Agriculture in the Middle Ages: Technology, Practice, and Representation

By Del Sweeney | Go to book overview

I. Introduction

Del Sweeney

No sphere of activity was more important or more central to life in medieval Europe than farming. Throughout the Middle Ages the overwhelming majority of the population lived off the land. The demographic expansion of the eleventh century and the rise of urban centers would have been impossible without an increasingly productive agricultural base. The great contribution of the past fifty years of scholarship on the economic and social history of northern Europe in the Middle Ages has been to demonstrate the diversity of responses to broadly similar challenges.1 A notable feature of recent investigations has been the focus on regional studies. Medieval Europe was characterized by important differences in climate, soils, topography, and culture; historical patterns of settlement and agricultural production varied considerably. The pattern that typified the English Midlands, perhaps the most widely known model in the English- speaking world, cannot be used to characterize the French Midi or eastern Saxony. Within these larger geographical areas, considerable internal variation existed--for example, Normandy versus Burgundy, or northern England versus the southeast. Significant regional differences also are observed in the relationship between arable, pasture, and forest, each of which sustained the human and animal population in different ways. Where the documentation permits, studies have been made even of individual villages. Yet we are, perhaps, on the verge of new syntheses. Medieval historians are again asking broad questions. How do agricultural populations adapt to different ecological conditions? In what circumstances is new technology adapted or rejected? What were the realities of medieval peasant life? What did peasants themselves believe about the world in which they lived?

The limitations of medieval sources for investigating economic history are well known. As Carlo Cipolla has written:

We would like to know the size of the population, the patterns of consumption, the level of production of, let us say, the province of Reims in France at

-1-

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