Welcome to another instalment of Fantasy Fridays. Today we’re looking at the lives of the medieval peasantry, a class of people somewhat shrouded in mystery—peasants weren’t good note-takers. In exploring the lives of the peasantry we’ll uncover what it was like to be one of them, the kinds of houses and towns they lived in, and what their day to day lives involved.
There’s plenty of nuggets of information for you to pick up along the way which you can use to enrich your fantasy stories.
The Medieval Peasant
The term peasant is misleading. Although they were at the bottom of the pyramidal feudal system that operated in England during the Middle Ages, they were not as brutish and stupid as the chap appears in the clip below.
In fact, all that ‘peasant’ really meant was that you lived mainly off the produce of your own labour, that you were self-sufficient. No different from the allotment keepers and off-the-gridders around the world today. They farmed the land to provide food for everyone else, working for a lord who let them farm a piece of land in exchange for labour and taxes.
Where better to look for an insight into the life of the peasant than from someone who lived during the era. Here’s a quote from 1395 from medieval author Jean Froissart:
“It is the custom in England, as with other countries, for the nobility to have great power over the common people, who are serfs. This means that they are bound by law and custom to plough the field of their masters, harvest the corn, gather it into barns, and thresh and winnow the grain; they must also mow and carry home the hay, cut and collect wood, and perform all manner of tasks of this kind.”
But despite this work-orientated account, peasants had quite a lot of control over their lives. Some were chosen to sit on village councils or in local courts to deal with issues ranging from trivial boundary disputes to murders. The lords, in short, couldn’t be arsed to get involved in these things. But this worked against them. The peasants grew savvy, learned the laws and how to read and write.
An example of the bright thinking of peasants can be seen in 1200. King John proposed a visit to Nottingham. To get there his route would take him right through the village of Gotham (not Batman). This meant it’d become a kings highway and therefore liable to more taxes. The villagers of Gotham didn’t like this, so when the king’s messengers arrived the whole village pretended to be insane—madness was considered a contagious illness. The king decided on a different route.
The Peasant’s Humble Abode
Back in the Middle Ages, a village was known as a ‘vill’, which in Middle English translated to town. Vills could include small hamlets, scatterings of farms, or compact groups of houses too. The term vill was used to describe a unit of government too, the smallest unit of all.
Being made from a wooden frame and panelled with wattle (woven twigs) and daubed with mud, the early homes of peasants did not stand the test of time. In fact, they lasted little more than twenty or thirty years. The exterior walls were plastered with quicklime and earth to give it extra strength, and depending on the shade of the soil, left them with a white, yellow or reddish colour.
Peasant cottage, Cosmeston Medieval Village, Wales
Roofs were thatched, made from straw and reeds. Windows, of which there tended to be just one or two, lacked glass and just had shutters which allowed for draughts. The interior floor was just compacted earth or was covered with straw. The shapes of houses varied depending on the culture. The Celts, for example, had roundhouses, whereas English peasants opted for something called a cruck house.
Celtic roundhouse, Co. Wexford, Ireland
Most houses consisted of one room, though some had two, and some featured a mezzanine level of sorts, which usually housed the sleeping quarters of the youngsters.
The central feature was usually a fire. Early houses lacked a chimney so toxic fumes tended to circulate before escaping through cracks in windows or seeping through the thatch. It was a source of a lot of health problems, though when chimneys came about these decreased.
Interior of peasant cottage, Cosmeston Medieval Village, Wales
Furniture was basic: benches, stools, tables. Chairs were too expensive. Chests were used to store possessions away and hooks used for hanging things off the dirty ground. Beds were made from straw.
Peasants weren’t the only inhabitants of these houses. If they owned animals—pigs, oxen, chickens—they lived inside too. If they didn’t have a barn, where else were they to go? They were too valuable to risk losing. Outside they could wander off, be preyed upon by the wolves and bears that still roamed the forests of England, or be stolen by reprobates. Just imagine the smells and the mess and the noise, let alone the fleas. A plant called fleabane was used by many peasants in their homes.
Not all peasant houses were like this. Peasants of a higher standing, such as the reeve (the village manager), a peasant who quite often owned land, had more furniture and decorative items, such as pottery imported from France.
In the later medieval period, particularly after the Black Death when peasants found themselves with a little more coin than before, we begin to see houses made of half brick and half-timber.
In busier and bigger vills you could find townhouses. These were timber framed with two floors. The ground floor was usually used as a shop front or workshop. Livestock was kept in there too. The second floor was used for living. A big reception hallway was characteristic of a wealthy person; it was usually the first impression visitors got. A dining room was another main feature. Up until around 14th-century windows tended to be made of brown or green glass. Some townhouses, from around 15th century onwards, had a latrine, which was a very crude toilet.
Each city differed, but most had characteristic traits. Most were found on rivers, coasts, or along trade routes. The market was the backbone of a city, usually found in squares and close to a church. Travelling merchants moved from city to city, selling their goods in markets. The streets would have been smelly. Faeces and waste were just tossed away wherever was convenient, i.e. rivers or the streets themselves. Complaints were made, but very little was done.
Life as a Peasant
What did they eat? Pottage was a popular dish, not by choice. Pottage involved taking anything and putting it into a pan of water and allowing it to boil for two hours. Everything had to be boiled because human excrement was used in the fields. Herbs, spices and garlic helped the taste.
There was an instant form of pottage too. Pre-made pottage was made into a sort of bread and taken to the fields. The beer was used to soak and break it up. Yes, beer. Alcoholic drinks were preferred to water because the water wasn’t very drinkable.
The social life of a peasant centred around the church. Here they had parties and enjoyed plays and performances. The church also provided plenty of holy days, eighty a year! Now we get eight. What happened there?
Peasants didn’t bother cleaning themselves much. They’d be lucky to get one bath a year. It was said that a peasant received two baths in their lifetime: once when born and the other when they died. There was no knowledge of hygiene. Compare this to the Romans. They built public baths for the lower classes to use. Enlightened.
Peasants lived well into their sixties, though many died young, a lot not making it past infancy due to disease. One thing they did have was pretty good teeth. How? Their diets had little sugar in them and what they ate was quite a course which scoured their teeth clean. Saying that there’s evidence from excavated teeth from the time of huge plaque build ups which would have left deformities of the face.
The lives of peasants did improve, you’ll be glad to hear. Those who survived the Black Death found themselves in a situation in which demand for work was high, giving the peasantry power to negotiate better terms for themselves. Every cloud.
Andrew Langley, Eyewitness Medieval Life
Christopher Dyer, Everyday Life in Medieval England
Thank you for reading! I hope it’s been somewhat insightful! There’ll be more posts like this about medieval life in the coming weeks. If you’d like to get them delivered straight to your inbox why not subscribe to my mailing list?