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Subsistence Economy A scarcity of suitable land for farming and a lack of scientific knowledge limited how much food peasants could produce. From the Middle Ages through the 17th century, subsistence agriculture, or farming for survival, was the norm in most of Europe. Peasants worked hard just to grow enough food to feed themselves and their families. They had very little food in reserve. Therefore, a bad harvest could lead to food shortages and, at worst, deadly famine (which happened on average every seven years in most of Europe’s history).
For example, Europe began to experience changes in the weather in the early 14th century, a period sometimes called the Little Ice Age that lasted until about 1850. Cooler temperatures, frequent storms, and heavy rains led to shorter growing seasons. These conditions resulted in famines throughout northern Europe. Social effects of such situations led to smaller families and later marriages. Also, widespread hunger and malnutrition likely made the surviving population more susceptible to diseases, such as the plague that arrived in 1347.
Devastating Disease During the late Middle Ages, the status of peasants did improve, though, particularly in Western Europe. Economic and demographic changes altered the balance of power between peasants and lords and contributed to the decline of serfdom.
One of the main demographic factors was the Great Plague or Black Death, an outbreak of bubonic plague. It began in 1347 and reduced the population of Europe by as much as one-third, with around 25 million people dying of the disease.
The plague basically ended serfdom in Western Europe, although in Eastern Europe, serfdom continued until the mid-1800s. It caused a severe labor shortage and thus freed many peasants from serfdom. These free peasants could move, marry, and sell their land without their lord’s permission. The decrease in the labor pool also allowed the remaining laborers to demand higher wages.
The Open-Field System Farming methods that developed in the Middle Ages continued to organize rural food production well into the 1600s. Most villages adopted the open-field system, in which farmland was divided into two or three large fields. Within each field, land was further divided into narrow strips. Individual peasant families owned or rented several strips scattered in different places throughout the fields. The fields were “open” in the sense that there were no fences separating individual plots, and the scattering of plots ensured that areas of good and poor soil were evenly distributed.
A portion of land was also set aside as common land, known as the commons. Everyone could use this land for livestock grazing. So the open- field system had some elements of private land ownership and some elements of communal land ownership. Villagers had to make collective decisions about what to grow and when. The survival of the village thus depended on community cooperation.

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