Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Life on a Small Holding- Medieval vs. Modern

With the exception of the advancement of technology not much has really changed regarding smallholdings from the Medieval period until today. Land ownership generally by the upper classes, the average person/family rented or leased the land they worked. Many of them owned their chattels and stock but still depended on a collateral relationship with land owning gentry and the clergy to maximize their success. (1)

The farming year in medieval and modern times is essentially the same- divided into seasons and working the appropriate crops. Animal breeding does not change, but does improve with the keeping of better records. (2)

In Scandinavia the agriculture base depended on small farms. However, the nature of these settlements varied widely from one region to another. In prosperous regions, farms tended to cluster into small villages or hamlets. In those less so, individual farms were well separated. In Iceland, individual farms were widely extended to maximize arable field distribution and common graze.Typical farm settlements took the form of a central cluster of buildings enclosed by fences. Outside the fenced areas were the fields used for cultivation or grazing. Each homestead typically consisted of a longhouse and multiple outbuildings. (3)

(credit: Countryside network)
 'During the middle ages the main economic units were collaterally villages and/or manors.  These were self-contained economic units which ate consumed most of the food that was raised.  They sold Any surplus was sold to provide better chances for the next growing season and assure the continuance of the community.  

In this system there were two functioning social levels: the peasants and the lords/clerics. First were the peasants and serfs who raised the food. Serfs were neither fully free nor slaves. They could not leave the village, sell possessions, or marry
without the lord of the manor's permission. A  peasant or freeman was not tied as chattel to the land ,but still owed service  in either labor or crop kind to maintain his privilege to live on and work the land. The distinction between the classes though part of the law was often more likely at the discretion of the upper classes who held title to the land.    

The second level of society was the lords and priests.  The lords required taxes from the serfs in both food and labor from each family.   The Church required tithe in labor or produce.
Serfs worked the land as their lord required and had only the benefit from the land as allowed by their master . Generally this was based on  the overall production with a portion  being given to them for teir own sustenance. Each peasant would have to ay in produce to work a strip of land. The strip was defined by the acre. The acre was was the amount one could plow in one day's work. The peasants also had a set number of days called a 'benison' they were required to work on the lord's land.This system was called the open field system. In this system, temporary hedges would e set up to keep cattle out of the fields. The strips were only regarded as owned by the peasant during the time of crop growing  After the crop was harvested the land would revert back to common land for cattle grazing. This system was a disincentive to developing land or conserving the soil.

During the middle ages, they used a three or four crop rotation in their fields.  The rotation might be wheat the first year, barley the next, and the third year the land would lay fallow with nothing growing in it.  The village or manor also had lands, which were known as the commons, where all the serfs or peasants could graze their animals. '(4)

14thC. sheep pen- LutrellPsalter film

Moated sites are rectangular shaped enclosures that are primarily associated with the 13th and 14th century Anglo-Norman colonization of Ireland.  They were most likely the homes of minor lords and well-to-do tenant farmers and would have formed the focal point of large agricultural estates.   In some instance they may also have represented outlying grange farms associated with monastic establishments, while research by Dr Kieran O’Conor has indicated that a smaller number, especially in the north and west, may have been used by Gaelic Lords.  It is estimated that there are close to 1,000 moated sites in Ireland, with the vast majority occurring in the south and east, where there are notable concentrations in counties, Wexford, Kilkenny and Tipperary and Limerick. They were often built on the outer edges of the Anglo Norman colonies and it has been suggested that they may represent a second wave of settlement into more marginal land. These areas came under increasing pressure from Irish attacks in the 13th and 14th centuries and this may have necessitated the construction of more defensive settlement types. (5)

Relevant Wikipedia article- 

Agriculture was the most important industry in the Elizabethan economy. Because of this, Elizabethans were very sensitive to changes in weather. Part of the reason why agriculture was so important was that the majority of the English people lived in villages with fewer than five hundred inhabitants. Men who were farmers were responsible for plowing, weeding, sowing seeds, applying fertilizer, and harvesting agricultural products. Women, on the other hand, assisted in harvesting and winnowing (removing the inedible part) grain. When women were not doing this, however, they were usually relegated to more menial tasks, such cooking, cleaning, and sewing.

Today, I will focus on the types of animals seen on smallholdings, or 'homesteads'. Then, as now, we see horses, cows, poultry, goats,sheep and rabbits for the most part. Dogs are used as 4-legged help and eyes, cats work to keep the rodent population at bay.
(Farm Animals in Medieval Times. Poultry, goats, cattle, sheep, pigs, horses and deer have all been reared domestically since the late Bronze Age; and with the arrival of the Romans agriculture became very organised. There is much evidence to suggest that the Roman legions marched on beef. - this link has a more in depth primer. )
While animals found on medieval smallholdings were much smaller and not as well nourished as they are today, they would have been kept/housed much closer in proximity to humans.  (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 plowing 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 plowing time, seeding time and harvesting. )

The breeds of animals still in use today is significant- focusing on Britain for this paper- some of these may be OOP, since no modern pedigree record keeping techniques were available. More in depth research sources can be had at this time. (Key: OOP= out of period, NMR= needs more research)


White Park (13th cent. in England, 9th cent in Wales)

Aberdeen Angus (developed from the native black, 'slow maturing' cattle in Forfarshire)

, British White (In the 17th century there were polled white cattle in the possession of the Assheton family who acquired the Abbey after the dissolution of the monasteries.)

Belted Galway(Cattle similar to the Galloways have been kept in south west Scotland for centuries.) 

 Chillingham Wild cattle (13th cent, free of outside influence till 1700's) 

( )  


Oxford Sandy and Black ( The Oxford sandy and Black pig has existed for around 300 years being one of the oldest British pig breeds. NMR)

, the Gloucestershire Old Spot (The Gloucestershire Old Spots originated around the Berkeley Vale on the southern shore of the River Severn and was frequently kept in orchards. NMR),

 British Lop (The British Lop is a descendent of the lop eared, white pigs that lived in the farmyards of the south west for centuries. )

, Berkshire (oldest recorded pedigree pig, Cromwell’s troops when stationed in Reading made reference to a local breed of pig renowned for its size and the quality of its bacon. OOP )

 Tamworth (The Tamworth is considered Britain’s oldest pure breed and is similar in appearance to the Old English Forest Pig. NMR )

Sheep-  very primitive appearance-

Manx Loaghtan


, North Ronaldsay


Bagot (1369)

, Golden Guernsey *


Fell Pony 

(The Galloway pony of South-West Scotland - favoured mount of Border raiders is an ancestor of the Fell Pony. A stallion named Lingcropper, found on Stainmore in 1745, was probably a Galloway and became the most famous foundation animal of the Fell Pony. slightly OOP), 

Hackney (The British Hackney had its origins in the Norfolk and Yorkshire Roadsters (trotting horses) of the 18th and 19th centuries, but is first mentioned in medieval times, Following improvements in the roads during the 16th and 17th century there was an increased demand for carriage horses and the highest status symbol was to be seen out in a stylish equipage with proud high-stepping horses. )

 New Forest Pony (There have been New Forest Ponies in the New Forest since the end of the last Ice Age.)

Suffolk (The Suffolk Punch is the oldest breed of heavy horse to exist in its present form. The earliest Stud Book of any heavy horse breed, and all modern Suffolks are descended from just one horse, Crisp's Horse of Ufford, which was foaled in 1768, slightly OOP.) 

Shire (Originally referred to as the Great Horse, the Shire was of enormous importance in Medieval Britain carrying knights into battle.) 



 Old English Pheasant Fowl (A very old English breed, but only given its current name in 1914 as a revival of the original Gold Spangled Yorkshire Pheasant Fowl and Lancashire Mooney Fowls- probably OOP)

 Spanish (here are records of Spanish fowl in the UK as far back as 1572 and over the centuries there were further imports of the breed from both Holland and Spain.), 

Sicilian Buttercup (Ancestors of the Sicilian Buttercup breed are depicted in European paintings dating back to the 16th century, but the breed was not stabilised into a proper breed with a specific type, plumage colours and pattern until centuries later, and that happened in the USA.),

 Old English Game (Ancestors of the Old English Game kept by the Britons were referred to by Julius Caesar in the 1st century B.C. They weren’t kept particularly for meat of eggs, but were instead likely bred for cockfighting.


Shetland (The Shetland duck as it would suggest originates in the very north of Scotland in the Shetland Isles- probably originally a 'landrace' type.)


 West of England (Although only standardised in 1999, the breed is an ancient one.) 

Buff and Grey Back ('Pyde' geese referred to by Gervasse Markham in 1615 in Britain which pre dated the introduction of Toulouse and that neither Embden/Toulouse were the precursors of pied birds.


 Norfolk Black (The Black turkey originated in Europe and is believed to have evolved from American turkeys that had been imported in the early 1500s. It is most likely that it first arrived in Spain from where it was eventually taken to England.) 

, British White ( The white turkey has been present throughout the documented history of the turkey and the mutation of the white colour, or lack of colour, is an ancient one.

"Viking Chickens"-

 These chickens were brought to Iceland by the Vikings in the 9th century AD and were found on most farms for centuries. Indeed, one of their Icelandic names -- Íslenska landnámshænan -- means "Icelandic hen of the settlers." With the advent of the commercial type chickens, by the 1950s the Icelandic breed was nearly extinct. All the birds now existing (less than 3,000) are descended from a very small group of fowl saved in the 1970s. Icelandics are quite winter-hardy and lay white eggs. This is a long-lived breed and the hens make good broodies. They are also reputed to be quite docile. They are excellent on range, and another of their Icelandic names -- Haughænsni -- means "pile chickens," due to their habit of foraging on manure piles and other places rich with insects and seeds.

*Medieval vs. Modern - part 2*

   So you want to move out of the city and find a place in the country.
 The main place to start with things to focus on are- 
1) A country home for city workers,
 2) A part time commercial farm,
 3) A business in the country,
 4) A full time commercial farm,
 5) A place to retire.

 What you are aiming to establish is- 
1) A source of cash income,
 2) Home ownership on at least one acre,
 3) A family willingness to use its' spare time productively and creatively.

 Before you dash off to the country, consider carefully what sort of country home you want. (1)

   Start with a site plan. While no one layout will fit everyone's ideas ideas and site, there are some basic points that out to be considered. First, location, location, location. Plans on where to put your house, out buildings, barns, and agricultural production areas- which direction should they face, can water easily be had there, how can you start small and grow over the years so that your completed homestead is attractive and efficient for country living. Even if you buy a place that is already built, you should have a definite plan in place for refitting the house and land for your use. Even if you cannot use all the land it is good to learn enough about land management so parts of the land my be utilized by renters or neighbors. If you plan well in the beginning you will save countless steps in years to come. (2)

    Start by sketching out what you would like to have and accomplish on your 'perfect piece'. It will be much cheaper to purchase unimproved land and go from there. A copy of your land plat, contoured if possible, will allow you to place structures, gardens, orchards, and animal pens where they are best used. A 'basic acre' is definitely most important. If one e the 'basic acre' idea, this is the key to a productive country home. Every bit of land should be used advantageously. (3)

    A good farmer when buying a new farm gives primary consideration to the land, the state it is in... whether it is easy to cultivate, neither too dry or too wet, or sandy, shallow, etc. Even if the 'house' on the land is 'just a shack', it can be made livable for the present. Building or buying is takes much consideration. If you find a suitable piece of land as to size and location with a house already on it, then you may want to buy. Many buy bare land to incorporate many of the energy efficient techniques which are available now(4)

    Landscaping is going to increase property values by 20% or more these days. With the addition of outbuildings (barns, storage sheds, etc.) A 'concentrated barn' will allow one to house and store feed for livestock comfortably. A barn area that is 16 x 30 ft. will be adequate for your needs. Goats, sheep, chickens and rabbits can be housed well. A cow or horse can be fitted in, but you will have to 'play' with the design. Hay,grain and equipment storage must be accounted for.(5)

Side note- Many people look around for old barn/farm structures to be torn down so the material may be repurposed. Old barn wood can now be at a premium, but well worth the effort, esp. if you want to save money on the materials. There are those who save every used nail for reuse, and every board for the rebuild.

I'd like to take this in the direction of a first lesson as a report done for Arts and Sciences, age range - ALL This is the first test in a school book in use in 1911(C) '100 lessons in agriculture' by Aretas W. Nolan. It is 'pre-petro-chemical.

Make a report on your home (dream) farm, using the following-

-kind of farming done
-size and shape of farm
-surface condition-
-general condition of fertility-
-water supply
-advantages or disadvantages of the location- markets, schools, neighbors, etc. - footnotes above #'s 1-5 - antiquated, but useful - I prefer old texts in the modern era, i'll use the word again- pre-petro-chemical

30+ years ago, my husband and I bought 5+ acres of bare land in Sevier Co. Tn where we first built a small cabin to raise our children. This hardscrabble cabin had electricity, no plumbing, we caught rainwater for bathing and hauled our own drinking water. Eventually we put in our well and have now moved into our permanent house, which was designed and built much the same. We lived much the same a a peasant would have in the middle ages, with modern conveniences and technology. All with our hands as our tools.

Over time, as we developed the property, the first 'thing' that came was a pen beside the cabin for goats and chickens, and many adventures there were had. A small shed was built to house the goats and feed, and the pen was expanded.  The next phase saw a new shed and 1 acre sized pen utilized, with the materials used for the old shed used to build my husband's office building.

At one point, the trees in the bottom were harvested and the logs stored for future use. A 2 story barn was built and destroyed by a tree falling. We built a second barn which still stands, but is in the works to be dismantled and in its' place a concrete pad on which to mount a solar array is scheduled. In the year 2000, we suffered a kitchen fire and fell back to regroup. The current farm storage shed was built for feed and with a milk room. And lastly, a 23x48 metal roof barn is where all the agricultural pursuits are housed in.

Also, we had earth movers come in and create 'the big dig' into the hillside where we plan to put an underground, energy efficient home. The septic system is in place and an architect has designed the underground structure, what will be designed for the above ground structure has yet to be determined. While the property is in much disarray, we see with our hearts how much work has gone into this project that will be for our family's future generations.

If this work interests you, please join our farm page, or our goup on FB, and read the farm blog , which is being updated. needs help with web development. I kept the SCA strongly in mind through the years. While it is far from ideal and the SCA has grown and matured, I live the dream. Please come visit us.

I reccommend this book to all who are interested in the homesteading/smallholding lifestyle- also available at Amazon-

other books-