Proceedings 4    October 1987     in the Maison Francaise

"Medieval Forest-Its People and Technology":  A paper delivered by Monsieur Roland Bechmann of Paris.

In his introduction Dr Crombie congratulated M.Bechmann on his work in environmental concerns and on his book "La Foret au Moyen Age". He also thanked the speaker for giving his talk in English and Mme Charlot of the Maison Francaise for hosting the meeting.


M.Bechmann prefaced his paper with what was to prove an entirely unnecessary apology for the quality of his English.

The talk would concentrate on the period from the late 10th to the mid-14th centuries, during which the population of W Europe nearly doubled and forest cover was reduced by some 50%

Forests were essential to the economy of landowners, clerical or lay, and towns. Commonly regarded as no-man's land- res nullius they were state property under the Roman Empire, communal property according to Germanic custom. The term "forest” from Latin foris, "outside") denoted any area, wooded or no, barred to common use and reserved for animals of the chase. Generally neither cultivated nor grazed, most forest land tended to become wooded, hence the modern meaning of the word.

The forest in daily life and economic significance

Recreation areas for the nobles, forests were also important as sources of food and materials. Whereas today they are subject to monoculture as merely woodlands, in the Middle Ages they were richly diverse ecosystems whose animals and fruits were all husbanded. Berries and mushrooms, etc provided foods. In addition, there were: medicinal plants, and poisons; bee-products, honey and wax for candles; oil, from walnuts and beech nuts as well as in the south, olives; forage which included salt-rich fallen leaves; resin for torches, pitch and glue; charcoal from coppiced trees (40% of the weight for the same calorific yield as firewood; leaves for mattresses (beech leaves were called "wood feathers"); bark for tiles and shingles, boats and baskets; ashes for fertilizer and washing lye; leather and fur from the wild animals; horn for hunting horns, knife handles and sometimes bow-staves; dye stuffs from wild plants.

Nevertheless, wood was the prime resource, as fuel, raw material for tools and weapons (iron was used only for exposed parts) and war machines etc., and as building materials - saplings could be bent and tied to grow to desired shapes for scythe handles and building elements.

People of the Forest - Conservation, use and customs

What one might call the permanent population comprised rebels and bandits but also hermits and monks. But in times of war whole villages would take to the forest to escape marauding soldiers.

Until about 1200 in France all people in the neighbourhood of a forest were entitled to use its resources subject to strict Customary regulations – these varied locally according to the tree species, climate, soil fertility, etc. Custom aimed at good resource management. For the commoner the prime importance of the forest was a source of firewood; after this came their value as common grazing land. Customary law governed types and numbers of animals permitted and the times of year when each type might graze, the kinds of leaves that could be cut as forage. Grazing controlled undergrowth opened rides for communication and the passage of huntsmen and established firebreaks. In some parts of southern France grazing has been introduced in forest areas for this very purpose.


About 5 acres per capita was needed for food, as compared with 3 acres p.c. ca. 1900. Seed yield was very low by modern standards. Soil composition was badly maintained; manure was the chief fertilizer but malnourished cattle yielded poor manure. Farm implements were inadequate, iron being only sparingly used. Insecurity of land title discouraged entrepreneurial farming. Low yields meant bringing more land under the plough to grow food for the increasing population. New land meant clearing woodlands.


Depredations by Vikings, Magyars and Saracens - respectively from north, east and south, had impeded population growth until the 10th century when the invasions were checked. The population began a period of expansion so that in 11th-century Germany many people were actually starving because of food shortage. From about 40 million in 1000 Europe's population rose to about 70 m. in 1300. Towns began to expand. The demand for food was met by [a] improved agriculture [b) extension of cultivated area.

a] Crop rotation and the heavy wheeled plough were crucial in the improved agriculture. The horse-collar meant improving the traction power of the horse which displaced the ox in some areas. Treatises on agriculture appeared, notably in England. These improvements had relatively little impact. More important was [b] Extension of the cultivated area. More land was really the only effective solution to the demand for food. Villagers made unauthorized encroachments on woodlands while hermits "perhaps the only holy men who actually worked with their hands" (Duby) made isolated contributions. But large-scale and systematic land reclamation, chiefly woodland, was achieved by major landowners among whom the monasteries, employing hired men or tenants, were leaders.

Among lay landlords, a favourite method of land clearance was the establishment of new villages with charters offering attractive terms of community autonomy and land tenure guaranteed by charter. Elected deputies represented the community and saw to the collection of the lord’s dues from the settlers or bourgeois. The new communities (villeneuves, villefranches, sauvetes, neuburgs, bastides, etc) were important fields of experimentation in self-government. The charters sometimes offered such real inducements that lords had to take measures to prevent the depopulation of old established settlements.

The effect of these clearings on the forests was often to break them up into smaller units which came to be named after the new towns in their vicinity. Some new towns were established for security reasons, a good example being those set up on the road from Paris to Orleans as strongholds against the outlaws and bandits which had long harassed travellers and royal couriers. New towns were also founded in other waste areas such as sea and riverside wetlands (e.g. those established by Henry Plantagenet, of Anjou and England, along the Loire). Riverside woodlands, by contrast, which had grown up during the Viking period as villagers fled the waterways from the longboat incursions, were retained by royal charters of protection because their timber could be easily and profitably transported downstream to shipyard or sawmill.

Deforestation and its consequences

The woodland clearances were such an important feature of the time that commoners were, and often still are called "routuriers", from the Latin ruptura, "a woodland clearing". With more and more forest land brought under cultivation new pasture lands, meadows, had to be developed; substitutes for forest products developed, bee cultivation increased during the 15th century; bandits sought anonymity in the growing cities as their woodland refuges shrank: large building timbers had to be brought from greater distances as the great trees near towns were felled (Abbot Suger considered it miraculous to have found 12 large beams with 50 km of St Denis): the notebooks of Villard de Honnecourt stress the need for economizing in timber.

Certain forest species of tree failed outside the protected environment, being subject to disease or pest. Clearings around new towns made the forest depths more easily accessible and thus more prey to fur.