Heritage > Medieval Life
Peasant Life in the Middle Ages
According to the law a peasant did not belong to themselves. They and all their belongings, their house clothes and even their food was owned by the lord of the manor. Known as serfs or villeins, peasants were bound to work for their lord, who allowed them to farm their own piece of land in return. Their lives were ones of constant toil. Most struggled to produce enough food for their own families as well as fulfilling their duties to the lord of the manor. Forbidden from leaving the manor without permission, the only way for a peasant to gain their freedom was by saving enough money to buy a plot of land, or by marrying a free person.
Peasants worked hard every day of their lives except for sundays and holy days. Bad weather and a typically poor diet meant that most European peasants died before they reached 27. Peasants made some of their own tools and utensils, although skilled craftsmen produced their pottery, leatherwork and iron. Besides wood and leather the most important material was horn from cattle and sheep. Light and strong horn did not absorb flavours like wood and did not require much effort to shape. Horn spoons saved on washing-up because according to one writer "with a little licking they will always be kept as clean as a die".
Clothes like tools were mostly home-made from local materials. Peasant women spent much of their time spinning wool into course thread, which was then woven into cloth and made into garments. Sheepskin cloaks were worn in winter to keep out the cold and rain, and wooden pattens could be put on over leather boots in muddy conditions. Although outer clothes were never washed, linen underwear was laundered regularly. People's clothes generally smelled of woodsmoke which had a deodarising effect!
After the black death plague had killed so many peasants many lords found it increasingly difficult to find enough worker to tend their land. This meant that the surviving peasants knew that they would be in demand no matter where they went and so many of them started to wander the countryside looking for the best paid work. This was very different to the feudal relationship that the peasants had been in up until then and the countryside became very unsettled. Unknown newcomers began to work in the fields and people were no longer willing to accept the old division between free and unfree. Travelling preachers taught that everyone was created equal and that anyone who claimed otherwise should be opposed.
Throughout Europe simmering resentment began to boil over into violence. Everywhere that a peasant revolt started they were put down by the king and the instigators were punished. Though none of the revolts succeeded they did help to bring an end to the feudal society.