In this lesson, we explore the factors that brought about Europe's Medieval Agricultural Revolution. We look at the climate of Europe and the key agricultural technologies and techniques that revolutionized agriculture: the heavy plow, the horse collar & the three field crop rotation system.
Europe's Medieval Agricultural Revolution
Between the years 1050 and 1300, Europe underwent an agricultural revolution. Crop yields multiplied by at least threefold. Europe's population followed suit, tripling in less than three centuries. The average European lifespan increased by as much as two decades. Towns and cities reemerged, and with them came new crafts and a revival of trade. New classes of merchants and craftsmen attained some degree of social mobility.
Soon the Renaissance would reawaken Europe to its glorious past, setting off a tide of technological progress from the enlightenment to the Industrial Revolution, that would eventually drag Europe from the Dark Ages and launch it into the world we live in today. None of this progress would have been possible without the surpluses created by Europe's medieval agricultural revolution.
So, what brought this revolution about? Well, there were several factors at work:
- A shift in climate made Northern Europe much warmer than it had been before.
- A shift in political climate and the end of Viking raids brought stability to Northern Europe.
- A host of new agricultural technologies and techniques spread across Europe.
When combined, these factors allowed Europeans to produce unprecedented surpluses of food.
The Medieval Warm Period
Around 950, Europe entered the Medieval Warm Period. Climatologists speculate that earth's temperature might have increased by as much as one degree centigrade. For about 300 years, Europe became a much warmer and dryer place.
This was bad news for the Mediterranean, where the temperatures were already high and the soil was dry and shallow. But, it was great news for Northern Europe, where the temperatures were much lower and the soil was wet and deep. Americans often forget that Europe is at a similar latitude to Canada. Though surrounding oceans and seas keep Europe warm and wet, it still can get very cold in the north.
Farmers had difficulty plowing the wet, deep soil of Northern Europe
The Medieval Warm Period allowed the farms of Northern Europe to out produce their Mediterranean counterparts. This, in turn, resulted in a shift of power and importance away from the Mediterranean basin, which no longer enjoyed its old surpluses, and to the untapped fertile lands of Northern Europe.
A Shift in Political Climate
Thus, it was not just the natural climate of Europe that was changing. The political climate was changing as well. Since the time of Charlemagne, Europe had been pummeled by centuries of Viking invasions. As the weather warmed, Viking invasions started to step down. Perhaps the Vikings were finally able to produce their own agricultural surpluses, and no longer felt the need to raid their neighbors in the south so often.
At the same time, centralized governments in Europe were becoming stronger, and a real sense of stability was returning to Europe for the first time since the collapse of the Roman Empire. In this period of relative peace, Europeans no longer needed to cluster around the local fortifications of their lords. They were finally able to disperse and settle new lands.
Aristocrats gave up their hunting grounds in the interest of generating profit from agricultural surpluses. Forests retreated as isolated pockets of agriculture spread until they at last met. The untamed woods of Northern Europe gave way to field after field, as far as the eye could see.
Yet none of this expansion would have been possible without the spread of some very important agricultural technologies and techniques:
- The heavy plow, the harrow and the hoe
- The horse collar, the tandem harness and horse shoes
- The three-field crop rotation system.
The Heavy Plow, the Harrow and the Hoe
The heavy plow, harrow, and hoe made agricultural expansion possible
The farmers of Northern Europe had to face challenges that their Mediterranean counterparts never had to deal with. The very features that made northern Europe prosper in the Medieval Warm Period - deep, rich, wet alluvial soil - also made the land incredibly difficult to plow. Now, the Romans had plows, but they were light things that only scratched the surface.
These plows were no good for the deep, damp soils of Northern Europe. Farmers needed a way to tear up deep soil and drain their waterlogged fields. The solution was the heavy plow. The heavy plow is essentially an iron wedge that you drag behind an animal, to cut deep furrows into a field. By creating such deep furrows, the heavy plow mixed up the ground, bringing oxygen back into the soil.
It also helped create a drainage system, preventing crops from drowning, for Northern Europe normally suffers from too much water, rather than the lack of it. Finally, the heavy plow opened a deep trench into which one could drop a seed with a fair degree of confidence that it would stay underground. And if you really wanted to be sure that those seeds got buried, you could also follow your sowing by running a harrow over the field.
Harrows take many forms, but they're basically a tool designed to level out the deep furrows of plowing to provide a comfy bed for seeds and ensure that they get buried. And, once your crops began to grow, you could use a hoe to keep down the weeds. The impact of these technologies cannot be overstated. Without the heavy plow to break up the alluvial soils, intensive agriculture in Northern Europe would have been all but impossible.
Without the harrow, burying seeds would take days, instead of hours. Without the hoe, each weed would have to be picked by hand. Together, these technologies made the surpluses of the Agricultural Revolution possible.
The Horse Collar, the Tandem Harness and the Horse Shoe
Collars and harnesses allowed horses to pull heavy plows
Of course, the heavy plow is just a chunk of metal until you find a way to pull it. And, as the name implies, the heavy plow was heavy. Now, an ox could pull a heavy plow easily. Oxen have big shoulders, making them easy to yoke and they're strong enough to pull almost anything. However, oxen are heavy, they're slow, they tire easily, and they're notoriously difficult to turn around. All of these features made oxen ill-suited to plowing fields.
Oh, if only we could get a horse to pull our heavy plow. Horses are light, they're quick, they have great endurance, and you can steer them with a bit. Unfortunately, horses don't have the shoulders oxen have. They tend to strangle themselves if they try to pull anything too heavy.
For literally thousands of years, this delicacy had protected horses from ever doing an honest day's work. Horses were reserved for warfare, for hunting, for travel. They were the mark of nobility. Yet in the 9th century, some clever fellow found a way to put the horse to work.
The invention was the horse collar, a relatively simple idea. It's just a padded collar that directs the burden onto the horse's shoulders without choking it. Yet, the implications for the horse were grave, as the pampered pet of aristocracy was turned into a true beast of burden. Soon enough, humans were nailing iron shoes to horse's feet and hitching them up to tandem harnesses to pull even heavier plows.
Three-Field Crop Rotation
Yet, there was another reason horses had been reserved for the nobility, beyond their delicate tendency to choke themselves. Horses are dreadfully expensive to feed. Unlike cattle, which can subsist on grazing alone, horses need a steady diet of oats to remain healthy. To support a horse, a farmer would need to grow oats. This is, perhaps, how the three-field crop rotation system began.
The three-field crop rotation led to a major population increase
A farmer would use one field to grow wheat for himself, and he'd use another field to grow oats for his horse. At first, the farmer would probably have divided his fields as people always had. He would grow crops on half of his land, while he let the other half lie fallow. Lying fallow means that you don't try to grow anything on the land, but instead, let it recover naturally.
This sort of rotation is essential because crops pull nutrients from the soil, and the soil needs time to recover them. Otherwise, the soil gets degraded rather quickly and will not support crops. Somewhere along the line, our farmer must have accidentally planted oats after a crop of wheat. And, lo and behold, the oats flourished, and after letting the field lie fallow for a year, the wheat came back bigger than ever.
You see, the oats had replaced the nitrogen the wheat had drawn from the soil. Though the farmers of Europe had no idea what nitrogen was, they knew that planting oats after the wheat somehow kept the soil healthy. Soon, they found other plants that had a similar effect: like barley and beans, and a new three-field form of crop rotation was established.
The first field grows cereals, which deplete the nitrogen. The second field grows oats, barley or beans, which restore the nitrogen, and the third field lies fallow to recover. This meant that European's were now using two thirds of their land to grow food, instead of half. The importance of this shift cannot be overstated. The difference between two thirds and one half may not seem like much. It's what? Sixteen percent? Negligible you might say.
Wrong. Imagine you have three acres. Each acre can produce 50 bushels of wheat or 50 bushels of beans. In the old system, you're only using half your acres, which means that you're getting 75 bushels of wheat. In the new system, you're using two thirds of your acres. So, while you may be only getting 50 bushels of wheat, you're also getting 50 bushels of beans.
Not only are you getting more food out of the land, you're also getting a wider variety of food. The three-field crop rotation system changed the world of farming forever, creating unprecedented surpluses and a greater variety of food for Europe. This great surplus and wider variety of foodstuffs contributed greatly to the health of your average European, whose life expectancy leaped from an all-time low of about 30, to as high as 50. Populations exploded, and the number of Europeans tripled in less than three centuries.
Technical innovation in Europe did not stop with the heavy plow. Europeans did not ride on the laurels of their novel three-field crop rotation system. On the contrary, these technologies served as the springboard for still greater advances. The massive surpluses of this agricultural revolution led to the development of labor saving inventions, like water mills and windmills to process grains.
Those same surpluses fed Europe's growing urban centers, as villages grew into towns, which in turn grew into cities, bustling with merchants and craftsmen. And, from those cities sprang the great minds of art, science, industry and philosophy, who built the world we know today.
After this lesson, you should be able to identify the different causes and effects of Europe's Medieval Agricultural Revolution over an almost 300-year time period.