Because I live in a major urban American city of nearly 500,000 (Colorado Springs), I am finding it difficult to wrap my head around the idea of medieval subsistence agriculture. I am particularly interested in how life was before modern technologies and techniques were developed. I was told that a great amount about agriculture changed after the two halves of the world rejoined, so I am specifically interested in Europeans engaged in subsistence agriculture before Columbus's voyages. There doesn't really seem to be any major breakthroughs in European farming until according to Robinson Library, between the 1400's and 1500's:

Explorers introduced plants and agricultural products from Asia and the Americas into Europe. Coffee, tea, and indigo were carried back from Asia. Potatoes, tomatoes, corn (maize), and beans were among the plants brought from the Americas. Some of these plants expanded people's diets in parts of Europe.

Then there really wasn't any new breakthroughs until the early 1700's when according to the same site:

New crop rotation methods evolved in Europe's Low Countries and in England, improving previous systems. Charles Townshend popularized a four-field system in Norfolk County, England. He found that turnips could be rotated with wheat, barley, clover, and ryegrass to make soil more fertile and increase yields.

These websites echo that:

[could someone please neaten up these links so it just says "here, here, etc." but links to each page; I'd appreciate that.]

I also understand that prior to the 1700s in Southern England that agriculture was conducted primarily in open fields based on shares of fields farmed in personally possessed strips, mostly by peasants but partly by labourers for traditional wages. That before the “enclosure” of private fenced fields that agriculture was a collective endeavour of open fields divided into private rights over individual groups of arable furrows.

This leads me to believe life was relatively similar for Europeans engaged in agriculture for awhile. So, pre-Columbus, what was their life like?

I don't know how well they could preserve food, so, I would think they would plant in cycles to where different fruits and veggies ripen maybe monthly? Quarterly? And what about hunting? Were most people good with a bow or trapping? How did they get their meat. I guess: 1) How did they obtain their food (harvest, gather wild, livestock and what kind, hunt, purchase, barter for, etc) 2) How much time was spent in obtaining this food (how much time was spent harvesting crops, hunting) 3) Bonus question, how prone to starvation were these subsistence agricultural producers vs. someone like myself who has never been prone starvation in my 31 years on Earth or even my mom in her 59 years on Earth. When I look back, due to the lack of technologies and techniques, I think that these people would be prone to frequent food shortages. Maybe not to where they die, but to where it affects their health negatively.

To be honest my view of the past comes from TV and movie portrayals of the Middle Ages. It's always dirty. People are always sick. People are always afraid of something, whether it's legitimate fears like the Catholic Church trying to execute you or something due to ignorance, like a comet in the sky. People seem to be frequently maimed. People are always begging and starving.

Now, I know this is TV and movies, but when I think about all of the advancements since then, I don't find it hard to make the leap that much of these shows are correct. Life seemed to be hard. I have never worked on any kind of a farm. I have seen shows about industrial farms, but I have to imagine subsistence agriculture was different, AT LEAST in the crop variation.

  • 5
    Like it. Well framed. But extra-broad as well. Any chance you might be able to narrow this down a bit? Eg 'Europe' is quite big and varied, Irish or Polish peasant lives were similar, yet different. Portuguese experience different from Russian, Norse from Sicillian… – LangLangC Dec 15 '18 at 16:45
  • 2
    I don't want to close this because I think there is potential here for a great question - but as currently stated it seems much too broad for this forum. Not voting to close yet. – Kerry L Dec 15 '18 at 17:01
  • 5
    The Catholic church trying to execute you is not a legitimate fear. (nitpick) – Mark C. Wallace Dec 15 '18 at 17:27
  • 4
    If you had grown up on a farm, like myself, you would not have any doubts. Work daily, dawn to dusk, and there is always more to do! Harvest is the rich time of year, and early spring is the poorest. Make do. Fix it if you have it. Go without if you don't. Half the world still lives this way. – Peter Diehr Dec 15 '18 at 22:04
  • 2
    And remember that the "average day" of a farmer, even more so back then, didn't exist. Different times of year meant different things to do, either on the farm or otherwise in the service of a land owner, regional lord, or labourer for some workshop. – jwenting Dec 17 '18 at 7:27

Your Answer

By clicking "Post Your Answer", you acknowledge that you have read our updated terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy, and that your continued use of the website is subject to these policies.

Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.