By Christopher W. Taylor
Agriculture was the most important industry in the Elizabethan economy ("Elizabethan England," par. 1). Because of this, Elizabethans were very sensitive to changes in weather. Part of the reason why agriculture was so important was that the majority of the English people lived in villages with fewer than five hundred inhabitants. Men who were farmers were responsible for plowing, weeding, sowing seeds, applying fertilizer, and harvesting agricultural products. Women, on the other hand, assisted in harvesting and winnowing (removing the inedible part) grain. When women were not doing this, however, they were usually relegated to more menial tasks, such cooking, cleaning, and sewing.
Farmers in the south and east cultivated grain and raised livestock, while those in the west and north kept sheep, cattle, and horses ("Elizabethan England," par. 1). Most farmers kept at least one cow, along with pigs, goats, chickens, and geese. Orchards of cherry, pipkin, and reinette were also common in Elizabethan England, due primarily to Henry VIII (1509-47). The most important part of Elizabethan agriculture was the woollen cloth trade. Indeed, when Elizabeth succeeded to the throne, there were four times as many sheep as there were humans. Some plays of the Elizabethan Age, such as Shakespeare's As You Like It depicted shepherds as the major characters. Landlords found it very profitable to convert their land to pasture, displace tenant farmers, and take the few steps required to raise sheep. This practice is an example of a larger trend taking place in Elizabethan agriculture known as land enclosure in which the traditional open field system was replaced by larger and more profitable farms ("Elizabethan Daily Life," par. 7).
Weaving wool first entailed washing and carding it (combing it to remove tangles). Next, the wool was woven into thread and fulled (washed), which help bind the fibers together. Most weaving of wool was done at home, where a shepherd's wife could thus earn extra money for the household .
Expeditions to the New World brought back a few new and interesting crops to England. Tomatoes were one of the first new crops introduced (Thomas, par. 1). In addition, Sir Walter Ralegh (1552-1618) played an important role in bringing tobacco and potatoes to England (Hibbert 129). Farmers, in general, however, did not start to grow these crops in large numbers until later in English history (Gately 51).
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