The Peasant's Life

The Peasant's Life

The International History Project

Date: 2001

About nine tenths of the people were peasants--farmers or village laborers. Only a few of these were freemen--peasants who were not bound to a lord and who paid only a fixed rent for their land. The vast majority were serfs and villeins. Theoretically, the villeins had wider legal rights than the serfs and fewer duties to the lords. There was little real difference, however.

A peasant village housed perhaps ten to 60 families. Each family lived in a dark, dank hut made of wood or wicker daubed with mud and thatched with straw or rushes. Layers of straw or reeds covered the floor, fouled by the pigs, chickens, and other animals housed with the family. The one bed was a pile of dried leaves or straw. All slept in their rough garb, with skins of animals for cover. A cooking fire of peat or wood burned drearily day and night in a clearing on the dirt floor. The smoke seeped out through a hole in the roof or the open half of a two-piece door. The only furniture was a plank table on trestles, a few stools, perhaps a chest, and probably a loom for the women to make their own cloth. Every hut had a vegetable patch.

All the peasants worked to support their lord. They gave about half their time to work in his fields, cut timber, haul water, spin and weave, repair his buildings, and wait upon his household. In war, the men had to fight at his side. Besides labor, peasants had to pay taxes to their lord in money or produce. They had to give a tithe to the church--every tenth egg, sheaf of wheat, lamb, chicken, and all other animals.

Famines were frequent. Plagues depleted the livestock. Frosts, floods, and droughts destroyed the crops. Bursts of warfare ravaged the countryside as the lords burned each other's fields and harvests.

The peasants' lot was hard, but most historians consider it little worse than that of peasants today. Because of the many holidays, or holy days, in the Middle Ages, peasants actually labored only about 260 days a year. They spent their holidays in church festivals, watching wandering troups of jongleurs, journeying to mystery or miracle plays, or engaging in wrestling, bowling, cockfights, apple bobs, or dancing.

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