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.

Medieval Serf

Serfs and Serfdom

The daily life of a medieval serf was quite hard. They commonly had to work for three days every week on the land of their master 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 >>

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 >>


Who were medieval Peasants?

Medieval peasants were a group of people that were at the bottom of the medieval feudal system the ‘lower classes.

There were many different types of peasants during the medieval period, the most common peasant in medieval times was also one of the lowest-ranked and commonly lived and worked on the manor estate of a noble and was called a Serf.

Medieval Peasants & Medieval Reeve

Serf *Medieval Peasant

The majority of the medieval population were in the peasantry class, a Serf commonly worked in the fields of a manor estate doing labor-intensive jobs such as plowing the fields. Peasants could be free or unfree laborers within the medieval system.

Serfs were commonly tied to the land of the manor estate which meant that they had little freedom, they could not move to another location and if the land was sold the Serf would be sold with it under the same conditions.



Where did Peasants Work?

Serfs commonly worked on the land ‘estate’ of a Lord in a medieval village in the countryside, around or in the vicinity of the Lords of Manor house, who was known as the ‘Lord of the Manor’. Serfs’ usually plowed the fields and harvested crops such as barley and rye on the land of the manor estate.

Where did Peasants Live?

Peasants commonly lived in and around villages. Peasants were the most common people in medieval times. Peasants commonly worked and lived on manor estates owned by very important people who were called nobles such as Lords and Barons.

Serfs were usually allowed the use of a small parcel of land on the lords’ manor estate in which to live and grow food to support their own families.

What were Peasants Homes made of?

The homes of the medieval peasants improved as the medieval period progressed. Peasant homes were commonly made of simple sticks that were covered in mud and straw, this cheap and effective style of building was called wattle and daub.

Medieval Peasants Clothes

Freemen *Serfs *Slaves

Historians divided peasants into three categories, but different names and terms were used throughout medieval times to describe peasantry

  1. Freemen
  2. Serfs
  3. Slaves

Each category of the peasant class differs from the other in the sense that while some had fairly good lives, others were more underprivileged or had more duties to attend to.

Peasants’ Rank in the Feudal System

Feudalism The Feudal Pyramid Image

Feudalism Pyramid



*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 and did not have to work in his manor. In effect, they were free to enter and exit lands whenever they wanted to.

Medieval Peasants - Medieval Dance

Medieval Peasants Freemen

*Serfs

Serfs were the most common people of medieval times. 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.

The nobility owned both the fields and the harvests produced by the serfs who worked their lands. Serfs could take on a variety of jobs such as plowing the fields.

Medieval Nobility and Medieval Nobles

Medieval Nobility

Law and custom demanded that serfs worked on their master’s fields, consequently harvesting and gathering the crops that grew there.

Serfs were permitted to buy their freedom, however rarely could serfs free themselves through this method because of their disadvantaged circumstances.

Strangely, If a Serf decided to escape and was able to evade detection for a year or more they could become freemen.

Medieval Manor Estate in Medieval Period

Medieval Manor Estate

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.

Clothing of a Peasant Villein

*Slaves

Slaves were the most disadvantaged population. They were often treated badly by the nobility they served, they 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 could not marry as they pleased. Marriage would only be valid if the Noble gave his approval.

Anglo Saxon Medieval Peasants

Medieval Peasants in Anglo Saxon Times Ploughing a Field


Medieval Peasants Lives

The nobility exerted a vast amount of power over the peasantry, in England, and throughout Europe. Peasants were made to swear an ‘oath of fealty to their local lord and, thus, were beholden to him in every aspect of their lives.

The most important job for peasants which they had to complete at a fixed period was ploughing.

Medieval Peasants Castle Life

Medieval Peasants Plouging 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 living quarters.

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.

Medieval Feudalism Tithe Barn

Medieval Tithe Barn used to store one-tenth of the produce of peasants

To complete the terms and conditions of the tithe, peasants may remit cash or send the fruits of their labor 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.

Medieval Food

 


Medieval Peasants’ Daily Routine

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.

Medieval Serfs working land

Women 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.

What Did Peasants Eat?

The type of food commonly eaten by medieval peasants was called pottage or potage, It was a large pot of grains and vegetables cooked over a fire, anything that was at hand could be thrown into the pot, such as potatoes, fish, and meat added as and when required.

Pottage *Medieval Peasant Food

Pottage *Medieval Peasant Food

Peasants also ate food such as black bread, cheese, and milk often from a goat.

Homes

Peasants commonly lived 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.

Peasant Houses *Wattle and Daub

Peasant Houses *Wattle and Daub

What Work did Peasants Do?

Peasants worked the land, however, some medieval peasants were fortunate enough to own a small parcel of land but most medieval peasants were just labourers.

Medieval Serfs on the other hand would not be able to own any land and would have to work on the Lord’s land usually 3 days a week and longer during busy times of the year such as harvest and when cultivating the land.

Serfs and Serfdom

Peasants Fast Facts

  • Peasants had to swear an oath of fealty to a Lord which was a pledge of allegiance to a Lord
  • Plouging 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, were plastered with wattle and daub and called Cruck house

Medieval Women work in the fields


Medieval People *Lower Classes

During medieval times different names and terms were used to describe the commoner or peasantry classes and many of the characteristics of this class of people overlapped. This gets more complicated as the medieval period spanned over a thousand years.

Feudal system

Feudal System

Cottagers

Cottagers were peasants who were deemed to be of a lower class, Cottagers did not have any land but they did have somewhere to live called a cottage, which is how the name cottager originated.

Steward

Stewards had important jobs in medieval times and were quite well paid, 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 needed in a Castle and were also in control of the Estates’ money in the Lord’s absence.

Medieval Castle Staff Military

Bailiff

Bailiffs were also quite powerful people who owned their own land and as such were known as freeholders. The role of a Bailiff was one of delegation like the Stewards, but they were in charge of allocating jobs.

The Bailiff looked after livestock, and maintained the buildings by hiring the correct craftsmen for any problem that needed fixing, they were pretty much like modern-day estate managers.

Reeve *Bailiffs Enforcer

Working alongside the bailiff a Reeve was the representative of the villager peasants and acted as a go-between.

Medieval Serfs working land

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.

Serfdom - medieval Serfs

Hinds *Farm Workers

Medieval Farmworkers called Hinds had important roles in growing food and looking after farm animals.

Maid

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.

A maid 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 Lady

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 household’s kitchen, they helped the Kitchen maids and were usually the youngest members of the kitchen staff and given such wonderful jobs as scouring floors, cleaning dishes amongst other items.

Medieval Castle Staff Cooking for the Medieval King

The scullery maid would report to the main Chef or cook and be 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 food available.

Scullery maids would do other menial jobs in the kitchen 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 Scullery Maid

Servants *Slaves

Servants 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.

Peasants Summary

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 marginalization.

Peasants 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.