The Common Man in the Field
At many living history events, you would get the idea that the past was war, war and nothing else. To be sure, a battle reenactment or an event hosted by a military unit has a tendency to make the military aspects more important than anything else, but it often deemphasizes the so-called gentler arts.
Viking reenactment is no different At most of these, you will encounter the warriors walking about, clutching their swords, dressed in mail and ready to ankle it off to fight the enemies. Even more than other, later eras, this is liable to build an inaccurate image in the public’s mind.
Although everyone was ready to defend their homes, there were almost no professional military at that time. Most persons were members of a militia—for example, the Anglo-Saxon fyrd—serving for a limited amount of time and had arms close by but did not walk around all the time with them—farm instruments such as axes excluded—weighed down in heavy mail.
Unlike the image put in most people’s mind by over two centuries of romantic popular culture, the most common person of the Middle Ages was a farmer. Even the dread Vikings were primarily farmers who went out raiding and trading after they sowed their crops and before they were harvested. During the Early Middle Ages, probably 80–90 percent of all people were farmers, intricately and permanently connected to the soil. You might say that the Middle Ages was defined by agriculture as much as by religion, and even those people with part-time jobs—trader or raider or even king—were connected inextricably with farming and the soil. Even those who did no manual farm labor still probably oversaw farming on his lands.
The land was carefully managed within the limits of their experience and knowledge. The continued survival of everyone depended on the continued productivity of the land, the culture at large depended on agriculture. It was the land—and the storage of as much surplus as possible, including seed to be planted in the next year—that stood as a thin line between leisure, survival and disaster. There were no organized assistance programs beyond the most rudimentary, and certainly any offer of help from neighbors depended on their own prosperity.
Forcing the land to produce even a subsistent living was difficult. The farming process was never an easy process, and even if good years, the return was small. In classical times and until after the “fall” of Rome, farmers generally planted a bushel of grain and reaped only two. By the time we recrteate, it had increased but only to about four times the amount of seed planted, and this remained true until the eighteenth century, where horticulturists such as Jethro Tull were able to experiment and to take chances, increasing the gain to about ten times the original seed. By the end of the twentieth century, this gain had become over twenty times.
When survival was on the line, there was little experimentation. Even so, there were several experimental innovations during the Early Middle Ages that made agriculture more efficient. Most of the innovations were slow to be widely adopted because the farmers did not want to fool with success.
One was the change from two to three-field division. For millennia, there were two fields on a farm, one planted with wheat or other cereals that leached out the nutrients. The other was fallow, used as pasture or to plant vegetables and replenish the nutrients. Toward the eighth century, the farms were divided into three fields. Two were planted with cereal, while the third was fallow. This simple changed effectively doubled the return on seed. The local men were given land in long strips—commonly called furlongs—since their ploughs were difficult to turn. Each plot was about a half an acre. It was recommended that a farmer have about 25 acres, but only a quarter of the farmers owned that much. The set-up of these fields continued well into the eighteenth century, and some fields in England are the same even today.
Another big innovation was the development of a mouldboard plough. For millennia, the plough—the ard—had been a fairly light affair that merely scratched the surface and was good for the lighter soil of the Mediterranean world. The soil of northern Europe was denser and muddier, and a plough was developed that not only had a metal coulter that cut into the earth but that also had a mouldboard, a wooden innovation that moved the broken soil aside and made a deeper, wider furrow. Later, some ploughs had wheels, which made their use easier.
Therefore, the image of a steel clad warrior walking around is a misleading, and a far more accurate and realistic—if less romantic and exciting—image would for a group of workers ploughing the field, harvesting the crops and preparing the flour!
Work on the harvest seems to have involved the whole community, and after the hard work, there would be plenty of food for festivities. These were commonly known as harvest home or thanks-giving, and the modern US Thanksgiving descends almost unchanged from these earlier festivities, even if they usually do not celebrate the finish of a successful harvest.
For more information, take a look at The Great Warming by Brian Fagan.
For a look at non-martial reenactment, see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q7r1rArI3xI. This is excerpted from a long video that is well worth viewing: “Life in Anglo-Saxdon Times.”