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9-08-2015, 15:41

Late medieval agriculture

As local historians have made clear, patterns of land ownership varied from one region of Europe to another, one village to another, and sometimes from one family to another within a village. Some land, termed “allodial,” was owned by the peasants who farmed it, who might owe fees for certain services, but no other direct obligations. Most land was held by an absentee landlord, however, which might be an individual or an institution such as a monastery. The peasants who farmed it paid rents, taxes, and fees to the landowner, which had earlier been paid in labor or agricultural products, but which by the mid-fi fteenth century in western Europe were increasingly paid in cash. This transformation to cash payments had been accompanied by a disappearance of serfdom, so that peasants were no longer legally tied to the land, but were tenants of the landowner. They still often owed fees based on earlier feudal rights, such as special fees to mill grain or press grapes, to buy, sell, or inherit land, or to take a case to court, and in some areas still had a few labor obligations (called the corvée in France), such as carting the landlord’s produce to market or repairing roads and bridges. Peasants also generally paid taxes and fees to support the church, which were collected by the village priest and then shared with his superiors. The priest himself was often poor, and integrated into the economic life of the village, so that he farmed during the week alongside his parishioners. Landlords generally appointed offi cials from outside the village to oversee the legal and business operations of their holdings, collect taxes and fees, and handle disputes. The lords or their offi cials also held courts at regular intervals, which handled legal matters such as fi ghts, assaults or robberies, litigation between villagers, and infractions of laws or customs regarding the fi elds, roads, or public places. These courts relied more on the collective memory of village traditions and customs than on written laws, so that groups of responsible adult men, in England called jurors , were often asked to decide issues, such as who had the right to a certain piece of land, by simply talking among themselves or to others who might know. Because of this, jurors were chosen from among those most likely to know the facts of the case, the opposite of modern jury selection. Landlords and government offi cials had direct power in the countryside, but by the fi fteenth century villages in many parts of Europe had also developed institutions of self-government to handle issues such as crop rotation, and to choose additional offi - cials such as constables, churchwardens, and ale-testers without the lord’s interference. How they were chosen or elected was more often a matter of oral tradition than written law, but both those who chose offi cials and the offi cials themselves were almost always adult men and generally heads of household. Women had no offi cial voice in the running of the village, though they did buy, sell, and hold land independently. (There was a handful of cases in England of women chosen as churchwardens, a minor offi ce charged with assisting in the physical upkeep of a parish church and oversight of parish affairs, but they do not seem to have been elected.) Especially as widows, women headed households and were required to pay all rents and taxes. In areas of Europe where men were gone for long periods of time foresting or fi shing, such as Portugal or the Basque region of Spain, or where men left either seasonally or more permanently in search of work elsewhere, women made decisions about the way village affairs were to be run, though they did not set up formal institutions. Gender formed one kind of hierarchy among peasants, and wealth formed another. In most villages, there was a small group of better-off farmers, called “yeomen” in England, a term that is now also used for other parts of Europe, who were able to hire additional laborers beyond family members to produce for the market. There was a larger middle-level group who held just about enough land to support a family, usually about 10 to 30 acres. Many families were landless or nearly landless, supporting themselves by wage labor. The epidemics and wars of the fourteenth and early fi fteenth centuries had improved the economic situation for the peasants of all wealth levels who had survived; in 1450, wages and rents were relatively low compared with prices for agricultural products. Betteroff peasants bought or leased land that had been abandoned, joining more substantial noble and bourgeois landlords in many parts of Europe to raise specialized commercial crops along with or even instead of grain, purchasing the grain they needed for bread and beer from local or long-distance merchants. Most parts of Europe depended on grain-based agriculture – wheat in central and southern Europe, rye and oats in the north – with a gender division of labor typical of that in grain-growing societies. These gender divisions were partly the result of physical differences, with men and adolescent boys generally doing tasks that required a great deal of upper-body strength, such as cutting grain with a scythe or clearing new land. Women and girls, along with older people and children of both sexes, bound grain into sheaves, watched animals, and picked up fallen grain kernels, a process called “gleaning.” Gender divisions also resulted from women’s greater responsibility for child care, so that women carried out tasks closer to the house which could be more easily interrupted for nursing or tending children, and from cultural beliefs, so that women in parts of Norway, for example, sowed all the grain because people felt this would ensure a bigger crop. These divisions often broke down, however, especially during harvest, bad weather, or periods when the population was low because of epidemics. In much of Scandinavia, northwestern Europe (Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Brittany), and mountainous or upland areas throughout Europe, most of the land was devoted to grazing sheep, goats, and cattle. Along the coasts, people depended on fi shing for much of their food, either eating fi sh or trading them for grain and other agricultural products with those living further inland; in fi shing communities small family groups and small houses predominated, with wives and daughters drying and salting fi sh for later use or sale while husbands and sons went out in the boats. In western and central Europe villages were generally made up of small houses for individual families, with one marital couple, their children (including stepchildren), and perhaps one or two other relatives – a grandmother, a cousin whose parents had died, an unmarried sister or brother to one of the spouses. A signifi cant minority of the population did not marry until late in life or not at all, so some households contained only an unmarried person or a widow, or several unmarried people living together. Villages themselves were nucleated, that is, the houses were clumped together with the fi elds stretching beyond the group of houses. Each house might have a tiny yard for smaller animals such as chickens and ducks, and a vegetable garden. Crops were rotated according to tradition and need, with some fi elds left unworked or fallow to allow the soil to rejuvenate. Most families were also allowed to let their pigs, oxen, cows, and sheep graze in the woods or meadows beyond the fi elds, and to gather fi rewood, nuts, mushrooms, and other foods from these areas, called the commons because they were held in common by the whole village. In southern and some parts of eastern Europe, though nuclear families and singleperson households were not unknown, extended families were more likely to live in the same household or very near to one another than in northern Europe. Father and son, or two married brothers, might share a house with both of their families, forming what demographers call a stem or complex household. The milder climate in the Mediterranean area allowed for more frequent planting and a greater range of agricultural products. Commercial agriculture developed most intensively in more urbanized regions of Europe, where city populations provided a concentrated market for crops. In Flanders, peasant farmers worked their land more intensively by multiple hoeings, plowings, and weedings, and planted legume crops such as peas and beans or clover to rejuvenate the soil rather than letting the land lie fallow. They let their stock graze on specifi c fi elds rather than wander common land, and the resultant droppings fertilized the soil for the next year’s grain crops. Human and animal refuse from nearby cities, known euphemistically as “night-soil” and gathered from streets and chamber-pots by specialized night-soil collectors, furnished more fertilizer, which further increased crop yields. In northern and southern Italy and southern Spain, noble and middle-class landlords put together large estates, often called latifundia , where tenant farmers intensively cultivated rice, grapes, olives, hemp (for rope), dyestuffs, and fruit, along with grain and cattle. In Spain, wool became the primary commercial crop, with herders driving the sheep hundreds of miles each year from the north in the summer to the south in the winter. This transhumant sheep-grazing took them across fi elds and croplands, and in the thirteenth century a special organization, the Mesta , had been established to deal with the inevitable confl icts that resulted.

 

 

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