Early Middle Ages: society and peasant food

The Early Middle Ages is a convention of European historiography that refers to the period between the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the year 1000. It is a period of nearly 500 years of history, of great changes in population and cultural changes, often of a dramatic nature, and which has traditionally been considered as the “migration period” or the “dark age”. But modern historians prefer not to use this denomination to avoid the stereotypes associated with this nomenclature, since reality shows more complex societies than thought.

The organization of agricultural production during the Early Middle Ages (9th — 10th century)

The historical research carried out so far does not allow us to know exactly how agriculture was organized in European pre-feudal societies. This is due, on the one hand, to the lack of written documentation of this period referring to the daily events of farmers’ lives. However, it is also due to the little interest that historians have aroused in this matter. Classical historiography has been more interested in studying how power was organized (history of the ruling classes) than in studying the life of peasants.

The main problem historians have in addressing the events of this period is that the farmers of the time could neither write nor read, so they transmitted their knowledge through practice and orality over generations. And of course, they left us no written testimonies of their daily activities.

Despite the lack of documentation, the agricultural activity developed by the peasants was the basis of the economy of the High-Medieval societies. Without their work, the system did not work. And they were the only ones obliged to pay taxes.

The organization of cultivated lands

One of the most important aspects of agrarian management that the farmer had to carry out, was the distinction between cultivated and uncultivated land. The main basis of agricultural production was to know how to keep the proportions between the two parts (cultivated and uncultivated land). Food historian Massimo Montanari wrote a book on the importance of uncultivated land (uncultivated spaces) during this stage.

Medieval agriculture can be described as the continuous conquest and transformation of uncultivated spaces into cultivated spaces. This process lasted until the second half of the 20th century. This whole long period of European history was based on a continuous process of colonization of new arable areas, as this was the only possible way to increase agricultural productivity.

The runcatio consisted of transforming an area of forest into a cultivation area. There was always an interest in preserving the existence of uncultivated areas. The runcatio was part of a very extensive process that did not culminate until the twentieth century.

feudal society
Miniature dating from the end of the 13th century, representing an already feudal society.

What happened in Europe in the Early Middle Ages before the Feudal Revolution of the 10th century?

Before the Feudal Revolution there was a great predominance of the non-cultivated over the cultivated land in the agricultural practices, so what was obtained from the uncultivated land (which were the forests)? Fuel.

Itinerant agriculture was carried out, a very common and frequent practice. It consisted of creating a clearing in the forest, cutting and burning the trees to be able to sow and harvest and then sow and harvest again. Then the same process was done in another space. This displacement of work zones did not imply that human groups changed their residence.

Technical characteristics of the pre-feudal agricultural methods

  • Widespread use of fixed spaces, which led to a major change in itinerant agriculture;
  • Low-cost agriculture. It did not require the use of working livestock;
  • There was no need to plough the field. There was no need to restore fertility;
  • No separation between the cultivated and the uncultivated land;
  • The management of alluvial zones predominated. Continuous colonization process over fixed crop spaces.
The cattle will be used later

From the 10th century onward the crops were fixed on the same land, to avoid fertility problems and take advantage of some technical advances as they were:

  • Fixed crop space with fluvial irrigation. The space had to be divided into two: cultivated land and uncultivated land. In one space, the fallow was practised (so that a part of the land could rest). Solution: Leave part of the land uncultivated to restore fertility. Cattle were taken to graze in fallow areas to bring energy to the land, thus producing an energy transfer;
  • Rotation scheme in three parts. This system was associated with agricultural systems with a considerable presence of livestock. It was generalized between the 12th and 13th centuries.

The pre-feudal agricultural calendar

  • January and February, the landlord heats up in the fire to spend the winter;
  • March, prune the vineyard;
  • April and May, ploughing (fallow);
  • June, cut with scythe;
  • July, mowing the lawn;
  • August, to beat;
  • September, harvest;
  • October, picking acorns eaten by pigs;
  • November, pig slaughter;
  • December, dining.
Farmers in the Early middle ages

These calendars were common throughout Europe. The scenes refer to a very limited range of products. These crops did not vary much over the medieval centuries, the result of specialized practice. It was also because the feudal system itself, with the intervention of the master, meant that agricultural practices on what could or could not be cultivated and on how the crop was organized were very much determined.