The feudal period in Europe began soon after the fall of the Roman Empire, reaching its height about AD 1100. This period was also marked by development of the Byzantine Empire (late roman empire with its capital constanipole) and the power of the Saracens (Muslim opposing Christian crusade) in the Middle East and southern Europe. Agriculture in Spain, Italy, and southern France, in particular, was affected by events outside continental Europe. As the Arab influence extended to Egypt and later Spain, irrigation was extended to previously sterile or unproductive land. In Egypt, grain production was sufficient to allow the country to sell wheat in international markets. In Spain, vineyards were planted on sloping land, and irrigation water was brought from the mountains to the plains.
In some areas of the Middle East, oranges, lemons, peaches, and apricots were cultivated. Rice, sugarcane, cotton, and vegetables such as spinach and artichokes, as well as the characteristic Spanish flavoring saffron, were produced. The silkworm was raised and its food, the mulberry tree, was grown. By the 12th century agriculture in the Middle East had become static, and Mesopotamia declined to subsistence production levels when irrigation systems were destroyed by invading Mongols.
The Crusades, however, increased European contact with Islamic lands and familiarized western Europe with citrus fruits and silk and cotton textiles. The structure of agriculture was not uniform. In Scandinavia (Norway Sweden and Denmark) and eastern Germany, the small farms and villages of previous years remained. In mountainous areas and in the marshlands of Slavic (Bulgaria, Russia and polish) Europe, the manorial system could not flourish.
A manor required roughly 350 to 800 hectares (about 900 to 2,000 acres) of arable land and the same amount of other prescribed lands, such as wetlands, wood lots, and pasture. Typically, the manor was a self-contained community. On it was the large home of the holder of the fief—a military or church vassal of rank, sometimes given the title lord—or of his steward. A parish church was frequently included, and the manor might make up the entire parish. One or more villages might be located on the manor, and village peasants were the actual farmers.
Under the direction of an overseer, they produced the crops, raised the meat and draft animals, and paid taxes in services, either forced labor on the lord’s lands and other properties or in forced military service. A large manor had a mill for grinding grain, an oven for baking bread, fishponds, orchards, perhaps a winepress or oil press, and herb and vegetable gardens. Bees were kept to produce honey. Woolen garments were produced from sheep raised on the manor. The wool was spun into yarn, woven into cloth, and then sewn into clothing.
Linen textiles could also be produced from flax, which was grown for its oil and fiber.
The food served in a feudal castle or manor house varied according to the season and the lord’s hunting prowess. Hunting for meat was, indeed, the major nonmilitary work of the lord and his military retainers. The castle residents could also eat domestic ducks, pheasants, pigeons, geese, hens, and partridges; fish, pork, beef, and mutton; and cabbages, turnips, carrots, onions, beans, and peas. Bread, cheese and butter, ale and wine, and apples and pears also appeared on the table. In southern Europe olives and olive oil might be used, often instead of butter.
Leather was produced from the manor’s cattle. Horses and oxen were the beasts of burden; as heavier horses were bred and a new kind of harness was developed, they became more important. A blacksmith, wheelwright, and carpenter made and maintained crude agricultural tools.
The cultivation regime was rigidly prescribed. The arable land was divided into three fields: one sown in the autumn in wheat or rye; a second sown in the spring in barley, rye, oats, beans, or peas; and the third left fallow. The fields were laid out in strips distributed over the three fields, and without hedges or fences to separate one strip from another. Each male peasant head of household was allotted about 30 strips. Helped by his family and a yoke of oxen, he worked under the direction of the lord’s officials. When he worked on his own fields, if he had any, he followed village custom that was probably as rigid as the rule of an overseer.
About the 8th century a four-year cycle of rotation of fallow appeared. The annual plowing routine on 400 hectares would be 100 hectares plowed in the autumn and 100 in the spring, and 200 hectares of fallow plowed in June. These three periods of plowing, over the year, could produce two crops on 200 hectares, depending on the weather. Typically, ten or more oxen were hitched to the tongue of the plow, often little more than a forked tree trunk. The oxen were no larger than modern heifers. At harvest time, all the peasants, including women and children, were expected to work in the fields. After the harvest, the community’s animals were let loose on the fields to forage.
Some manors used a strip system. Each strip, with an area of roughly 0.4 hectare (about 1 acre), measured about 200 m (about 220 yd) in length and from 1.2 to 5 m (4 to 16.5 ft) in width. The lord’s strips were similar to those of the peasants distributed throughout good and bad field areas. The parish priest might have lands separate from the community fields or strips that he worked himself or that were worked by the peasants.
In all systems, the lord’s fields and needs came first, but about three days a week might be left for work on the family strips and garden plots. Wood and peat for fuel were gathered from the commonly held wood lots, and animals were pastured on village meadows.
When surpluses of grain, hides, and wool were produced, they were sent to market.
In about 1300 a tendency developed to enclose the common lands and to raise sheep for their wool alone. The rise of the textile industry made sheep raising more profitable in England, Flanders (now in Belgium), Champagne (France), Tuscany and Lombardy (Italy), and the Augsburg region of Germany. At the same time, regions about the medieval towns began to specialize in garden produce and dairy products. Independent manorialism was also affected by the wars of 14th- and 15th-century Europe and by the widespread plague outbreaks of the 14th century. Villages were wiped out, and much arable land was abandoned.
The remaining peasants were discontented and attempted to improve their conditions. With the decline in the labor force, only the best land was kept in cultivation. In southern Italy, for instance, irrigation helped increase production on the more fertile soils. The emphasis on grain was replaced by diversification, and items requiring more care were produced, such as wine, oil, cheese, butter, and vegetables.
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