Medieval Monday: The Peasant

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.

 


Read Peasants (part 2). Learn more about the daily life in Middle Ages by browsing previous posts in the Medieval Monday Index.

Medieval Monday: Sleep (part 1)

There is no doubt that the seasons ruled medieval life, dictating what work needed to be done and what food was available to eat, but did you know they affected sleep habits as well? With our ability to brighten up stores, homes, and streets with electric lights, our modern-day sleep patterns don’t change a whole lot with the seasons. Most of us aim for a solid 8 hours and adjust our bed times and alarm clocks accordingly.

But imagine during the long winter nights, going to bed shortly after dark, and not getting up until sunrise? That’s roughly 14 hours a night—a bit too much sleep!

 

According to historian Roger Ekirch, medieval adults broke up their sleep into two parts, with a time of wakefulness in between. They might use this time for intimacy, prayer, study, light household chores, or even visiting neighbors. After an hour or two, they would go back to bed until the sun rose. This was common practice for everyone, including monks, who were required to get up in the middle of the night as part of their prayer rituals. This was thought to protect the monastic community and its surroundings from demonic attacks. Children were the exception to the “first and second sleep” norm, and it was recommended that they sleep straight through the night.

During the winter months the shortness of the days, and lighter workloads, allowed abundant opportunity for sleeping, but summer was quite different. Field labors in the heat of the sun were more intensive, and exhausting. Under the feudal system, people were required to first labor for their lord or king before they took care of their own fields and gardens. This made for very long, back-breaking days that didn’t always leave enough time to sleep, especially in the northernmost areas of Europe. The remedy? Afternoon naps.

Naps were also common year-round for those who were expected to work at night while everyone else slept, or for those whose jobs entailed a lot of waiting. These would primarily be guards and servants. If they couldn’t go home to nap in bed, they would settle in someplace where they could sleep sitting up.

More information about sleep will be in my next post, where I’ll talk about beds, sleeping arrangements, and sleeping attire.


Learn more about the daily life in Middle Ages by browsing previous posts in the Medieval Monday Index.