The Rhythms of Medieval Life: The Work of the Seasons

The year for the common farmers and lords running their manors and great agricultural estates actually commences in the fall, on the 29th of September and goes through the month of October. This may seem a bit backwards, but the agricultural year begins after the final accounting for the fruits of the growing season just passed. This is prepared for every estate, small and large, from the great royal estates down to the smallest  knight’s feof from the end of July through September, at the same time preparations are being made for the next Spring. This is also the only time of year that new tenants will be allowed to enter new land leases.

All of this activity makes secretaries and clerks very difficult to find during this time of year, if the PC should have need. This labor deficit will be felt most keenly in the rural districts, but will put a strain on the businesses in the towns as many of the independent clerks and scribes take off for the countryside where they are needed. It is also a good argument to make sure the PC party has these skills among their members, so they do not get caught short when in need during this season.

The legal year of the central royal law courts in the capital of the realm commences on the 29th of September with a ceremony in which the judges make a procession from the Temple Bar to Westminster Abbey for a religious service, which is followed by a reception known as “the Lord Chancellors‘ breakfast” which is held in Westminster Hall. The service is held by the Dean of Westminster accompanied by a reading of scripture performed by the Lord Chancellor.

This “Autumn Term” (for the purposes of the game) may run as long as 10 weeks, which places an additional demand on the scribes and clerks in the realm.

This is also a time for local and regional faires which are held primarily for hiring workers out to sell themselves for a year’s term of work or service, due to the fact that this is the time of year when those contracts expire. At this time a reeve was elected from among the peasants of each manor and village to keep watch over the work and to ensure that production was up to the lord’s expectation. If rents or donations of goods (Church lands) fell short, the reeve must make up the difference on his own. This is also the only time of the year tenants are allowed to enter new leases.

The first agricultural work of the fall season will be the ploughing of the first field in September, that which was allowed to lie fallow the previous year, which will be the wheat field. The other two fields lie in stubble yet from the fall harvest just completed.

There is great debate between the Husbandmen in the period of the game over which is better to plough with, between oxen and horses. Oxen are less expensive to buy and cheaper to maintain, stronger and more patient than horses, and so will be more common in the villages and on the tenant farms. Horses are three to four times quicker at ploughing, however, more expensive to purchase and three to four times more expensive to keep in hay and oats. Oxen can be slaughtered for both meat and hide when they get old, while only the hide of the horse has any real value (except for the carcass to the knacker), and the hide is only really valued when it is white. Shoes for oxen are cheaper than horseshoes. The normal plough team consists of eight oxen, but as many as 12 might be used in heavy ground. Each team requires both a leader and a driver.

The wheat and rye are sown when the fall ploughing is completed.

Threshing is one of the major October activities, even though it is carried out to a lesser extent all throughout the year, not only for the grain, though, but for the peas and beans, as well.

Threshing takes place in an open area of a barn where a special wooden floor is set up. Flails were used to beat the stalks, thereby causing them to shed their grain. These are the same instruments that were adapted for use in war. The straw is then removed and the grain scooped up with a wide, shallow basket for the process called “winnowing”. By tossing the grain into the air and fanning it with a broad fan, the lighter, inedible fibrous husks, called “chaff”, are blown away until only the grain, which is heavier, remains. The heaviest of the grains fall closest to the winnower and these are saved for the next planting season. The grain that is to be eaten is then dried in a kiln, poured into sacks, and carried to the lord’s mill for grinding, as needed.

The wood gathered for the winter is chopped up and stowed in ricks at this time of year, also.

The swineherds bring in all the weaker animals and the sows that have given birth and houses them in the local manor pig-sties, and the cattle are brought in by the cowherd and stabled in their stalls for the winter season. The ploughman watches over them and sees to their care.

Before the beasts are brought in for the winter, the heavy wicker hedges called “hurdles” which guard the perimeters of the fields are taken down and the hens, sheep, cattle, and other livestock are let into the fields and allowed to forage and pick over the stubble left in the two fields harvested  in August.

During late October and into November, all beasts that the farmers and the demesne lords cannot afford to feed through the winter are slaughtered, dressed, and smoked or salt-cured.

On January 14th, another of the four terms of the central royal law courts begins.. This “Winter Term” (for the purposes of the game) commonly runs only four weeks, but may run as long as six weeks.

The spring ploughing commences in the beginning of February (the 1st or the closest day afterwards the weather will allow) in the second field. This ploughing continues through the month of March and sometimes even to late April, and is the duty of the customary tenants residing in all manors. The spring sowing of peas, beans and vetches or oats and barley immediately follows the ploughing, and the hurdles are restored around their perimeters again to protect the seed and crop. A great feast is customarily thrown by the local lord at the end of the ploughing as a gesture of thanks for the services rendered to him.

In the spring, the oxen and cattle are again taken out by the local cowherds again and the livestock are allowed to forage in the two fields again before the spring ploughing.

March 25th will be the date that New Year’s Day will be  celebrated on in most European towns. In some areas of France, New Year’s was a week-long holiday ending on April 1.

April 1st (April Fool’s day) marks the commencement of another of the four terms of the royal central law courts, the “Spring Term” or “New Term” (for the purposes of the game), again running only four weeks, or as long as six weeks. This also marks the opening of the spring term of the royal Exchequer.

On the roads of all the shires in the realm the sheriffs with their staffs can be seen travelling to the royal Exchequer in the capital of the realm in the week or so prior to April 1st so they may arrive in a timely manner to appear in response to the summonses for them to account for the proceeds of “the farm” of their respective shires at this time, the royal lands in their purview.

The final field that has lain fallow following the previous August’s harvest is assayed by the farmers in May or June. They can be seen out in those fields cutting ditches for drainage and later manuring the field in preparation for the autumn ploughing and use in the following growing season. These fields are sometimes also dressed with marl or limestone when the soil is stiff. Marling is generally only done once every 15 to 18 years, however.

All building of new structures and repair of existing ones, all the weeding and hoeing in the fields are undertaken throughout the good weather of the summer months, with the women and children lending a helping hand. Those who do not maintain their homes in good repair may well find themselves presented in the local (baronial or leet) court and fined. During the warm months of good weather, the household garden plot must be cultivated, which may be upwards of an acre within the enclose around the house itself, referred to as its “curtilage”.

For more information about the foods raised by and enjoyed by the various classes, see the passage titled “The Groaning Board”

Throughout the growing season, the entire community is responsible for maintaining the hedging and hurdles around the fields that protect them from the casual foraging of livestock.

At midsummer, June 21st (the Summer Solstice), the last of the four yearly terms of the central royal law courts, called “Summer Term”. This may be as little as 1 week following the close of the previous term, or as long as 4 weeks after, and like Autumn Term, may run 8 to 10 weeks in duration.

After Midsummer, sheep are gathered in the pens and the PC’s will find the people engaging in the yearly sheep-shearing, on rather a grand scale in the rough hill-country shires while concentrate in sheep-farming. The women also turn out to work alongside the men in this task.

The last task of the summer the PC’s find the people attending to is the repair of any of the local mills, which is always overseen by an officer of the owner of the mill, whether bailiff or reeve, if not by the owner himself.

The agricultural year ends with the harvesting of the various crops during July, August and September. Reaping and mowing are the major tasks. Summer fruits and berries are harvested in the wastes and wilds or common forest surrounding every village, hamlet or farmstead, or from the orchards belonging to the local lord or church or the wealthy local franklins (free commoners owning acreage that may rival that accompanying the local manor). Barley, oats, peas, beans, and vetches and the like are mowed first, gathered into ricks, and then cut up into trusses. Hay is mown in July, with the aid of the tenants in the demesne farms of the manors. At the end of July, the wheat and rye are reaped, cut high on the stalk by hand, with sickles. The harvest may take up to 6 weeks or so to complete. The stubble is mown separately, after the grain has been carefully harvested and gathered in. The hedges or hurdles surrounding the fields are then removed and the livestock once again allowed to forage in the fields.

A great feast is customarily thrown by the local lord at the end of the harvest for each of his villages as a grand ‘thank you’ and acknowledgement of the invaluable services provided by the tenants.

The yearly accounts of the noble manors are once again drawn up starting in July, making the clerks and scribes scarce at best for those who need their services for other work, until well into August.

And so the cycle begins again, repeated over and over, year in and year out, carrying the people through their lives to the end of their days.

From the use of the events of religious holidays and the number of incidences of their use, the player can begin to see the very central and important place religion holds in the medieval period of the game.

To simplify the matter by maintaining a sense of history and fantasy to separate the game from the historic uses of still-current religions, the names of the four terms of the central royal law courts have been changed. Historically, they were named “Michaelmas”, Hilary”, “Easter” and “Trinity” terms. They were changed due to the fact that the name “Easter” and the timing of the “Trinity” term are “moveable feasts”, and that “Michaelmas” and “Hilary”, are drawn specifically from the beliefs and practices of the Real World Catholic faith. “Michaelmas” (the feast of Saint Michael the Archangel OR the Feast of Saints Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael OR the Feast of Michael and All Angels), “Hilary” (marked by the Feast of St. Hilary of Poitiers), Easter (the Resurrection), and Trinity (based on Pentecost). As such, they do not fit with the more nebulous definition and position of the faith of the ”Light” in the context of the game. The names they have been given in the text are considered more suitable for a fantasy gaming environment.

In the same manner in which the celebration of the Equinoxes and Solstices were standardized to a particular day which is “close enough” to the astronomical event it marks, the same has been done with the two “moveable feast  holidays that historically marked the commencement of the “Easter” and “Trinity” terms of the year for the royal law courts , as can be seen in the text for “Spring” and “Summer” terms above. This was to provide a standard date for the GM’s convenience.  The date of observance Easter changes every year. Historically, it was celebrated on the first Sunday following the first full moon to appear after the Spring Equinox, thus anywhere from March 22nd to April 25th. Trinity Term started on the Monday of Whitsuntide (“Whit-Monday”), seven weeks after “Easter” (whenever it should fall), the day after “Whit-Sunday”. At the GM’s option, the timing used historically might be restored, as noted above, making these two events “moveable feasts” again. If the GM chooses this option it is NOT recommended that he restore the uniquely Catholic names for the festivals. Some other basis more suitable for a fantasy gaming environment is recommended. Since “Easter” is a corruption of the pagan Anglo-Saxon goddess Eostre or Ostara whose yearly celebratory feast was held at that time of year, that pagan event might be a more suitable basis, or at least name, to apply to the holiday for game use.