Jean Gimpel’s The Medieval Machine, Chapter 2: The Agricultural Revolution

Food has become a staple in modern society, but very rarely do we think about the process that food goes through to be consumed daily.  Ancient societies had to plan their food supply years in advance to ensure food for the entirety of their population.

Chapter 2 of The Medieval Machine addresses the contrast between agriculture in ancient Rome and the Medieval Ages.  Thanks to the Agricultural Revolution, food production became much more efficient in the Medieval Ages.  The proper use of horses, the adaption of the three-field plotting system, and improvements made to the heavy plow allowed for the increase in efficiency.

The use of horses in the Medieval Ages made food production less reliant on human labor, and therefore more efficient.  Horses had been a part of ancient Roman culture prior to the Medieval Ages, however, the Romans failed to use animals in agriculture.  Because the Romans were harnessing horses the same way that ox were harnessed, the harnesses restricted the horses breathing, limiting the amount that horses could pull, making them close to useless when it came to pulling loads or plowing agriculture.  Instead of harnessing horses like ox as the Romans had done, padded collars were developed in the eighth century to increase the horsepower produced from each horse.  Resting on a horse’s shoulder blades, this new harness did not interfere with breathing.  Horses began to be used in agriculture for the first time in the Medieval Ages, with the harness as a piece of agricultural technology.  The people in the Medieval Ages succeeded in using animal power where the Romans had failed.

Additional technology that contributed to the efficiency of horses, including horse shoes and stirrups, can be found here.

In addition to using animal power to increase food production efficiency, the development of the three-field system was an innovative way to produce more food.  In Ancient Rome, the two-field system had been used, in which one of two fields would always be left fallow.  The three-field system increased crop production.  With three fields, one field was planted with a winter crop, one with a spring crop, and one left fallow.  Each field would rotate crops each year, and after three years, the cycle would repeat.  Under this system, less land was left fallow each year and plowing was spread more evenly throughout the year, making Medieval Age agriculture more successful than Roman agriculture.

The heavy plow also set agriculture in the Medieval Ages apart from Roman agriculture.  Improvements to the plow had been made for quite some time, probably dating all the way back to ancient Rome, but the developments made in the eighth and ninth centuries made the heavy plow the agricultural necessity that it was.  Coming equipped with a coulter to cut vertically, a flat plowshare to cut horizontally, and a moldboard to reposition cut pieces of turf, the new heavy plow made food production in the Medieval Ages as efficient as it was.  As plow technology became even more advanced, a plowman could regulate the depth of furrows, benefitting the specific type of crop being grown.  The horses that began to be used for agricultural purposes pulled the plows, and the shape of the three-field system changed to accommodate the heavy plow.  Use of the heavy plow led to cooperative agricultural communities and larger food production, so it’s safe to say that the Medieval plow was much more efficient than the less developed Roman plow.

By using horses, the three-field plotting system, and the heavy plow as agricultural technology, not only did food production increase, but new types of foods were also grown.  People in the Medieval Ages were able to consume a more balanced diet, containing fruits, vegetables, and protein.  A major increase in population took place because of the large quantities of food being produced, which then led to the expansion of cities and, later, industrial production.


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