One of the biggest misunderstandings in history is that the Middle Ages were a time of ignorance and deprivation, a time when life was nasty, brutish, and short. The assumption is that because higher learning was restricted to monasteries, because civilization was more spread out, and because the Church was the greatest unifying factor in Europe that people were dirty and stupid. The truth couldn’t be further from this.
The Middle Ages was, in fact, a time of discovery and advancement on many levels. One of the reasons why people write it off as the “Dark Ages” is because so many of the advancements, especially in the early part of the Middle Ages, were rural and agrarian. But because the common man isn’t as flashy as philosophers and scientists in huge urban centers they don’t get as much attention. Without the quiet, steady advancement of agricultural technology, though, the big cities with their fancy architecture and science can’t grow and function.
The Roman Empire was very good at urban and military technology, but it wasn’t as good at the basics of rural technology. The huge Roman plantations, or latifundia, were owned by a few wealthy citizens and run by legions of slaves. Honestly, that’s not the most efficient system. Slaves have no vested interest in their jobs or the land that they work. The Romans also failed to take advantage of a few simple technological advances, from more effective horse harnesses to more efficient plows, that were available to them.
The first and perhaps best advancement in rural Medieval Europe, one that laid the groundwork for all the rest, was simply the feudal system. No longer was the land worked by slaves. As central Roman power broke down and barbarian tribes took over the countryside of Europe, manors owned by local lords, made up of small farms worked by peasants and serfs became the order of the day. The beauty of the feudal system was that peasants worked a certain amount of hours and days on their lord’s land as service to him, but they also worked land for themselves. And when someone has even a small sense of ownership over their land, their livelihood, and their life it inspires them with a whole different level of motivation to advance and produce.
The most important technological advancement of the early Middle Ages was the introduction of the horse as the go-to draft animal. In Roman times oxen were used to plow fields and horses were ridden or used to pull chariots at most. And yeah, this worked okay, but oxen were slow and the throat-and-girth harness used for horses choked the poor animals if they tried to pull anything larger than a chariot.
Then voila! The padded horse collar was introduced from China by way of trade routes. The padded horse collar sat much lower on a horse’s neck and pressed against their breastbone instead of their throat. This allowed them to pull four times the weight of the old style harness. Add to that the introduction of the iron horseshoe and suddenly Medieval farms had an animal that could pull a heavy plow longer distances at a faster speed. This, of course, meant that more land could be cleared and cultivated. Did the Romans have access to this Chinese technology. Yes, they did. Did they take advantage of it? Nope. Their loss.
The heavy plow went hand-in-hand with this advancement in agricultural technology. To greatly over-simplify the tool, a heavy plow involved a metal-reinforced plowshare mounted on wheels so that it could be raised or lowered to suit the land being plowed which was attached to a harness for multiple animals. A slightly later Medieval invention was the addition of a harrow, which broke up the clods of dirt churned up by the plowshare. This was important because the whole process could be done at once instead of requiring someone else to come along and break up the clods.
The heavy plow was particularly important further north in Europe, where the dirt was more dense, and in previously forested areas that had been recently cleared. Now add the newly effective horses to a better, stronger plow and suddenly you have vast areas of the landscape of Europe that were able to be cleared, settled, and farmed. And of course more agricultural production means more food, and more food means greater health and a population increase.
But wait! There’s more!
The old system of farming involved a two field system. One year one field would be planted while the other was left fallow and the next year the second field would be planted while the first one was left to rest. This changed with the introduction of the three field system. Our good buddy Charlemagne is credited with coming up with this idea. Land was divided into three fields. Field one was planted in the Fall with winter wheat, rye, and other crops that grew in the colder part of the year. In the Spring the second field was planted with crops like peas, lentils, and beans. The third field was left fallow. Each year the fields were rotated. This meant two things. First, more land could be in production at any given time. Second, a greater variety of crops were able to be planted leading to a greater variety in the diet of Medieval people. It was a win-win situation.
One other thing to mention is the introduction of the scythe. Yes, the scythe was a Medieval invention. More than just the tool of the Grim Reaper, it enabled farmers to harvest their crops much faster and with less manpower wasted than the handheld tools used before. Which, once again, meant higher yield and greater abundance for the people of the Middle Ages.
So to recap, the dawn of the Middle Ages brought with it a closer sense of ownership of the land. That, in turn, lead to a motivation on the part of lords and peasants alike to bring in the latest and most effective technology available. Food was produced on a local, personal level instead of being something that you went to the market to buy like in Rome, like today. The adoption of technology that had been hanging around unimplemented lead to the clearing of land and greater production and variety, which lead to healthier people and more of them.
I personally think that the reason these kinds of remarkable advances have been ignored by history is because they are so basic and quite literally dirty. Farming isn’t glamorous work, but without it, without food, everything else falls apart. Also, the things that enabled revolutionary advances in the Middle Ages are yesterday’s news to people today. Modern people tend to forget that the simplest of things, things that we take for granted now, changed life drastically at the time they were invented.
So don’t knock Medieval agricultural technology! It was the backbone on which an avalanche of even greater technological inventions came to be. But more about that next week.