Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Peasant Economy, part 1: Sometimes It's All About the Oats

Much to your chagrin, you will soon discover more equally-lame image-centric jokes in this post.

While this is slightly off the topic of "gardens" per se, you can definitely make the case for agriculture being related to gardens. Which is what I am going to be touching on briefly in this post.

While in previous posts, I talked about ecclesiastical and seigneruial gardens, all-together, those gardens only account for one-fifth to one-third the total land-usage in the Middle Ages.[1] The rest belonged to peasant farmers. The overwhelming majority of people in the Middle Ages were peasants, after all.

The goofy-helmet-to-head ratio was arguably lower in the Middle Ages than this picture would suggest.
What was this land used for?

We often have an image in our heads that the Middle Ages for peasants was a time of, well, hard times: subsistence agriculture, disease, short life-spans, and back-breaking labor. While those things definitely were there and played a large part in shaping the identity of peasants in the Middle Ages, I feel that often-times popular history paints them away either as rubes or victims - either as clueless, unintelligent masses, easily swayed by superstitions; or as the pawns of merciless nobles who exploited them routinely. The truth, as usual, is more complex.

Ben Dodds looked at the agricultural economies of six English villages during the late Middle Ages: Monkton, Birchington, Eastry, Feering, Hambledon, and East Meon. He was able to speculate as to their agricultural economies by looking at the tithe records of the parishes of each of these villages. In these parishes, Tithes had to be paid to the amount of one-tenth (10%) of the earnings of the village, and looking at the data which had been remarkably preserved over the years, he was able to draw some interesting conclusions.

Now it obviously must be said that what passes for agricultural economy in six villages in the late Middle Ages cannot reliably speak for the entirety of the peasants in medieval Europe - much less can we claim to know everything about the economy from 10% payment records. However, I might argue that the insights gained from his study allow us to better understand the peasant and peasant economy in this time-period and lead to some interesting observations.

Taken from the article by Ben Dodds, featured in the Agricultural History Review.
-[broad strokes of this summary taken from pp. 127-128 of the article]-

The geography of the villages dictated the roles they would play in their local economies. Monkton, Birchington, and Eastry were situated on very rich agricultural land, close to urban centers with high demand for food crops.

Feering found itself on good soil, though not as good as the rich soils of the three Kentish parishes above.

Hambledon and East Meon had poor soil not well-suited for agriculture. At the same time, their proximity to London meant that there was a definite supply that could be met by the villagers' surplus.

Dodds finds a relationship between the availability of arable land in the parishes and their oat output:

Oats constitute 8% of the tithe yields in parishes of Eastry and Monkton
In poorer parishes, such as the Hampshire and Essex parishes (Hambledon, East Meon), oat output was 33%, greater than 40% of the local nobility's demense output (who often grew oat surpluses to feed their large populations).

"Well Charles," you say, "this is all quite obvious. Poorer parishes grew more oats. What is special about that?"

What I find interesting is the fact that this data is in the tithe payments, which is 10% of the earnings of the village.

On one hand, growing more oats in poorer soils does make sense, as you have less food, and oats are hardy and tough, well-suited to harsher climates.

Oats run with a rough crowd.
On the other hand, if these parishes are growing large amounts of oats, significant enough for tithe payments, then the possibility also arises of the desire of these villages for satisfying a large urban demand. Which raises the possibility of these 'poor peasants' actually being intrepid entrepreneurs and cash-croppers.

It also isn't merely a case of high oat-output = high oat-consumption. as "the relationship between production and consumption is not a simple one." [2] Consumption factors into it, but so do cash crops, animal fodder, and other uses.

In the six villages Dodds looks at, he notes that all six of them engage in sort of an economical planting: the Kentish parishes focusing on barley, Feering on wheat, others on oats[3]; specific cash-crops that serve not only the local needs but satisfy the needs of growing urban markets.

This gives us a slightly different understanding of peasants than the ones engendered in, say, Monty Python and the Holy Grail. While no doubt life's necessities were always at the forefront of any farmer's attention, we can surmise at the least a basic understanding of supply-and-demand and the benefits to be gained thereof. Subsistence wasn't the only concern of the medieval peasant.


[1] Dodds, Ben. "Demense and Tithe: Peasant Agriculture in the Late Middle Ages," in Agricultural History Review. Vol. 56, Issue 2, 2008. p. 124.
[2] Ibid. p. 135.
[3] Ibid. p. 130.

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