Tag Archives: three-field system

Feudal Transformations XVIII: who wants that third field?

My academic endeavours seem to come round in cycles. I spent a good chunk of later 2012 working my way through Jean-Pierre Devroey’s book L’Économie rurale et société en l’Europe franque I in pursuit of the latest learnings about crop yields in order to finish writing up my paper on crop yields.1 Now that I am finally doing that writing up, with the addition of Italian evidence about which you will in due course hear much more, I find that I have now reached in the queue the posts I stubbed to write up later while reading it, and so even though I left this stuff to sit idle fifteen months ago it’s now topical again just as I come back to it! Hallelujah! or something. Anyway, what I want to talk about here was just a throwaway to Devroey, so much so that it’s not even actually in my notes on the book, and not really new with him, and yet it has quite big implications I think, and this topic is the possible reasons why we seem to see a switch from two-field to three-field agriculture between the eighth and tenth centuries in Europe.

Cover of Jean-Pierre Devroey, Économie rurale et société dans l'Europe franque

Cover of Jean-Pierre Devroey’s book just mentioned

You may remember that I’ve written about this before, and back then it was because of a piece written by one Helmut Hildebrand who argued that the pressure to shift from a system in which one grew crops in half your land and let the other half lie fallow in any given year to one in which you divided your land in three, grew a winter crop like wheat in one, a spring crop like rye in another and left only the third to lie fallow, thus doing important things to your overall yield, was mainly down to demographic pressure.2 I then suggested, largely because of Chris Wickham but also, I now realise, to Peter Reynolds and Christine Shaw, that pressure from lords to render more was probably also a factor, and to my relative delight this turns out to be the position that Devroey also takes, turning the shift in systems back into something that might be a causal driver rather than an effect of a change we have to explain by other means, that is, the apparent rise in European population from c. 900 onwards.3

Teaching diagram of the Feudal Transformation, by me

Teaching diagram of the Feudal Transformation, by me

All the same, this cannot just be accepted, because every bit of any explanation that might bear on the changes and growth in European society that we see over the tenth and eleventh centuries which have come to be characterised as the ‘feudal transformation’ need attaching to the scheme of change at both ends. If, in fact, lords were causing this shift in production methods, why? Such things are usually put down to lords’ essential interest in getting as much revenue as possible from their estates, but this is actually a very twentieth-century concern, a capitalist think-back to people whose priorities were really otherwise constructed. Someone like Chris Wickham, for example, is very sceptical that most lords would have been this involved in the details of agriculture, rather than just demanding a non-specific more that the peasants had somehow to come up with.4 This allows us to leave at least some initiative with the peasants, but when it comes down to second crops, it’s hard immediately to see how that could work out: if what an average lord is mostly concerned with was maintaining himself and his family in the style to which they were accustomed, turning up with rye instead of the wheat that was demanded is unlikely to have cut the mustard, I’d say. Peter Reynolds would have said that the peasants were growing something else to eat themselves, relinquishing all hope of holding onto a wheat crop that was fundamentally grown for their lords, but cases like big monastic estates that wanted ‘poor’ bread as well as good stuff to meet the demand they faced from workers and the poor suggest that that is either insufficiently or excessively cynical: the lords probably wanted the rough stuff too.5

Peasants at work with a light plough, from a manuscript image in the Biblioteca de l'Escorial

Not necessarily Catalan peasants, but at least from a manuscript in the Escorial in Madrid, rather than the usual French or English ones

Well, Devroey is more or less ready for this, as he suggests specifically that the driver of change might be the need of an increasingly equestrian nobility to feed its newly-numerous horses, leading to them requiring oats in a new way from a peasantry who would not previously have grown them. This, I think, he largely gets from Pierre Bonnassie, who concluded similarly for Catalonia after noting a rise in oats being rendered at about the same time as a boom in the mention of horses in the eleventh-century charters, not unreasonably supposing that these were associated.6 This gets us a bit further on, because it expresses lordly demand in terms that aren’t purely economic. The problem with the profit motive, you see, is that it should be a universal, were everyone in history a rational economic actor anyway. Lords in the seventh century should really have been just as interested in making themselves more wealthy as lords in the eleventh, so if we only see the latter doing it there’s something here about the difference between the two societies that still needs explaining. For Bonnassie that difference was the new possibility of military endeavour against Muslim Spain, leading to a new demand for horses to participate in the endeavours of the aristocracy and consequently a new demand for their feed from the peasantry those aristocrats controlled. But how could this have worked out in an area such as those in which Devroey is interested where there was no gold-rich open frontier?

A battle scene from the Biblia de Ripoll

For want of a render of oats a horse was lost, for want a horse the rider was lost…

I suppose that the answer must be that in the earlier period, competition between aristocrats for importance and influence must have been waged in different areas. The obvious one of these, and one which I get very much from the work of Jinty Nelson and Stuart Airlie, is the Carolingian court.7 As long as that functioned and had a decent range of appeal, an ambitious member of the aristocracy could make himself (or herself) far more important more quickly by obtaining office or honores from the king than he could by becoming slightly richer than his local rivals, in a game which they could obviously play too. Access to that royal patronage was the thing worth competing for that could decide such contests for status. But once the king ceased to be able to control his far-flung properties or to afford to grant his nearby ones, anyone outside the core was forced back into the local game.8 Without the ability to leverage a court connection to get someone a leg-up into the privileged classes or get (or deliver) royal officers’ intervention in a local matter, such a person’s wealth and how readily they spent it could be the reason men commended themselves to them, rather than to the castellan down the road who’d just put new solars in at his main residence and was gunning to have his son made the next bishop, for example. Magistra and I have debated here before how this newly-constrained competition for status might have made the overall increase in agricultural productivity of the period hard either to perceive or to enjoy for its appropriators, but if Devroey should happen to be right and this sequence of development be how we might explain it, then that competition might be more cause than effect, and the continuing importance of a court and its patronage explain the much less obvious existence of such phenomena in Ottonian Germany, for example.9 Theo Riches has observed in comments here before now that the ‘feudal transformation’ is essentially a post-Carolingian phenomenon, which is uncomfortably true, but this refocussing of aristocrats on the land might be why.


1. J.-P. Devroey, Économie rurale et société dans l’Europe franque (VIe-IXe siècles), Tome 1. Fondements matériels, échanges et lien social (Paris 2003).

2. H. Hildebrandt, “Systems of Agriculture in Central Europe up to the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries” in Della Hooke (ed.), Anglo-Saxon Settlements (Oxford 1988), pp. 275-290.

3. C. Wickham, “Problems of Comparing Rural Societies in Early Medieval Western Europe” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 6th Series Vol. 2 (Cambridge 1992), pp. 221-246, rev. in idem, Land and Power: studies in Italian and European social history, 400-1200 (London 1994), pp. 201-226; idem “Sul mutamento sociale e economico di lungo periodo in Occidente (400-800)” in Storica Vol. 23 (Roma 2002), pp. 7-28, repr. as “Per uno studio del mutamento di lungo termine in Occidente durante i secoli V-VIII” in Quaderni del Dipartimento di Paleografia e Medievistica Vol. 1 (Bologna 2003), pp. 3-22, transl. Igor Santos Salazar & rev. Iñaki Martín Visó as “Sobre la mutación socioeconómica de larga duración en Occidente durante los siglos V-VIII: on the long-term socio-economic change in the West from fifth to eighth centuries” in Studia Historica: historia medieval Vol 22 (Salamanca 2004), pp. 17-32; P. Reynolds & C. E. Shaw, “The third harvest of the first millennium A. D. in the Plana de Vic” in Immaculada Ollich i Castanyer (ed.), Actes del Congrés Internacional Gerbert d’Orlhac i el seu Temps: Catalunya i Europa a la Fi del 1r Mil·lenni, Vic-Ripoll, 10-13 de Novembre de 1999 (Vic 1999), pp. 339-351. Devroey’s analysis is in Économie et société, I pp. 108-111.

4. Wickham, The Framing of the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean 400-800 (Oxford 2005), pp. 268-272.

5. Reynolds & Shaw, “Third Harvest”, but cf. the different grades of bread being demanded in the Statutes of Adalhard of Corbie, for example, ed. Léon Levillain as “Les statuts d’Adalhard pour l’abbaye de Corbie” in Le Moyen Âge Vol. 13 (Bruxelles 1900), pp. 233-386, repr. separatim (Paris 1900), relevant parts translated as “Of Bread and Provisions in the Statutes of Adalhard of Corbie” in Paul Edward Dutton (transl.), Carolingian Civilization: a reader, 2nd edn. as Readings in Medieval Civilizations and Cultures Series 1 (Peterborough 2005), no. 32, or the huge variety of grains in which the estates of Santa Giulia di Brescia rendered to the monastery in their polyptych of c. 906, Gianfranco Pasquali (ed.), “S. Giulia di Brescia” in Andrea Castagnetti, Michele Luzzati, Pasquali & Augusto Vasina (edd.), Inventari altomedievali di terre, coloni e redditi, Fonti per la Storia d’Italia 104 (Roma 1979), pp. 41-94, also printed in Ezio Barbieri, Irene Rapisarda & Gianmarco Cossandi (edd.), Le carte del monastero di S. Giulia di Brescia (Pavia 2008), I no. 46 whence online here.

6. Pierre Bonnassie, La Catalogne du milieu du Xe à la fin du XIe siècle : croissance et mutations d’une société, Publications de l’Université Toulouse-le-Mirail 23 & 29 (Toulouse 1975-1976), 2 vols, I pp. 470-471.

7. Combining Janet L. Nelson, “Kingship and Royal Government” and Stuart Airlie, “The Aristocracy”, both in Rosamond McKitterick (ed.), The New Cambridge Medieval History, II: c. 700-c. 900 (Cambridge 1995), pp. 338-430 and 431-450 respectively.

8. Here I am sort of nostalgically pleased to see that I am still following Matthew Innes, State and Society in the Early Middle Ages: the middle Rhine valley 400-1000, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought 4th Series 47 (Cambridge 2000), pp. 223-234.

9. See Timothy Reuter, “Debate: the ‘Feudal Revolution’. III” in Past and Present no. 155 (Oxford 1997), pp. 177-195 at pp. 188-193.

Feudal Transformations XVI: two fields or three?

Diagram of a three-field agriculture system

Diagram of a three-field agriculture system


As with so many of the best bits of learning, a while ago I came up against something in a book that I was reading, for completely different reasons, that made me think anew about the fabled old feudal transformation (and you might think I’d thought enough about that, these days). This thing was a chapter by one Helmut Hildebrandt about the spread of the three-field system in Central Europe, by which he turned out to mean substantially Germany with a glance at the Paris basin.1 Over that area he argued that over the eighth to tenth centuries the system of using three fields in rotation, one for sowing a winter crop to be harvested in spring, one for a summer crop to be harvested in the autumn and one lying fallow to get the next winter crop, became fairly widely established, whereas it had been largely missing before that. I wasn’t thinking much of this till the date 1000 crossed the text and I suddenly wondered about the effects of increased yield on the economy, since as you may recall as much of an answer as I have to the whole transformation question is that, “it’s the economy, stupid”. So, does all this add up to anything I should have thought about by now?

Well, the evidence Hildebrandt had for the phenomenon is kind of horrible: he’s very largely arguing from the ways that rents were collected by ecclesiastical landowners over the period, as revealed in sources like polyptychs and leases. That makes sense in so far as they’re kind of all we have (though in England I don’t think anyone would try and argue about this without using survey evidence too2) but it has all kinds of issues. Churches had long-term land strategies in ways that lay landowners didn’t necessarily: they could be supporting a lot more unproductive mouths than the average lay household, not just in the community but in terms of poor relief and hospitality, and of course their land was never divided by inheritance so they could plan in a longer term.3 Their rents might therefore be exactly the place we’d expect to see systematisation but we can’t really argue from that that it got any further into the community. Of course, the churches were a lot of landownership, so it’s still significant. But since Hildebrandt was very happy here to argue against deducing significant change from such evidence where it would take away from his overall picture, on the grounds that underneath a rent structure the land can be organised any way that pays it, there are still problems.4 In fairness, there he was mainly talking about common fields, and the more work I see about common fields in the earlier Middle Ages the more I think the debate is basically anachronistic in the hands of everyone but Gaspar Feliu.5 No, I am cautious about accepting this phenomenon as anything like universal, but then so was Hildebrandt, emphasising variation and alternatives and making a complex picture of a tendency towards a three-field system that in some areas with special conditions worked out differently.6 But even if we say that it’s only a trend and that the ecclesiastical landowners we see doing it may be leading that trend, it ought to make some kind of difference to how much wealth is in the system and that is kind of the motor of change either side of 1000 as far as I’m concerned. So is this where that change is coming from?

Teaching diagram of the Feudal Transformation, by me

Teaching diagram of the Feudal Transformation, by me

Well, as we’ve seen before and will doubtless see again, there’s a problem with most ’causes’ of broad social change in the Middle Ages, which is that they tend to happen together and so one can usually argue that any one is causing all the others. This is the point of my famous diagram, above, after all. The biggest problem I have with this change in agriculture being such a driver is that it was new to me, because in Catalonia the situation is a lot more varied, with three-field going back to an uncertain date but two-field arable and grassland rotation equally common and vines messing up the picture by being a cash crop. People here at the right time tended to have land in a variety of small plots good for only one thing and a system is hard to construct for it.7 Hildebrandt’s picture really only covers Germany, the Low Countries and North-Eastern France, and the problem is that only the last of these really undergoes something that is easily recognisable as part of the feudal transformation model, and even there there’s a degree of top-down collapse of authority for other reasons that might be enough all by itself.8 Meanwhile, where this change is most marked is where there’s least other change. So if it’s a motor it isn’t much of one.

The other problem is one of the chicken and the egg. Here this is especially important. Hildebrandt did consider why this change that he saw was happening, and his belief was that the change towards common fields, at least, which is later than the change of field rotation as he saw it, is down to the increase of population requiring a greater yield from existing land and so idle land in awkward locations being brought into cultivation where before individual ownership had not been able to work it usefully.9 I think that seigneurial renders should probably also be considered as a driver there but we can easily guess where I got that from.10 Either way, the shift of systems is a consequence here of other things that have their place in the debate as causes. Even though it’s earlier than most of the big social changes embroiled in the feudal transformation model, a partial change in crop rotation seems likely to be an effect, not a cause, part of the bigger take-off run of the European economy in this era.11

So at the end I don’t think this gets me any new answers. But I am suddenly very conscious that to the best of my knowledge this kind of work has not been done for my area, and I’m not sure that sources exist from which it could, as yet. And that bothers me, because if I’m going to discount this there I’d like to do so from more than silence.


1. Helmut Hildebrandt, “Systems of Agriculture in Central Europe up to the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries” in Della Hooke (ed.), Anglo-Saxon Settlements (Oxford 1988), pp. 275-290. You can see why it was an unexpected find given that it’s about neither Anglo-Saxons nor settlement.

2. I suppose I think of Christopher Taylor, Village and Farmstead: rural settlement in medieval England (London 1983) but his “The Anglo-Saxon Countryside” in Trevor Rowley (ed.), Anglo-Saxon Settlement and Landscape. Papers Presented to a Symposium, Oxford 1973, British Archaeological Reports (British series) 6 (Oxford 1974), pp. 5-15, might be a better parallel.

3. Nowhere witnessed so thoroughly as in the regulations on bread in the Statutes of Adalhard Abbot of Corbie, translated as “Of Bread and Provisions in the Statutes of Adalhard of Corbie” in Paul Edward Dutton (transl.), Carolingian Civilization: a reader, 2nd edn. as Readings in Medieval Civilizations and Cultures Series 1 (Peterborough 2005), no. 32.

4. Hildebrandt, “Systems”, pp. 284-287.

5. Gaspar Feliu i Montfort, “La pagesia i els béns comunals” in Els grans espais baronials a l’Edat Mitjana: desenvolupament socioeconòmic. Reunió científica. I Curs d’Estiu Comtat d’Urgell (Balaguer, 10, 11 i 12 de juliol de 1996) (Lleida 2002), pp. 23-40; cf. C. T. Bekar & C. G. Reed, “Open fields, risk, and land divisibility” in Explorations in Economic History Vol. 40 (Amsterdam 2003), pp. 308-325, doi:10.1016/S0014-4983(03)00030-5, about which as you may remember I had views.

6. Hildebrandt, “Systems”, pp. 279-284 (esp. 282-283) and 287-290.

7. Working from Peter J. Reynolds, “Mediaeval Cereal Yields in Catalonia & England: An Empirical Challenge” in Acta Mediaevalia Vol. 18 (Barcelona 1997), pp. 467-507, and further work collected in Immaculada Ollich, Maria Ocañ & Montserrat Rocafiguera (edd.), Experimentació arqueològica sobre conreus medievals a l’Esquerda, 1991-1994, Monografies d’Arqueològia Medieval i Postmedieval 3 (Barcelona 1998), online at http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=sK1ptZDwfV8C as of 28 July 2011, where they really don’t have an archaeological basis for separating the early and high medieval field systems; Reynolds’s initial paper describes them using both two-field and three-field in their tests precisely for this reason.

8. Classically described in Jean-François Lemarignier, “La dislocation du « pagus » et le problème des « consuetudines », Xe-XIe siècles” in Charles-Edmond Perrin (ed.), Mélanges d’histoire du moyen âge dédiés à la mémoire de Louis Halphen (Paris 1951), pp. 401-410, repr. in Lemarignier, Structures politiques et religieuses dans la France du haut Moyen Âge, ed. Dominique Barthélemy, Publications de l’Université de Rouen 206 (Rouen 1995), pp. 245-254.

9. Hildebrandt, “Systems”, pp. 286-287.

10. Chris Wickham, “Problems of Comparing Rural Societies in Early Medieval Western Europe” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 6th Series Vol. 2 (Cambridge 1992), pp. 221-246, rev. in idem, Land and Power: studies in Italian and European social history, 400-1200 (London 1994), pp. 201-226, and his “Sul mutamento sociale e economico di lungo periodo in Occidente (400-800)” in Storica Vol. 23 (Roma 2002), pp. 7-28, repr. as “Per uno studio del mutamento di lungo termine in Occidente durante i secoli V-VIII” in Quaderni del Dipartimento di Paleografia e Medievistica Vol. 1 (Bologna 2003), pp. 3-22, transl. Igor Santos Salazar & rev. Iñaki Martín Visó as “Sobre la mutación socioeconómica de larga duración en Occidente durante los siglos V-VIII: on the long-term socio-economic change in the West from fifth to eighth centuries” in Studia Historica: historia medieval Vol 22 (Salamanca 2004), pp. 17-32, the last of which is where I read it.

11. On which see La croissance agricole du haut Moyen Âge : chronologie, modalités, géographie. Dixième Journées Internationales d’Histoire, 9, 10, 11, Septembre 1988, Flaran Vol. 10 (Auch 1990).