Aside from the BBC 4‘s Christina: A Medieval Life, medieval peasants (- – I use the term ‘peasants’ loosely here – – ) don’t really get a look in.

Tony Robinson as Baldrick in Blackadder

When people think of the medieval peasant, they may conjure up images of Tony Robinson’s Baldrick. Baldrick has arguably (and ironically) become the poster boy of the peasantry.

But what was life actually like for someone tied to their lord’s land (i.e. an unfree peasant, or villein, as opposed to a free tenant with *slightly* more options?)

First, the free and unfree distinction is a very important one.

Free peasants worked at their own professions and on their own lands. Their lands might belong to them, or they might rent them.

Unfree peasants were a kind of indentured servant, working for the lord in order to earn their keep. They could not marry off their children without the lord’s permission, and generally had it a bit tougher.

It’s not very easy to find out a lot about these people – who comprised the vast majority of the population of Medieval Europe – as no one really wrote about them. That’s not very suprising: even today, the ‘blue collar’ workers are the unsung backbone of the economy. No one mobs their local plumber in the street because of the sterling job he did on their washing machine. You don’t see the bloke who does the drains getting a feature in Hello! Magazine. Then as now, the bottom rungs of the social ladder really only get a mention in the sources in government or administration records, or when those writing the chronicles etc. had a point they wanted to make. As historians, we must question the portrayal of the ‘peasant’ as thoroughly as the discerning reader should question the opinions of the Daily Mail.

The Calendar of Inquisitions Miscellaneous (Chancery) vol. I (published by the Public Records Office in 1916) offers a wonderful insight into the world of the ordinary person.

Here’s a snippet of life in Burne, a manor in Sussex:

Medieval French peasants enjoying a meal
Medieval French peasants enjoying a meal (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the manor of Burne there are 36 virgates of land in villeinage. Each virgate pays a yearly rent of 10s [shillings], two hens and ten eggs, and [the tenant] has to plough 2 1/2 acres of the lord’s demesne, and harrow them when sown with the lord’s seed; to hoe, mow and bind as much in autumn; to plough (waretare) one acre for barley; to carry the lord’s brushwood once a year in one cart; and to mow one rood of meadow in Brodewisse and gather the hay.

The whole township together has to mow and gather the hay of Smalewisse, and to carry and stack all the lord’s hay and corn, after which each man has one sheaf of wheat, one of barley and one of oats or vetches, and nothing else in the autumn. Also each man has to cut, bind and carry fifty bundles of reeds, of which he has one bundle, and to thresh and winnow one load of barley, and half a load of wheat for seed, and to make one load of malt if the lord desires it, and he owes cartage (afragium) twice a year wherever the lord desires it between the port of Pevenese and Sefford. In all the above work the labourer is to find his own food.

All together must carry dung for the lord as long as it lasts, for which they are to have one meal of the lord’s food and no more.

None of the lord’s villeins may alienate (alienare) or marry his son or daughter, nor sell a male colt (pullum suum masculum) without the lord’s leave; but a son pays no relief on the death of his father except his father’s heriot, viz., his best beast, to have seisin of his predecessor’s land.

The heirs of Ralph de Esthalle ought to hold 3 virgates in the said manor, at a yearly rent of 20 s, doing suit for the lord of Burne at the county court of Sussex, and finding an alderman for the hundred court (ad hundredum) of Burne and for the whole town of Burne.

Concerning lands alienated, there was in the time of Maurice de Croum a sheep-farm with 100 ewes kept as the other shepherds kept them, which Amaury de Croum gave to Matthew de la Dune . . . . for a yearly rent of one pair of white gloves.

(No. 188 pp. 63-4)

I cut out the lengthy passage on shepherds and their obligations, although that’s a really good insight into medieval sheep-farming. I can post that later, on request.

This not only shows you what the agricultural economy of Burne was like in the thirteenth century, but it also gives an insight into the relationship between the town and the agricultural duties. Just because you lived in an “urban” space did not mean that you were exempt from seasonal farming labour. It also shows the range of rewards and perks that you could get for said work – not an awful lot, but something is better than nothing!

My favourite aspect is the rent of white gloves paid to the de Croums by Matthew de la Dune. The colour means that the gloves were dyed, as opposed to being plain, undyed wool. White was made with allum, which was very expensive. The specified colour may not have been a fashion choice so much as an indication of the cost, and some years Matthew may well have given the equivalent value of the gloves rather than the gloves themselves. You see that happening elsewhere, especially on charges levied by the king, when the going rate is a palfrey or two. Rather than buy the actual horses and present them to the king, often the subject would just give the king the value of the palfreys (around ten marks).

It also shows the relationship between lord and villein and lord and tenant pretty well, giving a fair indication of what a villein could and could not do. Even their children were considered property of the lord and could not be married off or given property of their own without the lord’s consent.

This must not be confused with slavery – it’s not quite that restrictive a state. Unfree peasants could and did marry free peasants, providing they got permission. Also note that even the free tenants and townsfolk had feudal obligations, but the unfree peasants had less (or no) opportunities for mobility and more obligations than most. While the feudal system is often thought of as clear, impermeable layers and often erroneously likened to the class system (whatever that is in practice), there was a lot of overlap among the lower levels of society.

It wasn’t upwardly mobile – the infamous Falkes de Bréauté was accused of being the son of a yeoman, but this was probably meant as a slur on his character rather than actual fact – but the interpersonal relationships of all levels of Medieval society weave a far more complex, colourful and elaborate tapestry of life than the black-and-white stereotypical view often presented to the public makes it appear.


Was there even such a thing as feudalism at all, or was it an idealised construct imposed by later lawyers?




Related articles