The Hard and Dirty Life of a Medieval Peasant
The daily life of a medieval peasant in England and elsewhere was extremely difficult, long, and busy. They faced endless days of manual labor working on farmland starting as early as three in the morning during the summer months. They were responsible for tending an allotted piece of land which was either their own or given to them by the local lord who would then demand a cut of whatever they grew. Their home life was not much better. The houses of medieval peasants were small, dark, crowded, and smokey, and were often shared with their livestock.
Medieval Peasants Were 85% of the Social Hierarchy!
Dr Alixe Bovey, a Canadian medieval art historian and Dean and Deputy Director at the Courtauld Institute of Art, a college of the University of London, argues that 85% of the population during the Middle Ages can be described as medieval peasants. During this period the countryside was split into estates owned by local lords or by a religious institution like a monastery. This land in turn was worked by peasants for food, fuel, wood, and other resources. There was not one type of peasant. In fact, there was a social hierarchy among peasants.
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At the bottom of the medieval peasant hierarchy were serfs or villeins. These peasants were tied to the land of the local lord they worked or labored for. To move or get married, they had to request the permission of the lord, and to obtain the land in the first place they had to swear an oath of obedience to the lord on the Bible. In turn for being tied to their lord and his land, serfs were allowed to farm a section of his land from which they were obliged to give him some of the produce every year. Effectively, they were owned by the lord for whom they worked.
The social hierarchy in the Middle Ages looked like this, with the medieval peasants at the bottom and the lords, nobles, church, and king above them. (Simeon Netchev / CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 )
Not all medieval peasants were tied to the land or the local lord in this way, however. At the top of the peasant hierarchy were the freemen who owned their own land and could travel and marry freely. Despite their additional freedoms, they were not rich and would have often struggled alongside the serfs.
Peasants did not get this land for free, however, and were obliged to pay rent for their land and a tax to the church (a tithe). The tithe was 10% of the value of what their farmland produced every year, which was a considerable amount. This could be paid in kind (with produce from their farm) or in cash. Paying in kind could also include payment in seeds or in equipment.
As one can imagine, this tax was highly unpopular. It could make or break a family and determine how much they would have to suffer in the coming year. If they were unable to pay in cash and therefore had to rely on paying in kind, they were often forced to sacrifice things they relied on. For example, equipment. It was so common that the Church was given an overwhelming amount of produce that special barns called tithe-barns had to be built to store it all. For many medieval peasants, these tithe-barns simply acted as a visual reminder that their hard-earned farm work was going to waste.
The medieval village looked like this stone-walled one or consisted of a small number of simple mud and daub houses near the fields where most of the medieval peasants did all their work. (Pedro / CC BY 2.0 )
Medieval Home Life: Dirty, Unhygienic Busy Villages
Medieval society was largely comprised of villages which were constructed on a lord’s land. These were often unhygienic and busy. Animals would have roamed the street where a mix of human and animal waste was commonly thrown. Understandably, therefore, disease was rife and medieval England saw multiple outbreaks of The Black Death (the plague) alongside many other deadly diseases.
When one of the most disastrous outbreaks of the Black Death occurred in the fourteenth century it caused great disturbance for England’s medieval peasant population. It is said that the Bubonic plague killed between a third and a half of the entire population. Because so many peasants sadly lost their lives to the disease, when life went back to normal there were simply not enough workers to farm the land.
This, therefore, provided the peasants with some power they did not possess prior to the plague. They began to demand better working conditions and higher wages. Many were even able to advance their position in society, which brought about major shifts in the social structure of England.
Eventually, this all came to a head when the government levied a number of taxes to finance their spending. In June 1381 what has become known as the Peasant’s Revolt broke out. A large group of peasants rode to London and stormed the Tower of London . They demanded reforms from the king who at the time was the young Richard II. Unfortunately for the peasants, the rebellion was a failure, their leader Wat Tyler was killed along with several other important members. King Richard calmed the remaining peasants by promising reforms, however, he never delivered and instead dished out harsh punishments.
Women and young children were not expected to work the land as men did, although that is not to say they never helped. Whilst men’s work in the fields was difficult, women’s life at home was not much better. One of the main responsibilities of medieval women of all social classes was to produce children. This was a dangerous endeavor, at all levels but especially for medieval peasants who lacked access to trained doctors and midwives. About 20% of women died in childbirth during this period and about 50% of infants would die because of illness within their first year of life. Because of this, not only were women at great risk, but they were also frequently pregnant to ensure they had surviving offspring.
Proper schooling was a privilege exclusive to the wealthy. Instead, peasant children learned to farm and tend livestock. If they were lucky, some could become an apprentice and learn a local trade from a craftsperson. This could include a tailor or blacksmith. Young girls were taught domestic skills: how to spin wool and make clothes, etc.
In larger towns and settlements, women may have had the opportunity for a little more independence. Here it was not uncommon for women to be shopkeepers, pub landladies or cloth sellers. However, in the smaller, rural villages, women were expected to stay at home and perform domestic tasks. Some ventured out of the home and served as domestic servants in wealthier households.
Inside a medieval peasant’s home, the rooms were usually dark and overcrowded in all ways. (Dirk / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 )
Small, Dark and Overcrowded
English medieval peasants generally lived in small houses that usually had a single room. These tiny homes would be made from wattle and daub . This was a building method which involved a woven lattice of wooden beams (wattle) which was daubed with some kind of sticky material. This could be a combination of wet soil, sand, animal waste, clay, or straw.
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The roofs of these houses would have been thatched and there would have been no windows. A fire would have been lit in the center of the building. This combined with the lack of windows would have created a considerable amount of smoke, not a pleasant environment to live in.
It was not just humans who would reside within these houses. About a third of the inside was penned off for livestock that lived alongside their masters. The floor of the house would have been earth and straw. Furniture would have been basic at best, a few stools, some bedding, and cooking utensils. The sleeping area would have been riddled with bedbugs and the candles would have produced an unpleasant smell as they were made of oil and fat.
The labor of the medieval peasant was almost exclusively related to agriculture, ploughing fields, planting, and harvesting, but not entirely. ( Public domain )
Medieval Work Life
Because most peasants were farmers regardless of whether they were free or serf, daily life revolved around the agrarian calendar which was centered around the sun. This meant that the day started when the sun rose (in the summer as early as three in the morning) and ended when it began to set.
Most farmers' lives were dedicated to cultivating the strip of land that had been assigned to their family. The most common produce grown by these peasant farmers were rye, barley, oats, and peas, which could all be harvested manually with a scythe, reaper or sickle. For bigger tasks like ploughing or haying, families often worked together.
Peasants were also expected to look after their village too. This included general maintenance of roads and clearing forests as well as hedging, threshing, thatching ,and binding, all of which was determined by the local lord.
Alongside the sun, the daily life of medieval peasants also revolved around religion. Church feasts would mark sowing and reaping days when both the lord and the peasants were entitled to a day off. Peasants were also expected to provide free labor to the Church when required which made balancing the maintenance of their own farmland even harder.
Medieval justice ensured order, but petty crimes were often dealt with by the lords of medieval peasants. (Metropolitan Museum of Art / CC0)
The medieval justice system ensured there was order across England and its rules applied to those on all social levels. Whilst most law enforcement was organized at a local level because there was no organized police force, there would also have been justices of the peace who were appointed by the crown and travelled around the country administering trials for the most serious crimes.
Petty crimes would have been dealt with at a local level. In some areas, it was a requirement that every man over the age of 12 had to join a group called a “tithing,” which acted as a quasi-police force. If someone came to this group claiming to be a victim of a crime the group would summon the other villagers and pursue the criminal.
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Sometimes these petty crimes were also dealt with by the local lord. If a proper trial was set up, a jury would be appointed. If the jury could not decide, a trial by ordeal was often used to determine innocence or guilt. If this was decided then the potential criminal was at risk of being subjected to painful tasks like holding a red-hot iron or walking on hot coals. It was said that if the individual's wounds healed within three days, they were deemed innocent. If they did not, they were considered guilty and could be punished further.
To conclude, medieval peasants lived a harsh life that was dominated by hard physical labor. Their home lives were not much better. Houses were dark, smokey, and uncomfortable, not to mention overcrowded. Justice could be tough and sometimes unfair. Women faced overwhelming risks when it came to childbirth. If their infants managed to survive childbirth themselves, they were also at great risk of not making it past the age of one.
Top image: The medieval peasant off to work in the fields. Source: Demian / Adobe Stock
By Molly Dowdeswell
Bovey, Alixe. 2015. Peasants and their role in rural life . Available at: https://www.bl.uk/the-middle-ages/articles/peasants-and-their-role-in-rural-life
Davidson, Lucy. 2022. What Was Life Like for Medieval Peasants? Available at: https://www.historyhit.com/life-of-medieval-peasants/
Lumen Learning. n.d. Daily Medieval Life . Available at: https://courses.lumenlearning.com/atd-herkimer-westerncivilization/chapter/daily-medieval-life/#:~:text=For%20peasants%2C%20daily%20medieval%20life,could%20rest%20from%20their%20labors