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Ploughing Through the Past: The Fascinating World of Medieval Farmers

Medieval Farmers were the backbone of the society during the Middle Ages. These hardworking peasants tilled the fields, tended to livestock, and produced the food that sustained entire communities. With their oxen and iron-tipped ploughs, they laboured tirelessly to cultivate the land, often enduring harsh weather conditions and unpredictable crop yields. While they used techniques like crop rotation and fertilisation with seaweed and marl to improve their yields, they faced the constant threat of crop failure, which often led to starvation and hardship. 

History of Medieval Farmer

The origins of farming date back to 5,000 BC, with the Sumerians pioneering specialized labor forces and irrigation farming techniques. As other civilizations emerged, including the Egyptians, Chinese, Greeks, and Indians, farming continued to evolve.

By the time of the Romans, the groundwork had been laid for the manorial economic system that eventually evolved into the Middle Ages’ serfdom. 

medieval farmer
Medieval Farmer is licensed under CC BY 4.0

During the Middle Ages, iron smelting significantly improved agricultural tools like ploughs and horseshoes. The introduction of the mouldboard plough helped clear the forests of Northern Europe, providing more land for agriculture and supporting a growing population. Initially introduced by the Romans, watermills were also improved during this time and were used to process flax, wool and grind grains into flour.

Despite the many advancements, life for medieval farmers remained challenging. They had to contend with disease, pests, and natural disasters and often faced food shortages and famine. 

Medieval Crops and Tools

During the Middle Ages, medieval farmers used a variety of tools, including ploughs, sickles, scythes, and flails, to cultivate their crops. The plough was the most essential tool and was typically pulled by oxen. The moldboard plough, which was introduced during the Middle Ages, was especially useful for breaking up heavy soil and clearing forests to create more farmland.

The crops grown by medieval farmers varied depending on the region and climate. They commonly cultivated crops included wheat, rye, oats, and barley. They also grew peas, beans, lentils, and vegetables like cabbage, onions, and garlic.

Medieval farmers faced numerous challenges, such as pests and diseases that could damage their crops. To combat these problems, they developed various techniques, including crop rotation, which involved planting different crops in different fields to reduce soil depletion and prevent the spread of disease. They also used natural fertilisers, like manure, lime, chalk, and marl, to enrich the soil.

Medieval tools farmers use
Medieval Crops and Tools by Luttrell Psalter is licensed under CC0 1.0

In addition to growing crops, medieval farmers also raised livestock such as cattle, sheep, pigs, and chickens. They used these animals for meat, milk, eggs, wool, and occasionally ploughing fields.

Medieval Farming Techniques

During the Middle Ages, a medieval farmer used several techniques to improve crop yields and maintain soil fertility. Three essential practices were crop rotation, fallowing, and strip farming:

  • Crop rotation involved alternating the types of crops grown in a particular field each year to avoid depleting the soil of essential nutrients. For example, a medieval farmer might grow a cereal crop like wheat one year, while the next year, they would plant a legume crop like peas or beans, which would help replenish the soil with nitrogen. Crop rotation also helped to reduce the spread of pests and diseases, which often targeted specific types of crops.
  • Fallowing was another technique used by medieval farmers to improve soil fertility. It involved leaving a field unplanted for a year or more to allow the soil to rest and regenerate. During this time, weeds and other plants could grow, which would later be ploughed back into the soil, adding nutrients.
  • Strip farming, also known as intercropping, involved dividing a field into strips and planting different crops in each strip. This technique helped to prevent soil erosion and made it easier to manage the crops. Farmers could plant taller crops like corn or beans in one strip while planting lower-growing crops like beets or carrots in another.

These practices were used throughout medieval Europe, but their prevalence varied depending on the region and climate. For example, fallowing was commonly used to give the land time to regenerate in areas with poor soil quality, like the Scottish Highlands. In the fertile regions of the Low Countries, strip farming was a popular technique for managing crops.


Medieval farmers played a crucial role in the development and sustenance of society during the Middle Ages. Despite facing numerous challenges, such as unpredictable weather, crop failure, and pests, they persevered and developed innovative techniques such as crop rotation, fallowing, and strip farming to improve crop yields and maintain soil fertility. 

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