Unit 9 Farming

Section 1

Start with a Modern English word search for farm. Select the first heading, and you’ll find a list of words for farms, both large and small. You’ll probably recognize Old English words like ham and tun because they occur in so many English place-names, e.g. Birmingham and Weston (although note that these words don’t always mean ‘farm’). Notice too that the Old English word feorm is a ‘false friend’, i.e. its meaning is not the same as that of ModE farm. In Anglo-Saxon times, feorm denoted various things relating to food, e.g. food, stores, feast, hospitality, and so on.

Let’s now consider what farming involves. Firstly, farmers may grow various crops for food (see also Unit 10 Food and Drink).

Q1. Enter wheat in the Modern English word search, and explore the entries, noting the variety and number of related concepts, and the compound terms using OE hwæte. Then enter oats in the Modern English word search, and look at the results in a similar way. Which crop do you think would be the more important to Anglo-Saxon farmers? What is the linguistic evidence for your decision? Answer Q1

Plants are also necessary to feed farm animals, whether grown especially for them, or made available by letting them forage.

Q2a. Enter ‘fodder’ in the Modern English word search, and you’ll see several general and specific terms. The presence in a language of very specific terms, such as ‘food for cattle where there is no grazing’, indicates the importance of agriculture in that society. Orf means ‘cattle’, so can you guess what the whole compound word orfgebitt means? Answer Q2a

Q2b. Mast is Modern English for the food which pigs can find when foraging in woodlands. What do the words under the heading ‘Mast, pig-food’ suggest, more precisely, that pigs ate in Anglo-Saxon times? If you don’t understand the Old English words you find, look them up in the Old English word search, where the headings to each section act as definitions. Answer Q2b

The other main task of farmers is to raise animals for meat, milk, wool, etc. Enter an Old English word search (Exact) for cu. Several of our modern animal names come from Old English, so you’ll probably see that cu > cow. Look down the list and pick out the names of specific animals you know from Modern English – you should find them immediately recognizable. Notice too how specialized some of the words are, e.g. for ‘pastured cattle’ and ‘stabled cattle’.

Q3. Type the following words into the Modern English word search: pork, beef, mutton, chicken. Write down any Old English words that you recognize as being ancestors of present-day words. Can you deduce anything about Anglo-Saxon meat terminology from your results? (Hint: what language do you think our words beef, mutton and pork come from?) Answer Q3

Production of crops and animals involves many different processes, most of which can be found in the Old English vocabulary. Growing cereal crops requires tasks such as ploughing, sowing and weeding to be carried out each year.

Q4a. Look up, in the Modern English word search, each of the tasks listed above, and write down at least one Old English noun for each process. Answer Q4a

Q4b. Enter harvesting in the Modern English word search, and look at the nouns which are the Old English equivalents: (ge)gaderung, ohtrip, (ge)rip, ripung. What Modern English words do they (or parts of them) remind you of? Answer Q4b

Q4c. The Old English word hærfest means ‘harvest’, as you can no doubt see. What are its other meanings, and how do they relate to harvesting? Why do we not use harvest in these other ways today? (Consider the origin of the modern words.) Answer Q4c

Growing crops and raising animals requires areas of land to be used for different purposes, often on a system of rotation, i.e. a field may be used for crops one year and feeding animals the next, to prevent the soil becoming ‘exhausted’ from nourishing crops.

Q5. Select ‘Browsing Searches’ from the search menu, and click on ‘TOE Browse’. Then select ‘04. Material Needs’, and ‘04.02. Farm’. Scroll down all the section numbers that begin 04.02.03, and note down all the uses of land you can find, e.g. meadow, including sub-divisions, e.g. water meadow. Answer Q5

Traditional farming needs all sorts of buildings and structures in which to keep different animals (e.g. byre, sty, stable), to store things and to carry out various processes (e.g. barn, dairy, threshing-floor). Look up barn in the Modern English word search, and then click on ‘Barn’. First of all, you’ll probably be surprised that there are so many words for this building. They’re all compound words consisting firstly of what is stored, and secondly what it’s stored in. You’ll recognize corn > corn among the first elements, and hus > house among the second elements (hus is clearly not restricted to a building for people).

Q6. Look up the various elements or parts of the six barn-words in the Old English word search. Now give literal translations of each of the six nouns. Which of them is the ancestor of the modern word barn? Answer Q6

Farmers also need a wide selection of tools and equipment to do their work. Before machines were invented to carry out certain processes, all farm-work was done by hand or with the help of animals. Look up plough in the Modern English word search, and click on ‘A plough’. Look down the list, and you’ll see words for various parts of a plough, and ploughing equipment. However, in spite of quite a long list, there’s no sign of an ancestor for our word plough. The origins of plough are mysterious, but the word probably appeared in Late Old English, although we have no surviving examples of its use in texts. The normal Old English word for a plough was sulh, as you can see, and this still survives in some dialects as sull.

Q7. What are the Old English ancestors of our words scythe and sickle? Do you know what these implements look like and what they’re used for? Answer Q7

Section 2

Farming involves a lot of different processes related to growing plants and keeping livestock. The essential purpose of a farm, smallholding or estate is to produce food, and there were differences in how this was done in the various regions of Britain, depending on, for example, the soil type and climate. However, in any one area, farming methods remained the same for centuries – much of how an Anglo-Saxon farmer spent an average year would have been familiar to a 19th-century farmer. The really big changes only started in the 20th century.

Traditional farming could involve activities such as the growing of grain crops (cereals) and vegetables for human food, fodder to feed animals, and crops for other purposes, like flax to produce linen. Animals were kept for meat, milk and eggs, or for pulling heavy equipment like ploughs and wagons, or for other uses, such as controlling the mouse and rat population (cats). Large estates would have been involved in all these activities, but there is evidence from place-names that some farms were already specialized, e.g. wic can mean ‘dairy farm’.

In Anglo-Saxon times (and later), many farming families were too poor to own larger equipment or more expensive animals, such as a plough or the oxen to draw it. Such things were often owned by a village, or by more than one family, and shared. Fully equipped farms would have belonged to the major landowners such as members of the royal family, noble families and monasteries. Agricultural workers in medieval times had to work for part of their time on their lord’s land, but they also had their own pieces of land where they produced food for their families. Anglo-Saxon farmers had to face many dangers and problems (some of them remain problems today, of course) such as crop and animal diseases, unseasonable weather, criminal acts like the stealing of animals, and acts of war such as Viking raids. If disaster struck so that there was insufficient food to last over the winter months, there would be famine until the spring.

The study of Anglo-Saxon farming is a multidisciplinary exercise. Information is retrieved from documentary, archaeological, topographical (see Unit 11 Landscape), zoological and botanical evidence. Documentary evidence on agriculture is sparse but valuable, e.g. a text called Be gesceadwisan gerefan, ‘On the Prudent Steward’, and various short texts such as wills, estate records (especially relating to the monastery at Ely), land-grants and place-names. There are also a few painted scenes of agricultural life in manuscripts, such as the depictions of seasonal tasks accompanying calendars, and often referred to as ‘The Labours of the Months’ (see the list of websites). These scenes include ploughing, reaping, mowing, and shepherding.

Archaeological evidence for agriculture is extensive, and steadily increasing. It includes evidence of field boundaries, the homes and outbuildings of farming families, the remains of animal bones and crops, and finds of agricultural implements. In some cases, Anglo-Saxon farming villages have been excavated, such as West Stow in Suffolk. It is now normal for excavation reports to include specialist reports by archaeozoologists and archaeobotanists. These experts study the animal and plant finds from excavations, identify the species present, and use this evidence to suggest which animals were being kept, and which crops grown. They can, of course, deduce even more than this, depending on the quality of the evidence. They may be able to suggest the principal meat source and principal crop, the age at slaughter of the animals, the quality of the diet of the village, and much more.

The results of decades of excavation and scientific analysis coupled with scrutiny of the textual and other evidence have now resulted in a much clearer vision of Anglo-Saxon farming, although there is still much to elucidate. In the early Anglo-Saxon period the most common cereal crop was barley, but this gradually changed until wheat predominated by the 11th century. Barley remained an important crop, if only because it was needed for brewing. Remains of both oats and rye have also been found on Anglo-Saxon sites, but in much smaller quantities. Dairy products were made from the milk of sheep and goats, as well as cows, and both milk and eggs were only seasonally available. The most common domesticated animal kept on Anglo-Saxon farms was the sheep, but goats were also kept, in smaller numbers. Although pigs were less common than sheep and cattle, it is clear from textual evidence (the Domesday Book, see below) that certain farms specialized in this animal. This must represent a commercial enterprise, since the numbers are too large to feed just one family.

After the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, King William I ordered a detailed list to be made of the wealth of England, and this meant the agricultural wealth. The resulting Domesday Book, completed in 1086, presents, for each village, an amazing record of the landowners, animals, mills, ploughs, workers and the land’s value both before 1066 (in the time of King Edward the Confessor) and afterwards. Here is just one example, concerning the Hampshire village of Hambledon:
           William of Percy holds Hambledon; he acquired it with his wife. Alwin held it from King Edward. Then and now it answered for 1 hide [a measurement of land]. Land for 3 ploughs. In lordship 1; 6 villagers and 6 smallholders with 2 ploughs. 2 slaves; a mill at 12d [old pennies], woodland at 4 pigs. Value before 1066 and now £4; when acquired £3.

Section 3

Further reading

Banham, Debby and Rosamond Faith. 2014. Anglo-Saxon Farms and Farming. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Crabtree, Pam J. 1989. West Stow, Suffolk: Early Anglo-Saxon animal husbandry. Bury St Edmunds: Suffolk County Planning Dept & Scole Archaeological Committee.

Finberg, H. P. R. and Joan Thirsk (general eds). 1967-2000. The agrarian history of England and Wales. 8 vols. London: Cambridge University Press.

Fowler, P. J. 1997. ‘Farming in Early Medieval England: some fields for thought’. The Anglo-Saxons from the Migration Period to the eighth century: an ethnographic perspective, ed. J. Hines. Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 245-61.

Fowler, P. J. 1981. ‘Farming in the Anglo-Saxon landscape: an archaeologist’s view’. Anglo-Saxon England 9, 263-80.

Morris, John (general ed.). 1979-86. Domesday Book. 35 vols. Chichester: Phillimore.


‘Labours of the Month’ https://trinitycollegelibrarycambridge.wordpress.com/ (search on ‘Labours of the Month’) – the agricultural year explained and illustrated from medieval manuscripts

West Stow Anglo-Saxon Village https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/West_Stow_Anglo-Saxon_Village – illustrations of a reconstructed Anglo-Saxon village in Suffolk

Ideas for essays or projects

1. Compile a list of agricultural tools and implements which are known from Old English texts (use ‘Browsing Searches’ as explained in Q5). Provide at least one Old English name for each implement, and explain its use on an Anglo-Saxon farm.

2. Note down from the TOE as many domesticated animals as possible which would have been found on an Anglo-Saxon farm. Consider which animals appear to be more important, according to the vocabulary (e.g. from the number of synonyms and specialized terms), and compare your results with the evidence from the archaeological finds of animal bones from West Stow village, and any other village sites you can find. Do the two forms of evidence agree?