The middle ages, which began in the latter half of the 11th century and continued until 1485 when the Tudors ascended the throne. The age may be associated with dashing knights, fair ladies and lovesick poets, but it was the medieval peasants who had to do the hard work while others were pursuing chivalrous adventures. Peasants worked from dawn to dusk serving their masters and eking out a small living from the land.
To the manor born
Under the medieval feudal system, peasants were born to serve and give their allegiance to the lord of the local castle or manor house. The feudal system, which began in France and spread to England in the 11th century, was ostensibly founded on principles of mutual support and protection, but peasants got the rough end of the deal. In return for protection from invaders and the right to farm a small plot of land belonging to his aristocratic master, the peasant had to swear an oath of allegiance that required him to devote a proportion of his time and labour to the manor house ; this unpaid work commanded a significant proportion of his working life. Under feudalism peasants were legally bound to the lord of the manor . They became agricultural slaves who weren’t given the choice to pursue better lives.
Life of servitude
It was common for peasants to labour on their landowners’ demesne for two or three days a week. This typically included ploughing fields, harvesting corn and collecting wood. Depending on local customs, some peasant farmers may have been able to pay rent in lieu of such services although some peasant farmers had to undertake menial tasks and pay rent to their landowner.
The romantic image of serene peasants devoted to the land differs from the harsh realities faced by the medieval peasant farmer who cultivated the land leased to him by the manor house. The working day often began at 3am in the summer months and continued until dusk. A typical day included sowing, ploughing and reaping, as well as the arduous task of threshing, which involved beating the stems and husks of plants to separate the grains from the straw.
Jobs as servants
Peasants were sometimes attached to their lord’s castle. These non-farming peasants who lived in cottages on their lords’ estate undertook tasks such as cooking, cleaning and laundering in return for food and a simple roof over their heads. Many of these jobs were carried out by peasant women, while men often worked as swineherds or in the stables, keeping them clean and feeding and grooming the horses.
Peasant women and children
Peasant women in the middle ages were consigned to a life of drudgery. As well as cooking and cleaning, women had to help their husbands in the fields, tend to small animals like geese and chickens, collect herbs and berries, and tend the vegetable plot. Peasant children weren’t educated and those too young too carry out heavy physical labour were kept busy scaring away birds and clearing away stones that might damage farming equipment.
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- Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute: Medieval life: squires, maidens and peasants
- History Learning Site: The lifestyle of medieval peasants
- University of Wisconsin-Madison: Medieval English society
- Middle Ages: Daily life of a peasant in the Middle Ages
- Medieval Life and Times: Medieval peasant women
- Medieval Life and Times: Medieval peasant
- Saylor Foundation: The lives of medieval peasants