Now that I’ve gone through all the labors of the months, my first-of-the-month posts will shift focus to something new–social status and occupations. We’ll start with peasants, who were at the bottom of the social scale. They had limited to no voices in feudal society, might not be allowed to own property, and led rather difficult lives.
While we tend to lump “peasants” all into the same category, there were really 3 basic types of peasants, with important differences that distinguish them from one another.
Serfs were just a step above slaves, bound to the land on which they provided manual labor for a lord. In addition to working in the fields, they might also do things like work in the mines, forests, or maintain roads. Serfs were not permitted to leave the lord’s land (or purchase their own) and might be sold with it like property. Marriages between serfs had to be approved by the lord.
Villeins were similar to serfs in status, but they were semi-free tenants. They paid for the use of the lord’s land with either dues or services. While villeins were not personally sold with the land, their labors might be, and they would be required to work for whomever held it. Both villeins and serfs were usually poor, and worked extremely hard for what little they had. Unrest among serfs and villeins was common, though it rarely resulted in any substantial societal change.
Freemen were peasants who were free to go where they wanted and do what they pleased (within their limited means, of course). They were not required to work on the lord’s land, though they might choose to. Most of them were simply laborers, but a few were fortunate enough to own their own land or business. Some freemen could be rather well off and comfortable–for peasants, at least.
Despite their poor status, all peasants had to pay taxes, both to the lord to whom they swore their fealty, and to the Church. The Church required a 10% tithe, either in cash, or in crops. Peasants dreaded this tax, as it could leave them with not enough of what they’d grown to survive through the year.
Check out this informative, and humorous, video from the BBC on medieval peasants. It is hosted by Terry Jones from Monty Python. It is quite interesting and entertaining as well.