fall, swineherds drove the pigs out to feed upon acorns and beechnuts and to become good and plump. November 11th, Martinmas, was the traditional day to begin slaughtering hogs, although in reality most pig-killing was probably done in December. Even very poor families could usually afford to raise a pig themselves, since pigs forage so well and cost very little to feed, and the meat from that December butchering would have to last them the whole winter long.
Concerning Other Agricultural Activities
A big event in the farming year that I haven’t discussed yet is haying. Mowing season began in June and continued into July, depending on the weather and on how many meadows one had to mow. The old expression “Make hay while the sun shines” means precisely that — the weather had to be dry during mowing because wet hay would rot and, in the process, become so hot that it could catch fire. Hay was mown with a scythe and left in rows across the field to dry. It was turned a couple times with pitchforks to ensure even drying, and then was stacked in such a way that the outer layer formed a thatch, shedding water and keeping the inside dry. In damp climates the hay was sometimes stacked around a wooden frame which kept the inside of the stack ventilated; in any case, the stack would rest on top of a foundation of stones and bracken to keep it from taking up moisture from the ground.
Bees were widely kept, honey and wax being valuable commodities. Bees swarm in May, and wild swarms would be sought out and collected and transferred to homemade skeps (hives made from coiled and woven straw). The medieval beekeeper collected the honey and wax in September, often very clumsily and destructively killing all the bees in the process. Larger operations, such as one might find on a manor, would be better about keeping at least some of the hives alive through the winter in special apiaries built to house them.
Markets were held throughout the year, and were useful for getting rid of excess stock as well as for buying things not produced at home. Some markets specialized in one product, such as horses, honey, or yarn, but most were simply a place to sell whatever you had, a point where the town and the country intersected. Spring was considered a good time to buy a cow, since a farmer running low on fodder would be happy to part with her. Spring would also have been a good time to sell hay, if there was any to spare. Most livestock were sold right before winter set in, ensuring that the small farmer with his limited stocks of hay would make it through the winter, and that the estates big enough to buy so many cattle would be well provided with meat.
My Medieval Farming Calendar
A few words about this calendar are probably in order. My main sources are English and Irish, so the dates are most appropriate to central and northern Europe. In southern Europe the growing season is going to be longer and drier and the winter not as harsh. I was unable to find clear harvest dates in my medieval books for certain crops (e.g. peas), so I have filled in the gaps from modern sources in the assumption that the nature of peas has not changed significantly since then. I have tried to make useful suggestions for activities during the winter months, but I’m sure that most time and effort, especially for poorer households, was spent just getting through it.
January: Clear ditches; cut wood; breed sows; spread manure; “camping”; early lambs born.
February: Prune grapes and fruit trees; prune and mend hedgerows; mend fences; kill moles; plant willow; add lime, chalk and manure to soil; lambing continues; calving begins.
March: Plow and harrow as soon as the ground is soft enough; sow spring grains; calving continues.
April: Plant onions and leeks; plant flax; wean calves; get milking and dairy work underway; farrowing (birth of piglets).
May: Weed winter corn; remove moss from thatched roofs and repair; sow pulses; capture swarming bees; mark sheep; plant beets, carrots, cabbages, and other garden vegetables.
June: Wash and shear sheep; shear lambs later in the month; start mowing hay.
July: Keep mowing that hay; harvest flax and hemp; begin harvesting winter corn.
August: Finish harvesting winter grain, begin on spring grain; gather in straw; plant turnips.
September: Harvest peas; breed cattle; harvest honey; plow fields for winter grain; sow winter wheat and rye; harvest apples, blackberries; take excess stock to market.
October: Sow winter barley and oats; harvest grapes; make wine and verjuice; breed sheep; let pigs forage on acorns and beechnuts.
November: Unsuspecting pigs get fatter and fatter; take in firewood; threshing and winnowing continue through the winter.
December: Slaughter hogs; never too early to shovel manure; Merry Christmas!
Rachel Hartman gave up a million-dollar career in Comparative Literature to make comic books. Her work has appeared in the anthologies Rampage, Brainbomb, and SPX99, and her regular series, Amy Unbounded, has won two awards. When not obsessing over her storylines, she’s reading about medieval economics or imagining she can dance.
Alderson, Lawrence. Rare Breeds.
Basing, Patricia. Trades and Crafts in Medieval Manuscripts.
Dyer, Christopher. Standards of Living in the Later Middle Ages.
Hartley, Dorothy. Lost Country Life.
Kelly, Fergus. Early Irish Farming.
Landsberg, Sylvia. The Medieval Garden.
Sweeny, Del, ed. Agriculture in the Middle Ages.