The life of a farmer in Medieval England was a difficult one. Many worked on fields that belonged to the local lords and their whole year was dictated by the seasonal needs of the land.
Though life was hard, the Feudal System and the swearing of an oath on the Bible meant there were few rebellions among the poor.
The position of peasants was clearly explained by Jean Froissart 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 fields of their masters, harvest the corn, gather it into barns, and thresh and winnow the grain; they must also mow and narrow home the hay, cut and collect wood, and perform all manner of tasks of this kind.”
Despite working the land, peasants were also required to pay tax or rent money to the lord as well as a church tax known as a tithe. A tithe amounted to 10 per cent of a peasant’s farming value and, although they could choose to pay with goods or cash, it could leave families struggling to feed themselves.
Peasants were also expected to work on the church land for free, which could seriously interfere with their ability to achieve their seasonal farming jobs on time. However, the significant powers of the church meant the poor feared punishment and rarely failed to complete tasks assigned to them.
The creation of the Domesday book meant the king was fully aware of the amount of tax each person in England was expected to pay, so these payments were also difficult to avoid. Some peasants would be forced to give away their seeds to cover what was owed, which would leave them short of crops the following year.
Peasant farmer lived in homes near the land they worked called cruck houses, which were built from wooden frames with wattle and daub. The latter is a mixture of mud, straw and manure, which was seen as a good insulator and strong enough to hold the building in place. The roof was then created from thatch and the floor was lined with straw, although little furniture was available to fill the room.
During the summer, these homes would likely have been extremely hot, while winters would have been bitterly cold. Conditions would also have been worsened by the presence of animals, which would have to be brought into the home to prevent them from being stolen or eaten.
Wildlife was the biggest problem as wolves and bears still roamed the land. Pigs, cows, oxen and chickens would all be at risk, and any deaths would cost the farmer greatly due to their high value.
While keeping the animals inside did prevent them from coming to any harm, it also made the houses even more dirty and unhygienic than they already were. People were commonly infested with fleas and lice, as were straw-based mattresses, and the toilet would consist of a bucket that required emptying each morning.
Water was collected each day from rivers, streams or wells for cooking and washing but would usually contain bacteria from peasants upstream, who would be emptying their buckets into the closest water source.
In towns, where more water was required, a water supply was channeled using dishes or lead pipes and often supplied via a conduit - or fountain. Even the rich only rarely used this water for bathing, which was considered an unusual habit and usually only took place a few times each year.
Peasants would bath even less than the wealthy, often only experiencing a bath at birth and a bath upon death. While face and hand washing was slightly more common, this was still rare due to the fact that no one was aware that dirty hands could spread bacteria.
Despite the lack of bathing, Medieval England did have some public baths in London known as ‘stews’, where more than one person could bathe at once. However, they were often targeted by thieves as people were required to remove their clothes before entering.
Medieval children would also have been remarkably different from modern life. Many would fail to live past six months old due to common diseases and those who did would be expected to work as soon as they could. With no school to attend, the children would be tasked with smaller jobs such as removing stones from the land that could break tools and scaring birds away from the seeds.
"The Lives of Medieval Peasants". HistoryLearning.com. 2023. Web.