The world changed when a plough that could plough deep and turn over heavy clay soil was invented in the Middle Ages. Armed with massive amounts of data, researchers are now trying to document how a small technology leap turned the distribution of wealth on its head in medieval Northern Europe.
The invention of the heavy plough made it possible to harness areas with clay soil, and clay soil was more fertile than the lighter soil types. This led to prosperity and literally created a breeding ground for economic growth and cities – especially in Northern Europe.
Loose, more sandy and dry soil is more common in Southern Europe, where farmers were doing fine with the earliest functioning plough – known as the ard, or the scratch plough. This type of plough wasn’t, however, very good for ploughing the heavier, more clayey soils up north. For this reason, it was mainly the south that experienced prosperity and growth with growing cities all the way up to the early Middle Ages.
“The heavy plough turned European agriculture and economy on its head. Suddenly the fields with the heavy, fatty and moist clay soils became those that gave the greatest yields,” explains Professor Thomas Barnebeck Andersen of the University of Southern Denmark.
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