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 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.