My Authors
Read all threads
THREAD. The East Anglian #fen basin was one of the richest and most populous areas of #medieval England... this thread explores how local communities managed the #landscape that produced the wealth that built huge parish churches - like this one at Terrington St Clement
2. There were more people making enough in the early 14thC to be liable for tax than almost anywhere else in England, and the average community was among the wealthiest n the country. So where did their money come from?
3. Their money came from the dairy cattle that grazed the fen wetland in huge common herds. Almost every household had 4 or 5 cattle &, even if it had little or no arable land, was often wealthier than an upland farmer with 30 acres of arable. How did they achieve this?
4. Their cattle fed on fen pastures exploited under common rights. You can see the commons on the map: the heads of the pins are the medieval villages & the sharp ends are the commons, each exclusively grazed by cattle belonging to men w/ common rights in each group of villages
5. These wetland pastures produced ‘fen hay’, a mixture of grasses with up to 50 species in each sq.m. It was so rich that it was said that it would fatten the scrawniest beast within a few weeks. The dairy produce of each herd (& meat, leather, oxen) underpinned peasant wealth
6. But this wasn’t the Garden of Eden. It needed careful management to ensure both quality & sustainability (of which more in a moment). So each group of commoners met each spring to decide the details (bylaws) for managing their commons over the coming year. Here are examples
7. Bylaws weren’t necessarily written down each year & lots of those that were haven’t survived. While some *can* be found in manorial court books, they weren’t actually manorial business, & many were recorded in the court books of the commons themselves.
8. So one tends to find sporadic records, usually brief. They have so much detail that it’s hard to know what they mean. They don’t explain the reasoning underlying the bylaws - probably because they all know it so well that they don’t need to write it down. Can it be uncovered?
This had me stumped for a while. One day, in an idle moment, I tried turning this example from Rampton into a calendar - and lo! a pattern emerged: the pasture was always closed to grow grass immediately before the dairy herd was let in to get the ‘first bite’. And there was more
10. The Rampton commons all lie below the 5m contour (see the OS map) which was more or less the level reached by the winter floods in the medieval wetlands (before fen drainage in the 17thC). The further N one went into the fen, the lower the land so..
11. So Hempsall was flooded earlier & for longer each year than the Old Meadow, & that partly explains the timing of the rotation of the animals around the commons. But the commons were also used for growing hay to feed the beasts over the winter so that had to be factored in too
12. So if one represents this pictorially the calendar year looks like this ...
13. And the rest of the year here. What these timings reveal is..
14. are the many factors fen farmers had to take into account in managing the complex interactions of stock, land & water.

(A) The browsing habits & dietary requirements of different groups of beasts -
(B) at different times in their life cycles
15. And (C) the purpose(s) for which each group of animals was kept - dairying, traction, meat, sale at market etc.

16. Medieval cattlemen needed to understand the soft soils and grasses of the wetland landscape : the minute variations of underlying geology, ground cover and carrying capacity of the wetlands, each affecting the quality of the grazing
- wetland soils can be damaged permanently if cattle trample it too early in the year
- fen grassland can’t be grazed without a break. It needs discrete periods of rest to allow the grass to recover its nutritional value
- and the character of the pasture varies by season
18. And stocking capacity matters too - even today fenland needs ‘just the right level of grazing (neither too heavy nor too light). Light early summer grazing by traditional breeds of cattle is usually ideal’.…
19. And that wasn’t the lot they had to take into account. There’s more!
20. The water. Don’t forget the water. The richest pastures were those that lay below 5m above sea-level and were flooded each winter...
21. Winter waters protected the grass from frosts and, properly managed, could produce a rich crop. But there were risks.
22. Submerged, dormant grassland still needed oxygen - so the water covering it needed some movement, however slight. Luckily in fenland it was on its way, however slowly, to the sea, so that condition tended to be met. Mostly.
23. Once the air temperature rises above 5 degrees C the grass begins to grow the water must be let off - then, as @westyeo explained in 2014, there is a ‘key window of 21 days’ within which the waters must be removed & after which the grass begins to rot.
24. The risk that floods might come out of season &/or stay too long was a serious one - so medieval fenmen built canals (lodes), catchwaters & ditches time manage that threat
25. Bylaws were discussed each year so that minor adjustments could be made to timings & stock management in response to conditions that might variety from one year to the next - weather conditions, the health of the beasts, local & national market demand, etc.
26. I had no idea when I first looked at bylaws for commons that they would reveal such a sophisticated, coherent, complex, and holistic expertise in medieval farmers. My idle play with a calendar was key and shows how the simplest things have the potential to unlock a puzzle.
27. All this is explained less breathlessly and supported by detailed evidence in 👇. END
😝 #ginoclock
Missing some Tweet in this thread? You can try to force a refresh.

Enjoying this thread?

Keep Current with Prof Susan Oosthuizen

Profile picture

Stay in touch and get notified when new unrolls are available from this author!

Read all threads

This Thread may be Removed Anytime!

Twitter may remove this content at anytime, convert it as a PDF, save and print for later use!

Try unrolling a thread yourself!

how to unroll video

1) Follow Thread Reader App on Twitter so you can easily mention us!

2) Go to a Twitter thread (series of Tweets by the same owner) and mention us with a keyword "unroll" @threadreaderapp unroll

You can practice here first or read more on our help page!

Follow Us on Twitter!

Did Thread Reader help you today?

Support us! We are indie developers!

This site is made by just two indie developers on a laptop doing marketing, support and development! Read more about the story.

Become a Premium Member ($3.00/month or $30.00/year) and get exclusive features!

Become Premium

Too expensive? Make a small donation by buying us coffee ($5) or help with server cost ($10)

Donate via Paypal Become our Patreon

Thank you for your support!