The lot of a medieval farmer ... and all his family!

Spring has come and much needs to be done out in the fields; the fields themselves need to be ploughed, crops sown and soil farrowed. Yet even before Spring arrived Toadflax was not idle, nor was anyone else.

Winter months might often be spent indoors due to rain and snow; women spun thread and men performed handicrafts- renewed old tools and manufactured new ones. Yet necessity still called for outdoor work, those animals kept in barns to breed new flocks must be tended. And the dung produced cleared from the barn and carefully stockpiled to be mixed with marl to fertilize fields prior to planting. Cows made pregnant in November, to provide milk during winter, must be milked every day and lambing frequently begins in February.

Come March, soil must be prepared for the crop. This is a group endeavour, everybody in the village works together on this task. This is because no one common person, and all in the village are commoners, actually owns any land of their own. All those who are tenant farmers rent land from their respective "Lord of the Manor". That "Lord" will be of the noble class, a local knight or the Abbot of Saint Mary's of Furness. And the rent that is due to the "Lord" consists of more than just a certain amount of harvested produce from the rented land but also work on the "Lord's" land, his personal demesne- domain. This work could consist of two or three days work every week. Whatever work Toadflax and his fellow villagers intend be done on their rented land must first be done on the "Lord's".

Once the "Lord of the Manor's" work is attended to, Toadflax and the other commoners, who are tenant farmers, are free to attend their "own" land. This is a communal activity performed by all together, for all the land is divided up into strips so that Toadflax and each other each tenant farmer has an equal share of both good arable land to farm and not so good. With everyone working together, as much land can be farmed as possible to protect the villagers from starvation if the crop fails. Further, as the land itself is farmed on the three field system; one part sowed with a winter crop, one part sowed with a spring crop and the third left fallow- uncultivated, to allow the soil to rest and recover its nutrient strength; the entire winter crop is sown in the same area, as is the spring crop and as are most of the strips of land left fallow adjacent to each other.

Toadflax and Oswald with a plough

To begin with the strips of land to be farmed in the spring must first be ploughed with the plough. This is drawn by a team of oxen, with one or two people leading them and another pressing down on the handles of the plough itself to ensure the metal blade cuts the earth. The plough itself is frequently stored in the local church, as many believe god's divine blessing upon it will increase its efficiency in the fields. Once the earth has been turned it is then harrowed. A harrow itself is a large rake made of wood that is pulled over the new ploughed earth to break up any large clods of earth. If need be, Toadflax and others will break up any difficult clods of earth with wooden mallets and stakes. Given the red clay like soil in Furness this is a frequent and arduous necessity.

Once the strip fields are ready then seed may be scattered and the soil harrowed again to cover the planted seed. The crop sown would consist of barley, oats, beans and vetches. Young boys of the village would then be tasked with the job of chasing off any crows and other birds intent on scratching at the soil to bring up and eat the sown seed. This could last for some weeks until the crop began to sprout. Slingshots would be used to good purpose for this and sometimes turned upon Toadflax himself when the young'uns might be found lazing in the fields and not being attentive enough of their duties to his liking. The only birds not driven away could be Doves belonging to the "Lord of the Manor"; for to strike them down would incur penalties to all. Ploughing the spring crop might last from early March into May.

Once the spring crop was in the ground the work of the plough did not end.

There was still that land left fallow that would need to be ploughed in its entirety to allow air to the soil. Also many villagers had their own garden to plant onions, leeks, garlic and cabbage. Flax and hemp could also be planted as well as dye-plants such as weld, madder, woad and greenweed to give yellow, red, blue and green. Not to mention the many herbs for both food and medicinal use.

Work on the village fields did not come to a stop with the end of Spring, there was always ditches that needed to be re-dug, hedges to be maintained, fences and houses in need of repair.

Oswald with a hay fork ready to harvest the hay

Come June, all descended on to the hay fields to bring in the harvest of hay. Men would scythe or sickle the hay and the women and children following would gather it all up into bushels. The more hay produced by the fields the more fodder for the animals come winter. The more animals that can be kept through the winter increases the number of breeding animals for the spring and also the amount of meat that can be eaten during those lean winter months.

At the end of June the fields left fallow are ploughed yet again and deeply too, that the roots of any weeds might be exposed and animal manure spread about the fields. This then leads into July, often a very hard month. Weeds frequently proliferate during this month and necessity dictates as many be removed as possible; for however poor the harvest, the "Lord of the Manor", whether Abbot or noble, will not accept less payment in rent than normal. It is always Toadflax and the common that must bear the burden of adversity.

So once again Toadflax is back into the fields to uproot and remove thistles, dock, dead-nettle, charlock and corn cockle wherever they may be found amongst the crops. And all this in a month of hunger because grain stocks are usually at their lowest.

From the beginning of August and well into September the harvest would take place. First the previous winter's crop would be harvested first, wheat and rye, then that spring's crop, barley and oats. Time would be of the essence, as much as possible must be harvested before any autumn rains. Beans and peasecods would be dried and kept on their stems. These provide the basis of the winter diet for Toadflax and everyone else in the village.

In October the fallow land is ploughed one more time before the planting of the winter crop, wheat and rye. Pigs are put out into the woods to feast and fatten up on beechnuts and acorns. This is called "pannage" and is a right that must be paid for. All payments going to the "Lord". Toadflax and others would follow the pigs into the woods to collect nuts and wild fruits to supplement their winter diet.

By the end of November all should be done that needs to be done in preparation for the winter. Animals would be slaughtered and where possible the meat preserved for winter. This would be mainly pigs as those cows and sheep not being kept would more likely be sold. Dead wood and peat would be stacked to dry so as to produce food for the winter fire and bracken gathered to make bedding for the animals.

Once all preparation is done, only then can Toadflax sit down and await the winter.

Toadflax having a well earned rest

Written by Toadflax

Facebook Nav
Twitter Nav
Blogger Nav
YouTube Nav
Instagram Nav