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How Was a Farm Run 400 Years Ago? A BBC TV Series Shows How

How did a farm work in Britain 400 years ago? This is the key question behind a 12-part documentary series I produced and directed for the BBC.

As the start of a new agricultural year approached in the fall of 2003, five experts set out to turn back the clock to find out. They had to deal with a remarkable Welsh Borders farmhouse, restored as it would have been in 1620, the reign of King James I. For the previous 17 years a historical team had worked to restore the site – farmhouse and outbuildings packed using period materials , orchards planted with fruit trees of the season and modern varieties of crops that have been sown. Now a team of archaeologists and historians have taken on the challenge of running it for a full calendar year (each program follows a month), using only tools and materials available in the 17th century.

It was my job to film them trying to put theory into practice. I knew from the beginning what I didn’t want to do, which was to do another reality show where the concerns would be, ‘could they survive without shampoo?’ What I wanted to do were programs that delved as deeply as possible into the social history of the time, and that highlighted the experts fighting with the technology of the time, not each other.

Things didn’t start out easy. To plow the main field in September we brought a pair of English longhorn oxen, Arthur and Lancelot, all the way from Yorkshire. They are one of the only working couples left in the country. Although horses are much faster than oxen, they are more expensive to feed and maintain (they need shoes for starters) and were not traditionally consumed in this country, so farming manuals of the time recommended against using them.

“If there is wisdom [injury] come to… an ox, and it grows old… then it is man’s meat… the horse, when it dies, is nothing but corpses. And therefore I think, all things considered, the plow of oxen is much more profitable than the plow of horses.” The Book of Husbandry William Fitzherbert 1534

As far as possible we have tried to follow modern agricultural texts. It was a great starting point, but they often left out vital pieces of information that were probably considered obvious at the time. That’s where practice came in and history met reality. We built a replica plow according to period descriptions and illustrations, but from the start the team had problems getting it to work.

The ground was pretty hard, and they couldn’t bite the plow, it just washed the surface. When they finally dug it out, there was a loud crack as the plow bent under the pressure. A few hasty repairs and they were back to work, finally hitting their first glorious groove. It wasn’t long before they encountered more difficulties as the stubble of the field got stuck between the gouge (the sharp iron pin that cuts the surface) and the plow (the blade that splits the land). It was a foretaste of how the whole next year would play out, an enthusiastic first effort and then back to the drawing board. Adjusting the cutter and adding more weight to the plow, their method seemed to click and the team’s faces broke into big smiles. Suddenly groove upon groove. They were uneventful, somewhat shallow in places and slow to come – since an acre is the area a team of oxen are meant to be able to plow in a day, they were seriously behind schedule – but they felt like a success.

Technique was perhaps the main watchword during the year. For most of the experts it was the first time they got their hands on period tools. They had read about them and knew the theory, but putting them into practice was something entirely different – whether digging with one of the heavy wooden sticks, using a chest or threshing grain with compost. I can remember the magical moments when Stuart, Alex, the Fonz, Ruth or Chloe stopped using brute force and let a tool do its job.

One of my favorites was when Peter ‘Fonz’ Ginn was trying to win the chaff from the wheat. He used a replica basket with frames, a bit like a large wicker plate raised on three sides. The idea is to swirl the material and give it some movement, allowing any breeze to blow the light straw. Unfortunately his wheat started flying all over the yard. Only after hours of practice, and with aching hands, did he crack it. His action became light, fluid and easy and his satisfaction was evident.

Doing everything by hand, without modern machinery, we all became painfully aware of how much time it took just to complete the most mundane tasks – whether sowing wheat by hand, plucking pigeons or building drystone. Winnowing was just one in a long line of processes required to make bread, and as the Fonz poured his now-clean grain into a sack, we realized that a farmer 400 years ago must have been an extremely talented jack of all trades simply to make ends meet.

It was not only the farmer who had to have many skills. I was surprised to learn about the vital importance of the farmer’s wife. Theirs was a substantial partnership. Without a husband, running a farm was almost impossible. Period records show how a widowed farmer usually had another wife by his side almost at all. It was a simple matter of time, work and economy. From running the dairy, brewing the beer and managing the basic kitchen garden, the housewife was certainly not a lady of leisure. Being the farm doctor was another of her roles. Since professional medicine was so expensive, she took care of the health of the household with homemade ointments, pills, and concoctions of herbs and plants from the garden.

And for you, M. Apothecary, alas, I do not once in seven years look at your shop… but for myself, if I am sick… I take natural cuisine. I make my wife a doctor and my garden a pharmacy. Robert Greene, A Quip for an Upstart Courtier 1592.

Of course, nothing was lost on a 17th century farm. The waste of one process became the fuel for another. Ashes from the fire were used to make lye, the period equivalent of Persil, a homemade washing liquid for washing clothes. Any leftover food went to the pigs, the perfect “green” disposal unit. Animal waste as today was spread over the fields, even human waste was reused. Composted human faeces were used as fertilizer and a household’s urine was stored to produce ammonia, an excellent stain remover for laundry. Actually the urine was collected on a massive scale. Pots were placed outside pubs and urine was used to make salt, a vital ingredient in the manufacture of gunpowder, a burgeoning industry at the time. At a time when “organic” and “recycling” are key environmental issues, it’s exciting to step back and learn from our past.

We filmed through torrential rain, blizzards and bright sunshine, watching the farm change through the seasons. Away from our secularized urban lives it became apparent how much the farmer then and now is ruled by the elements. Not just in the short term, but year after year, from plowing in September to harvest in August, the farmer’s life is mapped by the natural cycle. For a farmer in 1620, planning, ingenuity and skill were essential to survival. Watching the hard graft of our experts, we wondered how long any modern people would survive in this environment. Although the Valley team came from the fields sweaty, bruised and exhausted, they felt an overwhelming sense of pride in what they had achieved, a closeness to nature and a very different degree of satisfaction from a job separated from the soil.

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