The Lives of Medieval Peasants

The Lives of Medieval Peasants

The lives of medieval peasants proved to be significantly harsh - a lot of them worked as farmers in fields belonging to the lords and their lives were dominated by the farming year where particular jobs had to be carried out at specific times.

The peasants found life to be tough but the strict law and order system made sure there were few rebellions.

The feudal System put the peasants at the bottom of the heap and they were made to be obedient to the local lord, who they had sworn on the Bible to be obedient to. It was automatically assumed that they had declared a similar oath to the duke, earl or baron who owned that lord’s property.

Peasant life]
Peasant life]

Jean Froissart made the peasant’s position clear in 1395 when he wrote:

‘It is the custom in England, as with other countries, for the nobility to have great power over the common people, who are serfs. This means that they are bound by law and custom to plough the field of their masters, harvest the corn, gather it into barns, and thresh and winnow the grain; they must also mow and carry home the hay, cut and collect wood, and perform all manner of tasks of this kind.’

Peasants were required to pay out tax or rent money for their land to the lord, which was all the farm produce a person had produced over the year, along with a church tax known as a tithe - 10 per cent of a peasant’s farming value which could greatly affect their family. Each peasant could choose to pay in cash or with goods but whichever way payment was given, tithes were not popular at all.

Peasants additionally worked on church land for free, which for them was very inconvenient as they could be using the time to spend on their own land. But the church had so much power that no one would risk breaking this rule as they feared their sins would be seen and punished.

Thanks to the Domesday Book, the king was aware of how much tax people owed and this could not be opposed. Once the taxes had been paid, people could keep the leftovers but this would not add up to much. It would prove a challenge if seeds had to be given away for the next growing season because there might not be enough left to grow or feed yourself.

Peasants lived in homes called cruck houses, which had wooden frames with plastered wattle and daub - a mix of mud, straw and manure. Insulation was provided for walls by the straw and the manure was seen as capable enough to bind the whole mixture and strengthen it, before leaving it to dry in the sun so it could become a strong building material. Roofs were thatched, straw would line the floor and there would not be much furniture available. The houses would most likely have been uncomfortably hot in summer and bitterly cold in winter. Holes in the walls served as windows due to the expense of glass, and doors may have been covered with a curtain instead of a recognisable door as wood was also expensive.

Animals would be brought in at night for safety for several different reasons:

In Medieval England there were still wolves and bears outside in the forests which wouldn’t hesitate to take a pig, cow or chickens. It would be bad news to lose any animal but valuable ones such as oxen would be a particular travesty.

Additionally the animals could also be stolen or just wander off somewhere of their own choosing. Therefore inside the house none of these incidents would happen, but the animals would definitely make the house even more dirty and unhygienic due to not being house-trained and bringing in fleas and flies.

Houses would not have had everyday essentials such as running water, toilets, baths and washing basins or soap and shampoo - meaning people would always be unclean and covered in dirt, fleas and lice. Beds were mattresses stuffed with straw and also covered in dirt, fleas, lice and other bugs. Toilets would have been a bucket that was emptied at the beginning of each day into a nearby river.

Peasants used water for cooking, washing and more but it would typically originate from the same source. Local rivers, streams or wells would be a village’s central water provision but it was also used as a method to remove your waste each day. Wives were normally the ones who collected the water every morning in wooden buckets. Some villages could wind up their water from a well if they had access to one.

Towns required a more substantial water supply which could be brought in by several ditches or lead pipes. Water in a town would be provided from a conduit - the equivalent of a modern day fountain.

Bathing was unusual even for the rich - they may have taken a bath only a few times each year and to make things easier, more than one person could have used the water before it was thrown away.

Peasants were believed to only experience a bath approximately twice in their lifetime - once when they were born and again when they died. It was more common to wash faces and hands but people had no knowledge of hygiene or that germs were spread through dirty hands.

There were some public baths in London near the River Thames called ‘stews’. More than one person would bathe in them at a time, but as people obviously had to remove their clothing it meant they became targets for thieves. Whichever way water was accessed, there was a high risk it could be contaminated simply from toilet waste constantly being thrown into rivers, which would then travel into another water source.

Families would have all cooked and slept in one room and if the cruck house had enough space the children would sleep in a loft.

Peasant children’s lives would have been remarkably different as they would not have gone to school. A lot would not have lived beyond six months old due to common diseases. As soon as they were old enough they went to work on the land with their parents. They were not able to do majorly physical work to start off with but they could perform simple tasks such as removing stones from the land which might harm farming tools, along with scaring birds away during the seed sowing. Generally, the lives of peasant children were hard and the lifestyle of all medieval peasants was ‘nasty, brutish and short’.

See also:

The Poor Peasant 

Peasants Revolt

Women in Medieval England

MLA Citation/Reference

"The Lives of Medieval Peasants". 2015. Web.