A Quiet Revolution - The Horse in Agriculture, 1100-1500
The partnership of man and horse on the land goes back a long time, but, as John Langdon shows, it was not until after the Conquest that the horse really began to come into its own.
Until recently the dominant view among historians concerning medieval English agriculture was that it was archly traditional and un-enterprising. Crop, and to a certain extent animal, yields were seen as pathetically meagre, as a generally stagnant technology failed to cope with the demands of a growing population, particularly up to the end of the thirteenth century. This pessimistic view of the state of medieval English agriculture, put most forcibly by Michael Postan in a series of writings since the Second World War, has recently been giving way to a more optimistic picture which sees the agriculture of the time as at least having the potential for improvement, even if it did not act upon it all the time.
Part of this is a legacy of the writings of Lynn White Jr., who drew attention to a whole battery of technological innovations that were introduced during the medieval period, many of them directly applicable to agriculture. More recent work has furthermore drawn attention to several areas in medieval England – such as eastern Norfolk and coastal Sussex – which did feature efficient and progressive agricultural regimes, producing crop yields (up to thirty bushels per acre for wheat) that were impressive even by the standards of much later times. On the other hand, in other areas, such as the western and southern midlands, crop yields were very much lower. Even in the same region agricultural production on a given unit of land could vary between neighbouring districts by a factor of two or mow on a regular basis. As a result of such contrasts, a much more complicated picture of medieval agricultural performance is beginning to emerge.
Increasingly this difference of agricultural performance from place to place is not seen solely as a function of soil or environment, but as a result of more involved factors. In particular, the growing complexity of the medieval economy after the Conquest was beginning to alter the agriculture in many areas. This seems to have been particularly the case in areas close to London, where the demands of a steadily increasing urban population, recently estimated to be as high as 100,000 people by the late thirteenth century, were encouraging counties surrounding the city to depart from previous patterns of agricultural production, especially in producing meat cattle for the capital. Technological factors also contributed to agricultural change, since it is becoming obvious that medieval farmers – whether on demesnes (that is, the farms of lords as opposed to the'. lands held by their tenants) or on peasant holdings – had a much greater potential for agricultural improvement than previously thought. The more intensive use of land plus the adoption of relatively new techniques such as the use of horses for ploughing and hauling or the cultivation of soil-enriching crops, such as peas, beans, vetches and the like, were available to all farmers by the late thirteenth century, and many areas had already adopted them. That other areas declined to follow this progressive lead did not mean so much the technical inability to do so but that other factors, such as more limited opportunities for market involvement or an agricultural regime heavily controlled by the community or the lord, were making the adoption of the new techniques unnecessary or unfeasible. The result of all this was that medieval England was slowly developing into a patchwork of agricultural regions, each with its own particular type of agrarian regime and level of production.
The addition of horses as a key element in English farming in the centuries following the Conquest provides a good example of the above issues in operation. Horses were of course known in Anglo-Saxon England, but their use in agricultural work was limited to being pack animals and perhaps in harrowing. Otherwise they were used mainly for riding and for light passenger transport. The dominant work animal on the farm was consequently the ox, both for ploughing and hauling. Even by the time of the Domesday survey in 1086 the proportion of horses on demesnes was only about 5 per cent of all the draught animals (that is, horses and oxen together; a small number of mules and donkeys are also included).
However, the centuries leading up to the year 1000 gradually saw a number of improvements in horse traction that began to transform the effectiveness of the animal in doing useful work. Foremost among these developments was probably the padded horse-collar, but a whole host of other improvements were developed over the centuries that contributed as well, notably horse-shoeing, the development of traces and other aspects of horse harness, and improvements to vehicle design which accommodated horses rather better, such as shafts or whippletrees attached to the front of the vehicle. Eventually these improvements began to coalesce into effective new systems of horse traction. The first illustrations to show the new methods fully developed as we know them today appeared in the late eleventh and twelfth centuries and were to become commonplace in later centuries. Despite the early examples of horse traction shown in the Bayeux Tapestry, it appears that the new methods of using horse power did not make much impact in England until a generation or so after the Domesday survey. By the first half of the twelfth century, however, horses were becoming much more evident for ploughing and hauling, in addition to their traditional use as pack animals and for harrowing. The first indication of their use in ploughing occurred in relation to that peculiarly medieval innovation, the mixed plough-team of horses and oxen together. The practice of replacing the front oxen in the plough-team with horses, in order to increase the speed of the plough without sacrificing the power that oxen supplied in low-speed situations, began in the eastern part of the country and gradually spread into the midlands and southern England during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. This is most easily traced through the steadily increasing documentation relating to demesne farms, but was also evident on peasant holdings.
Ploughs drawn by horses only were adopted much more slowly, and were never predominant on demesne farms at any stage in the medieval period, although all-horse plough-teams on peasant farms were rather more common. Nevertheless, overall, oxen still retained their position as the more popular plough animal, particularly in northern and western areas, where all-ox ploughs remained usual right to the end of the medieval period.
If ploughing was only gradually transformed by the introduction of horses, it was very different for vehicle hauling where horses began very quickly to take over from the slower oxen. Again, the first signs of this appear in the early twelfth century, but it was the period from 1150-1250 in particular that witnessed an almost wholesale change in the mode of hauling. By the second half of the thirteenth century horses were performing over three-quarters of vehicle hauling on demesnes and peasant farms alike. Again, there was a strong regional element with the south and east virtually going to horse-hauling solely (with the exception of the Sussex Weald, where difficult hauling conditions still favoured oxen) while the north and west still retained a strong element of haulage by oxen.
The impact of this notable transformation in vehicle transport is difficult to gauge exactly but it was obviously significant. The increase in speed by switching from oxen to horses was probably about double, which likely had a sizable impact on making new markets accessible for the farms of both peasants and lords, as well as considerably quickening internal trade throughout the country. It is also notable that this rise in vehicle hauling by horses coincided with a considerable increase in the number of markets and market activity in general during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.
With the introduction of horses to both ploughing and hauling, their numbers on farms and elsewhere began to increase. On demesnes the proportion of horses among draught animals climbed from 5 per cent at Domesday to 25-30 per cent at the end of the thirteenth century. For the peasantry the situation was even more startling. It is likely that the proportion of horses on peasant farms was always greater than that on demesnes, since the versatility of the horse always meant it was useful to have at least one around. As a result, by the end of the thirteenth century there were nearly as many horses as oxen on peasant farms. For both demesnes and peasant farms there was a marked regional pattern, with eastern parts of the country having by far the largest proportion of horses.
The preference shown for horses on peasant holdings as opposed to demesnes is in many ways surprising, since horses were allegedly more costly to keep than oxen. The received wisdom given to demesne managers by writers such as Walter of Henley, who composed his Husbandry sometime during the last quarter of the thirteenth century, was that oxen should always be preferred because they were much less costly to keep. Walter supplied a crude set of figures which showed horses being more than four times as expensive as oxen to maintain. Walter's figures did contain some exaggeration plus some conveniently ignored costs, in particular for hay and straw, but even when these are taken into account horses still cost at least 40 per cent more to keep than oxen. Given the more straitened conditions of peasant farmers in the Middle Ages it is then surprising that, relative to the demesne, they should have so clearly preferred horses.
The answer to this paradox is explained by a number of hidden advantages that the horse possessed that are not always obvious to us today. For one thing, the costs that Walter supplied were those for horses being worked very hard over the course of a year. Horses under such circumstances needed large amounts of oats, the prime component making up Walter's costs. On peasant farms, however, horses were used much more sparingly and could for the most part be fed cheaply on grass rather than oats. As a result, costs for keeping peasant horses were only marginally greater than those for oxen. Balanced against this were some very important advantages that horses offered. Versatility was one of these. Horses could perform a much wider range of tasks than oxen, including being ridden and functioning as pack animals.
Even more important, horses often represented a much smaller capital investment than oxen, a matter of key importance for peasant cultivators in particular. This was because oxen always retained their value as meat, no matter how old they were, while elderly horses, due to the well-known and widely observed taboo on eating horseflesh, had little more value than their hides. Consequently, compared to oxen, the price range for horses was exceedingly wide - from over £100 for a prized war-horse all the way down to as little as 2s. for an old nag that may have been blind or lame but was still capable of some useful work. The horse trade in fact has often been compared to that for used cars today. As Joan Thirsk put it over a decade ago, '...there is a car within the price of everyone; you can pay £20 or you can pay £10,000'. The same applied for horses in the medieval period, where the wide variation in prices for the animals allowed peasants to acquire cheap horses much as the 'banger' trade in cars allows teenagers to do the same today. This accessibility of horses had other advantages for peasants. The relatively higher proportion of young horses among the livestock on peasant holdings than on demesnes, plus the typical demesne pattern of buying far more horses than they bred and raised themselves and then selling them later, both of which patterns show up in the documentation for the period, suggests that a type of circular trade was in operation. This involved peasants breeding and rearing horses, selling them at a relatively high price when young to demesnes, and then buying them back cheaply some years later when they were old and decrepit but still capable of some useful work. Given the embryonic nature of the medieval trade for work-horses, where the professional trader of all-purpose horses was virtually non-existent, such an arrangement was probably common and as such a welcome addition to peasant incomes.
In other aspects of the medieval economy it is difficult to be precise about how useful horses were. This is especially the case with agricultural production. It has been argued that unless the introduction of horses altered the amount of food produced, then its role in agricultural improvement was largely irrelevant. Certainly managers of medieval demesnes often seem not to have considered the usefulness of horses in terms of production at all. Time and time again, when horses were introduced to the draught stock of demesne farms, it seems to have been from the point of cutting costs rather than increasing production. Thus when horses were introduced to plough-teams, the increase of speed and power was used to cut down the size of the team or the number of teams needed. There is very little indication that the introduction of horses was used to increase, say, the number of ploughings that the fields received in order to improve the quality of the tilth. This preoccupation with cutting costs was amply reflected in the agricultural treatises of the time which compared horses and oxen almost solely on the question of cost. Similarly, on peasant farms horses seem mostly to have been useful in cutting down on plough-team size. This had an important spin-off in allowing a much more individual approach to farming, since the sharing of draught animals – often a necessity with oxen – was not so prevalent among horse owners, but it is unlikely to have had much of an impact upon the amount of crops that peasants could now grow on their holdings.
Viewed in this light, one has to be cautious in extolling the virtue of horses. Nevertheless, as Bruce Campbell has written recently, concentrating on these direct relationships between horses and agrarian production is often illusory and overlooks the contribution that horses were making to production in the wider picture. In particular, he points out that the use of horses slotted in very neatly with the more intensive forms of agriculture that were being practised in eastern England in particular. Here land which would have lain fallow in other systems was being cropped with oats and, even better, nitrogen-fixing legumes; these in turn were fed to horses which used this form of fodder more efficiently than oxen. Similarly the oxen then released could be sold as meat cattle, particularly, as mentioned above, to satisfy the voracious demands of London. Horses, as well, in this situation could take crops and animal products such as cheese much more quickly to market and also to markets further away should the need arise. In other words, the use of horses allowed a much greater ability for demesne and peasant farmers alike to realise whatever potentials existed for increasing production. These potentials were obviously greater in the area around London or other major centres such as York, but they also impinged more widely in southern and eastern England as a whole, where the commercial aspects of agriculture seem to have been realised more fully.
By the end of the thirteenth century, then, horses had made steady progress as work animals in English agriculture, particularly in relation to the hauling of vehicles. The fourteenth century saw the level of horses stagnate. By the fifteenth century, however, marked changes in the employment of draught animals were again evident, although this time of a very different kind than hitherto. On many demesnes and peasant holdings, especially in the south and east, the trend was to adopt horses solely. But in many places there was also a strong tendency in the opposite direction with farms intensifying their use of oxen, especially by jettisoning their hauling horses in favour of oxen. This was particularly the case in the north, where the development of coal mining with its attendant heavy loads encouraged many landholders to reinstate oxen as hauling beasts.
By the sixteenth century England had been transformed into a patchwork of areas using a wide variety of draught animals in differing combinations - some areas using horses only, other using mostly oxen, others a mixture. This complexity in the employment of draught animals reinforced the development of distinct farming regions that became so much a part of early modern agriculture. By the early sixteenth century the horse was solidly entrenched in English agriculture and had begun to outnumber oxen. The process was by no means complete, however, since oxen clung on as the dominant draught animals in many areas, even as late as the nineteenth century. Nevertheless, horses were never overtaken as the predominant draught animals across England as a whole. The horse trade also developed considerably. Professional horse traders became common in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and the supplying of horses for farm and city became much more sophisticated - as specialized breeding and rearing areas for horses began to appear across the country. But it must be remembered that this continuing development in the use and dissemination of horses had its roots very firmly in the medieval period. It was during this period that the basic changes in horse harnessing allowed the first significant employment of horses in farm work, and medieval English landholders - both large- and small-scale - began to act on that possibility. They did so very cautiously and with regard to economic and environmental considerations, but gradually changes in the use of draught animals were made.
It is interesting to speculate about what went on in the minds of medieval farmers when they considered such problems as what animals they should use for various tasks. Walter of Henley and other writers of the time give us some clue as to what more well-to-do farmers were thinking about such decisions and were clearly swayed by economic arguments. For the peasantry the process of reasoning remains something of a mystery, but clearly these decisions were being made, as in the case of Robert Hostarius, a peasant landholder at Pilton in Somerset in 1260. The document recording the labour services that he owed indicated that whereas his predecessor on the holding, probably his father, was accustomed to performing the lord's hauling services with an ox-hauled wain, a duty apparently shared with a neighbour, Robert now did the same duty alone with a horse-hauled cart. The casual nature of the entry obscures what must have been an important decision that not only affected the technical and economic viability of the holding but also the tenant's relationship with his friends and neighbours. This minor revolution in Robert's way of doing things mirrored the larger revolution that horses over the centuries brought to English farming.
John Langdon, Horses, Oxen and Technological Innovation: The Use of Draught animals in English Farming from 1066 to 1500 (Cambridge University Press, 1986), and, 'Horse Hauling: A Revolution in Vehicle Transport in Twelfth and Thirteenth-century England’, Past and Present, no. 103 (1984); Bruce M.S. Campbell, 'Towards an Agricultural Geography of Medieval England', Agricultural History Review, vol. 36 (1988); M.M. Posts, The Medieval economy and Society (Penguin Books, 1975); Lynn White Jr; Medieval Technology and Social Change (Oxford University Press, 19621: Peter Edwards – The Horse Trade of Tudor and Stuart England (Cambridge UP, 1988).
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