International School History - International Baccalaureate - MYP History

MYP4 Last update - 09 November 2017  
Unit 1 - Lesson 4 - What was feudalism? (from below)
How can we find out about the lives of medieval peasants?

History is the study of what was written in the past. Medieval peasants could not read or write and therefore have left us no voice to listen to. The knights and barons built castles and church leaders built cathedrals, but medieval peasants lived in houses made of straw and mud the remains of which have long since been washed away. Where medieval peasants do appear in the historical record, it is always from someone else's perspective, someone from a higher social rank in the feudal system looking down on them. The names of peasants appear in manorial court records or  church court records and usually they appear because they have done something wrong. Finding out about the lives and thoughts of medieval peasants requires imagination, a degree of detective work and historical techniques more associated with the study ancient history.

Activity 1 - Finding out about the lives of medieval peasants (link)


Europe in the middle ages was overwhelmingly rural. The vast majority of people in lived in the countryside. There were very few towns and most people made their living from the land. Most people lived in manors which was an area of land controlled by a lord. The manor was an area of land that could sometimes include more than one village.

The medieval village was very different from a modern one. Few villages had more than 25 families. There were no roads leading to it, only muddy track ways. Most of the land in the village belonged to the lord of the manor. The lord kept some of the land for his own crops; this was called his demesne. The rest of his land was let to the villagers.

Villagers grew their crops in vast open fields. Many villages had three of these fields. But some had two; others had four. Each field was divided into furlongs, which were sub-divided into strips. A furlong is about 200 metres, which is about as long as a team of oxen can plough a furrow without a break. A furlong means furrow long.

Each family had some of these strips in each field (see dark strips on the map opposite). That way, nobody got all the good land or all the bad land. The lord, too, had strips in these fields, as well as his own separate land. Everyone in the village had to share the work. Each year, one villager was chosen to be the reeve. It was his job to organise the work.
From a thirteenth-century guide for manor officials

The steward
He should instruct the bailiffs who are beneath him. He should visit each of the manors two or three times a year and inquire about rents and services.

The bailiff
Every morning he should examine the corn, meadows and woods. He should see that the ploughs are attached in the morning so that they may do their proper ploughing every day.

The reeve
The reeve should be chosen by the whole village. He must see that everyone rise in the morning to do their work and that the lands are well ploughed and sown with good clean seed. He should each year with the bailiff work out the services owed in the manor.

A medieval village reeve


The three field system

You cannot keep growing the same crops on the same land unless you add fertilizer to the soil. So each year the villagers grew a different crop in each field. The main crops were wheat and rye (for bread), barley (for beer), oats (for porridge or animal food) and beans (for soups and stews).

Each year one field was left fallow. This means that no seeds were planted in it. Instead, animals were allowed to graze on the weeds which grew there. Medieval farmers had no artificial fertilizers - so the animals did it for them.

The peasants had to agree which crop was going to be grown in each of the fields. This was usually fixed by tradition, or in the manorial court. The villagers grew all the food they ate, often with little to spare. If the weather was bad, so was the crop. In a really bad year, they starved. In 1316,during the Great Famine, many villagers had to eat dogs and rats. They had no choice.

The village also had meadows, which were fenced. These grew grass for hay. Once the hay had been harvested animals were allowed to graze there. There was also waste or common land which was used for grazing cattle. As time passed, villagers chopped down more and more of the woods. More land was needed for food.



The peasantís home

A villein's home was very poor by modern standards. Many were just one-room huts, perhaps 6 metres by 4.5 metres. The walls were made of woven branches called wattle. This was covered with daub - a mixture of clay, dung and straw. Animal hair was used to bind it together.

There were holes for windows and a hole for the door. The floor was just the earth on which the house was built. A fire stood on a lump of stone in the centre of the room. Often there was no chimney. So smoke just curled round the room. These poor cottages disappeared centuries ago. Each probably only lasted for about 20 years. They had no taps. Water came from a nearby stream. A pit in the garden did for a toilet.


A villein was said to own 'nothing but his own stomach' and was his master's possession.

There was hardly anything inside the villeinís home: a few farming tools, cooking pots and bowls and perhaps a table and some stools. Better-off peasants might have a spare pair of clothes. Many did not. They might sleep on bags of straw in the same clothes they wore by day. But most pictures of the time show people sleeping naked.

At night-time, the villeins shared their floor with the animals. The animals were the family's most valuable possession. But the home was ideal for fleas to breed. That goes for lice, too. People could clean their hair with oatmeal, if they could spare it. Often, they did not bother. As people sat gossiping in the evening, they picked the lice from each other's hair. (They cleaned their teeth, if at all, with hazel twigs.)


Villeins were completely under the power of the lord of the manor. In return for their land they had to give him part of their crops and undertake labour service (work without pay on the lord's land). They also had to do other jobs such as weeding, hay-making, ditching and repairing the mills.. The villeins had to attend the manorial court. If they did not they were fined. They also had to serve on the jury if chosen. They were not allowed to leave the manor without the lordís permission.


All the villagers had to use the lord's mills for grinding their corn into flour. They paid for this either with money or by giving the lord some of their corn. If they were caught using a hand-mill of their own they were punished in the manorial court. He also had to pay the lord of the manor before he could brew ale, bake bread, gather wood or sell his animals. He could not fish or hunt except on the common land. A villein also had to pay a tax called a merchet (so his daughter could marry), and supply free food when the lord's steward arrived to collect the crops. When a villein died, the lord of the manor took a tax called a heriot (which included his animals, clothes, pots and possessions) and the Church took a tax called a mortuary.

Women's lives

Medieval manuscripts were mostly written by men. They tell us little about women's lives. Yet women played an important role in village life. Married women led lives which were probably harder than the men's. They were expected to help their husbands in the farming work, especially at harvest time. On top of that, they cleaned the house, cooked and made clothes and brought up the children.  Many of the women brewed their own ale (beer), but they could only sell it once it had been tested by the ale tasters and at a price set by the lord.  The most common symbol of the peasant woman was the distaff - a tool used for spinning flax and wool.

Image result for women distaf medieval

In interpretations of the Bible, Eve is often shown with a distaff, illustrating her duty to perform manual labour after the fall from Paradise. The church played an important role controlling how women were expected to live their lives and encouraging the misogyny they faced. According to the Bible, Eve was created from Adam's rib and, having eaten the forbidden fruit, was responsible for man's expulsion from paradise. The writings of the apostle Paul, in particular, emphasised men's authority over women, forbidding women from teaching, and instructing them to remain silent. The most important role of medieval woman was childbirth which was a very dangerous undertaking. The average life expectancy for a male child born in the UK between 1276 and 1300 was 31.3 years. However, by the time the 13th-Century boy had reached 20 he could hope to live to 45, and if he made it to 30 he had a good chance of making it into his fifties. Life expectancy for women was considerably less.
A short article about women in the middle ages from the British Library



Activity 2 (Homework)

1. Draw a sketch map to help you, explain how the three field system worked and explain the various jobs of responsibility in the medieval village.

2. Using both the film extract and the text above, explain how and why the lives of medieval peasant women were particularly difficult in the middle ages.

3. Plan a detailed essay plan in response to the debatable question, 'To what extent do you agree with the view that 'being a peasant in the middle ages was one of the worst jobs in human history'. As well as the text above, you will also need to refer to the Terry Jones video above.





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