According the Medieval Life and Times website,
Farm animals were small, for scientific breeding had not yet begun. A full-grown ox reached a size scarcely larger than a calf of to-day, and the fleece of a sheep often weighed less than two ounces.
This is more or less echoed by The Finer Times (or maybe one copied the other?):
The size of a full-grown bull reached the size slightly larger than a calf today, and the fleece of an entire sheep weighed an average of two ounces.
The assertion that an ox wasn't much larger than a calf is unsatisfactory (perhaps even dubious): the size of a calf obviously depends on its age and some breeds (e.g. Limousin) are much larger than others (e.g. Jersey) - I grew up on a farm so I know a little about this. Wikipedia has this image of Anglo-Saxon ploughmen but I'm not sure how reliable the scale is (and the animals' faces are a little odd!).
Even more implausible is 2 ounces for the fleece of a sheep. According to sheep101, a fleece in the US today might weigh anything from 2 to 16 pounds (32 to 288 ounces). Even just taking the lowest figure, the difference between medieval and contemporary fleece weights seems improbable, or is at least in need of more authoritative sources.
Were the animals cited in the sources really so much smaller (on average) than they are today? Was the same true for other farm animals such as chickens and pigs?
I think both sources copied Early European History by Hutton Webster, published about a century ago. The underlying claim is true: Medieval animals were much smaller than today's. However, it is obvious that "a calf" is not a meaningful unit of comparison.
The historical weight of livestock is mainly determined from archaeological studies as well as records of butchery transactions, and reveal significantly smaller farm animals than today's. See for instance the following figures:
[A]round the year 1000, an adult pig weighed around 70-80 kg, a sheep 20 to 30 kg, and a cow or ox 200 to 250 kg… In comparison, at the beginning of the twentieth century, an ox weighed in the region of 650 kg, a sheep from 50-150 kg, and a pig from 100-200 kg.
Comet, Georges. "Technology and agricultural expansion in the middle ages: the example of France north of the Loire." Astill, Grenville G., and John Langdon, eds. Medieval farming and technology: The impact of agricultural change in Northwest Europe. Brill, 1997.
These are from Charavines in France, but English animals would have been similar in size. Based on remains, cattle at York were estimated to be between 220 - 270 kg, for instance.1
Of course, the weight of animals did not stay constant throughout the whole of the Middle Ages. They were even smaller during the earliest centuries,2 and seemed to have gradually became larger close to the Early Modern period.3
In any case, height differences are much less dramatic than weight. Medieval cattle were half the weight of industrial revolution ones, but only 20% shorter.4 Hence, compared to ~150cm for cattle and ~75cm for sheep, depending on the species, today:
At Hamwih… cattle apparently had a mean shoulder height of 115cm. The sheep were small with a shoulder height of 62 cm.
Steane, John. The Archaeology of Medieval England and Wales. Vol. 47. Routledge, 2014.
That said, only two ounces for the fleece of the sheep is quite an understatement.
The average weight of sheep fleeces per animal on the Winchester manors from 1300 to 1324 was 1.5 lb.
Clark, Gregory. "Labour productivity in English agriculture, 1300-1860." Campbell, Bruce MS, and Mark Overton, eds. Land, Labour, and Livestock: Historical Studies in European Agricultural Productivity. Manchester University Press, 1991.
Seasonal variations aside, differences in fleece weight were mainly region dependent. A particularly poor area was East Anglia, and especially from the pastures of Breckland.5 Yet, even in Breckland the worst yield was still about ~1 lb, or 16 ounces:
Bailey, Mark. A Marginal Economy?: East Anglian Breckland in the Later Middle Ages. Cambridge University Press, 1989.
Notes & Refernces:
1. O'Connor, Terence Patrick. Bones from Anglo-Scandinavian Levels at 16-22 Coppergate. Council for British Archaeology, London 1989. "[For] a very lean conformation, an average liveweight in the region of 220kg would seem likely. For a heavier conformation, this average could perhaps be raised to around 270kg."
2. Crabtree, Pam J. "West Stow, Suffolk: Early Anglo-Saxon Animal Husbandry". East Anglian Archaeology Report 47. Suffolk County Council, 1989… "Based on the measurements of the trochlear breadth of the humerus, it is estimated that the average West Stow cattle would have had an average live weight of only about 150-170 kg, and a fat-free carcass weight of about 100 kg.
3. Kershaw, Ian. Bolton Priory: the Economy of a Northern Monastery, 1286-1325. Oxford University Press, 1973. "[T]he average carcass weight [was] about 430 lb. for oxen urhcased for victualling the navy in 1547."
4. Clark, Gregory. "Labour productivity in English agriculture, 1300-1860." Campbell, Bruce MS, and Mark Overton, eds. Land, Labour, and Livestock: Historical Studies in European Agricultural Productivity. Manchester University Press, 1991."[N]ote that cattle in this period were about 80 per cent the hiegh tof cattle in the late eighteenth century, which would impaly that they were about 49 per cent of thre weight."
5. Bailey, Mark. A Marginal Economy?: East Anglian Breckland in the Later Middle Ages. Cambridge University Press, 1989. "Breckland's poor pastures were not conducive to producing heavy, thick fleeces, and its sheep were of the shortwool variety whose fleeces were lightweight and low in quality. This was true of East Anglia in general, but it would appear that Breckland fleeces were poor even by these standards."
There is some research on the medieval cattle topic here which lists many cattle sizes throughout the history of cattle usage. This shows the following figures for medieval times (numbers are the height to the top of the shoulder):
Saxo-Norman and High Medieval (11th-13th C) [110 cm (43.3") or 100-130 cm (39.4-51.2")]
Later Medieval (14th-15th C) [109 cm (42.9")]
and has this figure for modern:
Modern English Longhorn [130-140 cm (51"-55")/150 cm (59")]
The author comes to this conclusion:
Therefore, in Britain, at least, cattle in the Middle Ages were smaller than the "average" modern cattle.
I would say the cattle of the middle ages were definitely smaller than modern varieties.
(there is also a list of sources used at the bottom of the web page.)
One detailed study, West Stow, Suffolk:Early Anglo-Saxon Animal Husbandryby Pam J. Crabtree, goes into archaeological detail concerning the specific counts of farm animals being used, and detailed measurements of bones recovered at this West Stow site.
Cattle. The study gives some estimates of the weight and height of the typical cattle recovered. Samples gave a mean withers height of 117 cm (from figure 17, Table 24 pg 36) and a weight of 150-170kg:
Based on the measurements of the trochlear breadth of the humerus, it is estimated that the average West Stow cattle would have had an average live weight of only about 150-170kg, and a fat-free carcass weight of about 100 kg (Table 26). It is probably fair to say that Tacitus' description of Germanic cattle which were valued more for their quantity than their size would apply equally well to the Early Anglo-Saxon cattle from West Stow.
Sheep. The study also addresses sheep sizes, with estimates on withers heights falling into a range typically between 58 and 63 cm. Since modern sheep show ranges between 60 and 80 cm, it falls in line that the sheep were the size of smaller modern animals. From pg 50:
It is dangerous to compare ancient sheep to modern breeds since many of the characteristics that distinguish modern breeds of sheep cannot be reconstructed from animal bone evidence alone. It may nevertheless be useful to compare the West Stow sheep to modern Soay sheep since these animals have often been likened to prehistoric and early historic sheep. The Soay is an unimproved feral sheep known from the Island of St Kilda in Scotland. Ryder (1983, 41) found that Soay ewes averaged about 52cm. in height, while Soay rams averaged about 56cm. The average We:;~ Stow sheep was as tall as the largest of the Soay rams (61 cm); the smallest West Stow sheep are taller than the average Soay ewe. Thus, the West Stow sheep are larger, on average, than the Soay.
A value for Soay sheep wool production today can be found here, to give us some comparison by size:
Wool is shed naturally each year and is used for speciality hand knitting. Staple length 5-15cm. Fleece weight 1.5- 2.25kg. Quality 44s-50s.
5 strange facts about Medieval England
1. Everything could kill you, even bread. During summer, grain shortages forced people to make bread from old rye infested with a fungus called ergot. This could cause LSD-like hallucinations and even death.
2. Medieval farm animals were far smaller than their equivalents today. Bulls were a little larger than a modern-day calf, and sheep were a third of their size today.
3. An early version of football played with a pig’s bladder was deemed so violent and destructive that King Edward II banned it in 1314.
4. Before the Catholic Church forbade it, trial by ordeal was very common. The innocence of the accused would be determined by whether they were able to survive the trial, such as being burnt by a hot iron, or if their wounds healed quickly.
5. Barbers doubled as surgeons and dentists. They would hang the bandages stained with blood outside their shops the sight of these rags twisting in the wind inspired the modern-day red and white barber’s pole.
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Agriculture formed the bulk of the English economy at the time of the Norman invasion.  Twenty years after the invasion, 35% of England was covered in arable land, 25% put to pasture, with 15% covered by woodlands and the remaining 25% predominantly being moorland, fens and heaths.  Wheat formed the single most important arable crop, but rye, barley and oats were also cultivated extensively. 
In the more fertile parts of the country such as the Thames valley, the Midlands and the east of England, legumes and beans were also cultivated.  Sheep, cattle, oxen and pigs were kept on English holdings, although most of these breed were much smaller than modern equivalents and most would have been slaughtered in winter. 
Manorial system Edit
In the century prior to the Norman invasion, England's great estates, owned by the king, bishops, monasteries and thegns, had been slowly broken up as a consequence of inheritance, wills, marriage settlements or church purchases.  Most of the smaller landowning nobility lived on their properties and managed their own estates. The pre-Norman landscape had seen a trend away from isolated hamlets and towards larger villages engaged in arable cultivation in a band running north-south across England. 
These new villages had adopted an open field system in which fields were divided into small strips of land, individually owned, with crops rotated between the field each year and the local woodlands and other common lands carefully managed.  Agricultural land on a manor was divided between some fields that the landowner would manage and cultivate directly, called demesne land, and the majority of the fields that would be cultivated by local peasants who would pay rent to the landowner either through agricultural labour on the lord's demesne fields, or through cash or produce. 
Around 6,000 watermills of varying power and efficiency had been built in order to grind flour, freeing up peasant labour for other more productive agricultural tasks.  The early English economy was not a subsistence economy and many crops were grown by peasant farmers for sale to the early English towns. 
The Normans initially did not significantly alter the operation of the manor or the village economy.  William reassigned large tracts of land amongst the Norman elite, creating vast estates in some areas, particularly along the Welsh border and in Sussex. The biggest change in the years after the invasion was the rapid reduction in the number of slaves being held in England.  In the 10th century slaves had been very numerous, although their number had begun to diminish as a result of economic and religious pressure. 
Nonetheless, the new Norman aristocracy proved harsh landlords.  The wealthier, formerly more independent Anglo-Saxon peasants found themselves rapidly sinking down the economic hierarchy, swelling the numbers of unfree workers, or serfs, forbidden to leave their manor and seek alternative employment.  Those Anglo-Saxon nobles who had survived the invasion itself were rapidly assimilated into the Norman elite or economically crushed. 
By 1086 when the Domesday Book was prepared, the Normans owned more than ninety percent of the land.  Just two native Englishmen still had significant landholdings: Thorkill of Arden, who held seventy-one manors in Warwickshire, and Coleswain, who had forty-four manors. 
The 12th and 13th centuries were a period of huge economic growth in England. The population of England rose from around one and a half million in 1086 to around four or five million in 1300, stimulating increased agricultural outputs and the export of raw materials to Europe. 
In contrast to the previous two centuries, England was relatively secure from invasion. Except for the years of the Anarchy, most military conflicts either had only localised economic impact or proved only temporarily disruptive. English economic thinking remained conservative, seeing the economy as consisting of three groups: the ordines, those who fought, or the nobility laboratores, those who worked, in particular the peasantry and oratores, those who prayed, or the clerics.  Trade and merchants played little part in this model and were frequently vilified at the start of the period, although increasingly tolerated towards the end of the 13th century. 
The Medieval Warm Period followed the Norman conquest.  Average summer temperatures were higher, and rainfall marginally lower, than in the modern day and there is evidence of vineyards in southern England. 
English agriculture and the landscape Edit
Agriculture remained by far the most important part of the English economy during the 12th and 13th centuries.  There remained a wide variety in English agriculture, influenced by local geography in areas were grain could not be grown, other resources were exploited instead.  In the Weald, for example, agriculture centred on grazing animals on the woodland pastures, whilst in the Fens fishing and bird-hunting was supplemented by basket making and peat cutting. 
In some locations, such as Lincolnshire and Droitwich, salt manufacture was important, including production for the export market.  Fishing became an important trade along the English coast, especially in Great Yarmouth and Scarborough, with the herring a particularly popular catch salted at the coast, it could then be shipped inland or exported to Europe.  Piracy between competing English fishing fleets was not unknown during the period. 
Sheep were the most common farm animal in England during the period, their numbers doubling by the 14th century.  Sheep became increasingly widely used for wool, particularly in the Welsh borders, Lincolnshire and the Pennines.  Pigs remained popular on holdings because of their ability to scavenge for food.  Oxen remained the primary plough animal, with horses used more widely on farms in the south of England towards the end of the 12th century. 
Rabbits were introduced from France in the 13th century, being farmed for their meat in special warrens.  The underlying productivity of English agriculture remained low, despite the increases in food production.  Wheat prices fluctuated heavily year to year, depending on local harvests, with up to a third of the grain being produced in England potentially being for sale, much of it ending up in the growing towns. 
Development of estate management Edit
The Normans retained and reinforced the manorial system with its division between demesne and peasant lands paid for in agricultural labour.  Landowners could profit from the sales of goods from their demesne lands and a local lord could also expect to receive income from fines and local customs, whilst more powerful nobles profited from their own regional courts and rights. 
During the 12th century major landowners tended to rent out their demesne lands for money, motivated by static prices for produce and the chaos of the Anarchy between 1135-53.  This practice began to alter in the 1180s and 1190s, spurred by the greater political stability.  In the first years of John's reign, agricultural prices almost doubled, at once increasing the potential profits on the demesne estates and also increasing the cost of living for the landowners themselves.  Landowners now attempted wherever possible to bring their demesne lands back into direct management, creating a system of administrators and officials to run their new system of estates. 
Agricultural development Edit
New land was brought into cultivation to meet demand for food, including drained marshes and fens, including Romney Marsh, the Somerset Levels and the Fens royal forests from the late 12th century onwards poorer lands in the north, south-west and in Welsh Marches.  The first windmills in England began to appear along the south and east coasts in the 12th century, expanding in number in the 13th, adding to the mechanized power available to the manors. 
By 1300 it has been estimated that there were more than 10,000 watermills in England, used both for grinding corn and for fulling cloth.  Improved ways of running estates began to be circulated and were popularised in Walter de Henley's famous book, Le Dite de Hosebondrie, written around 1280. In some regions and under some landowners investment and innovation increased yields significantly through improved ploughing and fertilisers, particularly in Norfolk where yields eventually equalled later 18th century levels. 
The role of the Church in agriculture Edit
The Church in England was a major landowner throughout the medieval period and played an important part in the development of agriculture and rural trade in the first two centuries of Norman rule. The Cistercian order first arrived in England in 1128, establishing around eighty new monastic houses over the next few years the wealthy Augustinians also established themselves and expanded to occupy around 150 houses, all supported by agricultural estates, many of them in the north of England. 
By the 13th century these and other orders were acquiring new lands and had become major economic players both as landowners and as middlemen in the expanding wool trade.  In particular, the Cistercians led the development of the grange system.  Granges were separate manors in which the fields were all cultivated by the monastic officials, rather than being divided up between demesne and rented fields, and became known for trialling new agricultural techniques during the period.  Elsewhere, many monasteries had significant economic impact on the landscape, such as the monks of Glastonbury, responsible for the draining of the Somerset Levels to create new pasture land. 
The military crusading order of the Knights Templar also held extensive property in England, bringing in around £2,200 per annum by the time of their fall.  It was primarily rural holdings rented out for cash, but also some urban properties in London.  Following the dissolution of the Templar order in France by Philip IV of France, Edward II ordered their properties to be seized and passed to the Hospitaller order in 1313, but in practice many properties were taken by local landowners and the Hospital was still attempting to reclaim them twenty-five years later. 
The 12th century also saw a concerted attempt to curtail the remaining rights of unfree peasant workers and to set out their labour rents more explicitly in the form of the English Common Law.  This process resulted in the Magna Carta explicitly authorising feudal landowners to settle law cases concerning feudal labour and fines through their own manorial courts rather than through the royal courts. 
The Great Famine of 1315–1317 Edit
The Great Famine of 1315 began a number of acute crises in the English agrarian economy. The famine centred on a sequence of harvest failures in 1315, 1316 and 1321, combined with an outbreak of the murrain sickness amongst sheep and oxen between 1319–21 and the fatal ergotism fungi amongst the remaining stocks of wheat.  In the ensuing famine, many people died and the peasantry were said to have been forced to eat horses, dogs and cats as well to have conducted cannibalism against children, although these last reports are usually considered to be exaggerations. 
Sheep and cattle numbers fell by up to a half, significantly reducing the availability of wool and meat, and food prices almost doubled, with grain prices particularly inflated.  Food prices remained at similar levels for the next decade.  Salt prices also increased sharply due to the wet weather. 
Various factors exacerbated the crisis. Economic growth had already begun to slow significantly in the years prior to the crisis and the English rural population was increasingly under economic stress, with around half the peasantry estimated to possess insufficient land to provide them with a secure livelihood.  Where additional land was being brought into cultivation, or existing land cultivated more intensively, the soil may have become exhausted and useless. 
Bad weather also played an important part in the disaster 1315-6 and 1318 saw torrential rains and an incredibly cold winter, which in combination badly impacted on harvests and stored supplies.  The rains of these years was followed by draught in the 1320s and another fierce winter in 1321, complicating recovery. 
Disease, independent of the famine, was also high during the period, striking at the wealthier as well as the poorer classes. The commencement of war with France in 1337 only added to the economic difficulties.  The Great Famine firmly reversed the population growth of the 12th and 13th centuries and left a domestic economy that was "profoundly shaken, but not destroyed". 
Black Death Edit
The Black Death epidemic first arrived in England in 1348, re-occurring in waves during 1360-2, 1368-9, 1375 and more sporadically thereafter.  The most immediate economic impact of this disaster was the widespread loss of life, between around 27% mortality amongst the upper classes, to 40-70% amongst the peasantry.  [nb 1] Despite the very high loss of life, few settlements were abandoned during the epidemic itself, but many were badly affected or nearly eliminated altogether. 
The medieval authorities did their best to respond in an organised fashion, but the economic disruption was immense.  Building work ceased and many mining operations paused.  In the short term, efforts were taken by the authorities to control wages and enforce pre-epidemic working conditions. 
Coming on top of the previous years of famine, the longer term economic implications were profound.  In contrast to the previous centuries of rapid growth, the English population would not begin to recover for over a century, despite the many positive reasons for a resurgence.  The crisis would dramatically affect English agriculture for the remainder of the medieval period. 
The events of the crisis between 1290–1348 and the subsequent epidemics produced many challenges for the English economy. In the decades after the disaster, the economic and social issues arising from the Black Death combined with the costs of the Hundred Years War to produce the Peasants Revolt of 1381.  Although the revolt was suppressed it undermined many of the vestiges of the feudal economic order and the countryside became dominated by estates organised as farms, frequently owned or rented by the new economic class of the gentry. 
The English agricultural economy remained depressed throughout the 15th century, with growth coming from the greatly increased English cloth trade and manufacturing.  The economic consequences of this varied considerably from region to region, but generally London, the South and the West prospered at the expense of the Eastern and the older cities.  The role of merchants and of trade became increasingly seen as important to the country and usury became increasingly accepted, with English economic thinking increasingly influenced by Renaissance humanist theories. 
Collapse of the demesne and the creation of the farming system Edit
The agricultural sector of the English economy, still by far the largest, was transformed by the Black Death. With the shortage of manpower after the Black Death, wages for agricultural labourers rapidly increased and continued to then grow steadily throughout the 15th century.  As their incomes increased, labourers' living conditions and diet improved steadily.  England's much smaller population needed less food and the demand for agricultural products fell. The position of the larger landowners became increasingly difficult. 
Revenues from demesne lands were diminishing as demand remained low and wage costs increased nobles were also finding it more difficult to raise revenue from their local courts, fines and privileges in the years after the Peasants Revolt of 1381.  Despite attempts to increase money rents, by the end of the 14th century the rents paid from peasant lands were also declining, with revenues falling as much as 55% between the 1380s and 1420s. 
Noble and church landowners responded in various ways. They began to invest significantly less in agriculture and land was increasingly taken out of production altogether.  In some cases entire settlements were abandoned, with nearly 1,500 villages lost during this period.  They also abandoned the system of direct management of their demesne lands, that had begun back in the 1180s, and turned instead to "farming" out large blocks of land for fixed money rents. Initially livestock and land were rented out together under "stock and lease" contracts, but this was found to be increasingly impractical and contracts for farms became centred purely on land. 
As the major estates transformed, a new economic grouping, the gentry, became evident, many of them benefiting from the opportunities of the farming system. Land distribution remained heavily unequal estimates suggest that the English nobility owned 20% of English lands, the Church and Crown 33%, the gentry 25%, with the remainder owned by peasant farmers.  Agriculture itself continued to innovate, and the loss of many English oxen to the murrain sickness in the crisis increased the number of horses being used to plough fields in the 14th century, a significant improvement on older methods. 
We often talk about the importance of the industrial revolution and how it changed the world around us, but not many know that such a revolution occurred during the high middle ages. The invention of the heavy plough (described above) presented a unique implement which transformed the difficult, low-yielding, clay-rich soil of northern Europe from a clearly inferior soil to the most high-yielding farmland a farmer could wish for. Clay is naturally an incredibly fertile soil, but due to its heaviness it was difficult to turn and renew, and thus clay-rich farmland became gradually more infertile. The invention of the heavy plough changed this in fact it was, almost by itself, entirely responsible for an explosion of population in northern Europe. It was probably the reason that, even with the diminished number of farmers after the outbreak of the Black Death plague, the population managed to re-stabilise and eventually sky-rocket. You can read more about this phenomenon in the article “The Heavy Plough and the Agricultural Revolution in Medieval Europe”, linked in the references below.
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New lands and crops
Not only were forests cleared and heavy land cultivated, but, in the Netherlands, reclamation from marshland and from the sea was extended. Terps, artificially made patches of higher land on which houses and barns could be built, were made at a very early date in the midst of the marshes. Ditches to drain the fens were dug in the 10th century. Polders, land reclaimed from the sea, are first recorded in the 12th century.
In Spain the Moors introduced new crops and a new breed of sheep, the Merino, that was to make Spanish wool famous throughout Europe. New crops included sugarcane, rice, cotton, and some subtropical fruits, especially citrus. Grapevines and olive groves flourished in the south, as did the vines the Romans had introduced to the valleys of the Moselle and Rhine rivers. In the 12th century Venice became a major cotton-manufacturing city, processing cotton from the Mediterranean area into cloth for sale in central Europe. Germany also became a cotton-manufacturing centre in the Middle Ages.
Widespread expansion of farmed land occurred throughout western Europe between the 10th century and the later years of the 13th. German and Dutch settlers were encouraged to take up holdings eastward toward the Baltic countries and south to the Carpathians. In France, new villages were built and new farms carved out of the forest, while in England a great deal of land on the boundaries of the open fields was taken in and cultivated. All this new cultivation was carried out with the same old implements and tools the same crops were cultivated and the same animals bred as before. In remote and desolate places, monastic organizations created great estates. These estates were formed to feed growing populations rather than to improve technical skills. A new literature of farming arose, directed to the attention of great lords and ecclesiastical magnates rather than to the illiterate majority of husbandmen. These bright prospects, however, were dimmed in the 14th century by a combination of calamities.
The 14th and 15th centuries
The 14th and 15th centuries witnessed the final leasing of demesne lands. This movement may be said to have begun in Wiltshire in the late 13th or early 14th century. First to go were the stretches of pasture, small plots of arable, and the special perquisites of the lord such as mills, fisheries, marl pits, stone quarries, or rabbit warrens. Then the whole block of the demesne arable and meadow was let, usually preceded or accompanied by the freeing of the villeins from all demands for week-work and for heavy boon services. Finally the demesne flock also passed to the tenant of the manorial lands. The process was generally completed in Wiltshire by the mid-15th century at latest, and numerous examples are found from 50 to 80 years earlier.
The chief tenant of the demesne was frequently a former villein or customary tenant gathering land under his control. Very often he was an erstwhile reeve of the manor, sometimes a higher official, a bailiff or stock-keeper or receiver-general of one of the great baronies. (fn. 305) Occasionally he was a member of the old manorial famulus, such as the shepherd of Aldbourne, joint lessee with another tenant of the vill in 1469, or the 'hogward' who took the demesne lands of Berwick St. James in 1430. There are several examples of a whole group of villagers, many of them former bondsmen, taking over the demesne lands together. Thus at Poole Keynes in 1410–11 various parcels of the demesne meadow were let or 'sold' by the year separately, but the main portion of arable and meadow was rented by 5 tenants, all of them virgaters holding bond land. (fn. 306) Likewise the demesne at Oaksey was first leased in a main block with a few parcels of land extracted to let to individual tenants. In 1410–11 the reeve and a second customary virgater leased the demesne here together, but between 1425 and 1466 the land was consistently let as a unit to a group varying from 5 to 9 in number, of whom the majority were former villeins. (fn. 307) As early as the 13th century—some time after 1242— although the exact date is not known, the whole manor of Corsham had been leased to the customary tenants. (fn. 308) A similar grant of the manor to the whole homage of the vill occurred in the case of Grittleton (fn. 309) before the year 1189 this lease was not revoked when the demesne plots on other manors of the Abbey of Glastonbury were resumed by the abbot in the 13th century. Whether in such cases the villagers farmed the land co-operatively as a group or divided it into portions for each man to work himself with the aid of his family and such labour as he could hire, we have no means of knowing.
Prior to and accompanying the leasing of the demesne lands an active traffic in land had begun in the 13th century and gathered momentum during the 14th and 15th centuries. These transactions included sales and sub-letting among the free, the leasing of additional plots, and the exchange of holdings among the unfree. By the 14th century, in the place of one or two tenants-in-chief, there appear a number of sub-tenants holding portions of manorial property in parcels scattered throughout contiguous or widely separated demesnes. Thus a certain Thomas of Winterbourne, who died in 1372, held a messuage, a carucate of land, and 2 acres of meadow in Winterbourne Earls from the Earl of Salisbury, and in Hurdcott, nearby, ½ acre of meadow from the Prior of Bradenstoke. In Ford (Laverstock) he held a messuage, a dovecot, a fulling mill, 6 acres of arable, and 2 of meadow from the Abbess of Wilton. From the Bishop of Salisbury in the same place he held a messuage and 21 acres of land, and from Hugh Cheyney a messuage, a carucate of arable, and 11 acres of meadow. In Winterbourne Dauntsey he held a messuage and 31 acres of land from John Dauntsey. (fn. 310)
At Cholderton, which formed part of the lands of Amesbury Priory, several tenants were engaged in this exchange of lands and leases in the latter half of the 14th century. A certain John Vyrley granted a messuage and 2 virgates to Robert le Copener in 1351 two clerks on this manor in 1381 conveyed 3 messuages, 3 carucates, and 5 virgates of land and £6 of rents in Cholderton, Charlton, Rushall, Upavon, Netheravon, Hilcott (North Newnton), and Manningford, together with the advowson of the church of Cholderton, to John and Faith Skillyng and their heirs. Eight years later, in 1389, further property in Cholderton comprising a messuage and 3½ acres of land were granted to John and Faith Skillyng by Robert and Isabel atte Green. (fn. 311)
It is obvious that this subdivision of the manorial lands led to a complex situation with regard to the rents and services belonging to them, for these had to be divided between the various holders of the land. With the leasing of the demesne, labour services, however, took on a new significance, not as a source of labour, but when commuted for a money payment, as a source of income. On many Wiltshire manors by the later 13th century the only week-work claimed was in the summer and autumn for haymaking and harvest. This was the case, for instance, at Calstone (Calne), Rowden (Chippenham), on both moieties of the manor of Coombe Bisset, on at least some land in Damerham, at Keevil, Somerford (Somerford Mauduyt), Rood Ashton, Wexcombe (Grafton), Burbage, Lydiard Tregoze, Stratford and Newton Tony, East Grimstead, and Cherhill. (fn. 312) On the other hand at Salterton (in Durnford), Winterbourne Earls, and Ashton Gifford, the summer and autumn works were commuted by 1299, although the villeins might still be called upon for other services. (fn. 313) At Rockley in 1274 the virgaters owed 'certain works' from 1 August to Michaelmas, performed 3 carrying services in the year, and hoed the demesne corn for 2 days. (fn. 314) This was the sum total of their services. At Sutton Mandeville in 1276 the only service mentioned is that of 5 customary tenants who had to sow ½ acre of wheat in the year. (fn. 315) By 1300 at Mere and by 1307 at Rood Ashton, and on part of the manor of Heytesbury, the work of the chief tenants had been entirely commuted, only the cottars at Rood Ashton being called upon to work in the hayfields and act as messengers for 1 day in the year. (fn. 316) At Chilton Foliat by 1307 the customary tenants owed only suit of court. (fn. 317) On the estates of the Bishopric of Winchester by 1250, 4 virgaters and semi-virgaters were paying a double rent to cover all their services, and a custumal of 1250 lists 13 tenants at East Knoyle holding bondland then freed from all labour dues, and for which an increased rental varying from 6d. for a croft to 2s. 6d. for ½ virgate was paid. (fn. 318) The works of customary tenants remitted annually are a fairly frequent item on the account rolls of the later 13th century, and increase rapidly during the first half of the 14th century. Nevertheless, there is no record of a general and final commutation on these ecclesiastical manors. On the other hand, on many of the lay manors, commutation was complete by the early years of the 14th century. Thus at Steeple Ashton all labour dues were commuted by 1308 (fn. 319) at Elcombe (in Wroughton), Wootton Rivers, Stoke Farthing (in Broad Chalke), Fisherton de la Mere, Upton Lovell, on two-thirds of the manors of Littleton Pannell (in West Lavington) and of Knighton (in Broad Chalke), commutation had taken place by 1318, and in Keevil by 1327. In every case it was stated that the works had been commuted for a certain rent in money, or that the payments were made for all rents and services with no works owing. (fn. 320) In these cases a mass commutation of the services of the whole community appears to have been granted.
A later instance of this freeing of the whole village community at one stroke occurs on the manor of Castle Combe. Here in 1340 the holders of 2 virgates apiece still worked every day between 10 August and Michaelmas, and at other seasons of the year they had to harrow for 3 days, weed for 2 before lunch, perform carrying services, and make 2 qrs. of malt, receiving 2 bundles of firewood from the lord of the manor for this purpose. The virgaters and semi-virgaters were called upon for similar services, working slightly shorter hours the Mondaymen mowed the meadows and worked at haymaking only 4 tenants holding small paddocks and crofts or a few acres of the demesne and 12 cottars were paying sums in rent to cover all their services. By 1454 the customary tenants were all paying full money rents and were only liable to bear the office of reeve 'now called bailiff', if elected by the homage of the vill. (fn. 321) The bailiff's task when thus chosen was merely to collect the manorial rents and dues.
On other manors certain services lingered on into the late 15th century. At Collingbourne Ducis, for instance, a frequent item in the 15th-century account rolls is 6s. allowed for the works of 12 virgaters carrying 6 cartloads of timber from the lord's wood on that manor to Everleigh. Besides shearing, this was the only service claimed here the meadows were mown ad tascham, and a cart was hired to carry the wool of the manor to Aldbourne. (fn. 322)
The only services required at Aldbourne itself in this century were for the sheep clipping and shearing, but the 32 customary tenants at Wanborough still made the hay in certain meadows belonging to Aldbourne. Mildenhall retained 3 autumn precarie, one of 24, one of 20, and one of 18 persons to cut, bind, and carry the demesne corn, and extra labour was hired in addition. At Heytesbury the Lords Hungerford likewise retained the autumn precarie of 36 men and women, and used freely their right to call upon the customary tenants for shearing and for mowing the hay, although additional labour was also hired for these purposes, and the dipping and clipping of the lambs was performed ad tascham. Teffont Evias retained certain mowing services, and Everleigh aid in carting, but at Berwick St. James and Amesbury only hired labour was employed according to the 15th-century accounts. It is possible that a certain conservatism prevailed at Great Cheverell, for there an account roll of 1437–8 shows that not merely are all demesne tenements, lands, meadows, and pastures farmed, but also all the works attached to the tenements. (fn. 323)
The tendency in the 14th century for the lord of the manor to lease rather than cultivate the demesne directly, naturally changed the position of the tenantry. The villagers were now able to offer their services in a wider market and could work as individuals to improve their position. As a result the 14th century was, to some extent, a time of upheaval and unrest, intensified in the middle years by the plague of 1349. With the steep rise in mortality caused by the Black Death more and more holdings fell vacant, and the account rolls show that landlords were left with derelict and decaying tenements on their hands for the next few years. For the most part, however, they were taken up again after a little time. In 1334 there were 41 tenants in Durrington (fn. 324) by the end of 1349, 18 holdings in that place were vacant. (fn. 325) On the manor of Tidworth in the same year no rents of assize were paid because all the tenants of the manor were dead. (fn. 326) Only 1 free man was left alive on the moiety of the manor of Broughton Gifford in August 1349, all the others, both free and bond, had perished. (fn. 327) The 7 free tenants on a moiety of the manor of West Dean and East Grimstead were dead of the pestilence in 1350, and the tenements were vacant for want of purchasers, worth nothing and deteriorating. Five bond tenants here had also succumbed and their holdings were vacant indeed, only 3 tenants were left alive. (fn. 328)
The restiveness of the lesser tenantry in the later part of the 14th century may be inferred from many entries on the manorial court rolls. Neifs who had fled from the manor in pursuit of higher wages or of freedom, or who had broken the law by demanding payment in excess of the statutory rates, are frequent among the entries of the period. One tenant at Wedhampton (Urchfont) who left his 2 virgates of bondland, had felled various trees without licence to sell the wood before decamping, carried away two hinges of iron, and had allowed his tenement to lapse into ruin. (fn. 329) In 1385 the whole homage of Urchfont, Wedhampton, and Eastcott refused the ancient custom of choosing a fit man to make the beer for the Abbess of St. Mary's, Winchester, and 6 of the tenants were amerced for the dilapidated condition of their tenements. (fn. 330) On the manor of Boscombe no tenant would hold land in bondage in 1362. (fn. 331) There was trouble at Stockton in 1354 and 1355 with several of the customary tenants for their bad harvest work, and their claims for wages above the statutory rate (fn. 332) one repeatedly refused to render any of the services owing from his holding.
Among the lists of offenders against the Statute of Labourers in 1353 (fn. 333) were a number of farmhands whose occupation is given, in addition to the many names which appear without any indication of their owners' calling. Threshers, reapers, haymakers, and those described merely as labourers, were the most frequently at fault only 3 oxherds, 1 swineherd, and 4 shepherds appear among the delinquents. In the hundred of Chippenham 21 people throughout the whole of the past year had refused to serve on the customary terms which the statute attempted to enforce, a large proportion being women, and 100 more had taken wages in excess of the legal rate. Five tenants of Malmesbury left the town in the beginning of the autumn to escape work in the harvest fields the carter of the Priory of St. Margaret, Marlborough, abandoned his service and refused to appear before the prior. A labourer in the hundred of Highworth and Cricklade left the service of his lord and the county without permission. Grain liveries were taken in excess with a proportion paid in wheat instead of barley at Upavon 13 mowers and reapers took wages exceeding the legal rate by sums varying from 5d. to 10d. for the work performed. Richard Donnyng of the hundred of Highworth and Cricklade tempted away a labourer from his master by offering him a wage of 20s. a year and his food.
The manorial account rolls (fn. 334) afford constant testimony to the rise in wages which, beginning in the early years of the 14th century, increased rapidly as labour became more scarce towards its close, and continued in the opening decades of the 15th century. Thus an oxherd at Downton who received 2s. and 6½ qrs. of barley a year in the 13th century was getting 4s. and a reduced grain allowance of 3½ to 4 qrs. of barley in 1304 by 1415 this had risen to 5s. and 5 qrs. of barley. A carter, with a wage of 3s. and 6½ qrs. of grain in the 13th century, and 4s. and 3½ to 4 qrs. of barley in 1304, could demand 10s. and 5 qrs. of grain at the end of the 14th century. Ploughmen, with a rent remittance of 1s. 8d. to 2s. in the 13th century, were receiving 3s. and a rent allowance after 1349. The wages of a carter at Bishopstone rose from 3s. and 5 to 6½ qrs. of grain in the 13th century to 4s. and 5 qrs. of barley in the years immediately following 1349, and 6s. and 5 qrs. of barley in 1415. At Heytesbury the chief shepherd's wages rose from 12s., 4½ qrs. of grain, and 3 fleeces in 1384–5, to 16s., 4½ qrs. of grain and 1 fleece in 1403–4 the swineherd's cash wages in the same period rose from 4s. to 5s., but his grain allowance of 3½ qrs. of barley ceased the dairyman's wages grew from 3s. to 7s. a year. The remuneration of the bailiff at Teffont Evias was increased from 13s. 4d. to 20s. between 1401 and 1411, and the carter's from 10s. to 13s. 4d. with an undiminished grain allowance of 4 qrs. and 2 bushels. Similarly the price of day labour and piece-work rates rose in proportion. In 1296 wheat was threshed at 2d. a quarter at Downton, barley at 1d., and oats at ½d. by 1400 the rate was 3d. for a quarter of wheat, 2d. for barley, and 1½d. for oats. (fn. 335)
There is little doubt that the more enterprising manorial tenants in the later 14th and the 15th centuries were in a strong position. Wages were being forced up and rents show a marked tendency to fall, particularly after 1450. (fn. 336) Thus at Aldbourne the decreased and 'decayed' rent items on the account rolls increase from £2 15s. 2½d. in 1432 to over £7 in the period 1437–66, after which this item falls slightly (£6 17s. 6d.). At Oaksey these decreases grow from £1 17s. 7d. in 1425 to a sum varying between £5 8s. 5d. and £6 6s. 10d. between 1438 and 1480 at Teffont Evias the decreased rents more than doubled between 1449 and 1465, and again increased by nearly 50 per cent. between 1465 and 1474. At Winterbourne Stoke the defects of rent leapt up from 10s. in 1435 to £9 18s. 8½d. in 1466. At Heytesbury, between 1443 and 1455, the entry for defects of rent grew from £3–£4 to £7–£8. A messuage and a virgate at Oaksey, which had previously been leased for £1, brought in only 13s. 4d. after 1425, and the rent of Mondaylands here dropped from 5s. to 3s. 4d. in the same period, falling again to 1s. in 1460 the rent of a parcel of meadow declined from 1s. 4d. to 8d., and of a cottage and curtilage from 1s. to 2d. in 1452. After lying vacant for a time the rent of ½ virgates fell from 10s. to 7s. or 6s. 8d., and of virgates from 22s. to 15s. or from 18s. to 14s.
By 1425 the rents of the ½-virgate tenements at Aldbourne had fallen from 8s. 7d. to 3s., and of virgates from 8s. to 6s. if additional plots of land were held, the decline was from 10s. to 6s. after 1425, and in one case from 14s. 1d. to 8s. 8d. At Heytesbury cottage rents had dropped from 1s. to 8d. by 1421, and tenements with ½ virgates from 8s. 7d. to 3s. by 1415. Even in the thriving and growing cloth village of Castle Combe, where 50 new houses and 2 mills were built between 1408 and 1460, (fn. 337) rents give little sign of rising. It was by the fines imposed for tenants entering into a holding that the lord of the manor tried to recoup his losses. At Castle Combe these rise to £5 or £8 even on entry into a new cottage a tenant might have to pay anything from 33s. 4d. to £5 in the mid-15th century, (fn. 338) while at Stockton in 1339 and 1340 the virgaters and semi virgaters paid sums varying from £2 16s. 8d. to £5 6s. 8d. for entry into their tenements. (fn. 339) In the less populated villages the position was different entry fines ranging from 6d. to 13s. 4d. were common for the smaller holdings, but the fines were everywhere irregular and apparently quite arbitrary at Urchfont, 2 cotsetlands which had been joined together changed hands for a fine of 10 marks, and a messuage with a curtilage and ½ hide of land in Wedhampton for £10 in 1391 and 1392, whilst for entry into other holdings in this manor the rate was 6d., 1s. 8d., 2s. 4d., 6s. 8d., and 13s. 4d. (fn. 340)
A serious problem facing the lord of the manor was that of the vacant holdings left on his hands with a declining population. Many of these, particularly on the poorer lands, could not be relet as a whole, even at a reduced rental, so that henceforth the socalled 'decayed rents' form an item on the majority of the surviving accounts. As a result, as the 15th century advanced, a movement which had begun 80 or 100 years earlier to break up the larger customary tenements and lease them in small parcels to a number of villagers gained momentum. A fresh field for investment of their ready money was thus opened to the tenantry, and these morcellated holdings play an important part in the building up of a small, propertied class among the peasantry. Thus, for example, a substantial holding at Manningford Bohun was divided among 5 tenants of that village in the 1460's at Upavon, a cottage and 2 half-virgates, formerly held by 1 man, were split up among 9 of his fellow villagers in 1474–5, in plots ranging from 1 to 4 acres, and a messuage, a virgate, and 2 ½ virgates in the same place, again formerly held by 1 man, were let in strips of 1 to 2 acres to 9 different tenants in the same year. Two years later another tenement here, comprising 2 messuages, a virgate, and ½ virgate, which had been vacant for a long period, was broken up and leased, part being allotted to 4 tenants, and 22 acres let to 'divers persons'. (fn. 341)
A similar example is to be found at Poole Keynes where in 1472–3 a messuage and a virgate which had lacked a tenant for several years was distributed among 4 people, and a year later was further divided among five. At Heytesbury, as early as 1365, a messuage and a ¼ virgate of land was parcelled out among 6 tenants, while at Teffont Evias in 1463 a ½ virgate was let in little plots among several of the inhabitants. (fn. 342)
The reverse of the picture reveals the property thus collected under the control of individual customary tenants and small freemen. But in Wiltshire it is the customary tenants rather than the free who make the acquisitions. A rental and survey of Upavon for the year 1396–7 shows 8 of the 46 villeins collecting land and cottages on a considerable scale, and 20 on a rather lesser one, while only 2 of the 7 free tenants were adding to their holdings at all. (fn. 343) The size of these little territories varied from 3 separate holdings of an acre apiece, 2 cottages, a messuage and virgate with a 'parcel of meadow' and a purpresture, to a couple of cottages and a few acres. Four of the villein tenants, who died in the plague of 1349 at Bishopstone, held 2 virgates each, 2 others had 2 virgates of bondland and 1 virgate of 'bordland' apiece, and another held a virgate of villein land (terra nativi) and a ½ virgate which had previously been let separately. At Downton a victim of the plague had held a fulling mill, 10 acres of arable, a croft of 36 acres, 6 other crofts in the waste, and 10 acres of 'bordland'. Twenty-one of the villein holdings had a few additional acres of 'bordland' or a 'garston' or 'hamme' of meadow added to the original tenement. At East Knoyle in 1395, 1 tenant was leasing a messuage, 2 crofts, a small grange, and 2 small purprestures. Under the item concerned with the reletting of villein lands at money rents on an account roll of Oaksey of 1410–11 there appear the names of 12 villagers, most of them villeins, holding various plots which had formerly been in the occupation of other tenants. (fn. 344) A woman, with the status of a customary half-virgater of Winterbourne Earls, had, by 1363, gathered into her hands 17 acres in addition to her own holding in little parcels ranging from 1 to 4 acres in size—all plots which had previously belonged to other tenants. (fn. 345) A second halfvirgater of this village, likewise a villein, held in addition to his customary acres a toft with a curtilage and 12 acres of land formerly the holding of another man, and two other tofts which previously had been let separately.
At both Winterbourne Earls in 1363 and at Oaksey in 1346, some of these holdings were let by copy of court roll, the lessee thereby assuming the status of a copy-holder at a life-term, instead of renting the land annually or at will. At Heytesbury in the 1430's, 2 men were leasing additional land for a term of three lives, one holding 9 acres, a croft, a tenement, and other cottages, and one 24 acres, a close, a cottage, and a messuage. A certain Thomas le Bonde of Amesbury in 1364 was the lessee of a messuage and customary ½ virgate of 23 acres, a croft of land, 7 acres of demesne in separate parcels of 2 to 3 acres, and of two several pastures 20 acres in circumference the additional property (over and above this ½ virgate) was held at a life-term. (fn. 346)
Nevertheless, despite the subdivision of old holdings, on many manors vacant tenements were still left on the hands of the landlords. In account roll after account roll of the 15th century we find houses and holdings in manu domini for lack of tenants. It is uncertain how far land was passing out of cultivation, but in those few instances where sufficient documents have survived to yield a comparison between the returns to the demesne farmer in the 13th or early 14th centuries and the 15th century the tendency is for the profits of demesne farming to show a decline in the latter period with the hint of a slight recovery appearing in the closing decades of the 15th century. The great price rise in farm produce was followed by the slump of the late 14th century. From the aspect of the landowner or the large farmer trying to run his own demesne, the late 14th and 15th centuries were a period of recession, of an attempt to stabilize conditions and profits, to retract rather than to expand. As we have seen, most of the manorial overlords preferred to withdraw from the activities of direct farming of their demesnes, and to look henceforth to their rent rolls rather than to the returns from the sale of grain and wool as their source of income.
It was the tenant, the former serf or small freeman, whose position was improving in the 15th century. The peasants of the Wiltshire villages appear to have availed themselves, with varying degrees of success, of the new opportunities, struggling for higher wages, acquiring additional land at low rentals, and gaining freedom from the onerous burden of week-work on the demesne acres.
14 Mad Facts About Medieval England
But what was life like on the home front in Medieval England?
Read on for 14 facts that might give you an insight into a day-in-the-life of a medieval peasant – “peasant” in fact being a 15th century French term comprising freemen, serfs, cotters and bordars, and slaves.
1. Medieval courts were fair(ish)
Law and order was harsh in Medieval England, however before being subjected to any deadly punishment – these ranging from the rack to thumbscrews – the accused would undergo one of three ordeals.
These included the ‘ordeal by fire’ whereby an accused person held a red-hot iron bar and walked three paces if the accused’s hand healed after three days then they were innocent, if not, they were guilty.
There was the ‘ordeal by water’ where an accused person was tied up and thrown into a pond, if they floated then they were guilty.
Finally, the ‘ordeal by combat’ was used by noblemen who would fight with their accuser whoever won was right, whoever lost was usually left for dead.
2. Micropigs existed
Medieval farm animals were undernourished and so small that a full-grown bull was around the size of a modern calf, and sheep were only a third of the size they are today. While modern sheep yield around 7.3 pounds (3.32 kg) of wool, medieval fleece yield was sometimes less than one pound per animal.
3. Hallucinogenic bread
Summer was a difficult time for villagers who often ran out of grain before the new crop could be harvested, so had to resort to old rye to make bread. Unfortunately, stored rye could be infected with ergot, a fungus that caused hallucinations, gangrene and even death.
4. Animals were criminals
There are records of animals being taken to court for killing people, as well as smaller crimes. Examples include mice having been publicly tried for stealing part of the harvest, and a swarm of locusts being convicted also for eating crops.
5. Clown shoes were ‘in’
From the 1330s onward, men considered long-toed shoes as the height of fashion. By the late 14th century, toes were so long they had to be reinforced with wool, moss or whalebone nobles had to tie their toes to their leggings in order to get around, while crusaders would chop them off in order to escape the enemy.
6. They predicted the future
Roger Bacon was a 13th century Franciscan friar who, in his Epistola de Secretis Operibus Artis et Naturae, et de Nullitate Magiae (Letter on the Secret Workings of Art and Nature, and on the Vanity of Magic) wrote that in the future “cars can be made so that without animals they will move with unbelievable rapidity,” and “flying machines can be constructed so that a man sits in the midst of the machine revolving some engines by which artificial wings are made to beat the air like a flying bird.”
Bacon’s other predictions included submarines, diving suits, steamships and telescopes.
7. Football was banned and archery was compulsory
After King Edward II banned football, his successor King Edward III brought about the Archery Law of 1363 which commanded that all male subjects practice archery for two hours every Sunday under the supervision of the local clergy.
8. Swans were fair game for the rich
Nowadays our Royal swans are strictly off limits. However in medieval times they were a delicacy of the upper classes, recipes including ‘Roasted Swan in Entrail Sauce,’ ‘Christmas Swan Pie’ and ‘Roast Cygnet’ (stuffed with beef). Also on the menu might be peacocks, turtle doves, cranes, storks, sparrows, herons and blackbirds.
9. “London Bridge is falling down!”
One of the earliest versions of London Bridge was destroyed in 1014 when the Saxons rowed up the Thames, tied ropes to it, and dragged it down. While this event helped the Anglo-Saxon King regain control of London, it’s also possible that it may have been the inspiration for the nursery rhyme “London Bridge is falling down.”
10. Bears roamed the countryside
England used to be the native home of brown bears, but they became extinct around the 11th century, before having been imported back into the country for sport.
11. Medieval people had savings accounts
The Middle English term “pygg” referred to a type of clay with which jars or pots were made. “pygg jars” were used for saving coins, and by the 18th century, were known as a “pig banks” or “piggy banks.”
12. One name was enough
Prior to the introduction of surnames in England in 1066, everyone had just one name. When surnames were introduced they would often include a nickname – such as “Richard Red” (Richard having had red hair). If Richard went bald over time, his name could change to “Richard Ball” (ball meaning bald in Middle English). In time, the system evolved to a point where people would take the same name as their father.
13. Sculptures were drainpipes
Contrary to popular belief, gargoyles were not added to churches to ward off evil spirits, but to drain rain water! Projecting out from the building, rain would flow out their mouths and away from the building, rather than down the walls therefore causing damage.
14. The people weren’t that filthy
Medieval English people believed in the motto, “cleanliness is next to Godliness,” and if they could, would bathe regularly in public baths. This cleanliness declined in the 16th century when public baths were opposed by the Protestants due to high levels of prostitution.
I’ve always loved the “living history” sites we’ve found in different places around the world. In the U.S., Colonial Williamsburg is perhaps the most famous, but my personal favorite is the Plimoth Plantation [sic], operating since 1947 near Plymouth, Massachusetts.
It’s populated by people who have taken on the names and identities of the 17 th -century colonists who came to this place on the Mayflower, and they’re happy to talk to you and answer questions, intelligently and at great length, about how they grow food, the hardships of their lives, their aspirations in coming to America, and their relationships with the Native American Wampanoags.
(Just don’t ask them about anything that happened in the world after about 1622 CE. The actors will look back at you with a blank stare or comically misinterpret your question in the context of their historical reality. Talking to them about TV or the Internet might just make you sound guilty of witchcraft!)
A living medieval farm town in the Deep Heart of France
I was especially happy, then, to come upon the little medieval “reconstruction” of a 15 th -century village at Xaintrie . It’s near the little village of St. Julien aux Bois in the Corrèze, “snuggled” (as the local signs say) “between the Dordogne Valley and the mountains of the Auvergne”.
It’s not exactly a “living history” site in the same way Williamsburg and Plimoth Plantation are – there aren’t character actors to talk to. It is, though, a working farm – or rather a collection of small working farms, with cows and donkeys grazing quietly in fields behind rough wooden fences, pigs rooting in the mud, chickens roaming freely, and ducks swimming in the pond around the old mill.
It’s also a collection of medieval homes and farm buildings, painstakingly recreated by Pierre Gire, a man with a remarkable vision. He says he spent 25 years researching and planning the project before he and his father started construction and opened the site in 2006. As Gire told France Bleu:
“These were just woods. There wasn’t even a stone here. I worked with my father and we built all this ourselves. The same thing done by craftsmen would have cost hundreds of thousands of Euros.”
The construction project continues. There’s a pile of limestone blocks on the site, ready to be used in other buildings. Mr. Gire has even taken apart a 15 th -century house in a nearby village, stone by stone, with the intention of rebuilding it here at Xaintrie.
Step back in time to 1478
You’re invited to imagine life in a place like this 500 years ago. The visit starts with a multimedia presentation about a stranger’s arrival in town (and here you do get a sense of how people might have looked and dressed in the Middle Ages as the actors “introduce” you to their village). After the show, you’re on your own to walk the dirt paths winding through the different pastures, animal enclosures, houses, and public buildings that make up Xaintrie.
There’s a rudimentary mill house, with all the mechanical parts required to grind grain on a heavy stone wheel. Signs say the place was leased to a Mr. Champeil for a period of 8 years at a cost of 6 bushels of rye per year the notary who owned the mill also provided a donkey at a cost of 23 livres to service the operation. There’s a bed set up next to the millstone these were people who didn’t have the luxury of having a place to work and a separate place to live.
In fact, that’s evident in other buildings on the trail. A barn stuffed with hay is also the bunkhouse for the farmer in the dark recesses of another house under a heavy thatched roof, the renters spent their nights in a single room with 2 beds (“of poor-quality wood”) and a table.
The signs for these different buildings point to one great concentration of wealth in the little village: the Notary. In 1478, this office was held by one Jean Puydarrel, and he owned almost all the land that make up the collective farms of Xaintrie.
His official job was that of a scribe, drafting all kinds of civil agreements and legal documents and setting his seal to them as proof of their authenticity. His house tells the story of his importance in the village it’s still one big room, but with wooden floors instead of dirt, a massive canopied bed for privacy, and heavy wood furniture.
Notary's house at Xaintrie
Interior - the Notary's House at Xaintrie
Louis XI was King of France, but it’s hard to imagine what influence he could have had in a place so isolated, so quiet, so far from Paris. In fact, though, the country’s administrative structures were organized well enough to reach into the pockets of even these remote farmers. Common people were allowed to hunt only small animals like rabbits and songbirds bigger game was reserved for nobility.
And there was a complex system of taxation. The common farmer paid for his house and garden in real money, but the tax on the land he rented was taken out in goods like grain and chickens and hauled off to the warehouses of the local Lord. A special annual “tribute” was collected and paid to the great Vicomtes at Turenne . A table posted at Xaintrie explains how it all worked:
- Rye, wheat and oats – due at the end of August
- Chickens – due at Christmas
- Eggs – handed over at Easter
- Beets – due on November 1 st
- Hemp – paid in September
- Wool and wax – due in June
- Silver – on Saint Andrew’s day at the end of November
How the people of Xaintrie lived
All that means that productive farming was the only possible way to eke out an existence in this rural world. From the signs posted around the different animal enclosures, it’s easy to guess that the cows, pigs, sheep, goats, and chickens roaming these farms today are much bigger and fatter than their medieval counterparts would have been.
(The archeological evidence suggests, for example, that most adult sheep would have weighed only about 20 pounds and yielded maybe two pounds of wool each year. Cows might have been only 3 or 4 feet tall and were expected to work in front of a plow for 12 – 15 years before finally being slaughtered for their meat.)
It makes sense, then, that people on these farms would have become master gardeners to fill out their diets (and pay the taxes required of them). The set-up at Xaintrie pays homage to their knowledge and skills there’s a garden area with over 350 plant varieties (many of them genuinely antique), and all over the farms there are signs showing all the uses people found for the things that grew there.
Which nuts could be ground up and added to hot water to cure a stomach-ache? Which flowers had toxic properties that made them good natural insecticides? Which plants could be transformed into dyes for coloring wool, and which made food taste better? The level of practical, applied science in the everyday of the working medieval farmer could be mind-boggling!
It's good to be queen of the dung heap!
And of course, even in a village this tiny, there’s a church. It’s only one room, dark and cramped like all the buildings around it. There wouldn’t have been any place to sit (except for a bench along the walls for the infirm), so parishioners stood up for mass and knelt on the bare floor for prayers.
A rough wooden beam with a statue of Christ on the cross is the only visual cue separating the altar area from the rest of the room. Still, it’s a building with enough dignified decoration and light to give that medieval farmer the sense he or she was in a place removed from the working world just outside its walls.
And it’s just one clue to how communal life would have been in a village like this. Individual farmhouses are clustered around on open “commons”, a shared pasture where everyone’s animals would have grazed together. The mill-house is part of a shared infrastructure, but there’s also a community water well and a shared bread oven for everyone in the village. It would have been impossible to have much real privacy in a place like this every person’s business would also have been the business of all the neighbors.
A drive into the past at Xaintrie
As with many of the places I cover on this blog, you have to work to get to St Julien aux Bois and the farms of Xaintrie. It’s and hour-and-a-half drive from Brive-la-Gaillard, on twisting one-lane départemental roads on the day I went, the village just before St Julien had thrown a little carnival up on the town’s main intersection, and the resulting detour threw my car’s SatNav system into a spiral.
The drive was worth it, though. This is a particularly old and wild part of France, settled since humans first appeared in Europe. It’s also rich in French history the incredible “gated community for aristocrats” at Les Tours de Merle are not far from the medieval farms, and the ancient market town of Salers is just over the border with the Auvergne.
But come if you can, even if it’s only for a day-trip to these farms. This is a remarkable example of how one man’s vision – you might even call it an obsession – can be executed in wood and stone. They claim about 20,000 visitors come here every year now, and I have to believe most of them think Pierre Gire accomplished his goal:
“This puts the visitor in an atmosphere in which, during the course of the tour, he can get the 21 st century out of his head.”
It’s well-known that I’m a city boy to the core although I did grow up on a 100-year-old farm in southern Oklahoma, I’ll always prefer the bright lights and rush of the bigger population centers. Still, I found something deeply satisfying, even calming, about walking through the cluster of farms at Xaintrie. The quiet is profound – that kind of “quiet” that only exists in the country, with insects buzzing and the occasional rustle of wind in the grass.
And it gave me all the elements I needed to go off in my imagination to picture the lives of Xaintrie’s inhabitants in the 15 th century – lives with specific purpose, predictable daily rhythms of chores, the cycles of planting and harvesting… Viewed from our comfortable modern lives, this medieval world looks hard and forbidding, and most of us wouldn’t like to trade places with these ancestors. I wonder, though -- would they have considered their lives “hard”? Or would they have just thought of them as…well, “just life”?
Have you found a “living history” site that speaks to you in a special way? Are there places in your travels around France that somehow transport you back to a different time? Tell us about your experiences in the comments section below.
And while you’re here – please take a second to share this post with someone else who’s interested in the people, places, culture, and history of France.
Farming in the Middle Ages
Farming in the Middle Ages - Agriculture in the Middle Ages - Life in the Middle Ages - History of Farming in the Middle Ages - Information about Farming in the Middle Ages - Farming in the Middle Ages Facts - Farming in the Middle Ages Info - Middle Ages era - Middle Ages Life - Middle Ages Times - Agriculture in the Middle Ages - Life - Farming in the Middle Ages - Medieval - Mideval - Agriculture in the Middle Ages - Farming in the Middle Ages History - Information about Farming in the Middle Ages - Farming in the Middle Ages Facts - Farming in the Middle Ages Info - Agriculture in the Middle Ages - Middle Ages era - Middle Ages Life - Middle Ages Times - Information - Facts - Dark Ages - Medieval - Mideval - Feudal system - Manors - Middle Ages Times - Information - Facts - Dark Ages - Medieval - Mideval - Feudal system - Manors - Farming in the Middle Ages - Written By Linda Alchin
Reasons for Scheduling
During the Iron Age a variety of different types of settlement were
constructed and occupied in south-western England. At the top of the
settlement hierarchy were hillforts built in prominent locations. In addition
to these a group of smaller sites, known as defended settlements, were also
constructed. Some of these were located on hilltops, others in less prominent
positions. They are generally smaller than the hillforts, sometimes with an
enclosed area of less than 1ha. The enclosing defences were of earthen
construction. Univallate sites have a single bank and ditch, multivallate
sites more than one. At some sites these earthen ramparts represent a second
phase of defence, the first having been a timber fence or palisade. Where
excavated, evidence of stone- or timber-built houses has been found within the
enclosures, which, in contrast to the hillfort sites, would have been occupied
by small communities, perhaps no more than a single family group.
Defended settlements are a rare monument type. They were an important element
of the settlement pattern, particularly in the upland areas of south-western
England, and are integral to any study of the developing use of fortified
settlements during this period. All well-preserved examples are likely to be
identified as nationally important.
The village, comprising a small group of houses, gardens, yards, streets,
paddocks, often with a green, a manor and a church, and with a community
devoted primarily to agriculture, was a significant component of the rural
landscape in most areas of medieval England, much as it is today. Villages
provided some services to the local community and acted as the main focal
point of ecclesiastical, and often of manorial, administration within each
parish. Although the sites of many of these villages have been occupied
continuously down to the present day, many others declined in size or were
abandoned throughout the medieval and post-medieval periods, particularly
during the 14th and 15th centuries. As a result over 2000 deserted medieval
villages are recorded nationally. The reasons for desertion were varied but
often reflected declining economic viability, changes in land use such as
enclosure or emparkment, or population fluctuations as a result of
widespread epidemics such as the Black Death. As a consequence of their
abandonment these villages are frequently undisturbed by later occupation and
contain well-preserved archaeological deposits. Because they are a common and
long-lived monument type in most parts of England, they provide important
information on the diversity of medieval settlement patterns and farming
economy between the regions and through time.
The deserted sites of Bagley and nearby Sweetworthy form one of the most
important groups of medieval farm sites in west Somerset, and their direct
association with prehistoric settlement further enhances their importance. The
site preserves archaeological deposits relating to settlement activity
through from prehistory to the early 19th century.