Peasant life in the Middle Ages was noticeably difficult. Families and entire villages were exposed to disease, war and generally a life of poverty. In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, most people across Europe were peasants or “velleins” who worked in the vast stretches of lands owned by the local lords. There is very little known about the detailed life of peasants in Europe because the lords and the clergy did not keep records of the peasants. The only semblances of early records were concerning the duties that the peasants owed their masters.
Life In The Manor
Peasants were divided between slaves and serfs. The latter were freer but still toiled in their masters’ land. The slaves lacked most of the freedom enjoyed by the serfs such as having families. Majority of the peasants worked three days a week in their lord’s land but they would work longer during the harvest and plantation periods.
Those who were full time servants would work every day of the week and would get a break to attend Mass on Sundays. Peasants were forbidden from leaving the lord’s manor without seeking permission. The condition of serfdom was hereditary and one would be tied to his master unless he saved enough to purchase some land or if he married a free person. At the end of the twelfth century, the ties that bound peasants to their masters began to loosen.
Peasant life in the Middle Ages was confined to the manors, which were vast stretches of land belonging to the lords and their families. Peasants lived in the manors with their families. The manors ranged from as little as 100 acres to manors that were over 1000 acres. Of course, the larger the manor, the more peasants who worked and lived there.
The lords had great influence over the lives of the peasants; they would determine whether a peasant would earn a living or not. Sometimes, during major festivals the lords would throw feasts and offer their peasant servants food, clothing, drinks and firewood.
The manors were divided into two: one part of the land, the “demense”, was where the peasants worked, tilled the land, planted and harvested on behalf of the lord. The peasants and their families would live on the other section of the land. The peasants would receive a larger piece of land as long as they adhered to the condition that they work on the lord’s land before working on their own.
Vast strips in which a single peasant would be required to work on, characterized the land. Other peasants would also have their own strips of “demense” to work on. However, the serfs understood that peasant life was all about collaboration and survival. The plows and horses were so few and the peasants themselves spent the entire day working in the “demense”.
Other than toiling in the fields, peasant also tended to the horses and cattle in meadows. The meadows often stretched into forests where the peasants would fish and hunt for game to subsidize the simple diet they and their families were accustomed to.
Contrary to the modern day romanticized picture of peasant life in the Middle Ages, life was generally mundane and uncomplicated. Most peasants did not do much other than working, going to church and the occasional celebration. They hardly travelled outside their villages but they did have a sense of community amongst themselves. They were also sure of the support they would receive from their lords in the event that they face hardship.
Peasant life was generally marked by having few possessions in the home. The houses were basic shacks with benches, stools, wooden cups, bowls and spoons. Most households had a chest of drawers where the family would keep their valuable items. Peasants hardly slept on beds; they slept on straw mattresses on the floor. Given that they had few possessions even in terms of personal attires, they typically slept with their work apparels and covered themselves with animal skin.
The “velleins” would construct their own tools, utensils and household furniture. The skilled ones would engage in leatherwork, pottery and ironwork and would sell some of their crafts to fellow villagers. Women spent most of their time weaving cloth through a laborious process; the clothes they wove were mostly for their own families. Women would also engage in some of the crafts such as pottery, but if they were not doing this, they would be looking after the children and tending to the family croft, a small garden behind their house.
Peasant Life and Christianity
Religion played an important role in the peasant life in the middle ages. It was from the Church that peasants would seek console when times were hard. The Church offered help to the neediest peasants in the form of food and necessities. The Church was also a source of education mainly for the peasant’s children who attended the local school that was part of the church. The peasants looked to the priests for baptism, marriage, and performance of last rites for the dying. Christianity guided the moral decisions that peasant men and women made in their day-to-day life.
Peasants were mostly illiterate and so were their children. It was not until the church and the state required that children be sent to school that the peasants sent theirs. Most of the young ones and the youth obtained skills through apprenticeship or mere observation of those who were skilled at something. Education was meager and only available to a select group of boys. The young girls helped with chores in the house and they were married off as soon as they attained maturity; this was usually at the young age of thirteen or sixteen years.
Peasant Life and Revolt
Societal and economic development saw the rapid rise of cities and towns. As the ties between serfs and their masters became lose, the peasants were able to rent land and some even migrated to the towns. Catastrophes such as the Black Death, a plague that killed thousands of peasants made it difficult for lords to find peasants to work in their farms.
The lords were forced to relax the obligations they had imposed on the serfs but they did continue to tax the peasants heavily. Tension between the serfs and their lords mounted as the peasants revolted against the harsh taxes and other regulations imposed upon them. Most of these early revolts were unsuccessful and instigators were severely punished.