When we enjoy entertainment or festivals that celebrate medieval life and times, it is the life of royalty, traveling bards, monks of knights that are most often the focus of our attention. Few of us would want to celebrate the lives of peasants and surfs during the middle ages. There is good reason for that. There was little to celebrate about the harsh life poor people endured during this time in history.
For the poor, the dark ages really did not end in the way that it did for wealthy landowners, merchants and high ranking clergy during medieval times. It is not an exaggeration that the life of peasants was a constant struggle to survive. That struggle meant a daily life of hard work, harsh taxes and a lifestyle that was filthy and full of dangers of all kinds for themselves and for their families.
Because peasants were the very bottom rung of medieval society, they were under the harsh authority of just about every other rung of society. They had to work the land of the Lord who owned it and then pay rent for working and living on that land as well. Peasants were required to swear an oath of allegiance to their Lord and to violate that Lord would bring harsh if not fatal punishments. To fulfill that oath, peasants had to do just about every kind if difficult manual labor imaginable including plowing the fields, planting and caring for crops, harvesting corn and other produce, storing it in barns and cutting and storing wood for the winter for themselves and the Lords who owned the land they lived on.
The level that those in power exploited the peasant class during medieval times was truly appalling. In addition to coping with staggering poverty, peasants had to pay stiff taxes to their Lord and to the church in the form of the “tithe”. Often peasants had no money for their tithes so they paid them in the form of the produce they grew on the land they rented from their Lords. The Catholic Church realized such huge returns on the tithes from the peasant class that they had to build massive barns to hold all of the product that the peasants paid in.
Daily life for peasants was a constant struggle for the basics of health, water and comfort. Their houses were called “crunk houses” and they were made of very basic materials such as straw, mud and manure. There was no glass or wood for doors and windows so those openings were covered with curtains which meant that the house was cold in the winter or stiflingly hot in the summertime.
Furniture was a luxury for a peasant family so life took place on the floor. There were no toilets so usually a single bucket was used that was emptied each morning into the nearest stream or river. If the family owned animals, they were brought into the house at night as well. It was too dangerous to leave the animals outside at night as they could be stolen or killed by wild beasts that roamed the countryside without restriction.
This lifestyle was filthy and uncomfortable at the least. Water was a tremendous premium so usually a small amount was carried to the home once a day and it was used for cooking or any cleaning that needed to be done. Water was retrieved from the same river or stream that the refuse was emptied into the previous morning. And since everyone in the village had the same habits, the likelihood that the family drinking water was contaminated was high. Peasants had no resources for bathing or maintaining the minimum of what we currently consider to be hygiene, which meant that disease and death were rampant.
Small wonder that few movies or medieval fairs focus on the lives of peasants during medieval times. But it is good to take a few moments to realize that life during the highly romanticized medieval period was neither romantic nor luxurious for the majority of the populations of that era.