Why there’s no such thing as a typical medieval peasant
If modern film and TV depictions are anything to go by, ordinary people in the Middle Ages either enjoyed lives of rural bliss or unrelenting drudgery. Yet, writes Duncan Hardy, the truth is far more complex (and fascinating) than that
Judging by most film and TV depictions of Europe in the Middle Ages, one peasant looked much like another. A face, probably grubby, peeks out from beneath a hood; below, the body is clad in a tunic and woollen hose. Shoes – if feet are shod at all – are spattered with mud, from the farmyard or the quagmire of a road along which they’re tramping.
Such was the lot of the ordinary man or woman. Whether in Britain or Brittany, Essex or Aachen, a common assumption is that the everyday lives of ordinary medieval people were fairly homogeneous – that their status, wealth, health, diet and, yes, clothing was largely the same across much of the continent. Yet even a brief look at records and chronicles from that period – which, of course, covers a vast timespan – gives the lie to that idea.
Take the denizens of Ruislip, now a district in west London. In 1246, it was a small farming community in Middlesex. Here lived Roise, the miller’s wife; Nicholas Brakespear, a freeholder who flouted the local authorities’ orders; and Hugh Tree, whose flock kept getting into the lord’s garden. If you wandered through 13th-century Ruislip, you might also meet brewers such as Alice, the widow of Salvage; or Agnotta, the amica (“friend”, or mistress) of the shepherd.
Some locals were richer than others. One, Roger Hamo, was sufficiently wealthy that he could afford to pay 20 shillings for a jury of 12 local men to investigate his rights to a plot of land claimed by another man, Gilbert Bisuthe. The authorities’ specification that some peasants, such as Nicholas Brakespear, were freeholders implies that others were tenants or serfs. Some people got along, but others got caught up in disputes – take William Slipper and the Widow Druet, for example, who argued over a hedge boundary between their properties.
We know about the lives of these people because they were mentioned in the court records of Bec Abbey in Normandy, which was the lord of Ruislip’s manor. A document prepared by officials records information about justice administered to inhabitants of the manor on “Tuesday after Ascension Day [22 May]” 1246, including Roise, Nicholas, Agnotta and the others.
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Today they would all be lumped together as “peasants” – though this snapshot of one community at one moment in time reveals that generic label encompassed a range of people with quite different statuses and life experiences. Apart from the fascinating stories of its various inhabitants, then, Ruislip’s records tell us something important about medieval peasants: that their lives could be surprisingly varied.
Two visualisations of medieval peasants
All this should warn us against generalising about medieval peasants – yet, unfortunately, this is a warning that we, in the modern world, have failed to heed. In fact, so strong has been this urge to package our ancestors into stereotypes that we have fallen into the trap of visualising medieval peasant life in two ways.
There is the “negative” vision, that peasants in medieval Europe (our stereotypes tend to derive from the Latin Christian west) lived short, miserable lives. In this depiction, they were not only afflicted by the widespread disease and lack of hygiene that we associate with all pre-modern people, but were also violently oppressed by a greedy clergy and nobility.
Other modern imaginations have drawn a different picture: of a utopian conception of contented medieval peasants liberated from the constraints of constant regimented work, with autonomy for them selves and their communities.
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Such views are based largely on depictions of ordinary people on television and film. Most films set in the Middle Ages treat peasants as mere window dressing: a powerless, servile mass. Extras with dirt on their faces pose in crowd scenes while the real protagonists – royals, nobles and clergy – drive the plot forward. Where peasants have a role, it is often because they have joined a noble, military milieu: Milla Jovovich’s titular character in The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc (1999), for example, or Heath Ledger’s fictional peasant turned-jouster in A Knight’s Tale (2001).
Even more commonly, peasants are nameless and incompetent, reinforcing their inferiority to high-ranking main characters. Thus in Kingdom of Heaven (2005), the crusading nobleman Balian of Ibelin, played by Orlando Bloom, teaches starving Levantine peasants how to irrigate their lands – in reality, that technology had already existed in the Middle East for thousands of years.
Where peasants have a role, it is often because they have joined a noble, military milieu... more commonly, they are nameless and incompetent, reinforcing their inferiority to high-ranking main characters
A few films have, by contrast, portrayed peasants as heroic freedom fighters in a good-versus-evil struggle with corrupt overlords. Take Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991), or Braveheart (1995), which depicts the main protagonist, William Wallace (Mel Gibson), as a “commoner” and a man of the people; in fact, he was a member of the lower nobility. There is little room for nuance in such narratives: they are binary affairs pitting the masses against the aristocracy without intermediate social gradations.
In Braveheart, for instance, even the Scottish nobles ostensibly on Wallace’s side betray him, whereas the common folk rally around his cause. Such stories really reflect an abiding modern concern – inequalities between distant, dishonest elites and down-to-earth “ordinary people” – but also contribute to the romanticisation of medieval peasants.
Comedies have perhaps come closest to reflecting on the place of peasants in medieval society itself. Consider the 1975 classic film Monty Python and the Holy Grail, specifically the exchange between King Arthur (Graham Chapman) and two peasants (Michael Palin, seen below, and Terry Jones). The peasants’ assertion that they are “an anarcho-syndicalist commune” is partly a satire of modern leftist organisations. However, the reaction of Palin’s character when Arthur seizes him and tries to silence him – “Now we see the violence inherent in the system!” – is the most trenchant summary of lord-peasant relations in modern cinema.
Peasants as violent, superstitious, backward and servile
Like most stereotypes, modern views of peasant life are not entirely baseless. However, they tell us more about ourselves as modern inhabitants of an industrial civilisation than they do about the Middle Ages. Since the Enlightenment, people in the “west” have tended to view themselves as superior to all who came before.
In that respect, the “medieval” functions as the antithesis of all that we flatter ourselves as being. We regard ourselves as civilised, rational, technologically advanced, free and egalitarian. By contrast, “medieval people” – above all, peasants – must have been violent, superstitious, backward and servile.
The opposite fantasy – that medieval peasants lived idyllic lives – is rooted in the alienation many modern people have felt since the Industrial Revolution. To such people, the Middle Ages represent a romantic alternative to the corruption of modernity: it was a time when people lived more authentic lives, were more in touch with nature, and enjoyed stronger communities, undisrupted by the frenetic demands of modern capitalism.
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These two narratives, being products of modern preoccupations, are of limited use in illuminating the lives of people who lived in what we now term the Middle Ages – roughly, the early sixth to 16th centuries. The length of that timespan – a millennium – should provide one clue about the limits of any generalisations made about it.
Even if we focus only on Europe, we’re dealing with a panoply of different geographies, climates and regimes of lordship that evolved over 10 centuries, resulting in an array of peasant experiences. And finally, as Ruislip shows, even in one specific location the people we group together under the label “peasants” could be diverse in terms of gender, wealth, free or unfree status, and so on.
In light of this, can we say anything specific and meaningful about medieval European “peasant” experiences?
We can certainly point to some shared patterns in the Latin Christian heartlands during key phases of the Middle Ages. In the early medieval period, the political structures of the Roman empire crumbled in western Europe, but its successor states under the Frankish kings and their neighbours perpetuated some Roman ideas and practices. One was the distinction between free individuals and slaves or serfs (servi or mancipia), with the latter experiencing various restrictions on their personal, judicial and economic rights. Precise forms of unfreedom changed over time, but important differences in legal status remained in most places in medieval Europe.
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Those peasants fortunate enough to be of free status probably experienced a period of relative independence in the immediate post-Roman centuries. The urban centres of the former empire shrank everywhere, and the power of landlords dwindled, while local settlements gained substantial autonomy. Sources for rural life are rare for the sixth to eighth centuries, but those we do have suggest that free peasants enjoyed less pressure from exploitative landlords than at any other time in medieval history.
The power structure of various aristocratic and clerical elites, which depended on extracting surplus wealth from peasant production, became more complex and onerous during the Carolingian period that reached its zenith under Charlemagne, King of the Franks from AD 768 and Emperor of the Romans, 800–814. In that period, dukes and duchesses, counts and countesses, bishops and monasteries received grants of vast estates and attendant rights over their inhabitants from the powerful Carolingian court.
Surviving sources show these landlords trying to exercise more control over the peasantry in their lands. For instance, around AD 868 a mother and daughter, Cotefrida and Hungund – both free women – transferred their lands to the mighty Carolingian monastery of Saint-Gall, and obtained them back as tenures. There was a reciprocity implicit in this new relationship – they were now considered to be under the monastery’s protection – but this certainly curtailed their personal freedoms and uses of their land.
Free and unfree status among peasants
Such arrangements began to blur the previously sharp distinction between free and unfree status among peasants. This blurring accelerated after the Carolingian empire gave way to smaller kingdoms during the so-called “High” Middle Ages (950– 1300). Most historians agree that this period saw a localisation and privatisation of power into the hands of small-scale, violent lords in what has sometimes been called the “feudal transformation”.
In Europe’s core regions – including much of England, France, the Low Countries, western Germany and northern Italy – peasants found themselves living under lords who controlled most aspects of their lives. That included aspects that had previously been publicly managed, such as village law courts. Lords increasingly extracted labour dues as well as rents, even from their tenant farmers who were not serfs.
Beyond this densely populated core, however, peasant life could be much freer. A population boom in these centuries prompted outward migration, and conquests on Latin Christendom’s frontiers – from Iberia to eastern Europe – encouraged the conquerors to offer favourable conditions to migrating peasants, often at the expense of existing populations. In 1159, for example, Archbishop Wichmann of Magdeburg in eastern Germany attracted one Herbert to settle in the nearby village of Pechau with a promise of six hereditary holdings, no labour obligations, and a judicial office from which Herbert could derive one-third of the profits.
In Europe’s core regions – including much of England, France, the Low Countries, western Germany and northern Italy – peasants found themselves living under lords who controlled most aspects of their lives
The final phase of the Middle Ages – from the 14th to the early 16th centuries – is the best documented, shedding light on the diversity of life at every level of society, including that of peasant men and women. Famines and repeated pandemics – including the devastating Black Death of 1347–51 – caused misery and demographic decline, but their impacts were mixed and depended on local circumstances.
In much of western Europe, especially England and France, serfdom disappeared in the late medieval period, though some poorer peasants still lived very precarious lives as penniless tenants or owners of dwindling smallholdings.
East-central European regions such as Prussia and Poland, by contrast, experienced a “second serfdom”: the nobility imposed stricter controls over the peasantry than ever before. Meanwhile, other areas, such as Dithmarschen on the Danish German border and Appenzell in what is now Switzerland, became self-governing peasant “republics” using force to repel would-be coercive overlords.
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Plentiful evidence from the late Middle Ages also shows that peasants were not passive victims of the biological, economic and political hardships that they faced. Whether in law courts or, occasionally, through armed rebellions, peasants actively sought to navigate these difficult circumstances to their own advantage.
Outright revolts became increasingly common, with different groups rising up for different reasons – another reminder of the sheer variety of “peasant” experiences. Famous examples include the Jacquerie in northern France in 1358, the English Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, and Jack Cade’s Rebellion in Kent in 1450. All of these not only involved protest against taxes and landlords’ impositions, but also saw spokespeople representing the peasants using prevailing discourses about the “common good” of the realm.
It is in the context of these revolts that we can get closest to hearing medieval peasant voices, some of whom said quite radical things. In his 14th-century Chronicles, Jean Froissart recounts how, at the outbreak of the Jacquerie revolt, an assembly of villagers asserted that “all of the nobility of the realm of France, knights and squires, were betraying the realm, and that it would be a very good thing if all of them were destroyed”.
And in England, according to the chronicler Thomas Walsingham, when the priest John Ball gave a sermon to peasants who assembled at Blackheath in 1381, he voiced their opposition to serfdom with the famous words: “Whan Adam dalf, and Even span, Wo was thanne a gentilman?” [When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then a gentleman?]
For some peasant rebels, religious concerns were even more central. In early 15th-century Bohemia, for example, the Hussite movement that broke away from the Catholic church included peasant adherents who formed the backbone of armies that repelled multiple crusades.
A century later, in the 1520s, the early Reformation coincided with Europe’s largest revolt – the so-called Peasants’ War of 1524–25 – in which bands of farmers across the southern and central Holy Roman Empire took up arms against their princely overlords.
Although that latter movement was brutally crushed, it briefly produced a flurry of radical publications. One, The Twelve Articles of the Peasantry, combined peasants’ grievances against landlords with religious teachings, most profoundly in an article calling for the abolition of serfdom: “It has been customary until now to hold us as bondspeople, which is to be deplored, as Christ redeemed and purchased us all with the precious shedding of his blood, the shepherd as much as the highest noble.”
Such late medieval texts allow us to glimpse peasants as they always were throughout the Middle Ages, across all kinds of geographic, political and social contexts: diverse three-dimensional actors with their own ideas and agendas. We should neither romanticise them nor write them off as an undifferentiated mass of abject lower orders, but respect them as complex and fully rounded historical agents. And we should seek to capture the echoes of their voices in our fragmentary source material wherever we can.
Duncan Hardy is associate professor of history at the University of Central Florida, specialising in medieval and early modern Europe
This article was first published in the November 2022 issue of BBC History Magazine