I stumbled upon the following remark from Freeman Dyson:

The most important invention of the last two thousand years was hay. In the classical world of Greece and Rome and in all earlier times, there was no hay. Civilization could exist only in warm climates where horses could stay alive through the winter by grazing. Without grass in winter you could not have horses, and without horses you could not have urban civilization. Some time during the so-called dark ages, some unknown genius invented hay, forests were turned into meadows, hay was reaped and stored, and civilization moved north over the Alps. So hay gave birth to Vienna and Paris and London and Berlin, and later to Moscow and New York.

Is it really true, that hay was only invented in the Middle Ages in Europe? Is hay really such an important invention? What about other civilization like e.g. the Mongols who used a lot of horses. Didn't they also have hay?

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    "without horses you could not have urban civilization." - presumably, no one told the natives of the Americas that. I'd be very surprised if no one in the ancient world had figured out how to dry grasses for fodder. Commented Aug 28, 2016 at 20:25
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    @KillingTime natives in the Americas never really had urban civilization. They were few urban areas or cities, total sizes remained very small, and weirdly there often was not continuous habitation. Relative to sizes of classical cities in Europe/India/Asia it really is not comparable. Top numbers I have seen are 100K in some of the largest cities for highest range of the estimates. Commented Aug 28, 2016 at 20:32
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    @StuartAllan : I thought Mexico City was quite large and crowded before anyone there had contact with Europeans. (Maybe a hundred-thousand people?) I have the impression that Cuzco was much smaller, but it was the capital of an empire. I "read somewhere" that the Incas had no wheels and traveled throughout their empire on foot. Commented Aug 28, 2016 at 21:15
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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Aug 31, 2016 at 13:35
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    Did Mongols and other nomads of the Eurasian steps produce hay in large scale ever? I doubt. And Mongolia has a more severe weather at winter than most Europe.
    – Greg
    Commented Aug 13, 2017 at 14:58

4 Answers 4


The Roman writer on agriculture Columella, who died around AD 70, gives a detailed description of the manufacture of hay (Latin: faenum) in his de re rustica 2.18, which reads as follows in the Loeb translation:

"It is best, moreover, that hay be cut before it begins to wither, as a greater quantity of it is harvested and it affords a more agreeable food for cattle. But a middle course should be followed in the curing, that it be gathered neither when very dry nor, on the other hand, while still green — in the one case because it is no better than straw if it has lost all its sap, and in the other because, if it has kept too much of it, it rots in the loft and often, when it becomes heated, it breeds fire and starts a blaze. Sometimes, too, when we have cut our hay a rain surprises us; and if the hay is soaked through it is useless to move it while wet, but better to let the upper side of it dry out in the sun.

2 Only then shall we turn it, and, when it is dry on both sides, we shall bring it together in windrows and then bind it up in bundles. And above all we shall lose no time in putting it under cover; or, if it is not convenient for the hay to be carried to the farmstead or tied into bundles, it will be well at any rate that all of it that had been dried out to the proper extent be built up into cocks and that these be topped off with very sharp peaks.

3 For by this method hay is very conveniently protected from rains; and even if there is no rain, it is still not amiss to build the aforesaid cocks, so that any moisture remaining in the hay may sweat and dry out in the piles. For this reason wise husbandmen, even in the case of hay brought under cover, do not store it away until they have allowed it to heat and cool for a few days in a loose pile. But now after the haymaking comes attention to the grain harvest; and that we may properly gather it, we must first put in readiness the implements with which the crops are harvested."

So much for the claim that "in the classical world of Greece and Rome and in all earlier times, there was no hay".

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    The Latin original can be found in various online collections, for example here: Foenum autem demetitur optime ante quam inarescat; [...]
    – njuffa
    Commented Aug 29, 2016 at 2:35
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    So Freeman Dyson was all-wrong regarding the timeline, but given that the Romans did have hay, did move north to the Alps and Vienna, Paris, and London existed by that time, the remaining question is: could they do this because they had hay, in other words, was hay relevant?
    – Holger
    Commented Aug 30, 2016 at 13:50
  • @Holger. Lutetia Parisiorum existed long before the arrival of the Romans, probably already in the 3rd century BC. And the Parisii must have had horses.
    – fdb
    Commented Aug 30, 2016 at 14:01
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    @fdb: and may have had hay, probably. Which brings us back to the question, whether hay was a required prerequisite.
    – Holger
    Commented Aug 30, 2016 at 14:04
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    The Greeks also had hay, as, I think, did anyone who domesticated herbivores. archimedes.fas.harvard.edu/cgi-bin/… archimedes.fas.harvard.edu/cgi-bin/… Incidentally, I wonder why people would take the OP's physicist's remarks on history seriously.
    – Cerberus
    Commented Jan 18, 2017 at 2:49

I think Freeman Dyson may have a point, but his facts seem to lack foundation. One only needs hay for horses that lack sufficient winter pasture for forage.

Cattle were domesticated by 6,000 BC, and horses by 4,000 BC. Horses are able to forage during winter by using their hoofs to paw through ice and snow, and to break ice to get water. Unless the weather is very severe horses do not require winter fodder if they can forage. This is discussed in The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World.

Most cattle are not able to fare so well, as they tend to push the snow aside with their noses; once ice forms they are often not able to feed themselves or drink. Thus one must bring cattle in, and feed them fodder. Today's hay often consists of alfalfa, clover, and timothy grass; it also requires careful drying if it is not to become moldy. Other types of fodder include turnips - our neighbors fed turnips to their turkeys - and other vegetable matter. The Romans used turnips, according to Pliny

When did farmers start "making hay" for winter fodder? Making Hay in Colonial Pennsylvania describes recent times, and why it was required. The history of forage preservation mentions evidence from ancient Egypt, from the Middle East, circa 700 BC, and early Rome, where it was recorded that German tribes, the "Teutons", buried green forage in a pit, covered with dung. The methods discussed are called ensiling, methods for creating silage.

Hay is different from silage because it is dried. The article assumes that making hay is just as old as making silage - because it is simpler. All you do is cut the hay, and let it dry in the sun. Making hay in Germany, which lacks sun, but not rain! makes silage more important. Perhaps the hay rick was invented in Germany, during the middle ages.

enter image description here

Loose stacked hay built around a central pole, supported by side poles in Romania

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    I think that what Columella calls “metae” (ricks, haycocks; see the quotation in my answer, end of sentence 2) are probably the same as what you have in your picture. In that case, they were not invented in Germany in the Middle Ages.
    – fdb
    Commented Aug 29, 2016 at 10:34
  • Your answer leads me to this idea: Silage is a simpler food for ruminants; cows, sheep. Hay seems like a more technical military technology from the near East because horses must have it in temperate climates. It spread gradually with civilization from here.
    – John Dee
    Commented Jun 18, 2018 at 22:22
  • @JohnDee: horses require a lot of fiber in their diet (20%), but hay is not the only source: silage, beet pulp, etc. are possible substitutes when foraging is not possible. See thesprucepets.com/hay-substitutes-1886506 Commented Jun 18, 2018 at 23:00
  • It's common knowledge that you don't feed horses silage. You made me look it up though; and apparently it can be done.
    – John Dee
    Commented Jun 20, 2018 at 0:21

According to another historical account the earliest remains of hay were found in central European archaeological sites from the late stone age. Dyson has the right place but wrong time. The Romans, Greeks, and Chinese might have used hay, but it is one thing that predates their civilizations. Again its earliest finds are in Europe north of the alps and east of the Rhine centuries before the middle ages.

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    Your answer would be improved by providing documentation including sources to support your contentions.
    – justCal
    Commented Aug 12, 2017 at 16:30

I too believe Dyson has a point. The use of dried forage grasses may have been known prior to the middle ages, but the practice probably expanded significantly and with greater sophistication during the increasing agricultural settlement of northern Europe. Having a source of fodder for cattle also would have given north Europeans greater resilience in the face of climate change -- which Kyle Harper points to in The Fate of Rome as a significant challenge even in ancient times. Northern Europe also had significantly more usable land and a wetter climate more suitable to producing forage, and the surplus would have supported a larger population of cattle and a more protein-rich diet for humans in medieval times. I'm wondering if besides the use of hay "stacks" there is any archaeological evidence for or studies of the use of barns (for storage and protection of animals). One certainly sees their use in some medieval art as well as the extensive use of the scythe (and hay stacks) as in the illustrations of the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, etc., but such evidence is hard to quantify.

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    Welcome; but this is a Q&A site and not a discussion site. Please read the FAQ. Commented Jun 18, 2018 at 19:13

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