Peasants in the middle ages were mainly agricultural farmers who worked in lands that were owned by a lord. The lord would rent out his land to the peasants in exchange for economic labor. Peasants were tied to the land and were not allowed to move away from the land or change their profession unless they became freemen. To become a freeman a peasant would have to buy a plot of land or pay dues to the lord.
In addition to the labor that they provided the lords, peasants in the middle ages also contributed some of their agricultural produce to their masters as a form of payment. Approximately nine out of ten people in the middle ages were peasants and only a few of them were not bound to the land. Nevertheless, the freemen also paid some form of rent for living and working in the lord’s manor. Large majorities of peasants were villeins and serfs; in theory, the villeins had more rights when compared to the serfs and fewer obligations to the lords. However, in reality there was almost no difference between them.
Within the feudal structure, peasants would generally be grouped into farmers and craftspeople. The farmers spend their time working in the fields. After paying their dues to the lord, they would keep the rest of the produce to be used by the family or to sell. Peasant craftspeople were trained in their profession by their parents who were also undertaking the same craft. Alternatively, they would learn the skills from other crafts people as apprentices.
The goods that they produced were mainly for sale; they would use the proceeds to cater for costs such as taxation imposed by the lords who owned the land in which the craftsmen lived with their families. They also used these proceeds to purchase food from the peasant farmers. In addition to developing goods such as pottery, leather and ironwork, they also helped in repair work around the villages and in the towns.
Peasants had very few possessions. These included domestic furniture such as wooden bowls, spoons, pot, cups, stools, benches and their tools of trade. It was not common to own a bed and most of the time the peasants slept on the floor on mattresses made from straws.
They also had little in the way of clothes and usually slept in their work apparels and covered themselves using animal skins. The lady of the house would assist in the craftwork or she would tend to the children and the small garden behind their home. Although most peasants lived in the village, some lived in the towns and commuted to the farms they had rented, daily.
Peasants in the middle ages lived in small and dark homes that were close to each other within the walls of the village. The house windows were built with security in mind; they were small with shatters made from wood.
They lived in close proximity to each other for security given the numerous barbaric wars and conflicts that characterized the Middle Ages. When not working, they would spend time within their small quarters. They rarely ventured out to other villages and most peasants would be born, married and die within the same village.
Peasant males usually clad in tunics and stockings while the females donned lengthy gowns with tunic and covered their hair. The women were generally in charge of mending clothes for the entire family and they would spend endless hours producing fiber for mending these clothes. The peasants were not used to cleaning their outer clothes but regularly cleaned the inner wears.
Although peasants worked hard in the farms or with their craft, they enjoyed several holidays. In total, peasants worked for 260 days, and the other days were spent in religious and non-religios festivities. They hosted festivals during the planting and harvest times and offered burnt sacrifices during the frequent famines that would destroy their crop.
Religion played a significant role in the life of the peasant. Before the 10th century that saw the dawn of tyrannical governments and kings, the Church was the predominant source of authority. The Church established stringent laws and the peasants were keen to uphold these laws. However as the role of the church grew and sometime became overbearing the peasants began to resent the clergy.
They would indeed look up to the church to provide them with solace and also basic necessities such as food and housing, especially for the poorest peasants. They also looked up to the church as a source of knowledge and often sent their children to the church school to study religion or Latin. Most peasants religiously observed occasions such as Mass, Holy Communion and baptisms.
The peasants’ revolt served to emancipate the peasant from the hardship that he was facing working in the lord’s manor. Following this plague, there were very few peasants to work on the lord’s manors and the lords were desperate to keep the ones that they had working for them.
Peasants in the middle ages saw this as an opportunity to ask for better working conditions and wages. Peasants began to move from one manor to another looking for a lord who was willing to pay higher wages. This movement threatened the foundation of the feudal system, which required the farmers be bound to the land that they toiled. Interestingly it was the lords who were encouraging farmers to move from one land to another as each promised to pay higher wages than the next lord.
The government in England moved in to stop this movement and to maintain the feudal system by imposing the 1351 Statute of Laborers. This legislation prohibited lords from paying peasants more than the normal wages and prohibited peasants from moving from their villages. The government in England also imposed the Poll Tax for a third time, causing the lords to raise taxes paid by the peasants. The earlier statute and this poll tax aggravated the peasants who under the leadership of Jack Straw, Wat Tyler and John Ball began a revolt in 1381.
The peasants who congregated in London demanded that King Richard I abolish serfdom, laws that prohibited the hunting of games and the use of forest, and tithes. In the end, only the poll tax was abolished and the peasants’ leaders were barbarically executed.