Farming in Anglo-Saxon England

by Geoff Littlejohns, gesith

A calendar page for November, from a calendar made in southern England in the first half of the 11th century: Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 8r

The overwhelming majority of the English population of Anglo-Saxon England lived in the countryside, grew crops, herded livestock and were self-sufficient. Academic work, however, has made little effort to investigate life on Anglo-Saxon farms– even though this was clearly the most fundamental feature of Anglo-Saxon history. I shall attempt a survey.

The Anglo-Saxon era is often broken into three periods – Early, Middle and Late. This periodisation provides us with a tool for assessing the rate and extent of change. We should, nevertheless, be cautious. Agricultural practices will vary according to region as these have to be responsive to different soils and conditions. Innovation in one district may be resisted in others, making any conformity within a historic period unlikely. Different farmers may uphold different methods and customs between and within regions.

Nevertheless periodisation lays out a framework for analysis. Let us start with the Late or Anglo-Scandinavian period of the tenth and eleventh centuries. Here we can make use of the priceless Domesday Book. This outlines a well-worked landscape, marked not just by ploughland but meadows – valuable for providing winter fodder – and wood-pastures – valuable for providing firewood and timber. Very many water-mills are recorded, suggesting that villagers were ready to accept new technology and to abandon the drudgery of the hand quern. Domesday also reveals estates, and therefore social diffferentiation within rural communities.

This pattern of a well-worked and well-settled landscape is not the image we have for the Early Anglo-Saxon period – the two centuries after the fall of Roman Britain. According to a wide-ranging review of research into Anglo-Saxon farming (Debby Banham & Rosamond Faith), this was a time of agricultural ‘abatement’. Under the rule of Imperial Rome, the land had been worked intensively. The villa owners had grown rich while their wheat had been exported to feed the armies on the Rhineland frontier. This system of intensive cereal production seems to have collapsed once the Roman control had weakened and then removed itself. The evidence of pollen samples, however, indicates that secondary woodland did not expand dramatically over the land where wheat had been grown before. Using the arguments of the Dutch ecologist, Frans Vera, that heavy animal grazing will check the spread of woodland and scrub, Banham and Faith believe that we should envisage the English farmers of the ‘abatement’ period as predominantly sheep, cattle and pig herders, who gained much of their protein from ‘secondary products’ like milk, butter and cheese.

According to this interpretation, Early Anglo-Saxon settlers did not necessarily seek out land that was easiest to plough and cultivate but lush meadows from which hay for winter fodder could be mowed and lines of access to moorland, woodland, downs and marshes where herds could be set to graze over wide  tracts of land. The human population would have been widely dispersed and often very mobile, driving herds between summer and winter grazing, the system known as transhumance.

This leaves us with the period in-between – the Middle Anglo-Saxon  – the seventh to early ninth centuries. Was this the period when Anglo-Saxon farmers began to turn from predominant pastoralism (livestock herding) and to rely more on arable farming with wheat and barley growing? Did the origins of the open-field system of high mediaeval England lie in this period? Or was the farming landscape depicted in Domesday Book the product of recent changes, changes that were only beginning to be introduced in the tenth and eleventh centuries?

More traces of cereal growing can be detected in mid than early Anglo-Saxon deposits and, according to the respected historian Helena Hamerow, the revival of arable may have started in the Middle Anglo-Saxon period, although Banham & Faith are more cautious, citing the difficulty in interpreting the archaeological evidence that survives. There is still much to understand about life on the farms of Anglo-Saxon England.

  1. Debby Banham & Rosamond Faith  Anglo-Saxon Farms and Farmimg  2014