Oats and beans and barley-o... but the barons wanted wheat

Winter wheat'Farming
Winter wheat'Farming

William Kapelle, in The Norman Conquest of the North, argues that the Norman barons did not want land north of the Tees because they couldn’t plant wheat there with any certainty of getting a crop. Such was their dislike of inferior kinds of bread that Northumberland remained largely uncolonised until well into the 12th Century.

He illustrates the point with an anecdote about Odo of Champagne. Odo married William I’s sister Adelaide and was given Holderness in Yorkshire. Holderness only grew oats. When their son was born, Odo petitioned the king for land where he could grow wheat. Only wheaten bread was good enough for his son.

Kapelle identifies three bread zones in the North East, based on the observations of Arthur Young, the eminent agriculturalist, who visited the region in 1768:

l Wheat up to the Tees

l Wheat and rye from Tees to Wansbeck

l Oat porridge beyond that, or bread made from barley and peas, with wheat in more favoured places.

Conditions in the 18th Century were not exactly like those in the 12th, but Kapelle thinks the limit of wheat cultivation probably hadn’t changed much.

We can test this by reference to Boldon Book, the great survey commissioned by Bishop Pudsey in 1183. Its main difference from Arthur Young is that neither rye nor peas get mentioned. People may have grown them, but if so they were covered by the word for corn (bladum), wheat (frumentum), barley (ordeum) and oats (avena), which occur frequently. There are many references to ploughing etc, and to foods made from grain, such as ale, flour, malt and oat-malt.

Boldon had 22 villeins, each of whom paid 2/6 in scot-penny and half a scotchalder of oats. The chalder was about a ton, but varied from place to place. ‘Scot’ meant tax so the scot-chalder was a standard measure for taxation purposes. Scot-penny was a tax payable in money rather than kind, and could be more or less than one penny. Carriage-penny, likewise, was a payment in lieu of transporting bulk goods such as timber.

The villeins’ half-tons of oats were relics of the Anglo-Saxon corn and cattle renders. Some places still paid metreth, a render of one or two cows that may even have predated the Anglo-Saxon invasion. Boldon did not pay metreth. Its cattle render was limited to hens and eggs.

Certain light labour dues survived from Anglo-Saxon times, such as going on official errands or attending the bishop when hunting. But the Normans imposed week-work as well. In Boldon, the villeins had to work three days a week for the bishop.

Boldon Book for Northumberland covers only Bedlingtonshire and Norhamshire. Assuming, however, that south Northumberland was much like Boldon, we have three representative samples covering the whole of the coastal plain.

The grain renders due from the villeins of Boldon consisted entirely of oats, which was evidently their staple food. They were also liable to renders of hens, eggs and timber, and to carriage-penny of 16d.

There were four ‘obligatory days’ when the whole household, except the housewife, did reaping for the bishop and got their subsistence. Each villein also had to reap three roods of the bishop’s oats, and plough and harrow three roods of his oat stubble. Oats again. Staple crop.

The demesne farm was leased out for a rent of ten marks (£6 13 4d), 16 chalders of wheat, 16 of oats, and eight of barley.

The difference between the grain render and the rent is significant. One was 11 tons of oats, the other included 16 tons of wheat.

Wheat was a luxury crop. You could risk it failing once in a while. If the oats failed, people starved.

Bedlingtonshire had no grain renders and only modest renders of hens and eggs. All the rest were commuted for money payments, making Bedlingtonshire something of a cash-cow. But the bishop retained certain labour services, including supplying loads of timber, mowing the meadow, lifting and carting hay, making hay-ricks, roofing his hall, mending his courtyard wall, and preparing the fish-pond.

Cereal farming is vouched by references to preparing mills and mill-ponds and transporting mill-stones. The only actual mention of grain is that the free men of Nedderton, Great Sleekburn and Cambois should mill their corn (bladum) at one 16th multure, multure being the miller’s entitlement. Mills were profitable. Those of Bedlingtonshire yielded 24 marks.

The tenants of Little Sleekburn commuted ‘the toll of ale and 40 hens which they used to return previously’ for two marks. Clearly, at least some of the barley went into making ale.

No villeins are recorded in Bedlingtonshire, though there were ‘certain cottagers’ at East Sleekburn. The large-scale commutation of obligations for money prevents us from knowing what those obligations were. It may be that the existence of villeins went without saying. But rightly or wrongly, I get the impression that most people were free, or largely so, and that the obligations owed to the bishop were much as they had been in Anglo-Saxon times. The contrast with Boldon, with its heavily burdened villeins and 12 cottagers, is striking.

Norham was another cash-cow. There were no labour dues. All the land was held for cash payments. Norham itself was a borough. Its tolls, stall-fees and fines yielded 25 marks, and the mills of Norhamshire and Islandshire together yielded no less than 80 marks.

Norhamshire also resembles Bedlingtonshire in appearing to be relatively free. Tillmouth and Castle Heaton did the service of half a knight each, which suggests that the tenants were drengs who had commuted all their obligations, both military and servile, for cash. Thornton still had its dreng, and though its villeins did weekwork, this was only in the autumn.

Grindon and Horncliffe were decidedly unfree. The villeins of Grindon did two days per week all year, all or mostly at Norham. The demesne farm of Norham was leased out with ploughs, harrows, the land seeded, and the work of these villeins; but the bishop kept the meadows in hand and had the use of them for hay-making.

Each villein also rendered two hens and 20 eggs, these being the only cattle renders anywhere in Norhamshire.

Horncliffe had 18 villeins. They worked one day a week from Martinmas (November 11) to Whit Sunday, two days a week until Martinmas again, and four obligatory days in the autumn. Their burden of week-work was thus about half that of Boldon. Each villein rendered two chalders of wheat — the only direct reference to any cereal. Nowhere are corn, oats, barley, malt or ale mentioned, though the references to ploughs, harrows and mills show that plenty of grain was grown.

The render of 36 tons of wheat so far north calls for comment. Horncliffe stands at about 100ft and has a favourable climate, though no more so than Bedlington’s. The most likely explanation for Horncliffe growing wheat while Bedlingtonshire apparently did not, is the presence of Norham Castle. Perhaps the constable and his family felt it was the least they should expect for being stationed in so remote a place.