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Those Who Work - Peasant Life in Medieval England
Transcript of Those Who Work - Peasant Life in Medieval England
Between 10th and 13th centuries, more than 90 percent of the population of Europe lived in a village, as a peasant – either serf or free (though the bulk were serfs).
A 13th century European might be hazy about the boundaries of his country, but he was well aware of those of his village.
Both feudal and manorial systems were present in England at the time of the Norman invasion (1066). William - upon conquering England, made himself landlord of the whole country, and his followers chief tenants. The great religious estates – abbeys – were left alone unless they had helped with the Anglo-Saxon resistance
A fundamental Normal legal principle – “no land without a lord” – was enforced throughout England.
How did people live?
A 13th century writer – contrasting the joys of a nun’s life with trials of marriage, - describes the daily life of a peasant woman quite vividly:
"She hears her child scream and hastens into the house to find the cat at the bacon and the dog at the hide. Her cake is burning on the hearth and her calf is licking up the milk. The pot is boiling over into the fire and the churl her husband is scolding her.”
Men were responsible for clearing new land,
plowing, caring for large animals, as well as all work on buildings - their own or the manor house. Both sexes helped with the planting and harvest.
Work was often divided by gender . . .
Most peasant families lived on carbohydrates - bread, porridge, and ale. The wheat they grew went exclusively to market, so food and drink came from barley and oats.
On the other hand, the lord, with his private forest and rights to the animals in it, had all the game (deer and other animals) he could eat. Peasants were strictly forbidden from hunting or fishing on the lord's land.
What kept the lord so well-off, aside from his
rights and military power? The series of taxes and fees he levied on those who lived on his manor, as well as the free labor he received from his serfs. Here are just a few of the many taxes and fines a lord could levy on his peasants:
What kept the serfs within the village? Well - they were not legally allowed to leave, and while serfs could try to purchase their freedom, it was not often possible. Free peasants, too, seldom left - their whole life revolved around their ancestral home.
While hospitals and medical schools emerged during the European Middle Ages, peasants saw none of this. Even barbers – who could pull a tooth or use a leech (bloodletting) were not seen much in villages.
What was childhood like for peasants? Children of all ages helped their parents around the house or with other young children. In their teens, boys and girls moved into adult world of work – girls around the house (and in the field), and boys in the field. Few peasants ever learned to read - and if they were serfs, they needed their lord's permission.
The lord - generally an absentee landlord,
appointed a steward - a knight or monk - who
would survey the manors of the lord several times a year . . .
who in turn appointed a bailiff,
who managed the manor itself
on a daily basis. The bailiff was literate, and was generally from a better-off serf family. He would be the chief law officer and business manager of the manor itself.
Manorial Chain of Command
Then there was the reeve, who was usually chosen each year by the villagers themselves from one of their own. The reeve's main duty was to make sure that those who owed labor service, the serfs, showed up for work. The reeve would also collect rent and keep track of debt (unpaid rent). Many families held these services repeatedly – solidifying their role as important village people.
So were all peasants equal? No - some
owned up to 100 acres of land (it took
around 16 to feed a small family), while
others were simple day laborers who
never owned more than a small garden.
Of course - there were many feudal offices that were designed to make sure this system ran smoothly - though not that many people were needed to run it. In fact, most manors only had four main people controlling the whole enterprise.
Village Justice – so what happened when someone got out of line?
For typical serf – nearly any offense – from default of work obligations to assaulting a neighbor– would bring him to the hallmote, the local court that was attended by his fellow villagers, who all acted as judges.
Village Justice - Trial by Your Neighbors
This system depended on the villagers, who knew the rules - which had been passed down through the generations - and could rely on them being applied more or less equally. If the rules favored the lord, at least peasants took part in the process and suffered more or less the same. The hallmote emphasized the united voice of the community – and met the needs of a weakly-policed society.
Did the peasants accept this? Sure - because . . .
No single individual or group could be blamed by a guilty party when his fate was agreed upon by the whole community. And the apparatus of law was more accepted because the villagers operated it themselves. Customs were declared by them, not the lord; inquests and juries were staffed by them, and the labor service (who owed what labor to the lord) - was supervised by them.
Much of court’s business concerned interaction among villagers, governed by ancient body of tradition known as custom of the manor.
Typical “crimes” included:
While feudalism – the lord-vassal system of obligations – was important at the largest level of society – it meant little to the peasant, whose life was circumscribed by the manor. In the manorial system, the peasant labored for the lord in return for land of his own to use.
Every spring – in what were known in England as “gang days” – the whole village population went “a-ganging” around the village perimeter – small boys were ducked in boundary brooks and bumped against boundary trees and rocks to help them learn this important info – the limits of the village.
This is much like peasants had been living since the Bronze Age. Homes were timber-framed with walls of “wattle and daub” – wood wands coated with clay, with thatched roofs, which rot, burn, and host a variety of wildlife – wasps, birds, rats, mice. “House breaking” by burglars was literal – they could smash their way through a wall.
Peasant homes measured 10 by 20 feet; bathrooms were often “a bowshot” away from the house – a ditch – and dwellings commonly lodged animals as well as people, if in a different partition. Interiors were lit by windows – no glass – and floors were dirt covered with straw.
Childbirth? Performed at home with the help of a local midwife. (True for both wealthy and poor women alike.)
What was old age like? If you made it to 45 years old, you were pushing it. Most peasants didn't live beyond this age. And if you were old AND infirm? If you were lucky, your family helped you. If not - you were in trouble.
Peas and beans were the most common source of protein - animals provided milk or eggs (not meat). This meant that in winter and spring when supplies were low, people were hungry. It was a hungry world.
tallage: annual tax on all serfs
merchet: fee paid to lord for a daughter's marriage
leirwite: fine for engaging in premarital sex
heriot: "death duty" - best work beast given to lord upon the death of the head of household
pannage: fee to allow pigs to feed in lord's forest
And while peasants of all kinds were very unfree - they were still more free than the slaves. And frankly - there weren't many options.
Each village had its own court that would meet several times a year, called the Hallmote.
Part of what made village life tolerable was the fact that villagers were mostly allowed to govern and police themselves, giving them a degree of control over their world that would be foreign to us today.
What did this actually look like? Well . . .
At the Hallmote,twelve villagers examined and discussed each case, made accusations against each person, and found him or her guilty or not. If the accused was required to corroborate his defense, he called on friends and neighbors; when fined, he appealed to a fellow villager to act as pledge and guarantee payment. Rarely was there imprisonment or corporal punishment.
The jury’s verdict was recorded by the steward’s clerk, and this record was consulted for precedents. It is through these records - maintained by the manor - that we are able to study peasant culture and society today.
If you had to choose three words to describe peasant life in the middle ages, what would they be, and why?
Defaulting on work obligations;
Brewing bad ale (too weak, not worth what people pay for it);
Property disputes (from diverting a stream to land theft);
Slander – claiming Peasant Bob is a thief (when he’s not);
Leirwite – marriage without license (or having premarital sex);
Childwite – bearing child out of wedlock. Note – in 1316, an entire jury was fined by a visting steward for concealing 5 cases of leirwite.
Keep in mind - the lord made money off of each crime - and in fact, this was a regular (if modest) part of the income he could expect from each manor.