Illuminating Ephemeral Medieval Agricultural History through Manuscript Art

Agricultural History 89, no. 2 (2015), 186-199

There are objects and practices we would not know existed if we relied only on written texts or archeological evidence to piece together medieval agricultural history. These ephemeral aspects of the agricultural past are sometimes, however, captured in art. This essay explores some of the possible ways to recover fleeting history using medieval illuminations, which are hand-painted illustrations in books most often unrelated to agriculture. Unglamorous technologies, agricultural processes, plant varietals, animal breeds, housing design, and variation of agricultural practice in time and space can all be explored in medieval manuscript art. Medieval illuminations can, under the right conditions, give us new knowledge about agricultural practice rather than serving as simple “illustrations” of agricultural history known from textual sources.

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