Why was the Harvest so Important in the Middle Ages?
Or in any other pre-industrial period
For years Iíve thought that the issue of harvest dependency is one of the critical ideas to get across when teaching about pre-industrial history but it wasnít until the 2011 SHP Conference that I got round to doing something about it.
Itís an important topic because dependence on harvest quality is one of the greatest differences between life in the pre-industrial past and our lives when it can appear that food originates in Tesco - unless you live in part of the world where life, health and happiness is still harvest-dependent. This activity can be used in a variety of contexts (see Notes and Variations section below) but itís probably most likely to be used when covering medieval social history with year 7. This isnít a lengthy, complicated activity Ė it would probably take around 15-20 minutes with most classes. Whatís here is an outline for you to build on Ė much depends on your relationship with each class, how you ad-lib your way through the main part and what needs clarifying to help them see the reasons for the activity.
This activity is designed to help students understand:
• The central importance of harvest for people’s health, survival and happiness before the 1800s.
• Why standards of living varied so much year by year in the Middle Ages and why, for example, people were so vulnerable to diseases such as the Black Death.
This activity can also contribute to students’ understanding of why the Industrial Revolution was such a significant turning point in history.
a) The PowerPoint sequence [ click here ]
b) Half a dozen food items (one of those packs of 6 or 8 mini-boxes of breakfast cereal is a good idea – they don’t need opening!)
c) Something to denote the lord of the manor – a medieval-style hat? You could also add some soft toys as the villager’s children (though be prepared to lose them in the famine)
d) Possibly a record sheet for the rest of the class who aren’t participating (something to keep idle hands busy) – this could ask them to record simply the quality of each harvest and its effects.
e) You could also use a dice in conjunction with the PowerPoint if you’re trying to pretend the harvest pattern is really being decided by chance!
I have also attached some notes for teachers on the ways in which people tried to solve the problems created by poor harvests. Apologies if this is a grandma and eggs situation but it’s also important not to paint a picture of medieval villagers as completely helpless victims of fate and/or incapable of thought.
1. Getting started – there must be many ways of beginning this. One possibility is to begin with the question ‘why does the school year start in September? [not January?]’ The school year and many other things start in the early autumn because by then the harvest had been gathered in and children weren’t needed to work – so why was the harvest so important?
2. Bring out the villagers
a) Bring out 6 students to the front to be villagers – 1 designated as lord of the manor. A few soft toys as babies and children would be useful too.
b) Give each villager a food item – tell them the year is 1311 and continue your intro along the lines of:
They all have food because there’s just been a good harvest. There’s plenty of food to see everyone through the winter and into next year but this time next year you might not have so much food … it all depends! We’re now going to find out how these villagers got on over several years. Will they stay fat and healthy or …
3. How good were the harvests?
This is the heart of the activity, using PowerPoint screens 1-6 in turn, one for each harvest across six years. The PowerPoint appears to be generating numbers at random but of course it isn’t – it’s been fixed to get three good years followed by three terrible years so that students can see the effects of bad harvests. The sequence of harvest quality is – 6, 4, 5, 1, 1, 1.
If you wish you could roll a dice in time with the PowerPoint and pretend that the screen is picking up the vibes from your dice – the dice emphasise the importance of chance in the form of the weather’s impact on harvest quality. The dice appear on each screen for the same reason.
After the dice appear click once more and then several numbers appear automatically before settling on the one that indicates harvest quality.
Here’s the basis of what you might say and do [just an outline – it’ll need amending to fit each class]:
Year 1 (1312)
I’m going to throw the dice and if we get a 6 it’s a great harvest and you all get to keep your Cocoa Pops - but if it’s a 5 I take one packet away – and if it’s a 1 …. So
Throw dice …. It’s a 6 – everyone will eat well this winter … why’s the harvest been so good?
Discuss to see whether students make the connection to the weather and maybe the quality of farming earlier in the year]
Year 2 (1313)
Click on new screen, watch numbers, it’s a 4, not such a good harvest as last year but still pretty good. BUT take away two packets of food from the villagers.
Discuss – how will you cope? Will you share? Will the Lord of the Manor have the same as the others or a larger share? Any ideas about how to get a better harvest next year?
Year 3 (1314)
Click on new screen, watch numbers, it’s a 5 – give one food packet back. You’ve been lucky and perhaps good farmers - that’s been a run of decent to excellent harvests – everyone must be feeling fit and healthy and your babies are more likely to survive and grow up healthy.
Discuss – why’s the weather so important for farmers?
Year 4 (1315)
Click on new screen, watch numbers, it’s a 1 – take away 5 packets of food. You have just one pack to see you through until next harvest. It’ll be a struggle through this winter but especially in spring and early summer.
Discuss – why was the harvest so bad? [focus on weather] What can be done [can student any ideas – you could feed in clues linked to the information sheet.
Focus on the importance of prayer – everyone needs to pray for the next harvest to be good – KNEEL DOWN AND PRAY – ‘God speed the plough and send us corn enough’. – get them to repeat this several times.
Year 5 (1316)
Click on new screen, watch numbers, it’s another 1 ….
Last year was survivable but now things look dangerous. There’s not enough to feed the babies. Perhaps you didn’t pray hard enough? Make whole class pray this time – perhaps add a bit of Pater Noster (Lords’ prayer in Latin) for extra impact.
Year 6 (1317)
Click on new screen, watch numbers, it’s another 1
This year sees deaths from starvation – send 1 or 2 of the villagers back to their seats to signify death. Many others are weak and ill and everyone is vulnerable should disease spread – possible link to Black Death.
That’s the end of the activity – but you need to add the reality behind the activity. This does reflect the harvest pattern of the 1310s and it was to get worse still – 1315-1320 is known as the Great European famine – between a quarter and half a million people died in England from starvation and disease as a result of a series of appalling harvests.
Some questions worth exploring:
1. What have we learned? [always the riskiest question to ask!]
2. What’s different today – is it different everywhere in the world?
3. What methods might people have used to increase harvest quality? [see teachers’ notes sheet- you’ll probably have to help with some guided questions]
4. What do these methods tell us about people of the time? [resourceful, adaptable, hard-working, intelligent but vulnerable to weather and harvest quality]
5. How long did this situation continue for? [until the 1800s]
Notes & Variations
1. Industrial Revolution
You could use or re-use this activity as part of coverage of the Industrial Revolution (which I’m assuming includes the Agricultural Revolution). The purpose would be to help students understand the significance of the changes of the late 18thC and 19thC in overturning many centuries of dependence on local harvest quality. Slide 7 on the PowerPoint sequence provides a graph which shows the population pattern across 2000 years - poor harvests and disease twice stopped the population from breaking through the 5-6 m barrier but from the 1700s ….
2. Understanding the overview of standards of living
This activity could support the activity below which helps students see the “really big picture of social history” covering the Middle Ages to today in one graph. See the Big Story of Everyday Life
3. Tudor rebellions at A level?
This might provide a light-hearted break but also cover something important about causes of rebellions. It’s notable that some of the 1549 risings [as well as 1381 and Cade’s rebellion in 1450] took place in May/June at a time when there was little work needed in the fields but also when food prices often became higher prior to the harvest being gathered in.
4. KS2 – hopefully one day soon we’ll get away from primary history being taught in isolated blocs called Romans, Tudors etc with minimal linking. In the meantime this activity could be used to understand Tudor society!
1. What changes and improvements could you make next time?
2. How important is it to include this activity/idea? Are there any other parts of your history courses where it might be used?
3. How could you involve more students directly?
Information for Teachers
Methods used in Middle Ages to increase crop yields:
• increasing land under cultivation by cutting down woodland, draining marshes and fenland, clearing hillsides, moving houses to marginal land to free up better quality land for cultivation.
• changes in field systems (i.e. 4 field rotation instead of 3 field) to reduce land left fallow.
Much local knowledge existed on improving farming e.g. Walter of Henley’s book written c.1275 which gave advice on fertilisers, crops, breeding and culling animals. This typical of much local oral knowledge. 13th and 14th centuries also saw horses used more instead of oxen and more windmills built.
For Walter of Henley www.archive.org/details/walterhenleyshu01cunngoog
1208-1299 – only 12 bad harvests but 1300-1399 increased to 22 bad harvests – especially 1315-20, the worst period of famine 1066-now.
In times of poor harvests – people turned to church for help. Church urged charity on wealthy but both church and landowners did well if they had plenty of land as they could sell crops for high prices. C.1320 a Genoese merchant sent 1000 quarters of wheat to London because he knew people would pay very high prices – so speculation even in 1300s.
Government 1315-20 did little to provide or organise aid – preoccupied with failures of Scottish war (Bannockburn 1314)