Constance H. Berman

title.none: Astill and Langdon, eds., Medieval Farming and Technology (Constance H. Berman)

identifier.other: baj9928.0011.008 00.11.08

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Constance H. Berman, University of Iowa,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2000

identifier.citation: Astill, Grenville and John Langdon, eds. Medieval Farming and Technology: The Impact of Agricultural Change in Northwest Europe. Technology and Change in History. Leiden: Brill, 1997. Pp. x, 321. $101.50. ISBN: 9-004-10582-4.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 00.11.08

Astill, Grenville and John Langdon, eds. Medieval Farming and Technology: The Impact of Agricultural Change in Northwest Europe. Technology and Change in History. Leiden: Brill, 1997. Pp. x, 321. $101.50. ISBN: 9-004-10582-4.

Reviewed by:

Constance H. Berman
University of Iowa

This is an important book in its attempt to help revise our current thinking about medieval technology and rural life, which in North American universities is still too often almost entirely predicated on the theories of Lynn White, Jr., Michael Postan, and Georges Duby. The volume contains articles by thoughtful historians of medieval farming and technology often presenting new conclusions about changes in farming technique in the high middle ages. The book treats a variety of places, although there is perhaps an under-emphasis on the largest agricultural sector of Northwest Europe of the middle ages, northern France, including Normandy. Four of the eleven substantive chapters treat England (Astill, Campbell, Mate, Langdon), with one chapter each on Flanders (Thoen), the Netherlands (Hoppenbrouwers), Denmark (Poulsen), Sweden (Myrdal), one more generally on Scandinavia (Widgren), and two on northern France (Comet and Raepsaet). Those on France and that on Denmark aim very closely at technology alone, and almost entirely exclude evidence for field systems, production for markets, or analysis of differences in soil and topography; the analysis of agriculture is thus weighed overall very heavily towards England and particularly towards southeastern England. It is noteworthy that the authors writing on that region are so careful to argue beyond the dominant evidence of demesne agriculture for which English records are so abundant.

Like many such collections of articles the whole is less than the sum of some of its parts and the volume does not quite live up to its ambitions. Not all of the articles are of equal quality, or treat a parallel range of topics, although for this it is difficult to fault individual authors. Treatments are not parallel because the state of current research varies considerably from one place to the next, because research traditions in different modern European nation-states have varied considerably over the past quarter century and because the authors of various articles have construed their subject somewhat differently. Nonetheless this means that the title is somewhat misleading, for agricultural change is discussed in some articles, while only technological change is treated in others, and there is little discussion regarding the "impact" of either on the wider sphere of medieval life. One comes away from reading the book realizing that rural agriculture and its effect on eco-systems was complex, that progress can move in many directions when we take into account peasant life-styles, and must be defined by more than output in cereals, that changes from ard to plow are not always appropriate to particular landscapes or technological configurations, that choices about horses versus oxen were more complex than comparison of pulling power alone, that cultivation of oats and horse traction are not always found together, that urban markets sometimes beyond national borders have considerable effects on rural activities, and that the largest change in agriculture in the pre-modern era was from hand tools to animal-driven ones, rather than from ard to plow.

While the authors have broken away from the Whiggish technological determinism of earlier historians of agriculture and technology who saw rural expansion almost entirely in terms of labor services, growth of village communities and peasant liberties, and technology in terms of price indices, they have not yet moved very far beyond a critique of the views of an earlier generation, for they still incorporate many of the assumptions of earlier generations about the bottom line. While it is now accepted in such studies that we are rarely speaking of a wholly subsistence agriculture when we talk about the rural world of medieval Europe, there is little effort to investigate how medieval lords and peasants may have contributed to a progressive deterioration of the medieval environment (for instance in the "impact" of drainage and dikes on fish populations in the North Sea), or to ask which configurations of rural activities with possibly lower yields created sustainable agriculture in renewable ecosystems.

Authors seem unaware of trends beyond their own specializations. They insert, for instance, unproblematized assumptions about the relationship between monastic expansion and technological innovation in off-hand comments about groups such as the Cistercians without pointing to our real need to examine how the new religious groups of the high middle ages were successful precisely because they cut across older boundaries between lords and peasants in creating hybrids in the form of lay-brothers and lay-sisters. These authors also discuss village production as if corn (in the British sense) produced in the fields were the only item of sale and value to support village families, often leaving aside not only industrial products like flax or dyestuffs, but the question of food-processing by members of village communities in ale-making or grinding of grain for bread-making. Indeed, only Dyer in his brilliant conclusions brings up the potential for relief of women's labor in the introduction of the water-mill for grinding grain, or the changing configuration of work caused by the introduction of spinning wheels. Yet if one of the major components of rural production was labor, then not only adult men's labor, but that of women and children must be taken into account. Women's work, like men's, in the household, in the fields, and in producing foodstuffs for consumption, as well as women's diet, health, and reproductive labor, must be taken into account along with markets within the technological complexes of rural European production.

I come away from reading this book more confused than enlightened about medieval diet. We usually think of medieval peasants and their animals alike having newer higher levels of energy as a result of a more balanced nutrition in the high middle ages, yet there is talk here as if progressive cerealization of human diet as a negative trend. But for whom? In my view cerealization would seem to have reduced the numbers of those living on the edge of starvation. Similarly, several authors suggest that production of spring-crops, particularly nitrogen-fixing bean and fodder crops, seems to have responded more to market demand than to any need for complementary cropping and restoring land fertility. Obviously questions of long-term versus short-term benefits make these and other issues more complicated. Any generalizations are unsatisfactory and incorrect for change happens in different configurations from one vicinity to the next and there is no clear moment at which a revolution takes place. Yet somewhere within the many details of changing techniques, implements, and rural organization, there must be general tendencies to be discussed in explaining to our students why the rural world of the middle ages was different from that of the ancient world, even if the division between the two must remain forever fuzzy. These are important issues not only to medieval historians, but to historians of western civilization more generally. The agricultural techniques and thinking of the medieval world were bottom-up technologies adopted at the initiative of peasants as well as insisted upon by lords. They could be easily exported by Europeans to neo-Europes in the age of colonialism, and to understand them is to understand much of the history of who won out and why in the modern world. The editors and authors have set the stage for a new synthesis, but much work remains to be done before it can be presented in as compelling ways as were the theories of their predecessors. How they will do that remains to be seen.

The book is beautifully produced, typeset, proof-read, supplied with tables and illustrations. Each chapter's contributor has included a bibliography and there is surprisingly little overlap or contradiction, although obviously some chapters are more valuable, some more original, contributions, than are others.