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

By Del Sweeney | Go to book overview

15. Afterword Alfed W. Crosby

The disadvantage of commenting on papers on a subject about which one knows a great deal is that one is unlikely to be astonished: one arrives acquainted with the protagonists and with an outline of the plot in an inside pocket. When asked to write an afterword, one may feel obliged to say yes, but how to express any attitude warmer than the satisfaction that things are coming along as expected? Fortunately, I am not an expert on medieval European agriculture. I was invited to comment, I presume, as one who is interested in agriculture and history on a large scale, a world scale. Probably I am expected to place medieval agriculture in "the big picture," that last resort of the underinformed. But before I launch into that, let me make a few remarks about the specifics that have most impressed me in the papers included in this volume.

I am impressed with how devilishly complicated and subtle the subjects of medieval agriculture and agriculturists are, subjects that most people, even historians, I am ashamed to say, would assume to be simple. After all, it includes nothing about the vagaries of the world market, nothing about pork belly futures, nothing as mind-boggling as the shifting relationship between the prices of wheat, farm machinery, chemical fertilizers, soil degradation, and borrowed money. I was sure, to give one example of my naiveté, that the medieval farmer's tools were inferior to those that his successors used and use. I knew that scythes were better than sickles, just as McCormick knew that reapers are better than scythes. Now, however, I have learned that with a sickle a farmer can cut no more than the ears of grain, leaving a tall stubble for livestock to feed upon as they refertilize the land--an example of "sustainable farming" that would delight an old Yankee and a new organic farmer equally.

Now I know, thanks to Bökönyi and Brunner, that the "fall of Rome" was, agriculturally, a complicated descent that even included a few ascensions. Roman farm tools and practices were not forgotten, but were handed on, generation after generation, and the design of scythes was even improved during the darkest of the Dark Ages. On the other hand,

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