Farming dominated the lives of most Medieval people. Many peasants in Medieval England worked the land and, as a result, farming was critically important to a peasant family in Medieval England. Most people lived in villages where there was plenty of land for farming. Medieval towns were small but still needed the food produced by surrounding villages.
Farming was a way of life for many. Medieval farming, by our standards, was very crude. Medieval farmers/peasants had no access to tractors, combine harvesters etc. Farming tools were very crude. Peasants had specific work they had to do in each month and following this “farming year” was very important.
Harvesting a crop using sickles and scythes
Farms were much smaller then and the peasants who worked the land did not own the land they worked on. This belonged to the lord of the manor. In this sense, peasants were simply tenants who worked a strip of land or maybe several strips. Hence why farming was called strip farming in Medieval times.
This reliance on the local lord of the manor was all part of the feudal system introduced by William the Conqueror.
A peasant family was unlikely to be able to own that most valuable of farming animals – an ox. An ox or horse was known as a ‘beast of burden’ as it could do a great deal of work that people would have found impossible to do. A team of oxen at ploughing time was vital and a village might club together to buy one or two and then use them on a rota basis. In fact, villagers frequently helped one another to ensure the vital farming work got done. This was especially true at ploughing time, seeding time and harvesting.
A ploughing team at work
The most common tools used by farmers were metal tipped ploughs for turning over the soil and harrows to cover up the soil when seeds had been planted. The use of manure was basic and artificial fertilisers as we would know did not exist.
Growing crops was a very hit and miss affair and a successful crop was due to a lot of hard work but also the result of some luck.
In the summer (the growing season) farmers needed sun to get their crops to grow. Though weather was a lot more predictable in Medieval England, just one heavy downpour could flatten a crop and all but destroy it. With no substantial harvest, a peasant still had to find money or goods to pay his taxes. But too much sun and not enough moisture in the soil could result in the crop not reaching its full potential. A spring frost could destroy seeds if they had been recently planted.
The winter did not mean a farmer had an easy time. There were plenty of tasks to do even if he could not grow crops at that particular time.
Some estates had a reeve employed to ensure that peasants worked well and did not steal from a lord.