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I am listening to a lecture series and the professor mentioned a "spring harvest" starting in mid to late March. I think this is a mistake - the winter crops were not harvested until the Summer - but I could be wrong.

  • was there a spring harvest?
  • when did it start? (what century?)
  • what month was it in?
  • what crops were harvested?

  • Which lecture series?
    • I had hoped to avoid this as I do not wish to challenge the lecturer directly, but it is The Medieval World
  • Why do you doubt the narrative?
    • The lecturer has already made a number of statements which are between suspicious and downright wrong, especially on matters related to religion.
    • This conflicts my prior understanding of Medieval farming.
  • What region are you referring to?
    • The lecturer generally limits herself to the areas around France, England, and the low countries.
  • What is the timeline you're referring to?
    • This part of the course is a bit ambiguous. It is after the enfiefdom of France, probably after the invasion of England by William the Conqueror. That said, I would be glad to know of any such harvest practices. If it is something common only to one particular region or era, that would be appreciated, too.
    • If I had to put numbers on it, I would say that this is probably between the 11th and 14th centuries, but if there is a sizable pattern anywhere between the 5th and the late 15th that would validate her claim.
  • What, specifically, do you doubt?
    • The professor stated that Lent was at the time of year with the least food. This is doubtful as the fasting in Lent was related to milk, cheese, and eggs. These were not staples of the Medieval peasant's diet, nor would they be in short supply. Further, while it is possible that the upper class might have celebrated the restoration of meat, it was less of an issue to members of the lower class. Most of our festival customs come from the lower class and migrate up the social stata.1
    • The lecturer also asserted that Easter was held after a Spring harvest. I found this strange as winter crops are normally harvested in August. I also could not find a reference to a sprint harvest in these materials.
    • Finally, the assertion that Easter was the celebration of a Spring harvest conflicts with the nature of harvesting: crops need to be harvested under certain climatic conditions. Easter, however, being a variable date, will often fall outside of this range (harvesting in late April is very different from harvesting in early March).

1. I understand that this particular statement may fall under "common knowledge". If pressed, I can cite sources… just not right now

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    Vastly improved. Even though I am usually the skeptic, I understand questioning the narrative based on a set of dubious statements. I think this is now a good question. – Mark C. Wallace Oct 12 '17 at 14:56
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    I agree, great improvements. The only concern I have is still unable to see a direct quote of the disputed statement. If, for instance, she said after a spring harvest festival, that would have a different meaning. Spring festivals are almost always focused of fertility and new growth, and pagan festivals in the spring would often include rituals/sacrifices to ensure a good harvest. Spring festival, harvest related. Wording might be key. – justCal Oct 12 '17 at 16:28
  • @user2448131 Unfortunately, I don't have a transcription, and I passed beyond that section of the book by several minutes already. Finding the exact quote is involved. – cwallenpoole Oct 12 '17 at 17:54
  • Re Easter being a variable date, the Christian holiday would have been imposed on an earlier seasonal festival, either the vernal equinox or the midpoint between solstice and equinox. – jamesqf Oct 12 '17 at 18:11
  • @jamesqf That is an assumption that the professor also made. The "Christianity adjusts its feast dates to suit the date pagan holiday" strikes me as one of those "facts which isn't a fact". The date of Easter was clearly defined throughout all of Western Europe by the end of the seventh century. – cwallenpoole Oct 12 '17 at 18:42
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Well, I found a fairly good description of the Medieval Farming Year, and it does not support a 'spring harvest' as you suspected.

From the above source, Concerning winter crops specifically in April:

While the plough teams were busy on the fallow field, preparations began for the sowing of spring crops (barley, oats, peas, beans and vetches). In a two-field system the spring crops would be sown on half the active field (winter crops, sown the previous autumn, would already be growing on the other half);

Then, the entry for August, which again references the 'winter crops':

The main grain harvest began in early August if the weather allowed and would usually be completed by the end of the month. The winter crops (wheat and rye) ripened and were harvested first, followed by the spring grains (barley and oats). The timing depended very much upon the weather -

So this source indicates August as the primary harvest month, even for the 'winter wheat'. {It does vary according to climate and location, but the earliest I found for winter wheat in the US, harvested under modern conditions, looks to be in May, with June-July being typical today.}


Winter grains aside, there are crops not mentioned above in this medieval context, which can be commonly harvested early in the spring, including beets,turnips,cabbage,onions,and garlic. (an article Top 10 Vegetables to Grow Over Winter discusses some of these (note: this is a commercial site).

Also, chickens do begin laying eggs more prolifically in the spring, with the increased amount of daylight, and cows are mentioned in the first source as starting to produce their full amount of milk in May, due to better forage. This would support the lectures contention of an increase in these food supplies in spring.

So parts of the lecture, those discussing specific food shortfalls, I would agree with. Foods become scarce over winter, and become more avialable, specifically the dairy and eggs above-mentioned. As to Easter being associated with a 'Spring Harvest', I find nothing to support any major harvest occurring in the months of March or April.


There are several websites which will discuss Easters link to the older festivals, for instance

  • I did find a footnote in a 2007 paper by Martha Howell which explicitly mentions spring harvests in the context of late Medieval Ghent. The reference might be worth following up. – sempaiscuba Oct 12 '17 at 19:54
  • I found the same source on Medieval farming. The top 10 site is very useful. – cwallenpoole Oct 12 '17 at 20:05
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    @sempaiscuba Intersting, it seems to be a legal definition defining winter crops by the end of March as being 'close enough to harvest' to be included in property claims. It doesn't give a projected harvest time however... – justCal Oct 12 '17 at 20:06
  • Along with your winter vegetable statement, it's worth noting that foraging also would increase (a starving man can forage more in the Spring), but not in comparison with harvest time. It seems that the period of starvation was most likely still the Winter, but the period of feasts was not the Spring. As far as Easter goes… many of our Easter traditions are Enlightenment-era imports from Germany. Making characterizations based on that seems… almost anachronistic. – cwallenpoole Oct 12 '17 at 20:18
  • @user2448131 Technically, of course, Spring runs from the Vernal equinox (~21 March) to the Summer solstice on (~21 June). A number of root vegetables might be planted in late Autumn/early winter for harvest in that window. – sempaiscuba Oct 13 '17 at 0:28
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Sweet, sweet irony.

I found this thread by googling after hearing the same "spring harvest" comment in the same lecture series mentioned in the original post.

I wrote the Medieval Farming Year essay cited against it (theres an updated version of the essay here: http://www.penultimateharn.com/history/medievalfarmingyear.html )

I've seen a number of references to "spring harvests" in the medieval period from non-academic sources. These I generally dismiss.

The mention in the lecture series is the first time I've heard it from an academic source.

However, I'd note that this is a very broad series of lectures covering almost every aspect of medieval life and politics. Medieval agriculture is a fairly specialised area, and the calendar of works more specialised still.

Until I see some documentary evidence, I'm going to stick with my statement that the main harvest month is in August. Autumn-sown field crops don't grow much in winter; they're dormant. The end result as a few weeks' head start in the spring-sown crops.

As to vegetables and other garden crops, yes, these may ripen earlier. This is, however, not what what is considered the harvest. Garden crops were mostly grown for home consumption, with an exception near larger cities (the Feeding the City project, a multidisciplinary examination of the resources required by London c. 1300 indicates its demands were sufficient to have a ring of manors specialising in market gardening - you'll find the reference in my updated farming calendar linked above).

For now, I'm considering references to spring harvests to be factoids - things everyone thinks are true but aren't. I'm prepared to change my opinion if presented with evidence to the contrary.

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