By Lucie Laumonier
There is no easy answer to that question, especially when looking at the 1,000 years of history the Middle Ages cover! Knowledge of the peasantry is moreover dependent on the sources that inform on their history, either written documents, illuminations or archaeological artifacts. But some common features tied the peasants of medieval Europe together as a group.
The first of these common points is that peasants were the most prevalent type of worker in the medieval era. They outnumbered the nobility, clergy, artisans and merchants. Peasants were everywhere. The second is, obviously, that peasants practiced agriculture and animal husbandry. The third is that most peasants resided in rural settings (though not all). Finally, many peasants experienced a certain degree of servitude.
Peasants were agriculturalists
Maybe it is stating the obvious to say that peasants were agriculturalists and practiced animal husbandry. When one thinks of medieval peasants, one pictures hard-working individuals engaged in agropastoral activities such as tilling, sowing and harvesting, raising cattle and arboriculture.
From the thirteenth century onwards, the labours of peasants were often featured on illuminated calendars, which yield conventional images of a dutiful peasantry. Their works resonated with the passage of time—to each month its activities. But calendars also functioned as a reminder that agriculture was the most common occupation in the Middle Ages.
The peasants’ labours depended on local conditions and weather, on the type of agriculture they performed, on the crops they sowed and on the species of animals they raised. But all had the same mission: growing the food the population would eat.
The high medieval texts reflecting on the organization of society placed the peasants in the ordo laboratores, the category of “those who work,” as opposed to those who pray (the clergy, called oratores) and to those who fight (the nobility, called bellatores). Peasants, then, were entrusted with the mission of working with their hands to feed society.
The Early Middle Ages witnessed a shift in agropastoral practices. With the fall of the Western Roman Empire came the fragmentation of society into small islands of population. State-oriented agriculture gave way to mixed farming and mixed husbandry, better suited to the new socio-political realities.
Released from the pressure of feeding a vast empire and its army, agriculture now responded to local and regional needs. Early medieval peasants still exported their harvests and animals, but on a local and regional scale. There is ample archaeological evidence to show that towns and cities heavily relied on imported food to feed their populations.
With the great expansion of the High Middle Ages, intensive agriculture leaning towards crop specialisation gained traction over mixed farming. Peasants from the Italian island of Sicily, for instance, mainly grew wheat, which they exported to the markets of mainland Europe. Peasants who lived in Burgundy, France, produced large quantities of wine, which were sold everywhere on the continent.
(Most) peasants were rural dwellers
Agriculture conjures images of rural settings: fields, pastures, woodlands and marshlands. Medieval Europe was overwhelmingly rural. Even after the great urban expansion of the twelfth century, the vast majority of people lived in the countryside. Land clearing and demographic expansion caused both the growth of cities and the development of new farming lands.
Most medieval people dwelled in hamlets, villages and small towns. In England for instance, demographers assume that, in the eleventh century, only 10% of the population lived in cities. By the fourteenth century, urban dwellers made up between 15% and 20% of the English population. At the close of the medieval era, therefore, approximately eight out of 10 individuals lived in rural settings.
Yet not all country dwellers were peasants. Rural communities counted their share of artisans and retailers. The nobility also resided in the country where they managed their estates. Monasteries were predominantly rural and relied on the peasantry to work on their estates.
In reverse, some urban dwellers – usually inhabitants of the suburbs – practiced agricultural activities. In the Southern French city of Montpellier, for instance, between 20% and 25% of the c. 1250–c. 1500 testators laboured in agriculture (or, in the case of women, their husbands did). Within the walled space of medieval cities, lots and backyards were devoted to urban agriculture and individual gardening.
Rurality, therefore, was not strictly synonymous with peasantry, although most peasants were indeed rural dwellers, as was the majority of the population.
(Many) peasants were in a state of servitude
While slavery decreased markedly in Western Europe after the fall of Rome (without disappearing), a growing number of peasants fell into a state of servitude. An heirloom left from the Roman Empire, (partial) unfreedom typified the status of many peasants from the onset of the Middle Ages.
Serfdom was especially widespread in England, France, Germany and Eastern Europe. It also existed—though in a toned-down version—in Spain or Italy. Circa the year 1300, still around one half of English peasants (that is, maybe 2 million people) were in a servile condition.
The titles that those peasants bore form a long list of Latin and Vernacular epithets, with varying geographical and chronological meanings. “Serfdom in one place could be very different from that in another,” writes historian Mark Bailey. Today, “Serfs” is the more common term to designate peasants in a position of servitude.
The origins of medieval serfdom can probably be retraced to the colonus (plural, coloni), an agricultural worker of the late Roman empire. Tenant farmers, the coloni paid landowners a portion of their harvest in exchange for use of the lands. More importantly, coloni were not allowed to leave their farmlands. Coloni are considered to be the predecessors of the medieval serfs.
Serfdom grew in importance from the eighth century onwards as the number of free tenants dwindled. To become a serf, one had to move to a servile tenure. In exchange for land tenure and for a lord’s protection, peasants were forced to renounce a number of freedoms. Others inherited their servile condition, as it was the case in England.
Theoretically conceived as a reciprocal relationship between peasants and lords, serfdom was exploitative for peasants, putting them in a position of dependence and limiting their freedoms. Lords benefited the most from the system.
Serfdom first receded during the High Middle Ages, at a time of demographic expansion and intense land clearing. Looking for farmers to develop their new lands, lords offered better living conditions to the peasants who would settle in their estates. The final decline of servitude came after the Black Death.
Serfdom therefore gradually disappeared in Western Europe from the fourteenth century onwards, but persisted well into the modern era in countries such as Russia.
Other features typified the medieval peasantry. For instance, from the point of view of the elite, peasants were potentially dangerous, always at risk of stirring up revolts. Anxieties towards peasant upheavals were widespread in medieval sources, especially in the late fourteenth century. Several episodes of revolts unfolded at pretty much the same time and in several Western European kingdoms at once.
Another characteristic of the peasantry was the prevalence of paganism for far longer than the nobility. Interestingly, “peasant” and “pagan” have the same Latin roots, found in the noun pagus, that meant country. Etymologically, therefore, a peasant was a countryman or a countrywoman, not necessarily an agricultural worker.
The fact that today, “peasant” is sometimes used colloquially in a derogatory fashion is not surprising. Since the Middle Ages, discourse concerning the peasantry has been far from positive. Nicknamed “illiterate” and “rustic,” peasants generally suffered from bad press, a far cry from the invaluable services they rendered to society as a whole … a society in which they were the largest demographic!
Lucie Laumonier is an Affiliate assistant professor at Concordia University. Click here to view her Academia.edu page.
Mark Bailey, The Decline of Serfdom in Late Medieval England: From Bondage to Freedom (The Boydell Press, 2014).
Christopher Dyer, Everyday Life in Medieval England (Hambledon, 2000).
Paul Freedman, Images of the Medieval Peasant (Stanford University Press, 1999).
Top Image: Medieval illustration of men harvesting wheat with reaping-hooks, on a calendar page for August. From the Queen Mary’s Psalter – British Library MS Royal 2. B. VII fol. 78v