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27 Jul

Life of Peasantry (Serfs) in the Middle Ages

After the Fall of the Western Roman Empire, the barbarian kings and military leaders seized the former Roman estates together with their working force (slaves and coloni), while the remained area was eventually settled by other members of the invading peoples as free peasants. Slaves, coloni – tenant farmers who worked on latifundias (large Roman estates) and members of free rural communities slowly disappeared over the following centuries and began to form the class of peasantry or serfs – the lowest class of the feudal society.

Instability which marked the period of the Early Middle Ages forced the small landowners and free peasants to seek protection at the nearest powerful landlord which eventually led to the loss of their ownership of land (but not the right of its use) and often also to loss of their personal freedom. However, medieval peasants were not a homogenous group and were subdivided into the following groups:

  • Free tenants or free peasants were rent-paying tenant farmers owing little or no service to the lord but they very few in number.
  • Villeins were the most common type of serfs in the Medieval Times. They lived on landlord’s fief and spend part of their time working on their lord’s fields in return for protection and the right to work on their leased fields. In addition they were also obliged to provide some other services as well as to cede their lord part of their harvest. Villeins were tied to the land and could not move away nor get married without their lord’s consent.
  • Cotters were of lower rank than the villeins, did not posses leaseholds and worked for more prosperous villeins or for the feudal lords in exchange for food.
  • Wage earners worked on all feudal estates and received a payment in exchange for their labour.
  • Slaves were very few in number, usually of foreign birth and worked for the feudal lord exclusively for survival.
Illumination of a peasant sowing the field from Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry

Medieval peasants lived in villages or manors, agricultural units held by secular or ecclesiastical lords. Peasants who lived on the land of the secular lords were also obliged to offer a tenth of their harvest and other products to the Church. Besides cultivating the land the medieval peasants also had to make and repair tools, dishes, clothes, coaches, horse gear and other items for their own as well as for their lord’s needs. However, there was also a considerable number of communities which were engaged in non-agricultural activities such as mining, forestry, transportation and crafts, while some coast villages were primarily engaged in fishing.

The land cultivated by peasants was divided on:

  • demesne or lord’s fief, an agricultural unit retained by the feudal lords for their own use
  • and depended serf or villein holdings, agricultural units nominally held by the feudal lords, while the real property was held by the peasants as tenants obliged to provide labour services and to cede part of their products to the feudal lord

Tenancy of the depended serf holdings was generally granted for the duration of its tenant’s life and could not be inherited, while the descendants of a deceased tenant had to renew the right to the leasehold and to pay a tax to the landlord which was usually in a form of a donation of one cow or some other animal. Besides the fields, demesne encompassed meadows, forests and swamps which were used by the landlord as well as by the serfs who were forbidden to hunt, and had to pay a redemption for pasturing the stock on common meadows and for cutting the firewood in the forests.

Polyptyques and later Urbariums provide the best insight into obligations and rights of the medieval serfs and also reveal great differences between different subgroups of serfs as well as between different regions and geographical conditions. Feudal obligations of the serfs who were descendants of the slaves or coloni were incomparably greater than of the free tenants who paid a rent and owed very little or no service to the landlord, while the peasants in lowlands had much greater obligations than the peasants in the hills. In some mountain areas there were no feudal obligations at all.

The manor was not only an agricultural unit but it was also an administrative-political and jurisdictional unit. The borders of the feudal landholding were generally also the borders of political authority of its owner who had its own army and patrimonial court. Thus the landlord was exercising both administrative and judicial authority over his serfs who were also obliged to pay the court fees and a tax for the administration.

An average medieval peasant had very little time left when finishing work. Peasant’s home was a simple wooden thatched hut which initially consisted of one room and also served as shelter for livestock and poultry. The hut’s room was later rebuilt with a fireplace into a separate room for the family and a stable for the livestock. An average peasant family in the Medieval Times consisted of 10 members, while married couples left their families and went on their own leasehold (if they received it) very young. Women usually married already at age of 14 years and gave birth to the first child at age of 15. Nativity was in average from 4 to 8 children but the mortality of the children was very high: 15-20% during the first year and 30% by the age of 20 years. The mortality was higher in the male population during the period of childhood, while high percentage of mortality at childbirth resulted in the higher mortality of the female population after 14 years of age.

Clothes of medieval peasants were self-made usually of linen hemp, wool and fur. Food of peasants predominantly consisted of cereals in a form of porridge or gruel and seasonal vegetables, while bread was rare. The principal meat was pork. Fruit-growing was poorly developed with exception of viticulture which was encouraged by the Church for its need of wine. Stable animal husbandry did exist, while livestock pastured on common meadows. During the winter, the majority of livestock and poultry was slaughtered.

The mentality and culture of medieval peasantry was greatly influenced by the church which was also the center of the social life of peasantry. The medieval peasant population was illiterate but developed rich folklore culture which survived until nowadays. During long winter evenings, at yarning and other activities people told each other various stories and adventures, while the friars, and wayfaring artisans and craftsmen provided news from the other lands and countries.

Life of an average medieval peasant was simple, hard and often greatly affected by poverty, numerous diseases and occasional famines. However, colonization of new lands, progress of agricultural techniques and tools, and economic progress had great impact on the life of the medieval peasantry. Technical progress in agriculture made the work on the fields a lot easier and provided better yields, while colonization of new lands by deforestation, drying out marshes, settlement of the hills and depopulated provided additional agricultural land and led to emergence of new villages. Peasants in colonized areas obtained approximately equal shares of land and more favorable status.

The Crisis of the Late Middle Ages marked by economic crisis and series of famines and plagues in first place by the Great Famine of 1315-17 and the Black Death in the 1340’s greatly affected all classes of feudal society including the peasants. Reduced rural population, increased need for wage workers and series of peasants’ revolts eventually led to weakening of serfdom which virtually disappeared in Western Europe by the end of the Late Middle Ages. However, serfdom and bondage to the land persisted in Central and Eastern Europe until the middle of the 19th century.

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