A Common Thread: The Significance of Wool in Medieval England
Students will understand how agriculture influenced and shaped culture, class, and society during the Middle Ages. Grades 6-8
- K-W-L Charts instructions
- Butcher paper or easel pad
- Student notebooks or teacher-prepared K-W-L charts, 1 per student
- Carded wool
- Wool spinning hooks
- Carded wool and spinning hooks can be purchased in a Wool Spinning Kit from agclassroomstore.com
- Feudalism Hierarchy handout for display
- Feudalism Simulation Role Cards
- Small candies, pennies, or other items of value to students
- Agriculture in Medieval England activity sheets #1–4; 1 full set per group of four students
Essential Files (maps, charts, pictures, or documents)
Black Death: a severe epidemic of bubonic plague that spread across Europe in the mid 1300s, killing almost one-third of the continent's population
feudalism: a social system that existed in Europe during the Middle Ages in which the power of the king depended on the amount of land he controlled, nobles swore allegiance to the king and in return received large tracts of land to manage, and most people worked as peasant farmers under the rule of the nobles
Middle Ages: the period of European history from about AD 500 to 1500
villein: a feudal serf or peasant farmer who lived and worked on land owned by a noble
Did You Know? (Ag Facts)
- Wool can easily absorb up to 30% of its weight in moisture without feeling damp or clammy.1
- Wool is self-extinguishing. It will not support combustion; this is why wool blankets are recommended for use in extinguishing small fires.1
- Wool is a natural protein fiber that grows from the follicles of the sheep’s skin, and like human hair, it is composed of keratin-type protein.1
Background Agricultural Connections
Throughout the Middle Ages the majority of people living in England worked the land as peasant farmers. These peasants raised most of the food that was consumed by the nation. In the late Middle Ages more and more farms were dedicated to raising sheep. In fact, English wool became well known throughout Europe for its high quality. Although much of the wool remained in England, merchants were able to export a large quantity of the product. Beginning in the 13th century, one of England’s major industries was the production of woolen cloth. The growth of the wool industry led to the expansion of cities, which became centers of trade, manufacturing, and education. The manufacturing of wool in England was an important part of European economy in the Middle Ages.
The growth of the wool industry in England was part of a greater change in which feudalism came to an end and a middle class arose. This change began in the early 1300s when a great famine wiped out nearly half a million people in England. Then there were outbreaks of typhoid fever as well as diseases that affected livestock. In 1349, a terrible plague known as the Black Death swept the nation, killing over half of its population. There was no cure for the disease. Nearly everyone who contracted this highly contagious plague died within four days. With the loss of so many people, and particularly peasant laborers, labor became highly valued. People were motivated to relocate. A “commoner” culture with an attitude of sensibility took root and began to exert a great influence over the court and higher culture throughout England. Most importantly, great economic changes occurred as a result of the Black Death.
From the period of Norman rule (1066-1154) until after the Black Death, England’s economy was based entirely on agriculture and the export of some raw materials, including wool. The Normans brought with them the feudal system, which depended upon agriculture for success within the hierarchy. Although the king was at the top of the feudal pyramid, his standard of living depended upon the size of the land area that he owned and controlled. Next in line were the nobles. These landholders demanded rent from tenants, called serfs or villeins, who ranked lower on the social ladder. The villeins received a very small portion of farmable land, which was often inadequate to grow enough food to meet the needs of their families. Villeins were not only required to pay a portion of their crops as rent, they had to perform duties for the “lord” on a regular basis. Taxes and numerous fees were also required. Annual head taxes were paid, and often the lord would demand revenues whenever extra money was needed. Indeed, the villeins were bound to the land they farmed with little opportunity for improvement in their lives.
The Black Death, however, provided an opportunity for villeins to change their dire circumstances. With the shortage of laborers, the nobles became desperate to find people to farm their lands. Although the villeins were viewed as slaves and bound to the land, many took the opportunity to flee and find better employment. The loss of the villeins caused wage labor costs to rise, incurring great expense to the nobles. Food prices also fell due to lower demands. In response to these circumstances, the noble landholders did two things. First, they converted all their property to rented lands. By 1500, practically all land held by nobles was rented out. Second, nobles stopped growing crops and used the land for grazing sheep to produce wool. This practice was called “enclosure” because sheep were being enclosed on the land for grazing. This shift from using the land for growing crops to raising sheep rapidly grew and became quite lucrative throughout the late 14th and 15th centuries.
The increase in wool production brought England to the forefront of European commerce. Rather than collect money from exporting wool and then have importers pay to have it fashioned into cloth, England began producing and exporting woolen cloth. By the end of the 15th century, England had become the major manufacturing commercial power in Europe because of the growth in the cloth industry. This conversion of England’s economy to a manufacturing and commercial economy in the 14th and 15th centuries contributed to the growth of the “commoner” culture, or the middle class. These commoners were able to gain wealth not only through trade and manufacturing, but often as renters on agricultural land as well.
Interest Approach - Engagement
- Create a K-W-L chart (see the K-W-L Charts instructions) on a large sheet of butcher paper or an easel pad that will be posted in the classroom and referred to during class study of the feudal system.
- Explain how to make and use a K-W-L chart. Have students make their own Feudal System K-W-L Charts or distribute one that you have prepared.
- Have students fill in the “K” column with everything they already know about the feudal system in England (this will help activate prior knowledge).
- Then have students fill in the “W” column by predicting what they think they will learn about the feudal system (this will help them focus on key ideas and set their purpose for learning).
- Post the class K-W-L chart previously prepared on butcher paper. Have students share their responses from the “K” section of their K-W-L charts and take turns writing their ideas on the paper. Discuss student responses. Do the same with the “W” section of the chart.
Activity 1: The Rise of Wool and Fall of Feudalism
- Show students a sample of carded wool. Explain that this product was responsible for the growth of cities in Medieval England.
- Share with students information about the feudal system found in the Background Agricultural Connections section of the lesson. Discuss the connections between the fall of feudalism and the rise of the wool industry.
- Explain to the students that they will be learning how to spin wool into yarn much like people who lived in Medieval England. Pass out materials for spinning wool. Each student should receive a hook and a 14-inch piece of carded wool approximately ¼-inch thick.
- Have students look closely at the individual wool fibers by feeling the small bumps or scales. The scales allow the fibers to hold together, making wool much easier to spin than cotton.
- Give each student a piece of carded wool approximately ¼" wide and 14" long. Use the instructions from the Wool Spinning Kit or this demonstration video to guide your students in how to spin the wool.
- Explain to students that they have just spun a single piece of two-ply yarn. Discuss the amount of work it would take to spin enough yarn to create a pair of socks, a sweater, or a coat. Remind students that spinning the wool is only one step in the process of creating clothing. The yarn was often dyed before it was knit into clothing.
- Have students add something they have learned to the “L” section of their individual K-W-L charts. Then have students share their responses with the class and record them on the class chart.
Activity 2: Feudal Roles Simulation
- Make copies of the Feudalism Simulation Role Cards for students. You will need 1 king, 5 nobles, and 20 villeins (depending on the number of students in your class, you may need to adjust the ratio of villeins to nobles).
- Display the Feudalism Hierarchy handout, and review the hierarchical structure of the feudal system.
- The King: Although the king was at the top of the feudal pyramid, his standard of living depended upon the size of the land area that he owned and controlled. Generally, however, the king and his family enjoyed a better standard of living than other nobles did. In order to remain in the king’s court, it was the duty of the lords to protect and provide for the king’s needs.
- The Nobles: Nobles were landholders in charge of the manor, which was a self-sufficient economic unit. They received a portion of the food produced by the villeins along with other sources of revenue. The nobles swore allegiance to the king.
- The Villeins: Villeins, or serfs, had no resources, and their needs were great. They lived with inadequate food, shelter, and clothing. Villeins were peasants who:
- did all the labor on the manor, and
- raised food for the entire manor, some of which was given to the king by the lord of the manor.
- Tell students that they will have the opportunity to participate in a feudal system in the classroom. Pass out a role card to each student and assign groups. The king will be in charge of all groups. Each noble will have 4 villeins assigned to him.
- Distribute 10 candies (or other items of value) to each person, including the king, nobles, and villeins.
- Ask each villein to pay 8 candies to their noble. This represents a percentage of the harvest and taxes required as payment by the noble.
- When students have completed this task, ask each noble to pay 5 of the candies from each villein to the king. This represents the loyalty of the noble to the king. Nobles were often required to supply the king with food from what was produced on their manors.
- Have students count their “wages” (king should have 110 candies, each noble should have 22, each villein should have 2).
- Have students share their feelings about the “wages” they received and discuss the economics of the system. Was it fair that the villeins did all the work and only received a small wage? Why or why not? If the villeins were so overworked and unhappy with their jobs, why didn’t they just leave the manor? How was the feudal system able to survive for such a long period of time?
Activity 3: Agriculture in Medieval England
- Divide students into cooperative groups of four. Provide each group with the four Agriculture in Medieval England activity sheets. Have each student choose one of the handouts—they will become the “expert” on that topic.
- Provide students time and resources to research their topics.
- After each student in the group has responded to the questions on his or her handout, have students present what they’ve learned to their cooperative groups. As individuals present information to their groups, have group members take notes. Providing a time limit helps students stay on task.
- When cooperative groups have completed their discussion, briefly discuss each topic as an entire class.
- Have students complete the “L” section of their individual K-W-L charts, documenting additional information that they have learned. Then have students share their responses with the class and record them on the class chart.
Concept Elaboration and Evaluation
After conducting these activities, review and summarize the following key concepts:
- Wool was an important agricultural product in England during the Middle Ages.
- The development of the wool industry in medieval England contributed to the end of feudalism and led to the industrialization of the country.
- Feudalism was a hierarchical system of governance used in England in the Middle Ages.
- As feudalism came to an end, life drastically improved for peasant farmers and a middle class arose.
Explore wool weaving, dyeing, and felting with your students by using the Hands-on With Wool activity.
Have students (individually or in small groups) create a job description for a king, noble, or villein and then share them with the class.