chapter  2
The Progress of The Plough
Pages 30

The medieval farming scene was both remarkably extensive and remarkably varied. Light loams, because of their advantages of fertility and greater ease of cultivation, were preferred by medieval farmers, but the limited areas of such soils, and the pressure of demand for land, forced many to resort to much less favourable land. If possible, however, they shunned intractable heavy soils tha t demanded large ploughteams and were difficult to work except in ideal weather conditions, electing rather for the lighter boulder clays that, if founded on per­ meable rock, gave adequate drainage. Thin, sandy soils were avoided, too, because nutrients leached out, and farmers rarely had sufficient dung to keep such ‘hungry’ soils fertile. Nevertheless, in the centuries before 1300 the demand for land was such as to force farmers to accept surprisingly bleak and unfavourable situations, taking the plough to some land which, after the fourteenth century, was destined never to see it again: to the brecklands of the Suffolk-Norfolk border, the Cotswold plateau and even the windswept wastes of Dartmoor. Not a few undertook the back-breaking work of clearing an intake of forest merely to obtain a little grazing and some meagre returns of grain from the poor soils that generally made up forest lands. Large parts of the forested areas, however, were strictly reserved for hunting, and medi­ eval people lacked the means for dealing very effectively with swamps such as Sedgemoor and Otmoor, much less the vast inundation of the fenlands.