Medieval Farming Technology Transforms Europe

From the lecture series: The High Middle Ages

By Philip Daileader, Ph.D., The College of William and Mary

Europe witnessed massive population growth in the High Middle Ages, from 1000 to 1300. This growth was largely due to the refinement of medieval farming technology, such as the plow, which improved upon previous models, and resulting in increased efficiency and output to feed more people than ever before. Explore the key technological advances in medieval farming that made such a transformation possible.

Sowing and harrowing scene in a middle ages found in Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, illustration by Limbourg brothers (between 1412 and 1416 and circa 1440.)
Farmer ploughing using a heavy plough. (Image: Limbourg brothers/Public domain)

The Engine of Population Growth

Between the years 1000 and 1300, the population of Europe roughly doubled, reflecting a remarkable combination of factors and coincidences that removed the brakes slowing down the engines of growth.

During the High Middle Ages, certain factors that had previously acted as brakes on population growth and kept levels low were taken off, creating room for the population to surge. These demographic breaks included the bubonic plague and foreign invasions.

This is a transcript from the video series The High Middle Ages. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

In addition to these brakes, which disappeared by 1000, some forces propelled the population upwards, which we call the engines.

One engine, in particular, had a huge impact: technological change.

The High Middle Ages, and especially the Middle Ages, is not known as a period of substantial technological change. The best and brightest did not launch internet startup companies. They went into theology, a field with limited practical application.

Because the line between dearth and having enough to eat was so thin in the Middle Ages, seemingly humble technological changes had a substantial impact on the ability of Europeans to feed themselves. Coincidentally, before the Middle Ages, there were developments in farming technology. New types of farm implements and new methods were introduced from outside of Europe.

These innovations were borrowed rather than invented by Europeans. They spread to Europe in the 8th and 9th centuries, but their impact was felt only during the High Middle Ages.

Technological changes allowed Europeans to increase the yields—the amount a farmer could get back for each grain they planted. One estimate was that European grain yields around 1000 were at the ratio of two to one. That return rate was problematic, as it meant half of the food grown would go back into the soil the next year. Estimates suggest that by 1300, grain yields were up to a ratio of four to one, which would have provided a slight margin, should one or two years meet with crop failure.

Not only were Europeans able to increase yields by getting more from the cultivated land, but new technology allowed Europeans to bring more land than ever under cultivation. Thus, there was more farmland and the farmland that existed produced more.

Learn more about how small innovations had a big impact

Revolutionizing Farming Plows

Perhaps the most important technological change that revolutionized farming in medieval Europe was the heavy plow. When the Romans had spread out across the European continent, they brought those aspects of life that were familiar to them with them: baths, gladiator shows, writing, cities, and their farming technology, as well.

Burial chamber wall painting of an egyptian farmer ploughing. circa 1200 BCE
The light scratch plow was little more than a sharpened piece of wood that was dragged along behind one’s plow animals. (Image: Unknown/burial chamber of Sennedjem/Public domain)

The Romans, being a Mediterranean people, had used a type of plow called the “light scratch plow.” The light scratch plow was little more than a sharpened piece of wood that dragged along behind one’s plow animals.

This plow was ideal for Mediterranean soils because it was light and barely scratched the surface of the soil. Due to lower rainfall totals, Mediterranean soils are light and dry, susceptible to the danger of soil erosion; the light scratch plow made perfect sense for such a climate. Digging deeply would disturb the soil, loosen it too much and allow what moisture there was in the soil to escape.

Unfortunately, the light scratch plow was not well-suited for the soils and climate of northern Europe, where it was damp and drizzly all the time, with heavy, waterlogged, clay soils.

The problem with northern European soils—potentially the most fertile in Europe if farmed correctly—is getting the water out and aerating the soil properly, so that you can receive a higher return on planted crops. The scratch plow was the wrong tool for the job.

The heavy plow, which probably spread from Eastern Europe to Europe during the 8th and 9th centuries, enabled Europeans to tap into the vast resources of northern Europe. The heavy plow was so large and cumbersome that it required wheels to be moved and had an iron plowshare, rather than a piece of wood, that cut deep into the earth.

Behind the plowshare, a piece of wood called the moldboard took the cut earth, scooped it, and flipped it over, enabling it to drain properly.

Using a heavy plow to effectively aerate the soils of northern Europe increased production yield. The increasingly effective use of farming techniques was one of the reasons that agricultural production went up: Higher agricultural production meant higher population levels.

Learn more about how the quality of life for working peasants changed between 1000 and 1300

The Padded Horse Collar: A Novel Invention

In addition to the heavy plow, the use of the padded horse collar was an important development.

The Romans had used oxen as plow animals. Oxen had the advantage of being dumb and strong, but the disadvantage of being slow. The Romans had hooked up their light scratch plows to oxen using a yoke, a piece of wood that rested on the shoulders of the oxen, with a strap that came across the chest.

Early depiction of a horse collar, c. 800 AD
Early depiction of a padded horse collar (Image: By Medieval manuscripts – Medieval Technology and Social Change by Lynn White/Public domain)

Horses were another kind of animal that were just as strong as oxen, but much smarter and faster. If you were able to use one, you could plow more land in the same amount of time.

The problem, however, was the Roman yoke could not be used on a horse. Because of the angle of the horse’s neck, the strap did not come across the chest, but rather across the throat, cutting off the horse’s air supply. It decreased productivity immensely and it resulted in the animal’s death.

The padded horse collar, appearing in the 8th and 9th centuries, consisted of a supple, round piece of leather that was slipped over the head of the horse down to the horse’s shoulders, allowing the horse to breathe.

Once medieval farmers used horses to pull the heavy plows, not only were northern European soils cut more effectively, but farmers were able to plow more land than had ever been plowed before.

Learn more about how townspeople’s mindset changed during the High Middle Ages

Introducing the Water Mill to European Farmers

 Waterwheel powering a mine. The original from which this was taken was published in 1555. The English translation was published in 1912. It exists in reprints with the statement "It has been made available through the kind permission of Herbert C. Hoover Mr. Edgar Rickard, Author and Publisher, respectively, of the original volume.
Watermills harness the power of water to do difficult work. Here it is used to power a mine. (Image: By Georgius Agricola/Public domain)

A third technological change was the adoption of the watermill. The watermill was a little different than the other two technological changes, as Romans knew about watermills.

There were few watermills, and the Romans didn’t build them often.
The watermill’s great advantage was that it harnessed water, an inanimate source of energy, to do the difficult work of grinding grain. The Romans preferred the use of hand mills, a time-consuming and laborious method.

One poor, usually enslaved individual, would stand at the mill turning a handle around and around. Some historians suggest that the Romans refused to build watermills because slaves were readily available and easily replaced. It made more economic sense to simply buy more slaves as they wore out than to build a complicated watermill.

As slavery died out within Western Europe, a profusion of watermills were built, especially in the 11th century, where every river in Europe had them built if they could be used.

The watermill liberated human beings from the task of grinding grain. That labor could be put to other uses, including clearing forests and bringing other lands under cultivation.

Common Questions About Medieval Farming Technology

Q: Was there a formal name for the medieval farming system?

The medieval farming system was called an open-field system where each village divided several hundred acres into narrow strips cultivated by peasant serfs.

Q: What were the favored crops grown during the medieval period?

Q: The most important European crops grown during the medieval period were barley, oats, rye, and wheat. Various legumes were grown along with apples, cherries, and some hearty vegetables such as cabbage and onions.

Q: What technological inventions changed farming in medieval times?

The three-crop rotation was the biggest and best change in farming during medieval times, where three strips of the field would be used in rotation to keep fecund soil. Vertical windmills and vastly improved water mills helped as well.

Q: What tools were available to farmers in medieval times?

The tools available to medieval farmers were rather crude and rudimentary. They consisted of the ax, the moldboard plow, flails, and hay forks.

This article was updated on October 29, 2019

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