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The move off chalk

By the end of the Anglo Saxon age, England was well on the way to a medieval warm period. We see today strings of linear villages along the foot of the South Downs, of East Meon is one: they developed between the foot of the downs and the river lands. By the 10thcentury open fields were laid out on valley sides and sheep pastured on the fallows, while cattle were put onto the lush river meadows in the valleys. Animals spent the day on the downland and manured the fallows when they were brought in at night.

By the end of the Anglo Saxon period most farmers had given up trying to cultivate the eroded soils on top of the chalk uplands where centuries of ploughing by the ard contributed to the erosion that is still a problem today. To plough the heavier soils of the lower slopes and the “clay-with-flints” soils on the Froxfield plateau, farmers turned to the mouldboard plough. Where the ard needed several passes in different directions to break up the soil, the mouldboard turns the earth over in a single pass, burying weeds and breaking up the clods as they fall.

The rhythm of the medieval farming year was recorded by a scribe working in the Canterbury Cathedral manuscript studio in around 1020 AD. It is now known as the Julius Work Calendar and is held at the British Library; each month is illustrated by scenes of farming activities. The year in Hampshire followed the same pattern as that in Kent.

Oxen drew the mouldboard plough. January illustration in the Julius Work Calendar, showing ploughing and sowing. © British Library

Oxen drew the mouldboard plough. January illustration in the Julius Work Calendar, showing ploughing and sowing. © British Library

The strips were ploughed in winter by teams of two or four oxen, shared between the farmers; seed was broadcast, covering a strip in a ‘bout’, one side in one direction and the other on the return journey. Sowing, weeding, mowing, reaping, threshing and winnowing were all done by hand.