Worldbuilding: Agriculture in an Early-Medieval World

One of the reasons I think my world feels rich to readers is the presence of agriculture as part of the background of life.

The scenery, the customs and traditions, the way of life – all were portrayed so well that it felt like reading about a real time and place.” 

Helen Hollick, Discovering Diamonds review of Empire’s Daughter

This, in some version, is one of the most frequent comments – or compliments – about my books. How did you build such a real world? people ask.  There are a lot of facets to this, but the one I’ll look at today is the role of agriculture in creating an early-medieval setting.

I have an advantage over many writers: I grew up in a rural setting, did agricultural work from the time I was thirteen, come from a long line of agricultural workers, and have two degrees in the subject. And landscape history – which is inextricably tied into land use and agriculture – is a major hobby of mine. Nonetheless, it’s not what you know as much as how you use it, really.

Let’s look at animal agriculture first. Early medieval Europe, which my world parallels, had horses and cows, sheep and goats, and pigs*. Empire’s Daughter opens in a fishing village, but one that also farms. Geographically, it’s set somewhere equivalent to perhaps northern Wales – in my mind, it’s the landscape of Anglesey. Thin soils, rocky heathland in places; deeper soils in others. So it can support some grain crops, and some animal agriculture.

Lives revolve around animals: lambing, shearing, slaughter, as well as the cycle of planting and harvest. Fences are important, tough wattle fencing to keep animals out of gardens. Children are employed to scare birds, watch sheep, keep the goats away from crops.

One of the reasons I think my world feels rich is this is present as part of the background of life. For example, in a scene where a council of landholders have met for political reasons, other conversations still happen. The country’s been raided badly by a Viking-like people, and it’s just beginning to recover. Political decisions about leadership need to be made, but so do more mundane choices – and this young landholder, his father dead in the battles – turns to an older man for advice:

“Sorley,” he said when I sat down. “Should I put the meadows along the water to the plough, if I can find seed? They’ve been grazed, but we’ll not have sheep in numbers for a few years yet.”

“If those meadows are like the Ti’ach’s, they’re wet,” I said. “Better leave them to the sheep, and plough better drained land, if you can.” He’d be late getting the barley in, but it needed only three months to be ready to harvest.

Empire’s Reckoning

It’s two short paragraphs – but it brings the real, daily concerns of people to life.

Knowing how people and animals lived together also adds authenticity to a story. In many cases, it was in one building, either separated by a rough wall, or with the animals on ground level and people living above them. Cattle produce an enormous amount of heat, and this arrangement allowed for the animal’s heat to benefit people – and it also meant the people were right there in case of a predator attack. In this scene the character has begged shelter at a peasant cottage: 

She led me to the half of the bothy the animals occupied, the milk cow and the pigs, if they had them. Although this should be slaughter month, so the pigs might already be ham and bacon, hanging in flitches above the hearth. The byre was empty, as I had expected; what animals they had would be out foraging, but it was dry, and the reed bedding tolerably clean.

I settled into a corner, spreading my tattered blanket, which served as my cloak, out flat. I wished the cow had been indoors; her warmth would have been welcome.

Empire’s Reckoning

Here the rhythms of the agricultural year are shown to be important without bringing undue emphasis to them, and the living conditions of the people.

I could find other examples: how sheep are hefted to a hillside (hefting is a learned behaviour passed from ewe to lamb that limits where sheep will wander); how sheep and cattle were moved to market; the low value of the coarse wool of the upland sheep.  None of these get more than a mention here and there, or at most a couple of paragraphs, but they serve to create a solid agricultural basis to a world that depended on it. (Which, of course, we still all do, but most of us are so distanced from it, we forget.) In many ways, this is the equivalent of, in a contemporary urban novel, of stopping at Starbucks, or debating sushi or pizza for dinner: the details that reinforce the common rituals and experiences of our lives. In another post, I’ll look at the crops of medieval Europe and how they too influenced both daily life, and my books.

Featured image: Limbourg brothers/Public domain

* The sheep are coarse-wooled, darker than you might expect. The pigs aren’t likely pink, and they’re running loose, foraging; taller, razor-backed, bristly and dangerous. The cattle might be white, and fierce; castrated males are used as draught animals. You plough with oxen, not horses, in most cases. And the horses are ponies, shaggy and tough.

Divided Lives

How did Lysistrata, Sparta, The Lord of the Rings, and Icelandic women influence Empire’s Daughter?

Tali grinned, her teeth white against her tanned face. “Oh, there’s a problem,” she said. “Our prospective new metalworker is neither from Delle, nor newly-qualified. As a guess, I’d say our new smith brings thirty years of experience—military experience. And his name is Casyn.”

I stared at my aunt, my hands tightening on the crab trap. Maya gasped. All men left the villages at seven to enter the Empire’s military schools, spending their adult years serving in the army. In retirement, they raised horses or grew grapes or taught in the schools, finishing out their days with whatever part of their regiment had survived. Twice a year, war and distance allowing, they came to the villages for Festival, to be provisioned, to gather food and cloth and wine, to make love and father children, to give and carry messages. Festival lasted a week, and then they left. This pattern had shaped our lives for generations.

I shook my head. “But he can’t.”

Can you imagine a society where men and women’s lives are so divided? But this is the society into which my protagonist Lena has been born, and it’s all she knows. Readers ask where this idea came from.  There isn’t a simple answer, but I’ll do my best.

History is one source. The idea of male children being taken at seven into military training is from the social structure of the ancient city-state of Sparta, where exactly that happened.  Spartan boys were basically cadets until age 20, when they took on greater responsibility in the military; they could marry at 30, but did not live with their wives, but stayed with their military comrades in barracks….and that was the germ of the idea of the men and women living almost completely separate lives, except for a couple of weeks each year.

Icelandic and Viking women, where women frequently were completely responsible for farming and fishing and all the other work while the men were at sea, either fishing (Iceland) or raiding (Vikings) was another source.  The apprenticeship of girls at twelve to a trade is simply based on long practice throughout much of the world.

Woman blacksmith – England ca. 1915 – 1920

I must tip my hat, too, to a book with a similar societal structure, Sheri Tepper’s The Gate to Woman’s Country. In her book, set 300 years in the future after nuclear war, a society has developed where women and children live in towns with a few male servants; most men live in warrior camps beyond the town walls. I read The Gate to Woman’s Country about five years before starting Empire’s Daughter, and it was definitely a direct influence.

In Empire’s Daughter, we learn that this division of men and women’s lives came about due to a disagreement between men and women about the expansion of the Empire. Villages were governed by a council of three women, the men being away too often for war. When the Emperor asked yet again for men to fight, the women had had enough, forcing a country-wide assembly resulting in the partition of their lives, known from then on as the Partition Agreement. Here I was tweaking two ideas: Aristophanes’ play Lysistrata, where women withhold sex until the men stop fighting, ending the Peloponnesian Wars, and, the Ent/Entwives conflict in The Lord of the Rings, where a similar wish for exploration vs a settled life leads to the sundering of the lives of male and female Ents.

This way of life is not without its costs, and some of those are made evident in Empire’s Daughter, and over the rest of the books in the series, as war and peace bring new challenges and new ideas.

More on this divided life, on the idea of twice-yearly Festivals, and on partnerships between men and women, in future posts.  

By the way! Subscribers to my newsletter are getting a monthly instalment of a story about how the Partition Agreement came about, a prequel to Empire’s Daughter set several hundred years earlier.

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