Today is one of those occasions when I need to correct, or at least update, something I wrote here years ago, and this time the subject is that ever-enthralling one, crop rotation. Don’t hide it, I know you’ve all been waiting for more on this… That said, last time I wrote on it there followed quite the conversation and people still wind up there from search engines, so I guess there may be interest there, in which case it’s quite important that they know that the research for (ahem) my recent article on early medieval agricultural productivity revealed that that post was badly behind the times. Thus, an update.
So, firstly, what am I even talking about? Well, you may be aware that when you’re growing stuff in the ground for food, the earth only gives of her best for a short time before the land needs refreshing with the various nutrients that make stuff grow well. Historically, there have been two basic ways of dealing with this decline of productivity in the soil: either you give up on it and go and clear somewhere else to farm (slash-and-burn agriculture), or you let the land lie for a bit till it’s built up the things you need again, possibly encouraging that process by growing something different (like legumes) that fix nitrogen in the soil. This practice we call fallow. Now, in the traditional kind of literature that last time I was writing about, it used to be considered that in Iron Age and ‘primitive’ agricultures, if fallow was done at all, it was done one-year-on-one-year-off, so that if you had two fields, one of them was growing and one of them was lying fallow and then next year you switched them over, a two-field system. The alternative, to which European civilisation at large slowly supposedly switched, is a three-field one in which one field is growing a crop that needs all year to grow, such as wheat, one is growing a less exhausting spring crop such as barley or oats, and the third is lying fallow, which means that each year you’re getting two crops not one and are thus more productive and less dependent on a single harvest.1 And in that long-ago post I was wondering if that change might have underlain the apparent increase in economic power that seems itself to have underlain the various social changes of tenth- and eleventh-century Europe that we still sometimes see called ‘the Feudal Transformation‘. OK? Now read on…
So, predictably, deeper reading told me two things. Firstly, I was by no means the first person to think of that causation, something which really I knew and should have remembered (but sometimes, of course, one learns these things so deeply that you forget that you ever had to be taught them—this is how patriotism and stereotypes usually work…).2 Secondly, and inevitably, things were more complicated than that. In order to write my article, as I think I mentioned already, since it was principally aimed at destroying an argument of Georges Duby’s (an argument, mark you, which rested on arithmetic that completely ignored the need to fallow growing land even though that was the immediately previous thing he had written about in the relevant book…), I wanted to make sure that what he’d written in the 1960s he’d never in fact gone back on before his death in 1996.3 In fact he hadn’t, really, but this led me onto a special issue of a journal he’d helped to found, Études rurales, celebrating, reprinting parts of, but also updating his work.4 And there I found two articles that changed my picture.5
What does the new picture look like, then? Well, firstly, the basic progress from two-field to three-field is, predictably, deeply questionable. Our information is more limited the further back one goes, obviously, but it doesn’t look as if there was ever a time when you can’t find people doing either or even both, depending on what they were growing where.6 This comforted me in a way, since unlike the equally lame argument about the heavy plough, this one wasn’t even technological determinism, where once the right invention had been made the world changed but without it could not; for the two-field/three-field progress to be made a whole world of people whose lives rested on the fields had to have collectively been too stupid to think of this different way of managing them, despite all the work we have on the later Middle Ages that is obsessed with medieval peasants as rational economic actors planning for survival…7 Even now, in some areas of the world, with some crops, two-field systems yield better than three-field ones that can just exhaust the land more, and of course the imperatives of the market can alter everything, so that old argument also basically relies on the absence of market forces. All of this belongs to the world of Lopez’s so-called Commercial Revolution, in which capitalism was effectively born in the cities of high medieval Italy and Flanders and before that no-one had ever thought of doing anything for profit, and it’s time we managed to think outside that teleological box in which, like the heavy plough or indeed money, once capitalism’s invented no-one can possibly not do it.8
But the other thing I now understand is that a two-field/three-field binary was never going to be enough. For a start, it ignores the supposedly ‘primitive’ slash-and-burn method, which is effectively a one-field system that moves, and where the land is always fresh and at its most productive. If you have the space and don’t mind being a bit nomadic, this is the most productive system there is, so why wouldn’t you? But equally, some land just needs more time to recover from agriculture. Fourteenth-century render lists from mountain estates that paid into various Templar commanderies whose records survive—records that Duby himself first put to use, so he did know—show some farmers running a four- or even five-field system across their scattered and marginal lands, with most of their land fallow most of the time. Other examples also exist, but these are the one that made me stub this post.9
And, of course, there is and was nothing to stop someone using several of these systems at once. Only the other day, for reasons I won’t bother you with, I was being towed around a farm in a tractor’s trailer with the owner explaining to the assembled gathering how he was, effectively, running part of a four-field system in the middle third of this large field to maximise vegetable crops, while running a two-field one in the field next door for different vegetables and growing cereals on a decent part of the rest of the farm, presumably on a two- or three-field rotation. Those weren’t the terms he used, but it’s what they amounted to. This was an organic farm, too, so not using modern chemical means of boosting soil productivity.
In short, farmers can vary their practice a lot. The fact that really big Church estates of the early and high Middle Ages preferred things more uniform than that probably tells us more about their desire to be able to count their dues properly than of their keen eye on market productivity, therefore; as so many top-down states have discovered over time, if your first goal is for your farmers to grow a lot, rather than to organise how they grow it, then the best thing to do is to let them decide how to do it themselves. Of course, that probably means you have less idea of what they’re growing and how much of it you are owed; the estate managers, too, make their own choices, but once again, they aren’t necessarily capitalistic ones. This shouldn’t surprise us; but it did me, perhaps it will also you, and maybe that surprise explains the historiography that meant my article needed to be written in the first place. I continue to think that might be an important piece of writing…10
1. This traditional narrative can still be found all over the Internet (I’ve linked an example above), but in the posts I’m referring to I was getting it from 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 could also get a more introductory version from, say, Norman Pounds, An Economic History of Medieval Europe, 2nd ed. (London 1994), which is about as up to date as such textbooks get even now.
2. In fact, the obvious person to whom to draw back the idea was none other than he whose work my article was written to oppose, Georges Duby, at first in his “La révolution agricole médiévale” in Revue de géographie de Lyon Vol. 29 (Lyon 1954), pp. 361–366, but more systematically and accessibly first in idem, “Le problème des techniques agricoles” in Agricoltura e mondo rurale in Occidente nell’alto medioevo, Settimane di Studio del centro Italiano di Studi sull’Alto Medioevo 13 (Spoleto 1966), pp. 267–284 and in the book that was subsequently translated as idem, Rural Economy and Country Life in the Medieval West, transl. Cynthia Postan (London 1968).
3. As close as he came was a note in his engaging little academic autobiography, Georges Duby, L’histoire continue (Paris 1991), p. 97, that he now accepted that he had not known enough about agricultural systems when he wrote the above works, but he stopped short of saying what he’d then have changed.
4. Philippe Braunstein (ed.), Georges Duby, Études rurales 145-146 (Paris 1997), online here.
5. Those being Benoît Beaucage, “Les Alpes du Sud en 1338 : Sur les traces de Georges Duby”, ibid. pp. 113–132, online here and Mathieu Arnoux, “Paysage avec cultures et animaux : Variations autour du thème des pratiques agraires”, ibid. pp. 133–145, online here, though Maria Ocaña i Subirana, El m&ocute;n agrari i els cicles agrícoles a la Catalunya vella (s. IX-XIII) Documenta 1 (Barcelona 1998) and Bruce M. S. Campbell and David Hardy, “The Data” in Three Centuries of English Crop Yields, 1211-1491, online here, subsequently helped confirm it and I was subsequently pointed to Jean-Pierre Devroey and Anne Nissen, “Early Middle Ages, 500‒1000” in Erik Thoen, Tim Soens, Laurent Herment, Michael Kopsidis, Per Grau Møller, Jankh Myrdahl, Alexandra Saebznik and Yves Segers (edd.), Struggling with the Environment: Land Use and Productivity, Rural Economy and Society in North-Western Europe, 500‒2000, 4 (Turnhout 2015), pp. 11–68, which might now be the best place to start for the few who can afford the book.
6. On this, to Devroey & Nissen, “Early Middle Ages”, add Alexis Wilkin and Jean-Pierre Devroey, “Diversité des formes domaniales en Europe Occidentale” in Revue belge de philologie et d’histoire Vol. 90 (Bruxelles 2012), pp. 249–260, online here, or Marie-Pierre Ruas, “Aspects of early medieval farming from sites in Mediterranean France” in Vegetation History and Archaeobotany Vol. 14 (New York City 2012), pp. 400–415.
.7 Most obviously now David Stone, Decision-Making in Medieval Agriculture (Oxford 2005), but long-term readers may also remember me having a go at 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.
8. Referring to Robert S. Lopez, The Commercial Revolution of the Middle Ages, 950‒1350 (New York City 1971); as for money, for examples of cultures where it might not be much use see Dagfinn Skre, “Commodity Money, Silver and Coinage in Viking-Age Scandinavia” in James Graham-Campbell & Gareth Williams (edd.), Silver Economy in the Viking Age (Walnut Creek 2007), pp. 67–92. Basically, money needs to be easily available, or the transactional costs of actually getting the means of payment render it uneconomical.
9. Beaucage, “Les Alpes du Sud”, modifying both Duby, Rural Economy and Georges Duby, “La seigneurie et l’économie paysanne : Alpes du Sud, 1338” in Études rurales Vol. 2 (Paris 1961), pp. 5–36, online here.
10. Jonathan Jarrett, “Outgrowing the Dark Ages: agrarian productivity in Carolingian Europe re-evaluated” in Agricultural History Review Vol. 67 (2019), pp. 1–28.