Medieval Peasants

At the bottom of the feudal system were the common people, who neither had the extensive right to own properties nor a voice in feudal society. They lived around and, in most cases, worked for the manor. These common folks were alternately called peasants and a number of them toiled the fields of the nobility. Because of the harsh conditions they were often subjected to, it was not uncommon for peasants to rebel against their owners. Although not all peasants were in abject misery and some were relatively freer than the others, for the most part, Medieval peasants led difficult and brutish lives.

Medieval Serf

Serfs and Serfdom

A medieval serf had no rights and was a low level peasants who worked on a Barons Land, Medieval serfs did not own any land and could be sold with the Barons land that they were working on. Read more about the Medieval Serf >>

Medieval Villein

Medieval Peasants Villeins

A medieval Villein was very poor, in a similar peasantry class to medieval serf. Villeins had no rights and worked very hard, if land was sold the Villein would be sold with it. Read more about the Medieval Villein >>

Medieval Yeoman

Yeoman of Medieval Times

The Medieval yeoman was a large social class of such peasants who rose in social influence through the acquisition of large tracts of land. Typically, a yeoman owned at least 100 acres or more of land. Read more about the Medieval Yeoman >>

Serfdom

Medieval Serfdom Reeve and Serfs

Serfdom refers to the practice of common people becoming beholden to a feudal lord and necessitated to pay him in labour or cash in return for his protection and land Read more about the Serfdom >>


  • What were Medieval Peasants?
  • The difference between Medieval Slaves, Serfs and Freemen?
  • What Types of work did Medieval Peasants do?
  • How many medieval people were classed as peasantry and what were their jobs?
  • Did some medieval peasants have more rights than other medieval peasants?

Slaves, Serfs and Freemen in the Medieval Times

Historians divided peasants into three categories: slaves, serfs and freemen. Each category of peasant differs from the other in the sense that while some enjoyed a considerable amount of freedom, others were more underprivileged or had more duties to attend to.

Medieval Slaves

Slaves were the most disadvantaged population. They were treated as properties of the nobility they served and were frequently bought or sold like common goods. They worked hard for their masters, who owned not only the land under their feet but also the fruits of their labour. Slaves and serfs could not marry as they please. Marriage would only be valid if the landlord gave his approval.

Medieval Serfs

Serfs were common people. Though not as badly treated as slaves, they likewise did not enjoy a sufficient amount of freedom. Moreover, they needed the permission of their lord to be able to travel from one place to another. If in more than a year they managed to escape without getting caught, serfs could eventually become freemen. Small business owners may fall under this category.

Medieval Freemen

As the name itself would imply, a freeman was also a kind of peasant. What set him apart from slaves and serfs was that he had no master and was free to live his life. Freemen were not beholden to a lord or worked in his manor. In effect, they were free to enter and exit lands whenever they wanted to.

“A peasant becomes fond of his pig and is glad to salt away its pork. What is significant, and is so difficult for the urban stranger to understand, is that the two statements are connected by an and not by a but” – John Berger Peasant

Medieval Peasants - Medieval Dance

Medieval Peasants dancing to Medieval Music

Medieval Peasants – Medieval Serfs

Though they seem to fall under the same category, in reality peasants and serfs have different conceptual foundations in the Medieval vocabulary. All serfs were peasants but not all peasants were serfs. In other words, “peasant" was an umbrella term used to define the common people in the Middle Ages while a serf was one of three types of peasants, the others being slaves and freemen.

Serfs exhibited similarities with slaves but unlike the latter, they could neither be bought nor sold. They had to ask permission from their local lord to be able to leave their land. The noble owned both the fields and their harvests. Serfs could also take on a variety of jobs and there were jobs that they had to complete in a fixed period of time such as ploughing the fields. Law and custom demanded that they work on their master’s fields, consequently harvesting and gathering the crops that grew there. Peasants were also required to collect firewood, winnow grains and mow and stack hay in their home. One point that causes some confusion is that serfs could be sold on with the land they worked on but not sold like slaves.

From farmer, blacksmith and tax collector to carpenter and baker, a serf may assume any of these stations in accordance with the lord’s instructions. To some extent, as cited above, serfs were permitted to buy their freedom. Rarely could serfs actually free themselves through this method in view of their disadvantaged circumstances. Since they were mostly uneducated and untrained, serfs had to escape and hide their whereabouts for more than a year so they could return as freemen. Freemen were not tied to manors so they could come and go as they pleased. Some even managed to set up shop and become business owners in due time.

  • There were three groups of Peasantry categories in medieval times serfs, slaves and freemen
  • Serfs could not be sold but could be sold as a package with the lords land but slaves could be sold directly.
  • Serfs were better of than slaves and freemen were better off than Serfs
  • A Serf had more rights than a peasant slave and some were allowed to buy their freedom
  • A Serf could become a freeman by hiding for a year but would be severely punished if caught
Medieval Peasants working on Medieval Farm

Medieval Peasants Busy Working On a Farm

The Life of Medieval Peasants

The nobility exerted a vast amount of power over lay men and women, in England and throughout Europe. Peasants were made to swear an oath of fealty to their local lord and, thus, beholden to him in every aspect of their lives. The most important job for peasants which they had to complete at a fixed period of time was ploughing. Law and custom demanded that they work on their master’s fields, consequently harvesting and gathering the crops that grew there. Peasants were also required to collect firewood, winnow grains and mow and stack hay in their living quarters.

Life of a Peasant, Taxes “The Tithe”

The life of a peasant was riddled with tax payments. Besides paying rent to the lord, who regularly levied taxes, peasants also had to pay another type of tax “The Tithe". The tithe required peasants to pay 10 percent of their annual farm yield to the church. To complete the terms and conditions of the tithe, peasants may remit cash or send the fruits of their labour to the church. Many peasants dreaded the day they had to pay this tax, which reduced a great chunk of their income and benefited only a privileged few.

Daily Life of a Medieval Peasant

Peasants generally got up just before sunrise to say their morning prayers. The reeve, otherwise known as the manor supervisor, would then assign tasks for the day. Wives mostly stayed at home, tending to the chores (e.g. milking cows, cooking, washing, feeding livestock, weeding the garden, picking vegetables, weaving cloths or getting water from the well). Peasant children worked with their mothers and school was out of the question.

At a certain age, boys would have to join their fathers on the fields or wherever their stations were. Typical dinner consisted of stew, black bread and, every now and then, cheese. Peasants resided in wooden houses, plastered with wattle and daub, called Cruck houses, these humble peasant abodes were built by adding straw, mud and manure to a sturdy wooden frame. The life of a peasant did have its fair share of challenges. Peasants still played a vital role in the feudal system despite their apparent marginalisation. They were merely victims of an inflexible system that unfortunately lasted for many centuries. By becoming freemen, they were able to redeem themselves and raise their status in life.

Medieval Peasants & Medieval Reeve

Medieval Peasants under the watch of a Medieval Reeve

Medieval Peasants Work

Medieval Peasants worked the land and were classed as medieval farmers, some medieval peasants were fortunate enough to own a small parcel of land but most medieval peasants were just labourers. Medieval peasants were a large part of the medieval population. There were many lower class people in medieval times that made up the bulk of the population and most of them had different roles in medieval society. Some medieval peasants would have a large plot of land to cultivate for themselves such as Villeins who would usually pay his dues and offer his services to the medieval lord. Medieval Serfs on the other hand would not be granted their own land and would have to work on the Lords land usually 3 days a week and longer during busy times of the year such as harvest and when cultivating the land.

  • Peasants had to swear an oath of fealty to a Lord which was a pledge of his allegiance to the Lord
  • Ploughing the lords fields was the main job of the medieval peasant and they usually had to work to set time limits
  • Peasants although they were not wealthy had to pay many taxes called a”Tithe”.
  • The Tithe had very strict terms that insisted that a medieval peasant also give cash or produce to the church as a taxation
  • Most Medieval peasants lived in mud and straw houses that, they were plastered with wattle and daub and called Cruck houses

Medieval Serfs

Medieval Serfs were peasants who worked his Lord’s land and paid him certain dues in return for the use of land, the possession (not the ownership) of the land. The dues were usually in the form of labour on the lord’s land. Medieval Serfs were expected to work for approximately 3 days each week on the lord’s land as. A serf was one bound to work on a certain estate, and thus attached to the soil, and sold with it into the service of whoever purchases the land.

Anglo Saxon Medieval Peasants

Medieval Peasants in Anglo Saxon Times Ploughing a Field

Serfs usually lived in manors (small communities) and did a wide range of jobs that helped to improved and maintain the manors, most medieval peasants in Medieval times could be classed as Serfs. As with other lower level people in Medieval Times they answered to the Lord of the Manor and were under the Lord’s control, if they wanted to leave the Manor or get married for example they would only be allowed to do so if they got authorisation from the Lord of the Manor.

Medieval peasant Serfs were semi free peasants just like Villeins who worked on a wide range of jobs in the Manor and could be men, women and children, they worked very hard often together in the fields and provided all the essentials needed for daily life such as firewood, food, clothes etc. They maintained the buildings too, they would share the workload and use their different skills to get the job done. Serfs were also allocated small land holdings which they could work and were able to buy their freedom if they were able to save enough money, one of the greatest achievements of a Serf was to become a Freeman.

Serfs if they stayed in favour with the Lord and worked his land well could inherit the use of the land which could be passed down to sons and daughters, however they would not own the land but would have the rights to work the land. A Serf was similar but better off than a Medieval slave as he had to give around 3 days of labour every week to work a Lords land this was called a “Corvee”.

Medieval Serfd were frowned upon by upper levels in the Feudal system like Commoners, they were usually uneducated, unsophisticated unread people such as farm labourers and as a result of their lack of education and standing in society, medieval Peasant families usually became trapped in the medieval Peasant category.

  • Medieval peasants were medieval farmers who were granted land to cultivate by the a medieval Lord
  • Most Medieval Peasants were called serfs or Villeins and worked in medieval manors and villages
  • Medieval Peasants had to provide free labour, some of his produce or both to the Lord for use of this land
  • Under the Feudal system in European peasants were divided into three classes according to there social status: slave, serf and freeman
  • Medieval peasants were not well educated and were usually born in slavery, just as the nobles were born into nobility.
  • Medieval serfs had an opportunity to improve their status and could become freemen in medieval society
  • The Black death that killed a large portion of the population led to the decline of slaves and serfdom as there was not so many peasants to choose from
  • Because of a lower supply of peasants due to the black death. peasants had more choice of who they worked for and their standards of living improved.

Medieval Villeins

Villeins were at the top of the hierarchy of medieval peasants and were classed as partially free men under the Feudal system, they could own large plots of land 40 acres or more . A Villein was quite wealthy by Medieval peasant standards and could own several large plots of land which they were allowed to cultivate. Medieval Villeins had to serve the lord but apart from this they were free people with all the privileges of free men.

Cottagers – Medieval Peasants

Cottagers were medieval peasants who were deemed to be of a lower class, Cottagers did not have any land but they did have somewhere to live – a cottage – which is where the name cottager came from.

The Commoner – Medieval Peasant

Considered to be one of the lowest class of people in Medieval Times, a Commoner medieval peasant would typically own land jointly with other commoners and because they did not belong to any Nobility they were often frowned upon by other people at a higher level in the Feudal system.

Other Medieval People within the Peasantry Class

medieval-people-daily-life

Daily Life of Medieval People

Medieval Steward’s & Medieval Peasants

Stewards had very important jobs in Medieval times and were very well paid important people as they were in charge of running a castle in the absence of a Lord, the Steward was basically what we would call a deputy manager and took overall control for the efficient running of a Castle. A Lord would need to have a lot of trust in a Steward as they had to organise any work in a Castle and were also in control of the Estates money in the Lords absence.

Medieval-bailiff

A Medieval Bailiff

A Medieval Bailiff’s Role

Bailiffs were also quite powerful people who owned their own land and as such were known as freeholders. The role of a Bailiffs was one of delegation like the Stewards, but they were in charge of allocating jobs to different peasants, looking after livestock and maintaining the buildings by hiring the correct craftsmen for the problem that needed fixing, they were pretty much like modern day estate managers.

A Reeve – The Bailiffs Enforcer

Working along side the bailiff a Reeve was the representative of the villager peasants and acted as a go between. Usually a tough and intimidating character with a white stick a Reeve would make sure that work began on time and was also entrusted with keeping an eye on the workers and making sure that nothing was stolen from the Lord.

Other Medieval Peasant Workers

Burgess Medieval Peasant – A Freeman of the Borough

Was a freeman of a borough which meant that he owned land or a property within a borough. The name came from the Old French Word Burgeis which just meant the inhabitant of a town.

Labourers – Medieval Peasants

Unskilled workers who usually had physical jobs usually classed as Serfs.

Hinds – Medieval Peasants who worked the Farm

Medieval Farm workers who had important roles in growing food but where not very high in the Feudal system (See Serfs)

Medieval Peasants – Maids

There were various maids in Medieval Times such as a Scullery maid or a ladies Maids. A lady’s maid’s had to be available more or less all of the time for her mistress, usually from the time that the maid woke, the maid would help to dress and get the Lady ready for the day, she also needed to keep the Lady’s rooms and personal items clean and in good repair. The maid was basically the Lady’s servant and would usually be young, unmarried and female.

Medieval Peasants Scullery Maid

Medieval Peasants Scullery Maid is plucking a Pheasant bird

Medieval Peasants – Scullery Maid

A scullery maid had quite a hard life in that they were expected to do all the hard physical jobs in an important households kitchen, they helped the Kitchen maids and were usually the youngest members of the kitchen staff given such wonderful jobs as scouring floors, pots and dishes amongst other items .

The scullery maid would report to the Main Chef or Cook and was always required to stay in the kitchen area to keep an eye on the food and to make sure there was plenty of fresh clean vegetables available and to do other menial jobs such as scaling fish, the Scullery maid was even expected to eat in the Kitchen in fact a major portion of her life would have been spent in a busy demanding Kitchen.

Medieval Peasants – Cook

The Cook had an important role in the household and prepared and cooked the food for the Lord, Lady and people depending on the situation the Cook was in, there was not much in the way of convenience foods at the time so everything had to be cooked from scratch and cooking meals was a very labour intensive job.

Medieval Peasants – Servants

Servants were also classed as peasants, they would often work in the Manor House and carry out any duties that were needed by the Lord of the Manor Cooking, cleaning, laundering, and many different household chores were completed by servants.

In conclusions life would have been fairly good if your were a Peasant in the Middle ages if you were a higher class of peasant such as a Villein or a Bailiff as you would have had some land and a decent standard of living, however not all people in Peasantry had it so good and if you were a slave like a labourer life could have been pretty tough. We hope you enjoyed reading this article on medieval peasants, if you would like to learn about medieval peasants in even more detail please click on the images at the top of this medieval peasants page, or click the links below on medieval serfs, slaves, villeins etc

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