The rural world

Peasants and landscape

Given the Mediterranean climate, the Normans encountered quite a variety of different landscapes. Latitude, altitude, exposure to dry or wet winds, soil type, and even their farming history prior to the Norman period, all resulted in a wide range of soils in the Abruzzi region of Norman Sicily.

The general trend during the Norman period was characterized by uncultivated areas, forests and waste lands gradually making way for more and more cultivated land. Land tillage, the duties paid to the lords and the customs practised by the village communities led to their boundaries being measured more accurately and marked out by natural or manmade landmarks: things like trees bearing marks, boundary stones and cairns. This demarcation is characteristic of a space that was filling up, and we also find the Norman lords encouraging the development of previously uncultivated land in places like the Capitanata in northern Apulia, or Salento in the south. Advances in drainage and irrigation of certain soils at this time further transformed the rural landscape.

By and large, the farmland was set around the village. In the immediate vicinity of the habitats we find gardens and market gardens requiring the closest attention, then fields of mixed, chiefly cereal crops, usually with two-yearly rotation alternating between fallow and cereals sown at the end of the autumn, maybe also planted with trees – vines, olive-trees etc. Lastly, the uncultivated land (incultum) and the remaining forests continued to play a role in country life, for pasture, gathering fruit and fungi, cutting firewood, the lord’s own hunting grounds…

The countryside was organized into basic units: parcels described in notarized acts, the commonest case being apparently fairly regularly shaped plots, small in size and enclosed behind ditches, hedges, walls or fences. While these documents do not provide the same information for each different area, they do show the care taken to exploit the rich agricultural potential of a region that played an active part in the overall trend towards growth in the 11th and 12th c.

If this type of landscape appears relatively homogeneous, this is also because only certain areas (Campania, Apulia) are really well documented in the rural leases; but already we also note a degree of specialization in vineyards, olive groves and cereal crops.

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