How did a farm work 400 years ago? A BBC television series shows how
How did a farm work in Britain 400 years ago? That is the key question behind a 12-part documentary series that I produced and directed for the BBC.
As the start of a new agricultural year loomed in the fall of 2003, five specialists tried to go back in time to find out. They had to get acquainted with a remarkable farm on the Welsh borders, restored to how it would have been in 1620, the reign of King James I. For the previous 17 years, a historical group had worked to restore the site: farm and outbuildings. equipped with period materials, orchards planted with fruit trees of the time and varieties of contemporary crops planted. Now, a team of archaeologists and historians took on the challenge of running it for a full calendar year (each program follows one month), using only tools and materials available in the 17th century.
My job was to film them trying to turn theory into practice. From the beginning I knew what I did not want to do, which was to do another reality series, where the concerns would be ‘could they survive without shampoo?’ What he did want to do were shows that delved as deeply as possible into the social history of the time and highlighted the experts struggling with the technology of the time rather than each other.
Things did not just start. To plow the main field in September, we brought in a pair of English longhorn oxen, Arthur and Lancelot, from Yorkshire. They are one of the only working couples left in the country. Although horses are much faster than oxen, they are more expensive to feed and maintain (they need shoes to start) and they were not traditionally eaten in this country, so the agricultural manuals of the time recommended not to use them.
“If some sorance [injury] it comes to … an ox, and it grows old … then it is human flesh … the horse, when it dies, is nothing more than carrion. And so I think, all things considered, the ox plow is much more profitable than the horse plow. “The Breeding Book William Fitzherbert 1534
As far as possible, we try to follow contemporary agricultural texts. They were a great starting point, but they often left out vital data, probably considered obvious at the time. That’s where practice came in and history met reality. We had a replica of a plow built according to the descriptions and illustrations of the time, but from the beginning the team struggled to make it work.
The ground was quite hard and they couldn’t make the plow bite, it just skimmed the surface. When they finally dug it out, there was a loud creak as the plow buckled under pressure. A few hasty repairs and they got to work again, finally producing their first glorious groove. It wasn’t long before they ran into more difficulty when the stubble from the field got stuck between the share (the sharp iron pin that cuts the surface) and the plow share (the blade that divides the land). It was a preview of how the entire year ahead would end, a rousing first try and then back on the drawing board. As he adjusted the share and added more weight to the plow, his method seemed to click and the team’s faces broke out in big smiles. Suddenly furrow upon furrow. They were clumsy, a bit shallow in places and slow to get to, as an acre is the amount of land an ox wasteland is supposed to be able to plow in one day, they were seriously behind schedule but felt as a success.
The technique was perhaps the main watchword throughout the year. For most of the specialists, it was the first time that they had in their hands vintage tools. They had read about them and knew the theory, but putting them into practice was something else entirely, whether it was digging with one of the heavy wooden shovels, using a plow, or threshing grain with a flail. I can remember the magical moments when Stuart, Alex, Fonz, Ruth or Chloe stopped using brute force and let a tool do its job.
One of my favorites was when Peter ‘Fonz’ Ginn was trying to winnow the wheat chaff. He was using a replica of a winnowing basket, a bit like a large wicker plate raised on three sides. The idea is to spin the material and give it a quick motion, allowing any breeze to blow the light straw. Unfortunately, his grain began to fly all over the yard. Only after hours of practice, and with sore arms, did he break it. His action became light, fluid and easy and his satisfaction was obvious.
Doing everything manually, without modern machinery, we all realized how much time was needed to complete the most mundane tasks, whether it be planting wheat by hand, plucking pigeons, or building a dry stone wall. Winnowing was just one of a long line of processes required to make bread, and when Fonz poured his now-clean grain into a sack, we realized that a farmer from 400 years ago had to be an expert in all trades, simply to survive.
It was not just the farmer who had to be versatile. I was surprised to learn the vital importance of the farmer’s wife. His was an essential partnership. Without a wife, operating a farm was nearly impossible. Records from the period show how a widowed farmer usually had another woman by his side in a very short time. It was a simple matter of time, work and economy. From managing the dairy, brewing the beer, and managing the essential garden, the housewife was certainly not a lady of leisure. Being the farm doctor was another of her roles. Since professional medicine was so expensive, he took care of the health of the house with homemade ointments, pills and concoctions made from herbs and plants from the garden.
And for you, Mr. Apothecary, oh, I don’t look at your store once every seven years … but for me, if I’m sick … I take kitchen medicine; I make my wife my doctor and my garden my pharmacy. Robert Greene, A Joke for an Upstart Courtier 1592.
Of course, nothing was wasted on a 17th century farm. The waste product of one process became fuel for another. The ashes from the fire were used to make lye, the period equivalent to Persil, a household washing liquid for washing clothes. Any leftover food went to the pigs, the perfect ‘green’ disposal unit. Animal waste like today was scattered throughout the fields, even human waste was reused. Human feces composted in a toilet was used as fertilizer and urine from a house was stored to produce ammonia, an excellent stain remover for clothes. In fact, urine was collected on a large scale; Urinals were placed outside the bars and the urine was used to make saltpeter, a vital ingredient in the manufacture of gunpowder, a flourishing industry at the time. At a time when “organic” and “recycling” are key environmental issues, it’s fascinating to step back and learn some lessons from our past.
We filmed through torrential rains, blizzards and a scorching sun, watching the farm change throughout the seasons. Away from our pampered urban lives, it became apparent how much the farmer, then and now, is ruled by the elements. Not only in the short term, but year after year, from the September plow to the August harvest, the life of the farmer is marked by the natural cycle. For a 1620 farmer, planning, ingenuity, and aptitude were essential to survival. Looking at the tough graft of our experts, we wonder how long any modern person would survive if found in this environment. Although the Valley team arrived from the fields sweating, bruised and exhausted, they felt an overwhelming sense of pride in what they had accomplished, a closeness to nature, and a degree of satisfaction far different from a job divorced from the ground.