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Medieval Peasants

Medieval peasants' lives were generally characterized by hard work serving their lord. Most medieval peasants worked and farmed the land, turning much of what they produced over to the lord who offered them protection. The life of a peasant was often harsh and difficult since they were at the bottom of the feudal system and strict social classes were in place.

Medieval Peasants

Peasants in medieval England worked for a lord and had to swear obedience to him. Many medieval peasants were farmers and so their lives revolved around needs of the crops. In addition to farming, a merchant class comprised of skilled craftsmen developed in the towns that sprang up around castles (Link to Medieval Castles) and manors. Craftsmen made things to sell to the public and paid rent to the lord for the use of their land.

Money and Peasants

Farmers had to pay rent for the land they worked and tithe ten percent of their produce to the church. This payment to the church could be paid with cash or produce, equipment, and seeds. The church tithes required the building of storage facilities. Medieval society centered on religion and the church, making it the duty of every man, woman or child, be they nobility or serf to pay the tithe.

Homes and Living Spaces

The houses peasants lived in during medieval times were called cruck houses and were made of a wooden frame plastered with wattle and daub. The mixture contained straw, mud, and manure. The straw was good for insulation, and the manure helped bind the ingredients. The roof of the house was made of thatch. Inside, the floor was covered with straw and the windows were just holes in the walls. Often, a door would be a curtain as wood was expensive.

Dirt and Grime

Peasants rarely bathed, and as a result many people were covered with dirt as well as lice and fleas. Beds were mattresses stuffed with straw and all kinds of bugs made a home in them. A toilet was simply a bucket emptied into the river every day. Along with these, another reason the inside of the house was so unsanitary was that at night, the family had to bring in any animals they owned. If they didn't, the animals could be stolen, killed by wild animals like bears or wolves, or they might wander off.

Children In the Medieval Times

Life for peasant children (link to medieval children new article) was as hard as it was for their parents. Due to the unsanitary conditions, many children died young. They did not attend school but worked with their parents as soon as they were old enough. Tasks might have been clearing the land of rocks or scaring away birds that might eat seeds.

Clothing

The lower classes wore simple garments made of rough linen or wool. The women spun the wool into threads and wove them into cloth. Most people only had one set of clothes, or at most, two. Some had linen undergarments to shield against the texture of the wool. Colors of the clothing were usually a drab combination of reds, browns, and grays. Shoes were made of thick leather or wooden clogs. In the winter, some peasants relied on sheepskins to stay warm, in addition to woolen hats, mittens, and cloaks.

The Feudal System

In the feudal system, the nobility had a great deal of power over the peasants. This hierarchy included:

  • Kings
  • Barons
  • Bishops
  • Lords
  • Peasants

Each of these social classes interacted with the others in very prescribed ways:

  • The king needed the barons to supply soldiers and knights and worked to keep their allegiance.
  • The barons were very powerful and wealthy noblemen who received their land from the king.
  • The bishops of the church were as powerful as the barons as they ruled the priests and monasteries within their dioceses. Collecting tithes and taxes allowed them wealth.
  • The lords rented out the land to peasants who worked for them. They were also trained knights who might be called into service by their monarch at any time.
  • Peasants were at the bottom and did most of the work to provide food and crafts for everyone else.

Understanding these rigid class structures is the key to understanding what life was like for peasants in the Middle Ages. Their position at the bottom of the class hierarchy dictated lives of hard labor spent in service to their lord, their church and their monarch.