For the average person in Medieval Europe, life was nasty, brutish and short. Around 85% of medieval people were peasants, which consisted of anyone from serfs who were legally tied to the land they worked, to freemen, who, as enterprising smallholders untethered to a lord, could travel more freely and accrue more wealth.
If you managed to dodge the high rate of infant mortality and the endless deadly diseases in circulation, your life was likely a repetitive slog of farming the land of your local lord, regularly attending church and enjoying little in the way of rest or entertainment. If you did put a toe out of line, then you could expect to be punished punitively due to the strict legal system.
Do you think you’d have survived as a peasant in Medieval Europe?
Peasants lived in villages
Medieval society was largely made up of villages built upon a lord’s land. Villages were comprised of houses, barns, sheds and animal pens clustered in the middle. Fields and pastures surrounded them.
There were different categories of peasants within the feudal society. Villeins were peasants who had legally sworn an oath of obedience on the bible to their local lord. If they wanted to move or get married, they had to ask the lord first. In return for being allowed to farm the land, villeins had to give some of the food they grew each year to him. Life was hard: if crops failed, peasants faced starvation.
Towns and villages in the medieval period were unhygienic due to a lack of sanitation. Animals roamed the street and human waste and waste meat were commonly thrown into the street. Disease was rife, with unsanitary conditions leading to the outbreak of deadly plagues like the Black Death.
It was said that peasants bathed only twice in their lives: once when they were born, and for a second time after they had died.
Most peasants were farmers
Daily medieval life revolved around an agrarian calendar (centred around the sun), meaning in the summer, the workday would start as early as 3 am and finish at dusk. Peasants spent most of their time farming their strip of land assigned to their family. Typical crops included rye, oats, peas and barley which were harvested with a sickle, scythe or reaper.
Peasants would also work cooperatively with other families when it came to tasks such as ploughing and haying. They were also expected to carry out general maintenance such as road building, forest-clearing and any other work the lord determined such as hedging, threshing, binding and thatching.
Church feasts marked sowing and reaping days when both a lord and his peasants could take a day of rest. Peasants were also required to work for free on church land, which was highly inconvenient as the time could be better used working on their lord’s property. However, nobody dared break the rule since it was widely taught that God would see their lack of devotion and punish them.
However, some peasants were craftspeople who worked as carpenters, tailors and blacksmiths. Since trade was an important part of town and village life, goods such as wool, salt, iron and crops were bought and sold. For coastal towns, trade might extend to other countries.
Women and children stayed at home
It is estimated that around 50% of infants during the medieval period would succumb to illness within the first year of their lives. Formal schooling was reserved for the wealthy or located within monasteries for those who would go on to become monks.
Instead of formal schooling, children learned to farm, grow food and tend to livestock, or would become an apprentice to a local craftsperson such as a blacksmith or tailor. Young girls would also learn to do domestic activities with their mothers such as spinning wool on wooden wheels to make clothes and blankets.
Around 20% of women died in childbirth. Though some women in bigger settlements such as towns were able to take up work as shopkeepers, pub landladies or cloth-sellers, women were expected to stay at home, clean and look after the family. Some might have also taken on work as a servant in a wealthier household.
Taxes were high
Peasants had to pay to rent their land from their lord, and a tax to the church called a tithe, which was 10% of the value of what a farmer had produced in the year. A tithe could be paid in cash or in kind, such as seeds or equipment. After you had paid your taxes, you could keep what was left.
Tithes could make or break a peasant’s family: if you had had to give up things you needed like seeds or equipment, you might struggle in the coming year. Unsurprisingly, tithes were extremely unpopular, especially when the church was receiving so much produce as a result that they had to construct specially-built barns called tithe barns.
Either way, the Domesday Book – named from an old Germanic word ‘doom’ meaning ‘law’ or ‘judgement’ – meant that the king knew how much tax you owed anyway: it was inescapable.
Houses were cold and dark
Peasants generally lived in small houses which normally consisted of only one room. Huts were made from wattle and daub with a thatch roof and no windows. A fire burned in the hearth in the centre, which, when combined with the fire burning in the hearth in the centre, would create a very smoky environment. Inside the hut, around a third was penned off for livestock, who would live alongside the family.
The floor was normally made of earth and straw, and furniture usually consisted of a few stools, a trunk for bedding and some cooking utensils. Bedding was normally riddled with bedbugs, live and other biting insects, and any candles made of oil and fat created a pungent aroma.
Towards the end of the medieval period, housing improved. Peasant houses became larger, and it wasn’t uncommon to have two rooms, and occasionally a second floor.
The justice system was harsh
There was no organised police force during the medieval period, which meant that law enforcement was generally organised by local people. Some areas required every male over 12 to join a group called a ‘tithing’ to act as a quasi-police force. If someone was the victim of a crime, they’d raise the ‘hue and cry’, which would summon other villagers to pursue the criminal.
Minor crimes were normally dealt with by the local lord, while a king-appointed judge would travel the country to deal with serious crimes.
If a jury couldn’t decide if a person was innocent or guilty, a trial by ordeal might be pronounced. People were subjected to painful tasks such as walking on hot coals, putting their hand in boiling water to retrieve a stone and holding a red hot iron. If your wounds healed within three days, you were deemed to be innocent. If not, you were considered to be guilty and you could be severely punished.