The Peasants, My Lord?
Unlike your peasants clustered happily round the fire in Stronghold, the real peasants of medieval times led a pretty miserable life. Approximately 90% of the population were peasants so had you been living then, there’s a good chance that this would be your lot.
The lowest of the low was a villein who was owned by a lord – in effect he was a slave. He was allowed to live on the lord’s land but in return had to do any and all work that he was ordered to.
Marginally above a villein came a free peasant who paid rent (usually a proportion of their harvest) for a small piece of the lord’s land which he could work on himself, but he also had to work for the lord for a certain number of days a week and on church land whenever required. The lord gave permission for marriages, could tax any amount at any time and could make the peasants use his own mills and ovens for their bread, sometimes charging them exorbitant prices for this. If land was sold, the peasants were sold along with it. They were also required to give a tenth of everything they produced (the tithe) to the church. Anything left they would eat themselves and, in a good year, they may even have had a small surplus to sell.
A peasant’s wife also had a hard time. As well as bringing up the children, she would look after any livestock they owned, usually a few chickens, cook and in her spare time spin thread to sell for a little extra money or make clothes for the family. She would also make cheese, butter and brew ale.
One child in three reached his first birthday; one in ten his tenth. The children of peasants didn’t go to school. As soon as they were able, they would join their parents working on the land. They could clear away stones which might damage the family’s precious tools and chase away birds during seed sowing.
A peasant’s life was usually short and fairly unpleasant. Only the strongest survived and even they could die from something as trivial as a bad tooth. There were other fairly evil diseases around such as food poisoning from food stored badly over the winter. Famines were frequent and crops were destroyed by frost, floods and drought. The only high spots were occasional festivals to lift their spirits.
Most peasants lived close enough to their lord’s castle for protection. Their homes were made of wattle and daub – wooden supports with the spaces filled with woven branches and covered with a waterproof mixture of mud, clay, horsehair and animal dung with a thatched roof. The floor would be earth covered with reeds with a cooking fire in the middle with a small hole in the roof up above to allow some of the smoke to escape. Windows would be holes in the walls and curtains were often used as doors. The houses were usually only one storey, but occasionally an ‘upstairs’ was added for storage or sleeping. Any animals were brought in at night partly because of the wild animals that still roamed the country and partly because of thieves because animals were a valuable commodity.
Their possessions were few – usually a few benches, tools, pots and pans. Sometimes they would have a wooden chest to keep valuables in. They would sleep on a straw mattress on the floor, usually in their work clothes and covered by animal skins.
After the Black Death in the 14th century there were suddenly fewer peasants to work the lord’s land and conditions became marginally better. However, they feared that things would go back to how they had been before so 20,000 peasants under their leader Wat Tyler marched on London & demanded the end of slavery and the Poll Tax (a tax to pay for the war with France) and the freedom to hunt in forests. The 14 year old king, Richard II agreed to meet them, but Wat Tyler was killed by the Lord Mayor of London and the peasants melted away, back to their homes.
So next time you look at the peasants clustered round your fire, the neat little cottages or the women having a gossip clutching their babies, spare a thought for the lives of the real peasants.
Written and researched by GillB*