by Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno)
Orignally published in the October 1995, A.S. XXX issue of the Dragonflyre, a publication of the Barony of Vatavia.
As the theme of the upcoming champions tourney is the harvest I thought some might like to know just what the harvest season meant to the medieval peasant.
Throughout the Middle Ages, agriculture occupied about ninety percent of the population. This was due to both poor yields and lack of long range bulk transportation. Each locality was largely dependent on food locally produced. Thus the local harvest was crucial to how well people will eat for the next year. Even though a nearby region might have produced a surplus, there was no way to get it were it was needed.
To illustrate how poor the yields were, consider that modern fields generate a tenfold return per seed and average fifty to sixty bushels an acre. During the early period return rarely equaled three to one, though during the high Middle Ages returns got up to six to one. Even a good field would only yield fifteen bushels an acre.
Harvesting this meager an output has hard work. Wheat was cut near the top with a sickle. This was done so that the bottom section could be cut for straw. The wheat was then bound into sheaves, roughly twenty to a bushel. Four reapers would support one binder and would average two acres a day. Then the fields would be gleaned to collect fallen grain. And even after the wheat had been gathered, it still had to be threshed and winnowed.
Wheat was the most commonly grown grain, about three quarters of all grain grown, followed by barley then oats. Rye was grown on land that could not support wheat. As a side note: all forms of grain were also called corn, which can cause confusion to the modern reader of medieval records.
Also harvested at the same time were peas and beans, which helped balance the typical peasant diet.
Another task that took place at harvest was the slaughter and preserving of animals for the winter, typically at Michaelmas. In the past it had been assumed that this was done for lack of winter feed. More recent research indicates that the usual victim was pig, and that was because that was its principal use.
Michaelmas not only marked the end of the harvest season but was also the traditional date when rents were paid and leases fell due. Only then could the peasant celebrate. But only for a short while, then it was back to the plow for the winter crops.
Copyright © 1997 - present His Lordship Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno). All rights reserved.