Friday, October 15, 2010

This Country Life: Animals as Help and Hindrance to the Medieval Farmer

It is very hard to discover the way that medieval people actually used and experienced animals, as became clear in our class discussion. Obviously archaeological evidence and tax rolls can give us evidence of the animals that were present, help us approximate their value, and suggest the manner in which they were used. But it cannot give us solid answers, even about those questions, and certainly cannot reveal much at all about human interactions with animals or the ways humans processed those interactions. For this we need supplementary information.

There are two main types of sources which we have not approached but which provide more evidence for the ways in which people used animals during daily farm life in the Middle Ages. These are literature and art. Although these were largely created for a rich audience, many pieces of literature and also artwork such as illuminated psalters, contain descriptions and images of medieval peasants going about their daily lives. Through these we can get some sense of what actual farming looked like.

Through examining the Luttrell Psalter, the Très Riches Heures, and the “Nun’s Priest’s Tale” from the Cantebury Tales, I would like to make several observations about both medieval farming practice and the broader relationship between humans and animals in the Middle Ages. This will include a further look at using oxen and horses on the farm, as well as a glimpse of something not captured in tax rolls, the natural predator. Through this discussion I would like to advance a very modest claim: Medieval people, although well-versed in using animals in their farm work, had a complicated relationship with the natural world because of the unpredictability of nature and the dangers posed by many animals.

The Texts

The Luttrell Psalter and the Très Riches Heures were both lavishly illuminated manuscripts created about one hundred years apart. Both contain the text of the Psalms as well as a Calendar. The Luttrell Psalter was commissioned in around 1330 by Sir Geoffrey Luttrell, a wealthy landowner in Lincolnshire. The Riches Heures were commissioned in 1410 by the Duke of Berry, one of the wealthiest men in France. Both manuscripts contain illuminations of scenes from everyday life as well as purely decorative motifs.

The "Nun’s Priest’s Tale" is one of the stories from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, written during the second half of the fourteenth century. It is in the genre of animal fabliaux (animal story) and is set in a barnyard. The tale portrays the actions of a rooster, a hen, and a stock character of medieval literature, Reynard the Fox.

Oxen, horses, and Planting the Fields

I believe that the question of whether peasants all owned their own plough-animals or shared animals amongst the group can be answered by examining the illustrations in the Psalters. Although both Psalters obviously portray the serfs of great lords who were presumably using their lords’ animals in order to prepare the fields, we find that the peasants are using both oxen and horses to do two separate but related tasks, plowing and tilling. We find a serf using a team of oxen to plow a field in the March illustration of the Riches Heures. Another team of oxen is plowing on the twentieth page of the Luttrell Psalter. This adds evidence to the conclusion that on demesnes oxen were preferred as plough animals over horses.

However, horses are used in another task in the fields. On the next page of the Luttrell Psalter (pp 21-22) we find three peasants working to seed a field. One is leading a horse pulling a harrow. This is also represented on the October illustration of the Riches Heures, although here we see the peasant riding the horse. The harrow was used for tilling the field and did not need to penetrate as deeply as the plough. Thus it was better to have a horse pull it.

The conclusion that can be safely drawn from this is that both horses and oxen had a major use in preparation for planting. Therefore, in a situation where peasants were trying to share livestock it would make a great deal of sense for some to own oxen and some to own horses. This means that it would make a great deal of sense for some peasants to own oxen and some to own plough-horses. The owners can use their animals reciprocally as the season calls for them. Also, although only one person is needed to guide the plough or harrow, during plowing and sowing multiple people were needed in order to perform other jobs. For example, we see in the Luttrell Psalter a second person urging the oxen on. During the sowing in both Psalters we see that other people must follow along behind the harrow in order to actually sow the seed. Obviously farming was a cooperative activity, and sharing animals was probably just one more part of this effort.

Of course for all the benefits that these animals brought to the peasants, they must have been a source of anxiety as well. Walter of Henley’s concerns about the costs of keeping an ox or a horse must have weighed even more heavily on individual peasants. Even worse must have been the fear that the animal would become sick and could not be used to prepare the fields, or worse died, leaving its owners unable to raise the money to replace it. The nature of relying on animals rather than mechanical farm implements, with no safety net to protect many farmers from the accidents of nature, would have made medieval farming that much harder.

Foul Fowl, Tricky Foxes

Another aspect of Medieval farming which the Psalters reveal but tax-registers never hint at is the dangers that wild animals posed. We have seen in both Psalters that sowing a field took multiple people. The first man guides the harrow, one distributes the seed, and another fends off birds trying to eat the seeds. In the Luttrell Psalter one man follows after the harrow holding rocks in his shirt. These are the ammunition for his sling, which he is using to scare away birds. On the facing page his companion is spreading the seed, but behind him a bird is eating straight out of the seed bag. In front of him a small dog chases another bird away from the field. Again in the Riches Heures we find a man sowing the seed, but birds are plundering the seed. In the background, in a field already sown, a man stands with a bow and shoots at the pesky birds. In these detailed images we can see birds flocking onto the field to eat the seeds.

Clearly the birds represented a huge problem for farmers. The yield of each field would be their livelihood, and probably their sustenance, and every seed snatched away by the birds reduced their production. This meant that birds, although seemingly harmless as compared to predator animals, represented a major threat to the peasants for at least part of the year. Ironically, in the Luttrell Psalter, on the same page as the tilling scene and most of the other pages in the manuscript, the decorative scrolling includes many pictures of small birds. So birds were both dangerous and attractive and fascinating animals to people in the Middle Ages.

The fox was another animal that was more obviously dangerous to the peasant farmers. We see this clearly in the “Nun’s Priest’s Tale” as Chanticleer, the foolish rooster, tempts fate and Reynard and nearly becomes dinner. The prevalence of Reynard tales indicates some of the dangers faced by the poultry and rabbits owned both by the peasants and the nobility during the Middle Ages. Because of their proximity to natural predators in the untamed areas of the country, rural farmers had to be always on guard against animals trying to rob their henhouses. This would have been one of the incentives to keep a dog on hand. Although the dog needed to be fed and could probably get into a lot of mischief himself, it would have been worth the cost as it protected the farm, either by chasing away foxes from the henhouse or birds from the field. And of course the greedy fox is still a problem for rural farmers in Europe.

Medieval Peasants and the Natural World

Examining the relationship between medieval peasants and the animals present in their world, including those animals which don’t appear on tax rolls but which nevertheless were present and represented a threat to farmers, opens up a broader vision of how medieval people must have viewed animals and nature. To the extent that they could control nature, such as using their domesticated livestock in order to farm, or they could enjoy nature, such as looking at birds for their beauty, medieval people must have had a close relationship with their animals.

However, to the medieval peasant animals were not simply a romanticized idea and a boon on the farm. The farm animals were expensive to care for, and were not safe from the depredations of disease and predators. And the farms were surrounded by natural pests such as birds, foxes, wolves, rodents, and insects, none of which could be completely guarded against. This meant that although people would have been comfortable interacting with their livestock, and aware of the beauty of the natural world, they also had to view many things which we see as minor or benign as huge threats to their livelihood.


  1. I love the book of Hours paintings! Especially the close up of the miserable guy sowing seed. Every time I look at medieval art, I begin to wonder if it was better to be a human or an animal in the middle doesn't seem like the living standards were that different. Given that animals are so prevalent in literature and take on characteristics so specific to humans, like Chaunticleer's stupid arrogance, one might get the impression that medieval people felt somewhat on par with animals. Of course today there are plenty of stupid movies with talking animals, so maybe not much has changed in how we view animals.
    One other thought comes to mind after reading your post- when did scarecrows come into use?

  2. It is certainly true that we cannot depend solely on the tax accounts and handbooks of estate management for developing our picture of the place of animals in the medieval agricultural world. We will be reading an earlier version of Reynard the Fox later in the quarter as well as looking at images of animals in art (albeit elephants and apes rather than oxen and horses). Likewise, we will be reading more about the problem of predators (specifically, wolves). The question is whether art and literature actually get us (as you suggest) closer to the "reality" of medieval peasant life, or whether they simply add yet another interpretive lens through which to look, raising even further questions about the world they are trying to depict. Think, for example, of images that we have in our present visual culture of what it is like to live on a farm (e.g. movies or photographs). They will definitely show us something that simply reading account books cannot, but do they show us "reality" in any less mediated form? Walter of Henley may argue for oxen in favor of horses and John Langdon may be able to show us that peasants were more likely to have access to horses, but neither are in fact denying what the psalter images suggest: i.e. that peasants in the course of their labors used both. Images are not necessarily more finely grained analytically, even if they seem to be more "accurate" by virtue of being visual. We need to read them as carefully as we read our texts--e.g. why exactly would a luxury prayer book be expected to show us the "reality" of peasant life anymore than a Hollywood blockbuster could be expected to show us the "reality" of small town American farm life? That said, you raise a very good point about the dangers of birds, both as eaters of grain and as eatees of foxes!


  3. @ Clare: It's funny you should mention scarecrows, because I was actually wondering about them as I was writing this post. I think that the little archer in the background of the Riches Heures looks a lot like a scarecrow, especially in the detailed view. However, I don't actually know when they came into use. I'm relatively certain that they were around in the 18th century. It would be interesting to see if they were used before then.

    As to the idea of medieval people identifying more with animals than we do, I'm not sure that we can draw that conclusion, certainly not with the evidence we have. I think it might be safer to say that the fact that humans from the ancient Greeks (Aesop) to modern Americans like to personify animals in literature tells us something about human fascination with animals. Even though we're certain that animals can't think or act on the level we can, we still like to portray them as doing so.

  4. @ RLFB: I think your point about lenses is perhaps the key. I don't mean to suggest that art or literature is the ultimate truth on medieval farming, or on anything at all. As I pointed out, the artwork that we have from the Middle Ages was consciously produce for a noble audience, and so has inherent biases. And of course there is always artistic license to consider. However, the artwork nevertheless exists as a way to approach peasant life that we have in few other sources. I could not have made any of these points without the artwork. However, I also could not have made many of my points without comparing the artwork to questions raised by the written and archaeological sources. Looking through multiple lenses is a way that we can raise and answer multiple new questions about farming and animals in the Middle Ages.

  5. Good point about the dangers to livestock and wild animals. However, I'm not sure your point about the COMPLETE loss of livelihood due to the death of an animal is completely accurate. For one thing, we know that oxen could be resold as meat and some profit could be made from a horse's hide (and possibly the meat eaten). Although these would probably not cover the cost of a new ox or horse if the animal died due to a disease or attack, I would imagine they would cover enough to at least get an animal that would allow the farmer to continue farmer (considering that Walter appears to believe the entire cost of a healthy, old ox could be recouped upon slaughter).

    Thus, although you're probably right that medieval farmers probably worried over the health of their animals, they probably worried only as much as modern ranchers.

  6. I mean... there are bigger problems here than that artists were taking certain freedoms and producing their work for a noble audience. By the end of the 14th century "The Peasant" was not only a persistent character, theme, and stereotype in Medieval literature, but it was a really really politically controversial one. And, especially in Chaucer, messages usually came out as a result of extremely subtle changes in depiction from the standard literary Peasant. The fact that the Peasant did Peasant things was entirely besides the point.

    It just seems a little hairy. These guys may not have had anything close to the agricultural reality in mind... and (even more so than in the text of certain agricultural treatises) we really have no idea what sort of actions are being depicted, what time they were used in, where this is/was supposed to be happening, etc.