A Peasant’s Life
Most peasants were serfs who were unable to leave the estate without the lord’s permission. Some peasants were freemen who had more rights and fewer responsibilities to the lord. Both required the lord’s protection and served the lord well.

The peasants home were made of logs held together with mud. The roof was thatched with straw. They were generally one room with hole in the ceiling through with heat and smoke cook escape. A peasants’ furniture was sparse. It consisted of a table and some three-legged stools, several piles of straw covered with animal skin for beds, and a loom. (research) Pegs on the walls held a change of clothes. There was also a wooden tub, leather jug, iron cooking pots and hooks for hanging poultry and meats. The house was surrounded by a patch of land. The peasant grew his/her own vegetables, fruit trees and raised animals to provide for their food. Animals were important so in the winter they were brought inside the hut to keep them from freezing. Ale or wine was brewed. Honey bees were kept to sweeten foods. Salt could be purchased and water was drawn from a village well or the river.

Garments were spun from the wool of sheep. To hold up their clothing, they used rope. Most of the peasants went around barefoot. In cold weather they wrapped their feet in cloth.

A peasant might have a life span of about thirty years. Many things contributed to this short life span. Poor sanitation, poor medical help and lack of medication, and poor diet were contributing factors to a short life span. Cholera, small pox and typhoid fever were common ailments and killed many. Many babies died at birth or never lived past infancy.

A peasant’s labor three days a week was owed to the lord. During harvest and other times extra hours were required. These extra hours sometimes saw the ruin of the peasant’s crops. Crops were sowed by hand. Grain was cut with a sickle. Fields were plowed with a crude plow. The plow might be powered by any animal. If this was not the case, farmer and his wife dragged the ploy through the soil.

Not only did the peasant work for the lord, he paid him rent. Rents were paid by giving a portion of grain, honey, and eggs that the peasant raised on his plot of land. They also had to tithe one tenth of all that was raised to the Church.

A peasant typical day may have been something like this. The serf arose, said his prayers, grabbed his clothing, at a piece of bread and left his home to meet with other villagers. They waited for their daily assignment from the reeve. Remember him??? The peasant’s wife was not needed in the fields, usually. She stayed at home collecting eggs, feeding the livestock, and milking the cow. After she finished these tasks, she put a wooden yoke with buckets attached to it, on her shoulders and went to the river or well to haul her water for cooking or washing. She weeded the garden, picked vegetable, spun and wove cloth. Wool, linen and flax were spun into clothing. She also spun hemp for sacks and cords.
Children worked along side their mother. They worked in the fields. They helped to tend the animals. There was no formal education except what was necessary for religious instruction.
After all the work was finished for the lord, the serf returned home to work his own land. He shared a plow with other peasants. If they were fortunate, they had oxen to share too. They day ended as the serf sat down to meal of stew and black bread and cheese. Soon after the sunset, the serf would go to bed.

  1. How many social classes were there? Explain the differences in them.
  2. What were the common causes of death during the middle ages?
  3. What was the average life span of a peasant?
  4. What is the average life span of a modern person?

Although the work days were long and heard, there were many holidays on the calendar. Most holidays were determined by Church holy days. Beginning, with a Christmas Ever feast, the peasant and village artisan celebrated twelve days of leisure and recreation until the Twelfth Night. Another week was allotted to them at Easter and another week at Whitsuntide, seven weeks after Easter. Sundays were always free days. There were also occasional breaks with fairs, weddings funerals and public occasions. As you can imagine, a day of celebration meant a welcomed day away from the rigors of hardship and work.

Troops of wandering minstrels and singers, taking part in the dancing, or viewing the mystery, morality and miracle plays were all enjoyed during the church holidays. All days began, however with religious services. On feast days, the whole community participated together in church rituals. Depending on the type of holiday, certain entertainment and foods were provided. There were miracle plays written about the saints. These described the struggle between good and evil. Mystery plays were based on the Bible.

Sporting events were important in keeping all men trim and in good fighting condition. Laws were passed that required able-bodied men to practice archery on Sunday but these laws were ignored by many young men so that they might play a type of Rugby instead! The game was rough, with few rules and no referee. Other sports included wrestling, casting heavy stones, and tilting a pole at the quintain. The quintain was a post with a revolving crosspiece that had a target at one end and a sand bag at the other.

The joust became the main sporting event by the Middle Ages. One armored competitor rode against another with the intent of dismounting him or breaking his lance. Gambling was another form of entertainment and the Alehouse was a gathering place for gossip and game-playing. During the Middle Ages leisure time was characterized by community participation. The entire village gathered for the events described above.

  1. How did peasants spend their free time?
  2. What is a morality play? Why do you think they had them?
  3. Research the common games played during the Middle Ages. Explain your findings.

Development of Towns
Towns in western Europe began to disappear after the Germanic barbarians conquered the Roman Empire in 476. The barbarians were not used to living in cities. They had no need for them. Cities need trade to grow and trade had been cut off from the cities of Western Europe by the Moslems who controlled the Mediterranean Sea.

Peasants lived in small villages near the lord’s castle during the Feudal Period. Some may have lived near monasteries too. They produced enough to feed themselves and pay their debts, the peasants avoided robbers. A barter system of trading goods was developed during this time. This system allowed trading without using money. As the feudal system took hold and refined it became a venue for new villages. The villagers sought freedom from manorial control and moved to town to work for a daily wage. In order for the villein to change from a villein to a burgher they had to prove residence within the walls of the village for a year and one day. During the winter months they pursue other livelihoods and interests. They had time to make cloth, boots, pottery and other things. The peasants sold their wares from the windows of their huts thus beginning small shops!!! (research)

  1. What method of trade was popular when money wasn’t used to get goods? Would this still be a method that would be useful today? Why?
  2. Name some ways that village life and formation changed life for peasants.
  3. Name some things that didn’t change.

The Marketplace
People who lived in the villages needed more than the food that they were able to raise for their survival and comfort. The weekly market was a meeting place for both town and country people. It provided those necessities that would have been unavailable. The lord would bring his crops to sell, local craftsmen would display their wards and peasants would bring their handiwork.
Early traders supported themselves and accumulated wealth by traveling from village to village. There were risks to the traders. They were exposed to robbery and murder but because they had the ability to make a lot of money they took the chances.

Most wares were presented on tables or in open stalls. Bread, meat, ale, meals, candles, cloth, leather goods, wood and metal were some of the wares offered. Trade was important to the survival of the town and merchants realized this early on. The market place was the hub of social life for the village. The village square was transformed into a market on the weekends. It had bookkeepers who recorded all sales and officers who kept the populous safe.
Food sales were monitored because there was no food supply area available outside the market area. Each patron was assured of his/her share of bread, ale, meat and cooked foods. No vendors were allowed to inflate prices.

Markets added to the towns coffers. Officials collected rents for spaces and stalls. They collected payments for the use of official weights and measures. Wagons entering the market paid a toll at the village gates and special courts imposed fines for market violations and disturbing the peace. It was a well organized and much supervised event. Banners and bells announced the opening of the faire.

During fairs traders from Venice or Genoa would sell silks and spices. Others would vend fine woods. Yet others would specialize in beautiful leather goods. As with all faires, there was entertainment. These faires saw jugglers, musicians, puppet shows and games and rides. No too different from today’s faires. Festivity abounded!