Heavy Plow Helps Increase Agricultural Yields

The use of the heavy plow increased agricultural yields, eliminating the need for cross plowing and allowing for the cultivation of rich, damp soils in northern Europe.

Summary of Event

Throughout the Middle Ages, farming remained the most important economic activity in Europe. It absorbed the daily labor of nearly all inhabitants and determined social customs and practices. Development and widespread use of the heavy plow, which began gradually in Europe between the eighth and eleventh centuries, was the principal transformation in rural life during this period. [kw]Heavy Plow Helps Increase Agricultural Yields (c. 700-1000)
[kw]Plow Helps Increase Agricultural Yields, Heavy (c. 700-1000)
[kw]Agricultural Yields, Heavy Plow Helps Increase (c. 700-1000)
Europe (general);c. 700-1000: Heavy Plow Helps Increase Agricultural Yields[0470]
Agriculture;c. 700-1000: Heavy Plow Helps Increase Agricultural Yields[0470]
Economics;c. 700-1000: Heavy Plow Helps Increase Agricultural Yields[0470]
Environment;c. 700-1000: Heavy Plow Helps Increase Agricultural Yields[0470]
Science and technology;c. 700-1000: Heavy Plow Helps Increase Agricultural Yields[0470]

The new wheeled plow, fitted with a coulter or heavy knife fixed to the pole to cut vertically into the soil, a flat, asymmetrical plowshare set at right angle to the coulter to cut the earth horizontally at the root level, and a moldboard to turn the sliced turf to the left or right and create furrows, did not immediately supplant the earlier scratch plow that was fitted with a symmetrically shaped share that merely broke the ground and threw the earth to either side depending on where the “ears” were attached.

The advantages of the scratch plow were its lightness, ease of assembly and handling, and low cost. A single plowman could fit together its wooden pieces that were sometimes reinforced with metal strips. The scratch plow could be pulled by a team of oxen and operated by a lone plowman. This plow remains in use in the Mediterranean areas of Europe where the soils are thinner and the climate more arid. In these regions, the heavier wheeled plow brings too much precious moisture to the surface and thereby reduces fertility. Although it was easier to manipulate and cheaper to operate, the scratch plow required intense manual labor and could not be used efficiently on the heavier soils of northern Europe. Also, because it left a wedge between furrows, cross plowing was necessary. Thus, each field had to be plowed twice. In addition, the fields had to be dug with spades as often as every four years.

The wheeled plow overcame these disadvantages and proved suitable to the heavier turf and damper climate of the north. Its origins can actually be traced to imperial Roman times. Pliny refers to its presence in the lands south of the upper Danube and archaeological evidence indicates its use in the areas inhabited by Slavs, Bulgarians, and Byzantine peoples on the lower Danube, as well as along the North Sea. A hoard of tools uncovered at Osterburken, dating from the fifth century, includes a smaller, similar version, possibly a precursor to the heavy plow. Comparable in shape, the Osterburken plowshare differs only in the worn symmetry of its coulter. Plowshares dating from Carolingian and Anglo-Saxon times were worn on one side indicating use of a moldboard that forced the plow to cut at an incline and create a furrow.

Changes in the rural environment occasioned by the end of the Roman Empire in the west led to the temporary abandonment of the heavier wheeled plow. Roman latifundia (landed estates) ceased to exist and villages were more scattered. As monarchical states formed and monastic foundations settled wastelands, the rural population first stabilized then grew, larger fields were once again cultivated, and the heavier wheeled plow became desirable. The Benedictines Benedictines were particularly important in promoting settled agriculture. Saint Benedict Benedict of Nursia, Saint emphasized the virtues of manual labor and many of his followers wore a pruning hook in their girdles symbolic of their agrarian labor. According to Benedictine tradition, Theodulf, from a monastery near Rheims, operated a plow daily for twenty-two years. After his death, his fellow monks venerated his plow at the church of Saint-Thierry.

Archaeological discoveries of plows from Poland, Bohemia, the Rhineland, and Savoy place the redevelopment of the heavy plow between the eighth and tenth centuries. While there is scattered earlier evidence from Cornwall and Wales, the heavy plow was not widely used across England and Wales until the eleventh century. Fossilized furrows from other parts of Europe support the idea of a gradual transformation in plow technology.

The heavy wheeled plowshare reduced manual labor by eliminating the need to cross plow and spade fields by hand. Its weight, coupled with the nature of the soil, demanded greater reliance upon animal power. The single team of oxen gave way to teams of eight or more and ultimately to teams of horses once the fixed wooden head collar was developed. Horses could work a field more rapidly than oxen, though they were more expensive to maintain. The Bayeux Tapestry shows a horse-drawn harrow, and its presence there may help explain the reluctance of English farmers to abandon the oxen for the horse.

While manual labor was saved, it hardly disappeared. An Anglo-Saxon plowman described his daily routine:

O my lord, I work very hard: I go out at dawn, driving the cattle to the field, and I yoke them to the plow. Nor is the weather so bad in winter that I dare to stay at home, for fear of my lord: but when the oxen are yoked, and the plowshare and coulter attached to the plow, I must plow one whole field a day, or more.

The plowman’s fear was well-founded. He had to remain in the field as his tax was tied to the plowing he was expected to perform during the year. The English plowland or hide came to be the unit of assessment, and eventually the day’s plowing was standardized at an acre.

The new wheeled plow also improved drainage and increased crop yields. The moldboard turned the furrow to one side only, piling the soil to the center of the field and creating shallow trenches between plowlands. These trenches improved drainage. The better drained fields ensured greater yields in wet and dry years. In wet years, crops flourished on the drier crest of each ridge while in dry ones, crops grew in the furrows. Deeper plowing brought richer soil to the surface, also enhancing soil productivity. At a minimum, fields in France produced four times what had been customary in Charlemagne’s time. Slowly, knowledge of marling and manuring became more widespread, and eventually farmers devised the three-field rotation with one field lying fallow every third year. As a result of these changes, all tied to the widespread adoption of the heavier wheeled plow, crops of wheat, rye, spelt, barley, and oats—staples of the European bread diet—rose dramatically across the continent.

Finally, the heavier wheeled plow altered field shape and necessitated agrarian cooperation. Cross plowing resulted in square Roman field types; furrow plowing, especially with large teams of animals, was more suited to longer fields. As farms were divided into the lands of the lord and those of the tenant, field shape adapted to the new technology. The expense of a plow team forced most peasants to either share teams or borrow them from wealthier neighbors in exchange for labor. Thus, even tenurial relationships were revised by the plow as fewer tenants could maintain a purely independent status. Cooperation enhanced and stabilized community.


The end result of the heavy wheeled plow was economic growth, a rise in population, the expansion of trade, and the growth of towns and cities. In a very real sense, the heavy wheeled plow nourished the feudal and religious establishments of medieval Europe.

Further Reading

  • Astill, Grenville, and Annie Grant, eds. The Countryside of Medieval England. Oxford, England: Basil Blackwell, 1988. Essays blend multidisciplinary and traditional scholarship to examine how the countryside was cultivated in medieval England.
  • Astill, Grenville, and John Langdon, eds. Medieval Farming and Technology: The Impact of Agricultural Change in Northwest Europe. New York: Brill, 1997. Treats farming in the Middle Ages from the point of view of the history of technology. Looks at the broad social and economic effects of technological advances in farming, and discusses local, region-specific developments in agriculture of the period.
  • Campbell, Bruce M. S. English Seigniorial Agriculture, 1250-1450. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. An in-depth study of the technologies, methods, and effects of late medieval agriculture in England.
  • Duby, Georges. Rural Economy and Country Life in the Medieval West. Translated by Cynthia Postan. 1968. Reprint. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998. This work is a valuable introduction to the European rural economy from the Carolingian period to the fourteenth century by a leading French Annales historian.
  • Fossier, Robert. Peasant Life in the Medieval West. Translated by Juliet Vale. Oxford, England: Basil Blackwell, 1988. Synthesis of recent scholarship by a modern French scholar to defend the controversial argument that lasting agricultural improvements began only after the tenth century.
  • Hamerow, Helena. Early Medieval Settlements: The Archaeology of Rural Communities in North-West Europe, 400-900. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. Culls together the evidence of many archaeological excavations to create an overview of rural life in medieval Europe. Includes discussions of agricultural practices and development from 400 to 900.
  • Rösener, Werner. Peasants in the Middle Ages. Translated by Alexander Stützer. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992. Most comprehensive modern synthesis of the difficult and challenging world of European peasants by a leading German scholar.
  • Slicher Van Bath, B. H. The Agrarian History of Western Europe, A.D. 500-1850. Translated by Olive Ordish. London: Edward Arnold, 1963. Surveys agrarian history from the fall of Rome to industrialization. Good treatment of agricultural productivity based upon statistical evidence.
  • Speed, Peter, ed. Those Who Worked: An Anthology of Medieval Sources. New York: Italica Press, 1997. This collection of primary historical sources includes three sections on agriculture. It presents letters, chronicles, notebooks, scientific treatises, and other medieval texts.
  • Sweeney, Del, ed. Agriculture in the Middle Ages: Technology, Practice, and Representation. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995. Collection of essays place changes in agriculture and economics in a cultural context and examine how societal changes shaped views of peasants and their labor.
  • White, Lynn, Jr. Medieval Technology and Social Change. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1980. Sound introduction to the relationship between technology and social change.