They were poor. They did all the menial work. They made up more than 90% of the population. No, I’m not talking about students, not even my hard-working year sevens. I’m referring to the peasants of medieval Europe.
Image kindly provided by http://retrokat.com/medieval
Even in such a lowly group, there were variations in status. Some were free and some were serfs. A serf was like a slave but not quite a slave. My beloved Shorter Oxford (which I carry around in my pocket on my i-Pod) describes a serf in this way: “a person in a condition of servitude or modified slavery”. According to this tome (which in its book form would weigh down even the healthiest peasant), the powers of the master were “more or less limited by law or custom”. You can see that the writers of the Shorter Oxford, being learned types, don’t want to be too specific.
In any case, I doubt whether such precise meanings would have mattered much to the peasants. When you are nearly a slave, but not quite, the finer distinctions might not concern you. (The word “villein” is also used sometimes as a synonym for serf.) Servitude meant that the serfs were subject to the will of the lord of the manor; they could not leave the manor without his permission. They were subjugated, they were poor, they were often hungry; to get through each year would have required unimaginable struggle, grinding toil and, I assume, a fair bit of luck.
Hunger was a constant danger, starvation a real possibility. According to Lacey and Danziger, the writers of The Year 1000: What Life was Like at the Turn of the First Millenium, July in England was the toughest month for the poor to get through. The spring crops had not yet matured; the midsummer harvest produced hay for the animals and nothing for the humans. This time was referred to as “the hungry gap”.
Yet there were some healthy aspects of their lifestyle. They had a very healthy diet, if only they could get enough of it. They lived on a pottage (like a porridge) of grain and vegetables, into which they dipped the hard, coarse and often stale flat bread that they baked. No soft, fluffy bread for them: their bread was a little like a pita bread or nan, but tougher and coarser. The pottage served to soften the hard, stale bread and make it edible. The bread was also used as an edible plate, called a “trencher”.
A detail from the beautiful 15th century Book of Hours (in the public domain from about.com) called Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry. This shows October – tilling and sowing.
One of the healthiest aspects of their diet was that they had no sugar. Until the 17th century, when sugar was brought back from the Caribbean, no one in England had sugar. Honey was so precious that it was sometimes used as a currency. Imagine a life without sugar! But at least it meant they experienced almost no dental or jaw decay. The skeletal remains of the Anglo-Saxons in the year 1000 show that they were surprisingly tall, with excellent teeth.
Below are some extra details about their lives, with some websites for you to explore. Don’t work too hard. I don’t want you to feel like serfs.
On the other hand, I’d quite like to feel like a lord…
Did you know…?
Medieval peasants worked long hours, produced most of the food and paid most of the taxes. If you want justice, don’t expect to find it in the medieval world.
Peasants’ cottages had dirt floors and walls made of mud and straw. There was no glass in their windows and their animals often lived with them.
Fleas were common. People expected to have them.
Many peasants died in the winter from hypothermia.
Outer clothes were rarely washed but wood smoke acted as a kind of deodorant.
It has been estimated that 20% of women died in childbirth (this would not have varied much from peasants to the wealthy, presumably). Infant mortality was also high.
CLICK ON THESE SITES TO DISCOVER MORE…
General details of peasant life:
A village street of the Middle Ages: Click on the characters in the street to discover the range of people in medieval life:
Peasant life and housing with pictures of cruckhouses: http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/medieval_peasants.htm
Now that you have read all that information about peasants, leave a PARAGRAPH comment in irreproachable formal English, answering two or more of the following questions:
1) Read up on the people in the medieval village and think about the advantages and disadvantages of each person. Who would you most like to be and why…. a trader? A peasant? A lord?
2) Which part of being a medieval peasant would you find the hardest? (Think about what you would miss most: Facebook? Warmth? Abundant food? Luxury? A soft bed? PSP? Sugar?)
3) Based on the research you have done, name one modern object/idea/thing you would give a family of medieval peasants (e.g: electricity or a television).
4) Now imagine you could only give the family one medieval object/idea/thing. What would you give them? (e.g: A cow? A new church?)
Make sure you include WHY you think this is the most important thing a medieval family of peasants needs!