This section is from the book "The Balance Of Nature And Modern Conditions Of Cultivation", by George Abbey. Also available from Amazon: The Balance Of Nature And Modern Conditions Of Cultivation.
Farming or the art of cultivating the soil in such a manner as to cause it to produce, in the open field, crops of such plants as are useful to man and to the domesticated animals, and including the breeding and rearing of these animals, is the basis of all other arts, and in all countries coeval with the dawn of civilization. It is the most universal and the most ancient of the arts, and employs a large part of the population of almost every civilized community. The Egyptians, Chaldeans and Chinese held it in high estimation, also the Japanese and Phoenicians. The ancient Greeks practised farming, and Hesiod, supposed to have lived about 735 B.C., wrote a poem on agriculture, entitled "Works and Days." The Carthaginians carried the art of agriculture to a higher degree than other nations, their contemporaries. Mago, one of their famous generals, wrote no less than twenty-eight books on agricultural topics, which, according to Columella, were translated into Latin by an express decree of the Roman Senate.
The ancient Romans venerated the plough, and in the earliest and purest times of the republic, the greatest praise was given to an industrious husbandman, whose farm management was in general based upon thorough tillage, judicious manuring, rotation of crops, attention to cultural details, adaptation to soil and circumstances, conservation of natural aids and decimation of enemies.
When the conquering arms of Rome reached the British Islands they found the barbarous inhabitants existing chiefly upon the produce of their herds and of the chase, the inland inhabitants, descended from the Cimbri, lived in straw-thatched cottages, and knew nothing of husbandry - they tilled no ground and sowed no corn, but subsisted for the most part on milk and flesh. But those who dwelt near the coast, and particularly on that part of it now known as Kent, Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk, were acquainted with the treasures of the soil. Tacitus, referring to this part of Great Britain, says: "The soil is such that, except the olive and the vine, and other vegetables usually raised in hotter climes, it really bears all fruit and grain, and is very fertile. Vegetation there is rapid, but ripening is slow, and for both these effects there is the same cause - the excessive humidity of the soil and air " (Vita Agyic. c. xiv.).
Although Britain was first visited by the Romans fifty-five years before the Christian era, it was not till the time of Agricola, a.d. 78, that the attention of the natives was successfully directed to cultivating the soil and the improvement resulting in the exportation of large quantities of corn annually, which, during the government of Agricola, augmented the tribute which had formerly been imposed upon grain.
The Angles and Saxons, immediately after the departure of the Romans, about a.d. 450, formed a settlement in our island, and during the time they were extending their conquests over the country, agriculture must have been greatly neglected, but afterwards when Egbert, about a.d. 726, was generally hailed by the inhabitants (no doubt tired of the civil wars and hindrances to the practice of the useful arts) sole sovereign of the realm, it was practised with some success among the Anglo-Saxon population, especially, as was generally the case during the Middle Ages, on lands belonging to the Church. Swine, at this time, formed a most important portion of the live stock, finding plenty of oak and beechmast to eat. The raising of cattle and sheep, and agriculture generally, was the chief occupation. Large tracts of the marshy land in the east of England were embanked and drained and brought into cultivation. The forests were extensive, and valuable both from the mast they produced for the swine and from the beasts of the chase which they harboured. Hunting was a favourite recreation among the higher ranks, both lay and clerical. Fishing was largely carried on, herring and salmon being the principal fish caught.
The houses were rude, ill-built structures, but were often richly furnished and hung with fine tapestry. The dress of the people was loose and flowing, composed chiefly of linen, and often adorned with embroidery. The men looked upon the hair as one of the chief ornaments, and wore it long and flowing over their shoulders. Both sexes were fond of wearing gold and silver ornaments; and were notorious for their fondness for eating and drinking excessively. Pork was a favourite article of food, and so were eels, which were kept and fattened in eel-ponds and sometimes paid as rent. Ale, mead, and cider were the common beverages, wine being limited to the higher classes.
The whole Anglo-Saxon community consisted of the corls and ceorls, or the nobles and common freemen. The former were the men of property and position, and were themselves divided into ranks; the latter were the small landholders, handicraftsmen, etc., who generally placed themselves under the protection of some nobleman, who was hence termed their hlaford or lord. Besides these there was the class of the serfs or slaves (theowas), who might be either born slaves or freemen who had forfeited their liberty by their crimes, or whom poverty or the fortune of war had brought into this position. They served as agricultural labourers on their masters' estates, and though they were mere chattels, as absolutely the property of their master as his cattle, their lot does not appear to have been very uncomfortable. They were frequently manumitted by the will of their master at his death, and were also allowed to accumulate savings of their own, so as to be able to purchase their freedom or that of their children.
Norman rule was marked by the introduction of the continental feudal system into England and caused a complete change in the mode of tenure of land. From Domesday Book, compiled by order of William the Conqueror, we learn that the whole territory of the kingdom was divided into 60,215 fiefs, the half which were granted to civil superiors, while the other half were reserved for the Crown and the Church. These estates, along with all the buildings erected upon them, all the revenues to be derived from them and with a population corresponding to the size of the estate, either totally enslaved or only partially free, pledged to the payment of certain sums for protection, or in the way of taxes, and to the performance of certain services for their masters, were granted under the condition that they should return to the crown or the liege lord of the feudal tenant on the death of the latter without any heirs enjoying the right of feudal succession (escheat), or in case he were guilty of felony (forfeiture). About 1,400 of the largest fiefs were granted to Crown vassals, and as the possessions of these "great barons," as they were called, were often very large, it became a common practice both among secular and ecclesiastical tenants to subdivide their fiefs into smaller ones.
All the three grades of vassals, the great barons, the small barons, and the vassals of the great barons, were bound together by the common obligation of military service to the Crown. This last grade consisted chiefly of proprietors of middle rank, who formed the gentry or inferior thanes among the Anglo-Saxons. The greater thanes had mostly been expelled from their holdings by the Norman invaders. In addition to these three classes, the Domesday Book also makes mention of two other classes liable to military service, the freemen (liberi), and the sokemans (district liberi), men enjoying freedom in a given soke (district), but out of it slaves, the former of whom amounted to about 12,000 and the latter to 23,072. The "freemen" were for the most part composed of the old " ceorls," or free peasant proprietors, who at one time formed the main strength of the Anglo-Saxon population. Although called free they were not really so, and still less entitled to that name were the sokemans, as upon both classes it was imperative that they should perform certain services to the lords of the land in which their possessions lay, only their estates were capable of being inherited by their sons of full age.
The remainder of the ceorls had sunk to the condition of bondsmen, whom the Normans designated by the appellation of "villeins." They were a poor, oppressed class, and can scarcely be considered as having been better than the slaves, who are also mentioned in the Domesday Book.