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Medieval Travel Guide

Medieval Peasants

The class of Medieval peasants comprised the free men, the cottars, and the villeins. None of these three types owned any land.

The free men were paying fixed duties for the land they were working, basically renting it, and they were not required to work for the benefit of the feudal master. The cottars worked for the lord, in return receiving a place to stay, and a small part of the harvest.

Medieval Peasants-Country Life
Medieval Country Life

The most numerous, and living the hardest live of all the Medieval peasants, were the villeins. The land they were living on belonged to the feudal lord, they had to pay taxes both to their master and to the Church, and they could not move freely from one domain to another. Harvesting was the most difficult period of the year, as the villein had to work both on his land and that of the lord. He was required to give a part of the best of his harvest to his master. Beside harvesting, he was required to provide other services like cutting trees, digging ditches, or building and maintaining the palisades.

The peasants did not work on Sundays, when they attended church service.  They were allowed to form village courts, which had the role to solve any claims the villagers might have had against each other. These courts were supervised by a landlord representative. The villein's children, could attend the church school in the village, where they were learning prayers and songs, and received a basic instruction in mathematics and even Latin.

On his part, the landlord was required to protect his villeins against any hostile actions coming from other feudal lords or outlaws, and to help them in case of famine.

After the Black Plague, the life of Medieval peasants changed as the scarcity of the labor force allowed them to get better terms and conditions in their relation with the landlords.

A small poem of the 13th Century, entitled, “De l’Oustillement au Vilain,” gives a clear sketch of the household of Medieval peasants, furniture, and working tools.

The dwelling of the peasant comprised three distinct buildings; the first for the corn, the second for the hay and straw, the third for the man and his family. A fire of vine branches and faggots sparkled in a large chimney furnished with an iron pot-hanger, a tripod, a shovel, large fire-irons, a cauldron and a meat-hook. Next to the fireplace was an oven, and in close proximity to it an enormous bedstead, on which the peasant, his wife, his children, and even the stranger who asked for hospitality, could all be easily accommodated; a table, a bench, a cheese cupboard, a jug, and a few baskets made up the rest of the furniture. The peasant also possessed other utensils, such as a ladder, a mortar, and some of them a hand-mill; a mallet, some nails, some gimlets, fishing lines, hooks, and baskets.

Medieval Village Feast
Medieval Village Feast

His working tools were a plough, a scythe, a spade, a hoe, large shears, a knife and a sharpening stone; he had also a wagon, with harness for several horses, used to accomplish the different tasks required, under the feudal rights, either by his lord, or by the sovereign.

His dress consisted of a blouse of cloth or skin fastened by a leather belt round the waist, an overcoat or mantle of thick woolen stuff, which fell from his shoulders to half-way down his legs; he was wearing woolen trousers, shoes or large boots, and from his belt hung his wallet and a sheath for his knife .

He generally went bare-headed, but in cold weather or in rain he wore a sort of hat, sometimes with a broad brim. He seldom wore padded gloves, except when engaged in hedging.

A small kitchen-garden, which he cultivated himself, was usually attached to the cottage, which was guarded by a large watch-dog. There was also a shed for the cows.

Beside Sundays, the Medieval peasants enjoyed the religious holidays, strictly kept by the Church, and they thought of nothing after church, but of amusing themselves; they drank, talked, sang, danced, and, above all, laughed. The “wakes,” or evening parties, of very ancient origin, formed important events in the private lives of the peasants. It was at these parties that the legends and superstitions were mostly created and propagated.

Not all Medieval peasants were equal, and some of them became much wealthier than others. As these wealthy peasants were starting to imitate their masters, on a much smaller scale of course, some sort of a rudimentary "luxury" made his way into their households. As the 19th century archeologist Le Roux de Lincy noted: "At the end of the 15th century the old peasants complained of the changes in the village customs, and of the luxury which every one wished to display in his furniture or apparel."

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