1902 Encyclopedia > Agriculture > Historical Summary of Agriculture (from Antiquity to 15th Century AD)

(Part 1)


Historical Summary of Agriculture (from Antiquity to 15th Century AD)

It would be interesting to know how the nations of antiquity tilled, and sowed, and reaped; what crops they cultivated, and by what methods they converted them into food and raiment. But it is to be regretted, that the records which have come down to us are all but silent upon these homely topics.

In Mr. Hoskyn’s admirable treatise [Footnote 291-1] we have an excellent specimen of what may yet be done to recover and construct an authentic history of the Agriculture of the ancients, from the casual allusions and accidental notices of rural affairs which lie thinly scattered through the body of general literature; and, more especially, from those mysterious records of the past, which are now being rescued from their long burial under the ruins of some of the most famous cities of antiquity. Although comparatively little has been found such records bearing directly upon the subject, we must nor despair of the learned industry and masterly skill of an advancing and searching criticism, gathering together these gleams of light, and making them happily converge upon the darkness which has hitherto interposed between us and circumstantial knowledge of the methods and details of ancient husbandry.

Every reader of the Bible is familiar with its frequent references to Egypt as a land so rich in corn, that it not only produced abundance for its own dense population, but yielded supplies for exportation to neighboring countries. Profane history corroborates these statements. Diodorus Siculus bears explicit testimony to the skill of the farmers of ancient Egypt. He informs us that they were acquainted with the benefits of a rotation crops, and were skillful in adapting these to the soil and to the seasons. The ordinary annual supply of corn furnished to Rome has been estimated at 20,000,000 bushels. From the same author we also learn that they fed their cattle with hay during the annual inundation, and at other times tethered them in the meadows on green clover. Their flocks were shorn twice annually (a practice common in several Asiatic countries), and their ewes yeaned twice a year. For religious as well as economical reasons, they were great rearers to poultry, and practiced artificial hatching, as at the present day. The abundance or scarcity of the harvests in Egypt depended chiefly upon the height of the annual inundation. If too low, much of the land could not be sown, and scarcity or famine ensued. On the other hand, great calamities befell the country when the Nile raised much above the average level. Cattle were drowned, villages destroyed, and the crops necessarily much diminished, as in such cases many of the fields were still under water at the proper seed time. In 1818 a calamity of this kind took place, when the river rapidly attained a height of 3_ feet above the proper level.

It is from the painting and inscriptions with which the ancient Egyptians decorated their tombs that we get the fullest insight into the state of agriculture amongst this remarkable people. Many of these paintings, after lapse of two or three thousand years, retain the distinctness of outline and brilliancy of color of recent productions. The acquaintance which these give us with their occupations, attainments, and habits is truly marvelous, and fills the reader of such works as Wilkinson’s Egypt with perfect amazement. Every fresh detail seems to give confirmation to that ancient saying, "There is nothing new under the sun." The pictures referring to rural affairs disclose a state of advancement at that early date which may well lead us to speak modestly of our own attainments. An Egyptian villa comprised all the convenience of a European one of the present day. Besides a mansion with numerous apartments, there were gardens, orchards, fishponds, and preserves game. Attached to it was a farm-yard, with sheds for cattle and stables for carriage horses. A steward directed the tillage operations, superintended the laborers, and kept account of the produce and expenditure. The grain was stored in vaulted chambers furnished with an opening at the top, reached by steps, into which it was emptied from sacks, and with an aperture below for removing it when required. Hand-querns, similar to our own, were used for grinding corn; but they had also a larger kind worked by oxen. In one painting, in which the sowing of the grain is represented, a plough drawn by a pair of oxen goes first; next comes the sewer scattering the seed from a basket; he is followed by another plough; whilst a roller, drawn by two horses yoked a breast, completes the operation. The steward stands by superintending the whole. Nothing, however, conveys to us so full an impression of the advanced state of civilization amongst the ancient Egyptians as the value which they attached to the land, and the formalities which they observed in the transfer of it. In the time of the Ptolemies, their written deeds of conveyance began with the mention of the reign in which they were executed, the name of the president of the court, and of the clerk who drew them. The name of the seller, with a description of his personal appearance, his parentage, profession, and residence, was engrossed. The nature of the land, its extent, situation, and boundaries; the name and appearance of the purchaser were also included. A clause of warrandice and an explicit acceptance by the purchaser followed, and finally the deed was attested by numerous witnesses (so many as sixteen occur to a trifling bargain), and by the president of the court.

The nomads of the patriarchal ages like the Tartar, and perhaps some of the Moorish tribes of our own, whilst mainly dependent upon their flocks and herds, practiced also agriculture proper. The vast tracts over which they roamed were in ordinary circumstances common to all shepherds alike. During the summer they frequented the mountainous districts and retired to the valleys to winter. Vast flocks of sheep and of goats constituted the chief wealth of the nomads, although they also possessed animals of the ox kind. When these last were possessed in abundance, it seems to be an indication that tillage was practiced. We learn that Job, besides immense possessions in flocks and herds, had 500 yoke of oxen, which he employed in ploughing, and a "very great husbandry." Isaac, too, conjoined tillage with pastoral husbandry, and that with success, for we read that he sowed in the land Gerar, and reaped an hundred-fold --- a return which, it would appear, in some favored regions, occasionally rewarded the labor of the husbandman. In the parable of the sower, our Lord (grafting his instructions upon the habits, scenery, and productions of Palestine), mentions an increase of thirty, sixty, and an hundred fold. Such increase, although far above the average rate, was sometimes even greatly exceeded, if we take the authority of Herodotus, Strabo, and Pliny.

Along with the Babylonians, Egyptians, and Romans, the Israelites are classed as one of the great agricultural nations of antiquity. The sojourn of the Israelites in Egypt trained them for the more purely agricultural life that awaited them on their return to take possession of Canaan. Nearly the whole populations were virtually husbandmen, and personally engaged in its pursuits. Upon their entrance into Canaan, they found the country occupied by a dense population possessed of walled cities and innumerable villages, masters of great accumulated wealth, and subsisting on the produce of their highly cultivated soil, which abounded with vineyards and olive yards. It was so rich in grain, that the invading army, numbering 601,730 able-bodied men, with their wives and children, and a mixed multitude of camp-followers, found "old corn" in the land sufficient to maintain them from the day that they passed the Jordan. The Mosaic Institute contained an agrarian law, based upon an equal division of the soil amongst the adult males, a census of who was taken just before their entrance into Canaan. Provision was thus made for 600,000 yeomen, assigning (according to different calculations) from sixteen to twenty-five acres of land to each. This land, held in direct tenure from Jehovah, their sovereign, was strictly inalienable. The accumulations of debt upon it prevented by the prohibition of interest, the release of debts every seventh year and the reversion of the land to the proprietor, or his heirs, at each return of the year of jubilee. The owners of these small farms cultivated them with much care, and rendered them highly productive. They were favored with a soil extremely fertile, and one which their skill and diligence kept in good condition. The stones were carefully cleared from the fields, which were also watered from canals and conduits, communicating with the brooks and streams with which the country "was well watered everywhere," and enriched by the application of manures. The seventh year’s fallow prevented the exhaustion of the soil, which was further enriched by the burning of the weeds and spontaneous growth of the Sabbatical year. The crops chiefly cultivated were wheat, millet, barley, beans, and lentils; to which it is supposed, on grounds not improbable, may be added rice and cotton. The ox and the ass were used for labor. The word "oxen," which occurs in our version of the Scriptures, as well as in the Septuagint and Vulgate, denoted the species, rather than the sex. As the Hebrews did not mutilate any of their animals, bulls were in common use. The quantity of land ploughed by a yoke of oxen in one day was called a yoke or acre. Towards the end of October, with which month the rainy season begins. Seedtime commenced, and of course foes so still. The seedtime, begun in October, extends, for wheat and some other white crops, through November and December; and barley continues to be sown until about the middle of February. The seed appears to have been sometimes ploughed in, and at other times to have been covered by harrowing. The cold winds which prevail in January and February frequently injured the crops in the more exposed and higher districts. The rainy season extends from October to April, during which time refreshing showers fall, chiefly during the night, and generally at intervals of a few days. The harvest was earlier or later as the rains towards the end of the season were more or less copious. It, however, generally commenced in April, and continued through May for the different crops in succession. In the south and in the plains, the harvest as might be expected, commenced some weeks earlier than in the northern and mountainous districts. The slopes of the hills were carefully terraced and irrigated whatever practicable, and on these slopes the vine and olive were cultivated with great success. At the same time the hill districts and neighboring deserts afforded pasturage for numerous flocks and herds, and thus admitted of the benefits of a mixed husbandry. With such political and social arrangements, and under the peculiarly felicitous climate of Judea, the country as a whole, and at the more prosperous periods of the commonwealth, must have exhibited such an example of high cultivation, rich and varied produce, and wide-spread plenty and contentment, as the world has never yet elsewhere produced on an equally extensive scale. Not by a figure of speech but literally, very Israelite sat under the shadow of his own vine and fig-tree; whilst the country as a whole is described (2 Kings xviii. 32) as "a land of corn and wine, a land of bread and vineyards, a land off oil-olive and of honey." An interesting illustration of the advanced state of agriculture in these ancient times is afforded by the fact, that, making allowance for climatic differences, the numerous allusions to it with the Scriptures abound seem natural and appropriate to the British farmer of the present day.

The unrivalled literature of Greece affords us little information regarding the practical details of her husbandry. The people who by what remains to us of their poetry, philosophy, history, and fine arts exert such an influence in guiding our intellectual efforts, in regulating taste, and in molding our institutions, were originally the invaders and conquerors of the territory which they have rendered so famous. Having reduced the aboriginal tribes to bondage, they imposed upon them the labor of cultivating the soil, and hence both the occupation and those engaged in it, were regarded contemptuously by the dominant race, which addicted them to what they regarded as nobler pursuits. With the exception of certain districts, such as Bœotia, the country was naturally unfavorable to agriculture. When we find, however, that valleys were freed from leaks and morasses by drainage, that rocky surfaces were sometimes covered with transported soil, and that they possessed excellent breeds of the domesticated animals, which were reared in vast numbers, we infer that agriculture was better understood, and more carefully practiced, than the allusions to it in their literature would seems to warrant.

Amongst the ancient Romans agriculture was highly esteemed and pursued with earnest love and devoted attention. "In all a their foreign enterprises, even in earliest times," as Schegel remarks, "they were exceedingly covetous of gain, or rather of land; for it was in land, and in the produce of the soil, that their principal and almost only wealth consisted. They were a thoroughly agricultural people, and it was only at a later period that commerce, trades, and arts were introduced among them, and even then they occupied but a subordinate place." [Footnote 292-1] Their passion for agriculture survived very long; and when at length their boundless conquests introduced an unheard-of luxury and corruption of morals, the noblest minds amongst them were strongly attracted towards the ancient virtue of the purer and simpler agricultural times. Several facts in Roman history afford convincing proofs, if it were required, of the devotion of this ancient people to agriculture, in their best and happiest times. Whilst their arts and sciences, and general literature, were borrowed from the Greeks, they created an original literature of their own, of which rural affairs formed the substance and inspiration. Schlegel and Mr. Hoskyn notice also the striking fact, that whilst among the Greeks the names of their illustrious families are borrowed from the heroes and gods of their mythology, and most famous houses amongst the ancient Romas, such as the Pisones, Fabii, Lentuli, &c., has taken their names from their favorite crops and vegetables. Perhaps it is not too much to assert, that many of those qualities which fitted them for conquering the world, and perfecting their so celebrated jurisprudence, were acquired, or at all events nourished and matured , by the skill, foresight, and persevering industry, so needful for the intelligent and successful cultivation of the soil. The words which Cicero puts into the mouth of Cato give a fine picture of the ancient Roman enthusiasm, in agriculture. "I come now to the pleasures of husbandry, in which I vastly delight. They are not interrupted by old age, and they seem to me to be pursuits in which a wise man’s life should be spent. The earth does not rebel against authority; it never gives back but with usury what it receives. The gains of husbandry are not what exclusively commend it. I am charmed with the nature and productive virtues of the soil. Can those old men be called unhappy who delight in the cultivation of the soil? In my opinion there can be no happier life, not only because the tillage of the earth is salutary to all, but from the pleasure it yields. The whole establishment of a good and assiduous husbandman is stored with wealth; it abounds in pigs, in kids, in lambs, in poultry, in milk, in cheese, in honey. Nothing can be more profitable, nothing more beautiful, than a well-cultivated farm."

In ancient Rome each citizen received, a first, an allotment of about two English acres. After the expulsion of the kings this allotment was increased to about six acres. These small inheritances must, of course, have been cultivated by hard labor. On the increase of the Roman territory the allotment was increased to fifty, and afterwards even to five hundred acres. Many glimpses into their methods of cultivation are found in those works of Roman authors which have survived the ravages of time. Cato speaks of irrigation, frequent tillage, and manuring, as means of fertilizing the soil. Mr.Hoskyn, from whose valuable contribution to the History of Agriculture we have drawn freely in this historic summary, quotes the following interesting passage from Pliny, commenting on Virgil: [Footnote 293-1] --- "Our poet is of opinion that alternate fallows should be made, and that the land should rest entirely every second year. And this is, indeed, true and profitable, provided a man have land enough to give the soil this repose. But how, if his extent be not sufficient? Let him, in that case, help him thus. Let them sow next year’s wheat-crop on the field where he has just gathered his beans, vetches, or lupines, or such other crops as enriched the ground. For, indeed, it is worth notice that some crops are sown for no other purpose but as food for others, a poor practice in my estimation." In another place he tells us, "Wheat, the later it is reaped, the better it casts; but the sooner it is reaped, the fairer the sample. The best rule is to cut it down before the grain is got hard, when the ear begins to have a reddish-brown appearance. ‘Better two days too soon than as may too late,’ is a good maxim, and might pass to an oracle." The following quotation from the same author is excellent: -- "Cato would have this point especially to be considered, that the soil of a farm be good and fertile; also, that near it there be plenty of laborers, and that it be not far from a large town; moreover, that it have sufficient means for transporting its produce, wither by water or land. Also, that the house is well built, and the land about it as well managed. But I observe a great error and self-deception which many men commit, who hold opinion that the negligence and ill-husbandry of the former owner is good for his successor or after-purchase. Now, I say , there is nothing more dangerous and disadvantageous to the buyer than land so left waste and our of heart; and therefore Cato counsels well to purchase land of one who has managed it well, and not rashly and hand-over head to despise and make light of the skill and knowledge of another. He says, too, that as well land as men, who are of great charge and expense, how gainful so ever they may seem to be, yield little profit in the end, when all reckonings are made. The same Cato being asked, what was the most assured profit rising out of land? Made this answer, --- ‘To feed stock well.’ Being asked again ‘What was the next?’ he answered, ‘To feed with moderation.’ By which answer he would seem to conclude that the most certain and some is to be referred another speech of his, ‘That a good husbandman ought to be a seller rather than a buyer;’ also, ‘that a man should stock his ground early and well, but take long time and leisure before he be a well, but take long time and leisure before he be a builder; for it is the best thing in the world, according to the proverb. ‘To make use, and desire profit, from other men’s follies.’ Still when there is a good and convenient house on the farm, the master will be the closer occupier, and take the more pleasure in it; and truly it is a good saying that ‘the master’s eye is better than his hell."

"It is curious," says Mr. Hoskyn, "to read passages as these, and to find the very same subjects still handled, week after week, in fresh and eager controversy in the agriculture writings sand periodicals of the present day, eighteen centuries after those opinions were written."

In the later ages of the empire agriculture was neglected, and those engaged in it regarded with contempt. Many fair regions once care fully cultivated and highly productive, were abandoned to nature, and became a scene of desolation, the supplies of overgrown, and became a scene of desolation, the supplies of overgrown Rome being drawn from Egypt, Sicily, and other provinces, which became notable as the granaries of the empire.

Under the Goths, Vandals, and other barbarian conquerors, agriculture in Europe, during the middle ages, seems to have sunk into the lowest condition of neglect and contempt. We owe its revival, like that of other arts and sciences, to the Saracens of Spain, who devoted themselves to the cultivation of that conquered territory, with hereditary love for the occupation, and with the skilful application of the experience which they had gathered in other lands in which they had established their power. By them, and their successors, the Moors, agriculture was carried in Spain to a height which perhaps has not yet been surpassed in Europe. It is said, that so early as the tenth century the revenue of Saracenic Spain alone amounted to £6,000,000 sterling, --- probably as much as that of the rest of Europe at that time. The ruins of their noble works for the irrigation of the soil still attest their skill and industry, and put to shame the ignorance and indolence of their successors. The same remark applies to the Spanish dominions in South America. In the ancient empire of Peru agriculture seems to have reached a high degree of perfection. The ruins of basins and canals, frequently carried through tunnels, prove their industry and skill in irrigation. One of their aqueducts is said by Mr Prescott [Footnote 293-2] to have been traced buy its ruins for nearly 500 miles. They cultivated the sides of mountains by means of terraces, which retained forced soil, and were skilled in the application of manure. That on which they chiefly depended was guano, and their Incas protected the penguins, by which it was deposited, by strict laws, which made it highly penal to kill one of these birds, or to set foot on the islands at breeding time. The Spaniards thus obtained possession of two good patrimonies, and have wasted them both.

The influence of the crusades upon the agriculture of this period is not to be overlooked. The dreadful oppression of the feudal system, received at that time a shock most favorable to the liberties of man, and, with increasing liberty, more enlightened ideas began to be entertained, and greater attention to be paid to the cultivation of the soil.

But, during this long interval, the population of Europe was derived into two great classes, of which by far the larger one was composed of bondmen, without property, or the power of acquiring it, and small tenants, very little superior of bondmen; and the other class, consisting chiefly of the great barons and their retainers, was more frequently employed in laying waste the fields of their rivals than in improving their own. The superstition of the times, which destined a large portion of the land to the support of the church, and which, in some measure, secured it from predatory incursions as the principal source of what little skill and industry were then displayed in the cultivation of the soil. "If we considered the ancient state of Europe," says Mr. Hume, [Footnote 294-1] "we shall find that the far greater part of society were everywhere bereaved of their personal liberty, and lived entirely at the will of their masters. Every one that was not noble was a slave; the peasants were not in a better condition; even the gentry themselves were subjected to along train of subordination under the greater barons or chief vassals of the crown who though seemingly placed in a high state of splendor, yet, having but a slender protection from law, were exposed to every tempest of the state, and by the precarious condition on which they lived, paid dearly for the power of oppressing and tyrannizing over their inferiors." --- The villains were entirely occupied in the cultivation of their master’s land, and paid their rents either in corn or cattle, and other produce of the farm, or in servile offices. Which they performed about the baron’s family, and upon farms which he retained in his own possession. In proportion as agriculture improves and money increased, it was found that these services, through extremely burdensome to the villain, were of little advantage to the master; and that the produce of large estate could be much more conveniently disposed of by the peasants themselves who raised it, than by the landlord or his bailiff, who are therefore made of rents for services, and of money-rents for those in kind; and as men in a subsequent age discovered that farms were better cultivated where the farmer enjoyed security in his possession, the practice of grating leases to the peasant began to prevail, which entirely broke the bonds of servitude, already much relaxed from the former practices. The latest laws which we find in England for enforcing or regulating this species of servitude were enacted in the reign of Henry VII. And though the ancient statues on this subject remain still unrepeated by Parliament, it appears that before the end of Elizabeth the distinction between villain and freeman was totally, though insensibly, abolished, and that no person remained in the state to which the former laws could be applied."

But long before 15th century, it is certain that there was a class of tenants holding on leases for lives, or for a term of years, and paying a rent in land produce, in services, or in money. Whether they gradually sprung up from the class of bondmen, according to Lord Kames, [Footnote 294-2] or existed from the earliest period of the feudal constitution, according to other writers, [Footnote 294-3] their number cannot be supposed to have been considerable during the middle ages. The stock which these tenants employed in cultivation commonly belonged to the proprietor, who received a proportion of the produce as rent, --- a system which still exists in France and in other parts of the Continent, where such tenants are called métiers, and some vestiges of which may yet be traced in the steel-bow of the law of Scotland. Leases of the 13th century still remain, [Footnote 294-4] and both the laws and chartularies [Footnote 294-5] clearly prove the existence in Scotland of a class of cultivators distinct from the serfs or bondmen. Yet the condition of these tenants seems to have been very different from that of the tenants of the present day; and the lease approached nearer in its form to a feud-charter than to the mutual agreement now in use. It was of the nature of a beneficiary grant by the proprietor, under certain conditions, and for a limited period; the consent of the tenant seems never to have been doubted. In the common expression "granting a lease," we have retained an idea of the original character of the deed, even to the present.

The corn crops cultivated during this period seem to have been of the same species, though all of them probably much inferior in quality to what they are in the present day. Wheat, the most valuable grain, must have borne a small proportion, at least in Britain, to that of other crops; the remarkable fluctuation of price, its extreme scarcity, indicated by the extravagant rate at which it was sometimes sold, as well as the preparatory cultivation required, may convince us that its consumption was confined to the higher orders, and that its growth was by no means extensive. Rye and oats furnished the bread and drink of the great body of the people of Europe. Cultivated herbage and roots were then unknown in the agriculture of Britain. It was not till the end of the reign of Henry VIII that any salads, carrots, or other edible roots were produced in England. The little of these vegetables that was used was formerly imported from Holland and Flanders. Queen Catherine, when she wanted a salad, was obliged to dispatch a messenger thither on purpose. [Footnote 294-6]

The ignorance and insecurity of those ages, which necessarily confined the cultivation of corn to a comparatively small portion of country, left all the rest of it in a state of nature, to be depictured by the inferior animals, and then only occasionally subjected to the care and control of man. Cultivators were crowded together in miserable hamlets; the ground contiguous was kept continually under tillage; and beyond this, wastes and woodlands of a much greater extent were appropriated to the maintenance of their flocks and herds, which pastured indiscriminately, with little attention from their owners.

The low price of butcher-meat, though it was then the food of the common people, when compared with the price of corn, has been justly noticed by several writers as a decisive proof of the small progress of civilization and industry.

One of the earliest and greatest agricultural grievances was the levying of Purveyance. This originally comprehend the necessary provisions, carriage, &c., which the nearest farmers were obliged to furnish at the current prices to the king’s armies, houses, and castles, in time of war. It was called the great purveyance, and the officers who collected those necessaries were called purveyors. The smaller purveyance included the necessary provisions for the household of the king when traveling through the kingdom, and these the tenants on the king’s demesne lands were obliged to furnish gratis, a practice that came to be adopted by the barons and great men in every tour which they thought proper to make in the country. These exactions were so grievous, and levied in so high-handed a manner, that the farmers, when they heard of the court’s approach, often deserted their houses, as if the country had been invaded by an enemy. "Purveyance," says Dirom," [Footnote 295-1] was perhaps from many centuries the chief obstruction to the agriculture and improvement of Great Britain. Many laws were made for the reformation and regulation of purveyance, but without effect; and the practice continued down to so late a period as the reign of James the First."

By statute 1449, the tenant was for the first time secured in possession, during the term of his lease, against a purchaser of the land; and in 1469 he was protected from having his property carried off for the landlord’s debt’s, beyond the amount of rent actually due; an enactment which proves his miserable condition before that time.

Soon after the beginning of the 16th century agriculture partook of the general improvement which followed the invention of printing, the revival of learning, and the more settled authority of government; and instead of the occasional notices of historians, we can now refer to regular treatises, written by men who engaged eagerly in this neglected and hitherto degraded occupation. We shall therefore give a short account of the principal works, as well as of the laws and general policy of Britain, in regard to agriculture, from the early part of the 16th century to the Revolution in 1688, when a new era commenced in the legislation of corn, and soon after in the practice of the cultivator. [Footnote 295-2]


291-1 Short Inquiry into the History of Agriculture, by Chandos Wren Hoskyn, Esq.

292-1 The Philosophy of History, by Frederick Von Schlegel. London, 1846, p. 253.

293-1 Short Inquiry into the History of Agriculture, pp. 49-51, by Chandos Wren Hoskyn, Esq.

293-2 History of the Conquest of Mexico.

294-1 History of England, chap. xxiii.

294-2 Kame's Law Tracts.

294-3 Bell's Treatise on Leases.

294-4 Sir John Cullum's History and Antiquities of Hawsted (Suffolk)

294-5 Chalmers' Caledonia, book iv, c. 6.

294-6 Hume's History of England, chap. xxiii.

295-1 Inquiry into the Corn Laws, &c., p. 9.

295-2 The account of the Writers on Agriculture taken from Mr Cleghorn's Treatise in the former edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

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