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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.

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