Modern misconceptions of life in medieval England are often based on misleading tropes that skew our understanding of the past and have us believe that the medieval era was nothing more than a brutal and filthy place where nobles ruled supreme and peasants were little more than slaves caked in mud, working the fields day-in and day-out until they dropped dead of some easily preventable disease.
The truth is far more nuanced and surprising than many people would expect. Peasants led rich lives filled with periods of happiness and celebration. They were treated much better in general than modern media would have us believe and were also a lot cleaner than common portrayals!
A Very Simple Explanation of Freemen and Serfs
Peasants in England were divided into two main classes: Freemen and Serfs. Serfs were bound to labor for the lord (usually three days a week), while freemen had more freedom in the labor they chose to perform. Instead of paying their way through labor, freemen paid rent in taxes.
The differences and the rules governing each were complex, and issues were often taken to the courts. Rules also changed according to different regions. There was much mobility between the two groups, as they lived among each other, intermarried, and bore children together. Inheritance of status could be a tricky thing to determine.
Get the latest articles delivered to your inboxSign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter
In some situations, it was a matter of pragmatism for freemen to take up the role of serf. They might receive a better plot of land, with more opportunities, and escape the taxes. While for serfs, there was an opportunity for upward mobility too.
All peasants, however, were far from being slaves, especially after the Norman conquest. There was a massive effort by the Normans to stamp out slavery and emancipate a large portion of the society that had no opportunities in life.
Peasants, whether serfs or freemen, were given substantial rights. They had representation and could argue their issues in court. Of note is the fact that lords were strictly forbidden from beating peasants on their land. Huge fines could be levied for breaking this law.
Working the Land
Medieval Europe was defined by the feudal system, and four in every five people were peasants. This represented the vast majority of the population during the medieval era. And the majority of peasants were serfs tied to the land.
Unlike slaves who were bonded to people, peasants were seen as being bonded to plots of land. Landlords owned the land, and the peasants happened to come with it. Also, unlike enslaved people, peasants had opportunities to make a decent living and actually become wealthy. While this may not seem like a great way to live, peasants did have certain rights. Their houses and the pieces of land they worked on were kept in the family and passed down. Even though they were required to pay rent, their bond to the land also meant that their lord could not simply evict them. The landlord was also forbidden from depriving peasants of their livelihood. As such, there was certain job security for everyone in the family.
The landlords could be from a number of different sectors of society. They could be major or minor nobility, the church, or even in some cases, peasants themselves, who had acquired the land by becoming wealthy.
Farming the land was much easier than it had been during ancient times when the Romans ruled over England. The main reason for this was the introduction of various technologies to make farming easier. One of the major innovations was the introduction of the heavy moldboard plow around the 10th century, which replaced the lighter ard plow. This heavy plow made tilling the hard, claylike earth of Northern Europe much easier and quicker.
In addition to improving the plow, the collars that connected the plow to the draft animal were improved. Until the Middle Ages, horses couldn’t be used for plowing because the collar would choke them. Later, however, the horse collar was invented, which allowed horses to replace oxen in tilling the field. Horses worked faster and had much more stamina.
Of course, finishing the work quicker meant there was more time for relaxation or investing time in other pursuits that would bring income to the family.
The peasants practiced crop rotation and were aware of the need to retain the quality of the soil by planting certain crops at certain times of the year. Although they would not have known about the specifics of what nitrogen was, for example, they knew that planting certain crops in a field after a crop of wheat would restore the properties of the soil.
The main crops harvested in England were wheat, barley, oats, rye, and peas. Alfalfa and vetches were used to improve the soil and harvested as food for cattle, horses, pigs, and sheep.
Contrary to popular belief, peasants did not spend all day engaged in back-breaking work. Holidays and vacation time were extremely common and often mandatory! During times of high wages and good harvests, peasants could expect to work no more than 150 days a year.
Apart from having the obligatory Sundays off, religious holidays such as feast days were common. In individual areas, weddings, births, and funerals might also be on occasion for time off, and most landlords were generous. Days might even be given off when minstrels, mummers, faires, and plays were in town.
The pace of work was leisurely, and peasants worked, on average, far fewer hours during the day than workers in the modern age. Fourteenth-century manorial records from England show that peasants in the 14th century worked an average of 27.7 hours a week. And unlike in the modern era, there was no stressful commute!
During all the free time, there were plenty of things to do. Various games such as Dice and Nine Men’s Morris were popular, along with variants of Skittles and any other games and sports that could be made up, including particularly violent versions of football or soccer. These games often devolved into chaos that involved good-natured fighting and wrestling.
One of the biggest industries in Europe during the medieval era was the wool industry, and the best wool came from England. Sheep became very valuable to peasants during this time, and in the 14th century, London joined the Hanseatic League, a conglomeration of merchant guilds and trading towns in Northern Europe. This gave peasants with sheep and those who invested in the wool industry a link to the rest of Europe. Through this market, some English peasants found financial success.
The wool industry was so important to England that it formed the backbone of the entire economy. From 1250 to 1350, the industry was so successful that numerous “wool churches” were built, financed by the money the wool trade brought in. Successful peasants who traded in wool contributed significantly to the building of these structures.
What’s on the Menu?
The peasant diet in England was actually hearty and nutritious. Vegetables were available such as cabbages, peas, onions, turnips, swedes, carrots, parsnips, beans, leeks, and many others, while meat, such as mutton, beef, and pork, was available too. Chicken and eggs were also part of the diet.
Dairy was present everywhere. Milk, butter, and cheese were produced in abundance.
Bacon was a staple of the winter. Many peasant families had a pig, as they were easy to feed and provided plenty of meat to sustain a family through the winter. Pigs were so common, in fact, that laws had to be created to govern their ownership. Even in towns, each family owned a pig. Swineherds could even be hired to look after pigs during the day.
Of course, bread formed the backbone of the peasant diet. While white bread went to the nobility, the peasants were stuck with the healthier brown bread. Oats, barley, rye, and wheat could be turned into bread or added to other foods.
Local herbs were readily available in gardens and were used to add flavor to dishes.
Most settlements were close to rivers and waterways, and peasants were generally free to go fishing. Salmon was a common item on the peasant menu, and in fact, during the medieval period, salmon was seen as peasant food!
Ale was also readily available and drunk in quantity, especially if the local water source was suspicious (which could happen but wasn’t as common as modern preconceptions).
Fruits were grown and added to the diet. Berries, mushrooms, and a host of other foodstuffs could also be foraged in nearby woods.
In all, the peasant diet was actually healthier than the diet of the noble classes!
Contrary to popular belief, peasants were not filthy wretches caked in mud. They bathed and tried to keep themselves free of awful smells. Diseases during the medieval era were thought to emanate from “miasma,” transmitted through bad odors, and especially through the breath. Therefore, keeping one’s mouth smelling decent was of prime concern, even for peasants.
Peasants actually took care of their teeth, and it could be argued that they had better dental hygiene than English people today. Of course, toothpaste wasn’t available, and toothbrushes were expensive luxuries; peasants had to make do with what was on hand. A young twig from a tree, such as hazel, which was found all over England, would have been perfect for the job. Chewing the end of the twig exposes fibers that can be used to brush teeth. Salt was added to the mix as an abrasive, and a clove would freshen the breath.
Cleaning the body was a different story. Animal fat and wood ash mixed together made an excellent soap. Sage, thyme, and other freshly scented plants could be added to the mixture to leave the peasant smelling as fresh as a daisy.
If all else failed, ash with a bit of water works as a degreaser, but it is corrosive, and using it had to be done quickly to avoid getting burns!
Many peasants lived and died on their plots of land without seeing much of the world during their lives. For others, however, travel was part and parcel of life. Making trips to the market was a necessary feature of some lives, while religious pilgrimages could hardly be denied by the lords. For peasants, travel would have been on foot. It was a slow but leisurely method that allowed the peasants to admire the scenery and enjoy the social life of traveling.
To leave the plot of land to which they were bonded, peasants generally had to obtain permission from the landlord, but this rule doesn’t seem to have been strictly enforced. Furthermore, it’s important to note the land was not a prison. Peasants who lived there could come and go very easily.
The roads were full of travelers from all walks of life, and traveling was a way to meet new and interesting people. Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales are all about this feature of medieval England.
Travel was also a necessary feature for any peasant on the run! Although landlords tried to keep the peace with the subjects under their care, there were altercations that could cause a peasant to flee. Monasteries and nunneries were separate from the law and would take in strays, although being expected to live the life of a monk or a nun could prove a bit much for an outlaw peasant.
Another option was to escape to the towns which were growing at the time. This rapid growth meant that towns were always looking for labor, and a peasant could easily find work and protection there. It was not in the best interest of the townsfolk to cooperate in this regard with anyone sent by the lord to come looking for their wayward subject. The law stipulated that any peasant would be free of their prior duties and injustices if they evaded capture for a year and a day.
Times have changed considerably, and so have outlooks and attitudes to life. Today, we look back at peasant life and see it as an unthinkable, miserable existence, but for those living it, it wasn’t nearly that bad.
However, famine sometimes came around and made life terrible for everybody. Uprisings and rebellions sometimes happened over grievances about rights. War and conflict could be a feature. But for the most part, there were fulfilling lives to be lived. There was happiness and laughter, death and sorrow, marriages and births, fun and games, friendships and love. There were times of hard work and time for plenty of relaxation.