Key Facts & Summary
- Peasants in the Middle Ages were in a relationship of submission with the owner of the land or with the Lord who offered them a sort of protection and work, in exchange for a contribution.
- In most cases, the contributions they needed to offer to the lord consisted in a part of the harvest.
- Peasants were not free men and most of the times, they depended on a lord.
- Most farmers are poor and live miserably. The tools they employed on the lands were not very efficient and the use of fertilisers was very limited due to the number of livestock.
- As a consequence, harvests were low.
- Women worked more than men. They helped them in the field work and they did the housework which consisted of preparing meals, and taking care of the farmyard.
The Peasant’s Diet
Since they carried out heavy work and were subjected to difficult weather conditions during the winter period, Medieval peasants needed to consume many calories a day. Therefore, cereals were undoubtedly the most widely used food, especially for making bread which was generally made with wheat flour (however, most peasants made bread with rye flour). Wheat and other cereal flour, such as barley, millet, and oats, was also used in the preparation of soups, sheets, ravioli (stuffed with meat) and, rarely, sweet and savoury pies. Although of poor quality, wine was always present on the tables of peasants. It was rare for peasants to eat meat since it required to be hunted, and hunting was generally reserved for the nobles classes.
An alternative food to meat was eggs and fish (especially in mountainous areas rich in streams). Milk was used above all for the preparation of cheese and butter: only occasionally it was used as a drink. However, butter was a very rare product for peasants; it was used above all by noble families (peasants used condiments such as lard). Fruit was not popular due to storage difficulties. On the other hand, dried fruit was much more present: walnuts, chestnuts, and hazelnuts were easily found in the woods and were preserved for a long time without problems.
Peasant’s Living Conditions and Clothing
The peasants’ homes were simple. Whereas houses made out of stone were rare, houses made out of wood or clay mixed with straw were very popular amongst the peasant class. People and animals lived under the same roof, especially during the winter.
Peasant houses were divided into several parts and sometimes they also had a small church.
Their homes had a room where meals were consumed and where the family met. The oven was placed outside, whereas another building was used as a warehouse or a stable. All the buildings were characterised by dirty floors covered in straw and did not always have windows.
Peasants were subject to many taxes, restrictions, and obligations towards their lord.
For example, they were required to pay a tax in order to be able to fish. Moreover, in some periods of the year, they were obliged to work for their lords without being paid (such duties were called corvées).
The life of the peasants was therefore very hard because they were victims of brigands and raids since their lords were often fighting against other lords.
Sanitary conditions were very bad: their conditions attracted parasites, lice, fleas, and mites. Due to poor nutrition, diseases such as leprosy, malaria, and hyperthyroidism were endemic. Obviously, in an age of recurrent epidemics and diseases, mortality was high and in the countryside, the presence of doctors was a rarity.
The typical clothing of peasants consisted of a shirt, a tunic, a cloak, trousers held by a belt at the waist, and shoes tied over the ankle or high boots (very frequent was also the use of wooden clogs). Clothes were grey or dark in colour. Women dressed wearing a shirt or a low-cut sleeveless robe, a skirt, a cloak, a veil, stockings and shoes (often wooden clogs). Women were engaged in various housework, caring for their children, spinning, and weaving, or taking care of farm animals.
Usually, farmers had a work dress and a party dress. Often the same garment was undone, cut and stitched many times, to make sleeves or clothes for children.
Peasants’ belief system
In rural communities, saints were invoked for their thaumaturgical abilities.
In the countryside, people believed in the powers of witches. It was tough that such women performed practices that dated back to the pre-Christian past. It was believed that they knew the secrets of fertility, contraception, and abortion, and it was always they who healed people and animals in the communities where they lived. Among the beliefs, or superstitions that were popularly classified as witchcraft, the cult for Diana – goddess of the woods and the wild world – certainly played an important role. Sanctuaries in her honour were built in marginal places and outside from the cities.
It was believed that witches had the gift of metamorphosis and that they could transform into cats, the animal associated with the devil. Others were convinced that they could turn into werewolves that wandered at night in search of prey.
Among the most deeply rooted convictions, there were also those who believed that these women had a certain power over the elements of nature and that, with simple gestures, they could generate storms, hail, and lightning; they could also make animals sterile, infertile women and impotent men.
The ‘witch’ stereotype was created when the Church started condemning rural traditions, starting – from the second half of the XIV century – witch-hunts. As a consequence, the Middle Ages was characterised by progressive marginalisation of the peasant world.
Peasant’s Jobs and Communal Lands
In the early Middle Ages’ literature, peasants were depicted as superstitious pagans: they were regarded as the socially dangerous, miserable, illiterate, ignorant, thieves with rough customs.
The farmers’ jobs were dictated by the natural calendar and consisted in ploughing, sowing, harvesting, pruning, harvesting of fruits (apples, pomegranates, grapes, mulberries, etc.) and cereals (wheat and rye), harvest, pressing, production of wine and oil, wheat threshing and weeding.
There also existed very numerous migrant peasants who worked in the countryside and gathered the sheep’s wool. Such activity soon became a real industry in Europe with the breeding of different types of sheep.
Thanks to the innovations and the incessant activity of the Benedictine monks, the peasant world saw some new introductions. These included new crops that came from distant lands, new cultivation techniques and new means that alleviated the work, such as: the ax, the double-bladed forceps (to eradicate roots), the sickle with short handle, the triangular harrow, a rigid collar attached to the horse, the long handle sickle, and the triple blade ax.
The situation of peasants in the Middle Ages worsened in times of poor or no harvest. This could be due to raids, famine, or natural disasters.
The Rustican calendar, that dates back to the XV century, represented the dominant agricultural work that peasants had to carry out each month.
January: the peasant cured the ditches.
February: he nourished the lands with fertiliser by employing a hood and a spade.
March: he cuts the vines with a billhook.
April: he mowed the sheep.
May: He continued the work for the next harvest while the Lord hunted hawk.
June: He harvested wheat and hay with a scythe.
July: he reaped the cereals with a sickle.
August: he treated the cereals with the flail.
September: this is the sowing period in which he ploughed and sowed seeds.
October: he trod the grapes with his feet to extract the juice that will give him wine.
November: he fed acorns to the pigs in order to make them fat.
December: he killed the pigs.
In essence, peasants worked hard during the day and lived in accordance with the rhythm of the sun: their tasks were performed from sunrise to sunset. The work was much lighter at certain times of the year: in winter, the cold, the snow, the freezing of the earth and the short duration of solar illumination allowed them to stay safe in their homes. This period of the year was for them an opportunity to reorganise their tools.
Peasants did not work on Sundays. Rather, they went to the village in order to carry out their religious practices and meet their friends.
In many areas, farmers were subject to community practices. Such practices had been introduced over time in order to help the poorest members of society.
Once the peasants had harvested their land, the owner had to allow animals and other peasants to come to graze. This allowed landless peasants to feed small livestock (goats and sheep). Moreover, the excrements deposited by animals enriched the earth. There also existed common lands which were generally not cultivated. However, such lands could be used by several peasants if the need arised.
[1.] BBC (no date). Everyday life in the Middle Ages. Available from: https://www.bbc.com/bitesize/guides/zm4mn39/revision/6
[2.] Medieval Times (no date). Peasants Serfs and Farmers. Available from: https://www.medievaltimes.com/teachers-students/materials/medieval-era/people.html