What is the Medieval Agricultural revolution?
During the supposed Dark Ages, the population of England grew explosively to rates unseen in English history up to that point. It’s roughly estimated that the population of England was 2-3 million as reported in the Domesday book in 1086 with 6 million acres of land under the plough, this number massively grew to as high as 6 million in 1300 where they had roughly 10.5 million acres used for agricultural purposes. This population growth has been put down to the role of an expanding farming industry, and a major expansion of farming land is now considered the Medieval agricultural revolution (8th-13th century). This was a time where the production of food allowed for the prosperity of the population, but the real winners were predominantly landowners who accrued wealth on the back of the labour of others. Farming did not only contribute to just food production but throughout the year consisted of weaving, planting, harvesting where the cycle would begin again. The cerealisation of this land, alongside new farming techniques like the use of the mouldboard plough and open field farming, fed into the growing wealth disparities. The emergence of land owners who amassed rent from the worked land coincides with these disparities.
Tiberius peasants ploughing c.1000 AD ironically printed on cotton. Picture: Calendario (l'aratura), 1000 circa, miniatura, cotton ms. Tiberius B. V., f. 3r., Londra, British Library.jpg - Wikimedia Commons.
The finds of FeedSax suggest it wasn't so much a revolution of agriculture but instead a widespread adoption of earlier introduced methods of farming and the invention of the mouldboard plough. Though these methods later led to famine that potentially shifted farming once again into the 14th century. What role did flax play in this revolution, was it a crucial grain to sustaining the social and economic growth of the early medieval period?
Where does flax come into it?
As many of you will know this years crop for "A Year On The Field" is flax, and as we have seen over the last few months across the blog, flax is an incredibly interesting crop to look at due to its variety of uses and history. The health benefits of flax are still being researched though discoveries have found that it can reduce cholesterol, constipation, and has a host of gut benefits, though it has historically be renowned for its fibre properties. Flax is referenced even within the Bible for its capacity to be used to produce cloth:
“She seeketh wool, and flax, and worketh willingly with her hands.” Proverbs 31:13
Alongside this there are many examples of its uses during the early medieval period in both surviving literature and within archaeological findings, below are some examples of these.
A) Bone needle and threadpicker and iron shears discovered on A14C2H - Highways England courtesy of MOLA Headland, B) Four women working with linen (Zahrāwīaz, Ḫalaf I.-A. Az et al.(1380) Tacuinum sanitatis), C) Flax processing tools (hatchel, hetchel or hackle).
Picture: A) - Bone needle and threadpicker and iron shears discovered on A14C2H (c) Highways England courtesy of MOLA Headland - MOLA Headland Infrastructure; B) - Zahrāwīaz, Ḫalaf I.-A. az et al.(1380) Tacuinum sanitatis; C) - Missouri History Museum.
It is clear that flax had a role similar to that of cotton or hemp today, despite its edible capacity which most people are familiar with today in the UK, it was farmed mostly for its fibre properties. It is safe to say that flax has long been an important fibre and crop across human history, though I have been wondering what role it might have played in the medieval agricultural revolution. Luckily for me the authors of FeedSax thought about this very thing!
Flax has a complex fibre extraction process that involves rippling (stems pulled through a comb to remove pods), retting (loosened and left to decompose ideally done whilst soaking them), drying the flax, scutching/scotching (beaten flax against a board with a blunt wooden knife), hackling/heckling (where metal combs are used to remove short fibres) and spun. That whole process is without the planting, growing and harvesting the flax! It wasn’t until the 19th century when linen the produce of flax became more economical than cotton so this process was key to not only the economy but the social history of the early and late medieval periods.
Below is a picture of some flax growing on a field near where I live in Leicestershire. I was incredibly excited to see this just a short hike from my village, I like to think it shows how prominent this little crop is to this day.
Flax in bloom. Pictures: Rose Meadows.
What is FeedSax?
FeedSax is a fantastic open resource data set created in collaboration with the University of Oxford and the University of Leicester, with 11 scientific researchers in collaboration. The data set is also completely accessible meaning anyone and everyone interested can now use FeedSax! Open resources like this only help our sciences and provide us with fuller pictures without the paywall (which I know can sometimes be necessary, but can often make learning inaccessible). I have linked the website where you can learn more about the project below:
Unlike previous data sources that explore this period of the Medieval agricultural revolution (such as indirect and ambiguous maps, records of land, archaeological evidence of medieval fields and place names) FeedSax provides detailed pollen analysis, it uses seeds, animal bones and preserved grains all direct evidence for medieval farming and the techniques associated with them. Using some complex analysis of their data set, 300 sites for plant remain collections and 400 sites for animal bones across the UK with Central and Southern Britain.
The overall findings of the FeedSax team saw a shift away from labour intensive to more land extensive methods of farming by exploring the functional traits (what a species might need to survive and thrive) like soil fertility or soil type (levels of acidity) of certain weeds and cereals. This research provided evidence that there was a shift from the 8th century onward to large scale cultivation practises due to a declining of fertility over time. Despite the short term rewards for this farming technique, something we are becoming more and more familiar with today, the result is unfortunately quite unsustainable.
What will I be using this data for?
This data set that collated bioarchaeological data across different scientific methodologies (palynology, osteology, macrofossils, etc.) has evidence for how crops were grown in this transformative period of history. My hopes is that this data set can be used to explore how and why our ancestors grew the crops they did. Using FeedSax to explore this it was found that across pollen assemblages that were cored across the 300 plant sites flax was found across 15% of them with the assemblages at both Yarnton and Brandon being particularly flax rich.
I have been using the data sets supplied by FeedSax to explore how important a cereal flax was in production and highlighting the changing of farming techniques as key to the supporting of a new, larger population in Britain. I think it is fascinating to be able to see how social and economic growth may be linked to certain crops and hopefully uncover more about the role of flax as both a grain for food production and a driver of social change. I want to explore the data further looking into whether there exist any patterns of flax production across the country, if there are any and why perhaps might some regions see higher flax needs? Ultimately then what might this say about the different localised trades especially in areas they have highlighted with flax rich assemblages. Combining the analysis of data provided by FeedSax and my own dive into local history archieves to hopefully answer these questions.
Text prepared by Rose Meadows
"I’m a palaeobotanist (MSc) whose main research focuses on reconstructing past environments using geochemistry and ecology. I’m particularly interested in conservation, geology, and archaeology and the intersections between these subjects. Using FeedSax I hope to contribute to A Year On The Field by exploring how flax became a key feature of Anglo-Saxon culture via its uses in the production of fabrics, for consumption, and its broader cultural and folkloric history."