In early Middle Ages, and then in the Norman period, agriculture was the most important economic activity in southern Italy. The living conditions of the peasants were no different from the rest of Europe: although they were fairly satisfactory in the early Middle Ages, they tended to worsen with the growth in population from the year 1000 onwards. The main crops in southern Italy were cereals. During the Norman period the area of cultivated land was expanded and the boundaries between the lands belonging to each village and between estates were determined more precisely.
The Normans’ main building schemes consisted essentially of the fortification of pre-existing villages and the creation of new fortified settlements (in addition to the castles on the edges of built-up areas). A typical feature was the development of the casale (hamlet), which was in competition with the towns, also as far as its defensive potential was concerned
The vast majority of the inhabitants of the lands conquered by the Normans worked on the land. This fact helps to explains why southern Italy was only marginally involved in the new activities of an industrial type that developed in a large part of central and northern Italy. The countryside, on the other hand, enjoyed notable economic growth.
After the very difficult period from the 6th to the 8th centuries, with the abandonment of the cities and a notable fall in population, in the Norman period there was a considerable increase in the population once again especially in the low-lying areas, where vast tracts of marshland were reclaimed, allowing a revival of agriculture. Despite this, manpower continued to be in short supply in the rural areas. It was only in the 13th century that there was a problem of overpopulation, as a result of which agricultural produce was insufficient to meet the needs of the inhabitants.
As is well known, slavery had already disappeared from Western Europe in the 8th and 9th centuries. In Norman Italy, both in Apulia and Campania, there were both small landowners and livellari (tenants). The latter lived on the land they cultivated and were obliged to provide the owner with corvées (unpaid agricultural labour) and supply him with produce (usually wine). In Sicily, the normal status of the Muslim peasants was that of villani (villeins) - that is, cultivators subject to a lord, with limited freedom. Generally speaking, in the island the corvées were always more burdensome than on the mainland (by contrast, in central Apulia and Calabria only a few peasants were villani). A special case was that of the affidati: these were freemen who, with their descendants, were voluntarily in the employment of a lord (however, little is known about this practice). Their liberty must certainly have been somewhat restricted, and they must have had to do numerous days of corvée.
During the 11th and 12th centuries the system of the corvées developed, together with the evolution of the banal lordship and the growth in the population and the economy, which meant that manpower was now more abundant. It appears that work on the seignorial lands became increasingly demanding in the areas where the cultivation of cereals was dominant, totalling twelve or even twenty-four days of corvée every year.
Although the region is extremely varied from a geographical and climatic point of view, in southern Italy during the Norman period the most important crops were cereals, especially grain and barley, although millet and oats were also grown. The need to rotate the crops, with the fields left fallow every two or three years, allowed the cultivation of pulses, an invaluable source of nutrition. The second major crop was the vine, which was grown all over the area. A third feature common to the whole region was the cultivation of vegetables; by contrast, arboriculture varied from the area bordering the Tyrrhenian Sea (chestnuts) to that facing the Ionian (olives). In Sicily exotic crops, such as cotton and citrus fruit, were grown; in a number of cases they had been imported by the Arabs. As far as stockbreeding was concerned, there were few changes. It involved, above all, saddle, draught and pack horses, oxen, donkeys, pigs, sheep, goats and poultry. The only innovation was the buffalo, which made its appearance in Campania in the 12th century.
During the Norman period one of the changes involving agriculture in southern Italy was the expansion of cultivated land at the expense of the untilled land, which did not disappear, but simply became one of the elements of the landscape. Thus there was a rational organisation of space according to the potential of the land and human geography.
Rational organisation led to a more precise definition of the boundaries of village lands, which were marked by such physical elements as trees and mounds of stones. Generally speaking, mixed crops were grown within these areas, which meant the landscape was relatively homogeneous because many types of crops coexisted on the same holding. However, there were also specialized crops, such as chestnuts, hazels and olives.
The basic unit of the rural landscape was the holding, which was described in a very precise manner in numerous notarial contracts of the period. The shape of the holdings was sometimes a regular quadrilateral, while at other times it was more complex. Their surface area tended to shrink as the population increased. The uncultivated areas were not entirely uninhabited thanks to the presence of forestarii (foresters) and shepherds, with their livestock, as well as game reserves and so on.
The network of lands belonging to the village centred on the built-up area, which controlled their organisation. At the end of the 12th century, the majority of the inhabitants lived in permanent settlements, although this was a fairly recent phenomenon. In the early Middle Ages, in the Lombard lands, castra or castella, modest fortified villages, were built by the lords on low hills; in the Byzantine regions, the settlements were generally not fortified.
The Normans fortified pre-existing villages and created new fortified settlements, in addition to the castles on the edges of the built-up areas. Thus, in many uninhabited areas, for instance, in the Abruzzi, northern Calabria, southern Lucania and the Capitanata, they created a new type of settlement known as the casale. This was a small group of houses protected by nothing more than a moat. After they had been surrounded by walls, many of these were subsequently transformed into castra (this was the case with Foggia).