Monday, November 13, 2017

Medieval Harvest

It is the time of year to reap the rewards of farming. This is the same today as it was during the medieval period. Some Fruits and vegetables were harvested throughout different times of the year, but, the major harvest was that of wheat; for this was the basis of making bread, which was the major staple of food in the middle/medieval period (if not throughout most of human history).

Harvesting was a major time in medieval life, it could mean life and death for an entire village. Good harvest meant plenty for the winter months, a bad harvest meant starvation.

Not only seeding, and weeding had to be done during the year, there was also much preparation before the harvest.  In the previous winter, after the leaves had fallen off, twigs, small branches, and saplings were gathered. The most common were from willows and were called ‘withies’.  These would then be woven to make the baskets and carts used in gathering crops. Throughout the year, the crop had to be protected, this meant endless hours of chasing birds away (usually done by children), and hoeing to remove weeds.

As I stated earlier, the harvesting of wheat was the most important gathering of food done in the year. There were actually 2 wheat harvests; one in June, the larger more important one was done in August or September.

The entire village, men, woman and children all participated in the harvest. People first had to cut the wheat (with a scythe) and tie them into bundles, or sheaf.  These bundles would sit into the field to dry. This was a vital procedure, but also could have many risks.  The wheat had to be dried to be used, but, If the harvest was too late in the year, or left out too long, heavy rains and cold could destroy the entire crop.

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After drying, the large sheaves were then put onto carts and pulled by oxen. Most of the time, these carts would be overloaded, and dangerous to transport. Often, they would roll off the top, chorusing the driver or anyone nearby.

The sheaves would need to be beaten to separate the grain from the stalk. The next process was called “winnowing”, this was to separate the grain from the outer casing (chaff).  Most times, the wheat was thrown into the air, the wind caught the chaff and it would be blown away.

When the entire process was done, it had to be prepared so it could be turned into bread. The wheat had to be crushed; early in the medieval period this was done by hand using a mortar and pestle to grind it into flour.

Later, windmills and watermills were developed to grind the wheat with large wheels. The larger facilities meant more wheat could be done at one time. The Lord of the Manor owned these windmills and watermills, and the peasants were charged for the use of these facilities, and forbidden to use any other method.

In the 12th century, the church determined that God owned the wind, he caused them to blow and power the windmills. So, the church decided that since they (the church) represented God on earth, the (windmills) should pay a tax to the church for the use of that wind.

After the harvest was over, it was time for a festival.  The Lord of the manor often put on this festival to celebrate the hard work to bring the crops in.  In England, this festival is called Lammas Day, in parts of Switzerland; BĂ©nichon.  Even Samhain, where we get Halloween from, was a harvest celebration. Also, many countries did, and still have a harvest pageant. In Europe during the festival, it was often customary to bring the first loaf of bread made with the new crop to the church as an offering.

Many people believe Octoberfest in Germany was to celebrate the harvest, this is only partially true. Initially it was to celebrate King Ludwig I marriage on October 12, 1810, later this celebration continued to honor German agriculture.

The harvest, any farm work for that matter, was a difficult and hard task to perform. It was also vital, for collection of food, particularly wheat, for this could mean life and death to the medieval person over the long winter months.  Gathering of grains and vegetables were not only for the people, these also became a fodder crop, used to feed the livestock. We will have more of this information in our next blog post.

So, we end out current look at the Medieval Harvest.
Next time: The Butchering of Animals to Survive the Long Cold Winter.

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W.A.Rusho is a historian, author, and part time professional wrestler. You can reach him via his website or by email.




  1. Fascinating William. I've always had such respect for farmers and the way they are so vulnerable to nature. Thanks for an interesting read.

  2. I grew up in farmland and you've brought back good memories--although the farmer who rented dad's field and his dad's field used machinery. :-) Growing a large garden was a lot of work for us, but reaping the results was great fun.

  3. Am sincerely grateful that I'm not a farmer, or farmer's wife during the Middle Ages.