A Monthly Look at a Husbandry Book: Walter of Henley

April, a new month full of new opportunities – go on a pilgrimage! – or, if you are less of an outgoing soul – stir up some fallow lands!

Marginalia featuring a plowman on f.153v of the Gorleston Psalter.

Marginalia featuring a plowman on f.153v of the Gorleston Psalter.

Obligatory Chaucer reference: Check. Now, let’s get on with the husbandry book-related stuff. But wait: in my latest blog post I spoke of the dryness of March, and contrasted with the fecund nature of April it reminds me of… that’s right:

“Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote / The droghte of March hath perced to the roote” (The Canterbury Tales, General Prologue, ll.1-2).

To provide some agricultural background to Chaucer’s famous spring opening, let’s look at one of the most influential sources on husbandry in the Middle Ages: Walter of Henley, a monk from the West Midlands who lived around 1240-1300 (Oschinsky 145).

According to Walter, “to fallowe it is a good seasone in Aprile”. Just to brush up your field knowledge: a fallow land has been left uncultivated for a year to allow it to regain its fertility. To fallow, in Walter’s meaning, is to plough the field and prepare it for a new crop. Having a successful harvest depends on various factors, and ploughing a fallow land is the first crucial step towards the successful start of a new agricultural cycle. No wonder then, that a major part of Henley’s treatise is concerned with ploughing. Walter is adamant about the benefits of the ox-plough over the horse-plough:

“Wille you see howe the horse costeth more then the oxe [I will tell you].” (c.38) – OK, Walter, we’re all ears.

What follows is a very elaborate calculation which leads to the obvious conclusion: let’s not waste money on horses with their fancy shoes and expensive oats – cows just eat grass! Also, when your horses are old they will have nothing left but their own skin! A cow, on the other hand, can be fattened and sold for the same price as he once cost you (c.41). Ka-ching!

You're doing it wrong! - A horse-plough from the Macclesfield Psalter, f. 77v.

You’re doing it wrong! – A horse-plough from the Macclesfield Psalter, f. 77v.

After describing the perfect soil for ploughing in April: not too wet, not too dry (really, Walter, do we need a book for this?) he offers a golden piece of advice: “But he which hathe muche to doe cannot have alle the good seasons” (c.42). Meaning: a farmer who has many things to do, cannot always do them in the right season.

I wonder how well this would work as an excuse for procrastination. Plowman: “Sorry, I know it’s the season for ploughing, but I simply had too much going on, like going on a pilgrimage with my mates the Nun’s Priest and the Cook, wearing a tabard, riding on a mare. You cannot have all the good seasons, you know”.

Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales.
Oschinsky, Dorothea. Walter of Henley and other Treatises on Estate Managing and Accounting. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1971).

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