The Importance of the Horse in Medieval French Farming


The horse, at least in medieval times, was seen first and foremost as a military tool, it wasn’t until the eleventh or twelfth centuries that another purpose was found for it. Its use in agricultural production was in part the cause of a medieval agricultural revolution.

The introduction of the labour-horse in medieval France:

It isn’t very clear, however, as to when the horse made its debut in the French lands as a tool of labour. Evidence for the period is lacking, and that for agriculture is even scarcer. For example, certain sources mention the use of horses working ploughs and fields while others do not. It is mentioned that at the Council of Clermont, 1095, Pope Urban II placed under the protection of the Peace of God “oxen and plough horses and the men who guide ploughs and harrows and the horses with which they harrow”. This source was taken from Orderic Vittalis, who, although very credible on many accounts, wrote at a later date from that of the Council. Closer to the period, there were no mentions in the royal charters of Philip I of horses used as agricultural tools, in fact, the old method of oxen was still the primary way to plough. Either way, by the thirteenth century, the horse drawn plough was in widespread usage.

The evidence is very scanty at best, and it is commonly agreed by historians that the introduction of the horse differed from farm land to farm land. Richer peasants, or landowners depending on the region, may have introduced them earlier to increase production levels. In addition, it seems that other factors weighed on their introduction, the use of iron, both for the plough and the hooves, and the development of a new harness. It also seems that agronomists of the day argued over their efficiency. Some stated that they cost more than oxen to operate, while others favoured their increased production levels. Either way, until further evidence is unearthed, the current state of our knowledge in the widespread use of the horse for agriculture means is very limited.

The effects of the horse on French agriculture

Once introduced as an agricultural tool, the horse quickly changed the landscape and the production from most farms. First and foremost was the increased planting and growing of oats. Oats were needed to feed the horses, both those of the lord, who requested oats as a means of payment, and those of the farmer, who needed to feed his new agricultural implements. Oats were not the only change brought by the horse’s introduction, increased productivity and greater yields in crops were also signs of the changing times. It seems the greater endurance and pulling power of the horse favoured ploughing in the heavier soils of Northern of France where the horse was more abundant on farms.

This period in French history witnessed a growth in population, in certain areas a great growth, which entailed a demand to feed the people. The introduction of the horse as a tool in agriculture was a means of fulfilling this need. It helped to increase the yields of crops and to reduce the labour of the peasants, thereby freeing them for other activities. Until further evidence is uncovered, however, it is foolish to state that this was begun solely because of the introduction of the horse.

It is, in history at least, important to realise that one event or development is not the only reason for another development or event; each has a myriad of sources and an infinite effect. The introduction of the horse, along with many other factors, was nnetheless an important cause in the new look of French society and landscape.