Medieval Agricultural Yields and Equivalents... (long)
Subject: Medieval Agricultural Yields and Equivalents... (long)
From: email@example.com (Peter Corless)
Date: 10 Dec 1994 08:23:00 GMT
Article: 2422 of sci.agriculture
Newsgroups: sci.agriculture, sci.bio.ecology
Organization: Cisco Systems, Inc.
Xref: bigblue.oit.unc.edu sci.agriculture:2422 sci.bio.ecology:7726
I'm doing some rather extensive research into Norman-era English
agriculture, c Domesday Survey (1086 AD). (Long story, folks...)
Yes, yields have gotten really cool over these last eight centuries, but
let's go back to the medieval farmer turning over the heavy English clays
with an eight-oxen team. I don't know if there's someone out there working
in modern developing-world countries that might be able to shed light on
this sort of material, but anything would be better than my "wag"s
>From what I've been reading, Medieval yields for various grains are as
Rye = seven-fold render (7 bushels on one acre); does better in poor soil
Wheat = 5-fold render (5 bu/acre) in poor soils...
Barley = ???
I believe the seed distribution was 1 bushel/acre for planting. Other
sources indicate 2 bushels/acre, though this seems rather high to me.
This didn't jive with most other estimations I received, which indicated
Anglo-Saxon farm yields for wheat ranging from 6 (poor harvest) to 8
(average) to 10 (great) bushels per acre. But I think these also assumed
average to good plowland.
Given the early two-field rotation system, I tried to rationalize how
England could support the debated-but-seemingly-accepted historical
estimates of 1.2 to 1.5 million inhabitants.
Basically, the Domesday survey showed 67,000 some odd "hides", "sulungs" or
"carucates" under plow... Each unit can be rounded off to representing 120
acres (though this varied *greatly* depending on all sorts of variables...)
That's about 12,600 square miles under plow... or 8,000,000 acres (very
figures). Given 50% utilization for rotation (I'll use the other 50% for
pasture below), that's 4,000,000 acres.
Okay. Here we go...
Given a bad harvest year (famine, but people aren't dropping like flies),
that'd be equivalent to a 6 bu/acre render minus 1 bu/acre for replanting =
5 bu/acre for food, or 4 million x 5 bu = 20 million bushels of grains.
I've heard that a typical human being requires about 24 bushels of food per
year (which would create a loaf a bread a day).
But that means 1.5 million people x 24 bushels = 36 million bushels
Even 1.2 million (the low-ball accepted value) = 28.8 million bushels/year.
So somewhere I'm only 50-75% towards the dietary needs of the population.
btw: Even if you break down this equation to the individual farmstead,
which we have very explicit survey results for, the equation doesn't work
too well. The typical farm has about 4 households per "hide" of 120 acres.
Estimates of family size are ~4-5/household. Given 16-20 people per 120
acres = (16 to 20) x 24 bu required = 384-480 bushels equiv. required
versus 120 x 50% x 5 = 300 bushels produced! Only 62%-78% the way there...
At the same time, I didn't decrease grain yields to account for the
significant losses due to requirements for brewing into alchohol. (I've
heard *all* sorts of wild guesses for that figure...) Or take into account
losses due to pestilence in storage, spillage, losses in milling, etc.
So somehow people were able to live without starving to death... So my next
thought: "must be their consumption of vegetables and meats!"
But the figures don't support this. Or do they?
Gardens were dissapointing. Crofts, gardens and other growing areas were
rated at no greater than 10% of the arable. Most locations didn't even rate
a mention of such. What is the typical vegetable garden's yield?
Given an equivalent "5 bushels/acre" yield to grain, then we'd get to add
another 5-10% towards our goal... Now we stand at about 55% (worst case) to
88% (best case) of our needs -- or roughly two thirds the way there. Now
let's turn to the aminal part of the diet...
>From a sample of 1.7% of the population (taken from the richest and
best-victualled nobles' farmsteads), I came up with the following stats:
2.3 oxen per family (Can't eat 'em... these were the plow beasts)
0.24 head of cattle per family
0.04 horses per family (Mostly for the wealthy... I only included them
since I was trying to figure out how the *heck* people'd survive in
the lean years.)
0.23 goats per family
0.61 pigs per family
4.02 sheep per family
(Alas, chickens and ducks were not compiled by the tax collectors! ;-)
The meadow and pastureland statistics also bear out the above numbers for
livestock. For instance, most meadow -- reserved grazing land for oxen --
amounted to 5-20% of the arable. As mentioned already, common pasture was
often the rotated crop land, but some locations were also lucky enough to
rate set-aside pastures for their cattle, but not much.
Now, I haven't butchered enough animals, but this does not seem like enough
victuals to make up 30% of your dietary needs over a year. The sheep are
the most promising, but I don't think that'd last you more than a couple of
How many "bushels" equivalent does 4 sheep, a half-a-pig, and a
quarter-of-a-cow equate to? Also, remember that you cannot eat the whole of
the available livestock, lest you then have *nothing* left for future
years... I would assume you could consume no more than 30-50% of your
available animals (depending on the type, gestation period and rate of
maturation per beastie) if you do not want to adversely affect the overall
economic and ecologic system.
I also considered hunting and fishing, but I don't have any idea how much
that would change the equation. Rabbit was probably available widely, and
venison to those authorized to hunt in the King's forests. (Poachers were
also quite likely ;-) Renders of eels, fish, sesters of honey and other
food were mentioned, but not enough to make "great unified theory"
So far, so good. Given some good hunting, we can just about scratch our
heads and give them the benefit of the doubt. Now here's the tricky part:
Food renders were made -- usually 10% of the harvest -- to the church every
year. If I knock 10% off my values, well... now things *really* look bleak.
As well, agriculture renders as "valet" -- taxes -- were about 1-2
pounds/hide, or roughly 1.6 to 3.2 pence per acre. And these weren't paid
in coinage, but in renders of food as well!
(I have not been able to establish the selling price of bushels of grain at
this time... But that's another posting altogher in a different newsgroup!
And no, I'm sorry; the clergy did *not* make up 10% of the rural population
of England... More like 1 in 260 -- about what you'd expect! Similarly
those who were getting the taxes were not statistically equivalent to the
amount of goods that were being delivered to them. The ratio of taxes would
be about 15% of the yield (if, as I've guessed, a bushel as worth 2 pence).
This also matches the taxes of "one sheep/pig in seven" that was collected
by the king's men.
And, by the way, this 15% rendered as taxes was split amongst only 5% of
the population -- I think they were *quite* set! :-)
So I scraped to get to 100% of food, only to be brought back down by 25%.
How well does a population survive on 75% of it's annual requirement?
Famine would obviously claim some lives.... but I can't see it being an
even-percentage exchange. Surely there's some resiliency towards
Otherwise, England would have been nearly depopulated after a relatively
short number of drought or pestilence years.
Anyone have figures on such large-scale and primitive agrarian societies?
I *know* people survived the feudal era... I'm trying to figure out *how*,
and from this, get a good idea of their diet and lifestyle.
Any help would be *greatly* appreciated in this endeavour. If I get
published, I'll be sure to site any assistance rendered. References are
also highly desired.
Please e-mail directly back to me (firstname.lastname@example.org). I'll try to amass
and post the best of the reponses.