What was a peasant’s life really like in the middle ages? The picture we have been taught is typically an ignorant, filthy, downtrodden, servile near slaves, always as the mercy of the nobility and living out short, brutal lives. Now that sure is a lovely picture isn’t it. But is it true? Were peasants dirty, uncouth, barbarous, and ignorant?
The word “peasant” was not used in English in the middle ages. The word peasant comes from the French word paysan which simply means someone from the country. During the middle ages, men who worked the land were in some degree of serfdom as villeins, smallholders, or cottagers or were free. The lowest class of serf was the villein. Villeins were not free to leave their land and owed labor duties to their lord. But even these semi-slave serfs did not live in the one-room hovels crammed with the extended family. Most medieval villages that have been excavated consist mainly of substantial houses. The distinguishing features of these buildings is the quality and quantity of the materials used as well as the standard of carpentry.
Where evidence exists, it tends to indicate that peasants lived in nuclear families much like our own and that they liked their privacy. From as early as the twelfth century there were upper rooms in many rural buildings. This suggests that some houses at any rate had private rooms and that their occupants did not have to live their lives under the watchful gaze of the whole family. That peasants liked their privacy can be further reinforced by archaeological evidence that houses were surrounded by ditches, and presumably also hedges and fences, and had locked doors, and goods were kept in locked chests. Peasant homes contained wardrobes, some had timber floors, had a particular kind of jug for hand washing, chairs, tablecloths, and candle-holders.
Excavations clearly show glazed pots, dice, cards, chessmen, pewter tableware, balls, musical instruments, and ninemen’s morris boards in these “hovels”. Peasants ate pork, lamb, beef, fruit, vegetables, bread, cheese, and even inland villages ate fish. Herbs like lavender, tansy, and fleabane kept peasant’s beds bug-free. A bowl of honey was used as an insect trap. There was an outdoor privy and excrement was collected regularly and combined with animal manure to be used as fertilizer. Coins have been found indicating that is was not entirely a subsistence economy. Ale and imported wine was drunk, often purchased at the local tavern, since many villages lacked clean water.
This all seems so much at odds with the common picture of the life of a medieval peasant. It was not static and unchanging, but a time of change and development. This is not to say that a peasant’s life was without hardship and suffering. Famine, marauding armies, ruthless lords, all of these and more could disrupt the life of the commoner. Life was generally worse for peasants earlier in the middle ages, but by the 1300’s, farming techniques, the growth of markets and towns, changes in the environment, and a generally more cosmopolitan world view by king and commoner alike all contributed to the overall improvement in peasants’ lives.