Selective Manuring in the Medieval Open Fields
By Richard Jones
XIV International Economic History Congress (2006)
Introduction: For those in medieval Europe who sought to make a living directly off the land, and these were the great majority, few issues could have been more important than the nature of the soils they had to work. And in their struggle to maintain and improve yields against a backdrop of increasing population and tax burdens, and potentially nutrient-depleting agricultural practices, few substances can have been more important than manure. Such observations, of course, are not new. Historians have long acknowledged the centrality of manure to the success or failure of early rural economies. As far back as 1897, F.M. Maitland could opine that globally ‘…the demand for manure has played a large part in the history of the human race.’ More recently, in seeking an explanation for the why the medieval European economy triumphed, A.W. Crosby singled out the presence here of big animals (in numbers unequally in other complex societies) providing additional traction for the plough, food to eat during crisis, and above all manure: ‘Where the Far Easterners were obliged to use their own excrement for fertilizer…the Europeans could use the manure of their animals.’ M.M. Postan’s view of the efficacy of medieval manure and manuring was more measured, stating that there can be little doubt ‘…that men made such use of manure as their knowledge and their resources allowed’, but noting also that ‘[t]he main restriction on the use of manure – a restriction which got tighter as time when on – was imposed by its paucity’. Any consideration of the medieval rural economy should, therefore, include the study of manuring.