The “Cerealization” of Europe

The story of farming is one of usual significance here in Franklin County which supplies annually supply over one billion dollars’ worth of crops—chiefly grain and vegetables, but also fruits and hay. Of course agriculture had long been practiced by natives peoples in North and South America, and since ancient times in the Eastern Hemisphere. When European immigrants began flocking to the United States in the early 1800s they brought many Old World farming traditions that harken back to practices introduced a thousand years ago. A gradual shift in the early medieval period away from annual and two-year cropping in Europe that exhausted soil fertility led to improved cereal production across the continent. The three-year open field rotation system (German Verzelgung, Russian trekhpol’ye) became widespread during the thirteenth century and increased crop yields from one-half to two-thirds in many parts of central and eastern Europe with heavier soils and higher rainfall than in the south. While variable local geographic conditions allow for only generalizations, the triennial system did begin a widespread continental shift from mixed farming to the production of specific grains on designated fields.

This “cerealization” of Europe was directly related to the era’s population rise and led to the emergence of urban centers and new social classes. Grain yields from the thirteenth to eighteenth centuries remained negligible by present standards, however, with wheat averaging some eight to twelve bushels per acre, barley ten to fifteen, and oats fifteen to twenty. (Modern non-irrigated yields are commonly five to six times higher.) England’s medieval standard measure of distance, the furlong, was established at 220 yards, or about how far a team of oxen could make a furrow by pulling a plow before needing to rest. A width of forty-four yards—twenty-two trips down and back, came to represent a full day’s work to define the present acre of 4, 840 square yards.


Pietro de Crescenzi, “Farmers Harvesting Crops
Opus Ruralium Commmodorum (1471)
Vollbehr Collection, Rare Book Collection, Library of Congress


Field size varied widely depending on local norms of peasant holdings, topography, and soil conditions. The area of a “full holding” varied considerably in early medieval Europe but was generally understood to be the amount of land and livestock necessary to support a three-generation family living under the same roof. The year’s culminating grain harvest served the three imperative needs of sustenance for family and livestock, seed for future crops, and seigneurial tax. Over time conventional units of area (English “hide,” German Hufe, French mansus) came to be associated with obligations to seigneur and state, though definitions reflect considerable stratification among villagers. In central Europe, for example, a prosperous Austrian peasant head of household with both full holding and a tenancy might have a hundred acres, while similar status in Bohemia represented sixty acres, but half that area in England and Hungary. Subdividing over generations led to numerous fractional holdings, cotters with only a house and garden, and large numbers of landless laborers.