Contrary to the romanticized modern day depiction, the middle ages were quite a difficult and mundane time for the ordinary villager. Village life in the Middle Ages was marked by days that generally involved toiling in the fields and an occasional village celebration where both the lords and peasant would take a break from their work.
Middle age villages were made up of agrarian societies and most of the people’s day to day activities were based around an agrarian system. Dug up fields and extensive pasture surrounded the clusters of villages, animal sheds and barns that dotted an area.
An important aspect of village life was security and safety, which was derived from a lord and the communities that formed the village. As such, people tended to live close to one another and their homes had close proximity to the church and their farms. Each village was isolated from the next and most people would grow old and die without venturing out to other villages.
The king and the local lords had tremendous influence over village life. The king would offer land grants to local lords and church elders who would in return persuade village men to sign up as soldiers to fight the king’s battles. Village life featured some semblance of hierarchy with the feudal chiefs and lords at the top and the serfs or peasants at the bottom. The latter would offer manual labor by working in the “demesne” or the lord’s land, and the lord would pay the peasant and offer him and his family protection.
People in the villages were categorized into those who owed labor to the lord and those who were free men. Nevertheless, both free men and those who owed labor (also known as villeins) were constantly busy. Entire families spent their time in the outdoors working, dressed in simple clothing and living off simple diets.
Collaboration was a cornerstone of village life in the middle ages. Due to the threat of war, disease and famine, villagers worked together to guarantee survival for the village. Due to the imminent threats of war, disease and famine some villages did not last too long, while other lasted for many years. Also, in spite of the absence of clear boundaries, villagers seemed to know where their own village ended and where the next one began.
Village life hardly remained the same for too long, because the Middle Ages saw some of the most tumultuous times in human history. As days went by, villages grew larger and people began to migrate to the cities to engage in a more vibrant commercial life.
Village education was admittedly very meager. The church played a great role in teaching young villagers how to write and to read the Bible in both English and Latin. The church and state worked in tandem and most rulers of this time relied on the church to deliver education to the people in the form of schools that were integrated to the church infrastructure.
Although education was generally free, the village church mostly focused on educating boys. Only girls from privileged families could attend school but for a few courses.
In the village schools, the main subjects taught included mathematics, grammar, astronomy, Philosophy and rhetoric as well as Latin. The sources of information available to them were limited. Students generally sat on the floor and they would use ivory or bones to scribble notes on wooden surfaces.
Importantly, those who looked to become knights in the king’s army had to obtain education to eschew the embarrassment of being illiterate. At the age of 14 or 15 students who wanted to pursue higher education would do so and proceed to university. The universities would usually be in the major cities. During graduation, scholars would don a gown and cap- apparels that are used in today’s graduation ceremonies.
Commerce in the villages was obviously not as robust as it would be in the cities. The mode of exchange was largely based on barter trade of agricultural products. The villagers had market places that were characterized by animal and human traffic and noisy exchanges between merchants and buyers. Market days were perhaps the only time that people from different villages extensively interacted with one another.
Young people in the village learnt specific skills through apprenticeship. The youth would rely on people such as the village lords and other village elders to learn a set of skills. The process of apprenticeship was long and demanded a lot from the learner who would be examined to determine if they qualify to become a journeyman.
Journeymen would move from one village to the next as they learn their skills and make a living out of this. Most of the youth from the village wound up in the cities, looking for better opportunities, once they developed their skills. It is noteworthy that very few, if any women were allowed to take up apprenticeship for most part of the middle Ages.
Middle ages celebrations in the village were largely based on agricultural highlights for example during bountiful harvest or when the fields are plowed in preparation for the planting season. Both the peasants and the lords would get together, enjoy large feasts, and engage in pagan festivities.
Interestingly middle age village celebrations were more elaborate during the months that were prone to drought and famine. This was the period between Christmas and January 6 also known as the Twelfth day. It was also the most drawn out vacation for peasants and other workers.
The lords would give their servants drink, food, clothing and firewood. Houses would be decorated with wild flowers and when the New Year descended upon the village, people would exchange gifts and engage in more festivities.
Easter and Christmas marked some of the most important days for village life in the middle ages. During these days, villagers would exchange gifts and offer eggs to the village lord. In return, the village lord would prepare a feast for the servants.
Middle Age Health
Village life in the Middle Ages was dominated by outbreaks of diseases that would sometimes sweep out entire villages. This is in part due to the underdeveloped and virtually nonexistent health care systems. People in the village were deeply steeped in superstition and waited upon the gods and the stars to be healed. Later developments in medicine such as the availability of doctors and hospitals benefited the villagers as much as they did the city dwellers.