Today, putting horses to work proves harder than we
might think. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
Western Europe was largely a
primitive wilderness until three centuries after
the Roman Empire's last gasp. When it emerged as a
new civilization, it did so with the help of the
new technologies of water and wind power. Europe
ultimately did far more with those power sources
than the Romans ever had.
But water and wind power had to wait until European
agriculture became productive enough to support
towns with masons and artisans -- people free to do
more than just labor for food. That, in turn, meant
we needed a more powerful beast than the plodding
ox to pull plows through the heavy, wet Northern
European soil. Horses had to be woven into
farming before a civilization could emerge.
In the mid 8th century the Frankish kings began
breeding horses for military use. But three
things kept people from using those horses in
farming: Their hooves softened and cracked in damp
soil. When they were harnessed in an ox yoke, any
heavy load cut off their wind. And horses needed a
better diet than oxen. They couldn't just graze
grass; they also needed crude protein.
The nailed horseshoe and then the horse collar had
solved two of these problems by the 9th century. It
was also in the 9th century that people found a
solution to the problem of feeding horses.
But it takes more than a solution to remove a
problem. And that's where the plot thickens.
The solution went like this: Ninth-century farmers
used two fields with one active and the other one
idle (or fallow.) That kept them from
robbing the soil of nutrients and making it
unproductive. Then someone discovered they could
use a field two years out of three if they planted
it with one crop in the fall and a different crop
in the spring, a year and a half later.
That meant farmers could break their holdings into
three fields. They could plant one with wheat or
rye in the fall for human consumption. A second
could be used in the spring to raise peas, beans,
and lentils for human use and oats and barley for
the horses. The third field lay fallow. Each year
they rotated the use among the three fields. We
remember the spring planting in a nursery rhyme
which you may've heard,
It was a fine, effective scheme, but we
took two more centuries to adopt it. While we put
horseshoes and horse collars to use right away,
three-field crop rotation meant rearranging real
estate and changing the social order. Individuals
would have to be disrupted before society could
benefit. When the shift finally took place, it meant
the rebirth of European civilization. By the 11th
century three barnyard improvements had amplified and
echoed through the medieval world. But it'd taken
three centuries to give the horse its place
and to build that civilization.
Do you, do I, does anyone know,
How oats, peas, beans, and barley grow?
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds