Skip to comments.Farming in Dark Age Britain
Posted on 07/06/2012 4:50:58 AM PDT by Renfield
In the Dark Ages, the early Anglo-Saxon settlers in Britain led a hard life farming the land, in total contrast to their Romano-British predecessors.
When the Romans invaded Britain in 43AD, they found a land of thick forests, heath and swampland. There were no towns, no roads - or nothing that a Roman would have recognized as proper roads - and no bridges. After the Romans
However, by the time the Romans abandoned Britain four centuries later, they had turned it into a quite different place. The Anglo-Saxon settlers who began to arrive in large numbers in around 450AD found the country criss-crossed by almost five thousand miles of straight, splendid roads.
There were forty-five towns, about 2,500 villa-farms, rich, extensive cornfields and thriving mining and potter industries.The population at this time was small, only about half a million people.
Many of the British Celts, mostly chieftains and other nobles, had been Romanized. They lived in fine town houses or country villas, enjoyed Roman education and generally led the Roman way of life
Even so, Roman luxuries and leisure, did not touch all the British Celts . When the Anglo-Saxons arrived, these rural people were still living, as their long-ago Celtic ancestors had done, in small settlements and hill forts.
They were mainly farmers and in general, their farming methods were much the same as they had been hundreds of years before the more sophisticated Romans turned Britain into their imperial province of Britannia. Celtic and Anglo-Saxon Plows
Although Roman farming methods were practised in Britannia, by far the greater number of British farms were arranged on the Celtic field system. This first came to Britain in around 1000BC. Celtic fields were square-shaped and small, covering some 8,372 - 11,960 square yards of land.
Here, the Celts used the somewhat primitive ard plows which did not turn the soil over, but simply cut it open. The Anglo-Saxons, on the other hand, used the colter plow which had cutters attached and farmed their fields in strips rather than squares..
The Anglo-Saxons heavy plow. or carruca was capable of slicing up the thick, heavy soil of Britain into deeper furrows. However, the carruca was such a hefty piece of equipment that it needed at least four oxen to draw it.
Joint Ownership of Land
Anglo-Saxon land was common land, owned jointly by everyone in a village or community. Each farmer was given a number of strips of land to work. Each strip measured between 1,555 and 2,392 square yards, although an individual farmers strips were scattered over both the fertile and less fertile land.
The Anglo-Saxons realized the value of good land and were careful not to over-farm it or do anything else that might reduce its fertility. This was why they farmed by the rotation system which normally used three field, each employed differently every year. The Field Rotation System
For example, in one year, farmers would grow oats in one field, barley in the second but would leave the third to lie fallow, growing no crops in that year so that it could rest. Instead, the fallow land, which was plowed and harrowed, but was used for grazing cattle and sheep.
The next year, the crops would rotate, the second field growing oats, the third, barley and the first lying fallow. The following year, the crops would rotate again so that, in effect, no one field grew the same crop more than once in four years.
The Anglo-Saxon Strip Fields
It was not all fair shares, however. Some Anglo-Saxon farmers owed more strips than others, depending on their position in the community. A thane or village lord owned at least five hides of land measuring between 600 and 1,800 strips.
A ceorl or yeoman farmer owned on hide while other farmers, like the gebur or cotsetlan did not own the strips they farmed but rented them from their lords.
In addition to farming their rented land - these poorest of Antl-Saxon farmers had to work two days a week on their lords land and three days in harvest time. However, even the gebur and the cotsetlan were better off than the serfs. Many of them were captured Britons.
In Kent in southeast Britain, they were called laets and elsewhere they were named wealas or welsh.
The word meant slave and these unfortunate Britons were treated exactly like slaves. They wore heavy rings around their necks and could be bought and sold like farm animals.
Aelfric the Farmer
Life was hard for all farmers, but it was hardest for the poorest, who had to labor unendingly in all weathers. In later Anglo-Saxon times, a writer called Aelfric wrote his Colloquy, in which he described the lot of the poor farmer.
"I go out at dawn, drive the oxen to the field and yoke them to the plow ....There is no storm so severe that I dare to hide at home, for fear of my lord, but when the oxen are yoked and the share (blade) and coulter (cutter) have been fastened to the plow,
``I must plow a whole acre or more every day ....I must fill the bins of the oxen with hay, water them and carry off their dung ....it is indeed great drudgery!
Although farmers also owned herds of pigs and goats, sheep were the most important animal they reared. From the sheep, a farmer obtained wool for clothes, milk to drink and meat to eat. The Lonely Herdsmen
Herds of goats were tended by boys who spent long hours watching over them in hilly grazing country. Goatherds and shepherds spent most of their time alone with only their animals for company, listening to the wind as it whistled through the rocks and trees and watching the sun in the sky to make sure they returned to their village with their flocks before it grew dark.
To be caught on the hill or mountainside at night could be dangerous and if any of the goats or sheep were lost, the herdsman would be harshly punished by his lord.
Creighton, John: Britannia: The Creation of a Roman Province (New York, NY: Routledge, 2006) ISBN-10: 0415487145/ISBN-13: 978-0415487146
Blair, Peter Hunter and Keynes, Simon: An Introduction to Anglo-Saxon England (Cambridge, Cambridgeshire, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003) ISBN-10: 9780521537773/ISBN-13: 978-0521537773/ASIN: 0521537770
“Fields of corn...” ?
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You know you’re right because you quote yourself? I think you meant something else. Can you provide proof of Celtic road building?
Really? I never thought the Celts were great road builders. How interesting.
In Britain, ‘Corn’ in the context of a crop refers to any cereal crop, as opposed to the US, where it refers specifically to Maize...
Interesting. Thanks for posting.
So what have the Romans ever done for us then?
"All right... all right... but apart from better sanitation and medicine and education and irrigation and public health and roads and a freshwater system and baths and public order... what have the Romans done for us?"
I had the same thought on the “fields of corn” since that crop was brought to Europe from the New World well after the Dark Ages. The Europeans had to learn how to extract nutritional value that the New World natives had not shared with the invaders.
Beat me by 39 seconds........
"Corn, which the Indians called 'maize'".
(apologies to Bart Simpson)
Yep, Maize and Corn are confusing.
Today, Maize is small round grain, smaller than a BB. It can be reddish or white. Corn is a large kernel grain.
At different points in time Maize has been used to describe both.
The list of new world foods including corn, tomatoes, peppers, squash, is amazing.
I had thought that in European usage, ‘corn’ was a generic term for cereal grains, such as oats, wheat and rye. What we call ‘corn’, they call, ‘maize’, with all due respect to the Native American lady on those old Mazola commercials.
I can see your point that this may all be about semantics/language. Perhaps that old saw about Britain and the US being separated by a common language is to blame. During my 3 years in Europe, corn/maize was not presented to me as food. My understanding was Europeans saw corn/maize only as an animal feed. I wonder if an encounter with a properly roasted ear of corn at an American picnic would offend them or change their mind about corn/maize.
Corn/maize is/was a major food source in many European countries. Notably Italy and the Balkans. To the point where pellagra, a deficiency disease caused by eating almost exclusively corn, became a major health threat.
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Thanks Renfield. Celtic roads topic?
corn refers to any grain crop. Americans call maize “corn” but the word in other countries is still used the older way.
Europeans had tomatoes long before they settled in the new world, however, they were thought to be poisonous. Did they learn from the explorers to the new world that they were not poisonous?
In Britain, “corn” is a generic term meaning any cereal grain. “Maize” is their word for what whe call corn.
“Corn” in England is wheat or grain in general.The word came to ne applied to Amerìcan maize because it was the American grain, the American “corn.” Maize in England is the specific grain that Americans call corn.
"John Barleycorn" is an English folksong. The character of John Barleycorn in the song is a personification of the important cereal crop barley and of the alcoholic beverages made from it, beer and whisky. In the song, John Barleycorn is represented as suffering attacks, death and indignities that correspond to the various stages of barley cultivation, such as reaping and malting.
Corn in the English language of our ancestors refers to the actual grain, the kernel part of the plant, i.e. the corn of the barley plant, hence the "barleycorn". When the early Americans from England saw the native Indians cultivating Maize and grinding its dried kernels to make a type of unleavened flat bread, they said, Oh that must be corn and the name stuck. Here in America when we go to the produce stand and buy corn we are actually buying at type of Maize.
Very interesting. Thanks for posting.
(It’s a shame, though, that the writer did not proofread.)