The Late Middle Ages

During the first half of the fourteenth century, the population had reached a maximum. A population that had become increasingly dependent on grain, was hit hard by a succession of bad harvests and, in the years after 1346, by the large plague epidemic. Within a few decades, the European population dropped by almost a third. There were exceptions. In the Low Countries, the population size diminished relatively little and recovered fast. By large inputs of labor and manure, the small farmers in Flanders succeeded in getting almost incredible harvests from their tiny plots of land.

The population crisis led to a reconstruction of European agriculture. Especially the grain growing regions had a bad time. Some regions turned toward animal husbandry. An example is the Dutch fen lands, where subsidence of the soil made arable increasingly difficult and where, on the other hand, the growing towns created a demand for dairy products and meat. Elsewhere small regions succeeded in specializing on wine or other special crops. Many of the traditional grain growing regions, however, were not able to develop alternatives and here, much arable and thousands of settlements were abandoned. In parts of the Central European hills, agriculture never recovered.

In central England, a long process of change from an open field grain producing region to a sheep farming region started during this period, made possible by the growing demand for wool from the (protected) industry. Most English deserted villages differ from the Continental ones, because the English examples were not completely abandoned but contracted into a single (sheep) farm. The change from arable to pasture led to the first enclosures, in which some of the open fields with their fragmented landownership were transformed into a landscape of enclosed farms. Often the farm buildings were moved to their newly enclosed fields.