Medieval village buildings: Serf HousingAs we have previously discussed, the serfs stood at the bottom of the feudal pyramid, and constituted more than 70% of the total population of England during the early and high middle ages. Over half of them lived in very harsh conditions, with famine being a very serious possibility during late spring when food supplies started to run low and the new crops were not yet ready.
In a medieval village, buildings like houses were usually built by using a wooden frame which was filled with wattle and daub and then covered with plaster made of chalk, or lime and earth. The roof was almost exclusively made of thatch. The serf could use an amount of land appropriate to the serf-class to which he was assigned; that amount of land defined the amount of livestock he could own, the size of family he could support and, of course, his ability to generate any form of revenue.
Today we will be focusing on the Cottar, the lowest class of the feudal system -excluding slaves (also called “thrall”). Our protagonist on this journey will be Aldhelm, a cottar in the village of Fulepet, which translates into Filthy Hole (yes, this is a genuine village name from Norman Sussex. We kind of wish we had made it up).
The FamilyAldhelm’s father died 6 years ago, aged 45. Three years earlier, the already elderly man had seen his wife, his freehold farm by the coast and his freedom evaporate into smoke at the hands of the raiders who came from the North. In debt and without a home, Aldhelm’s father came before Lord Octo and asked for his charity; he became Lord Octo’s serf, in a ceremony called “bondage”, and was allowed a small plot of land to cultivate. Aldhelm’s father died after three years as Lord Octo’s serf, and Aldhelm (as the oldest son) had to reaffirm his allegiance in the form of their best, and only, Ox, Freon.
Aldhelm lives with his son, Eni, his son’s 15 year old wife, Cynwise and also with his brother, Eanfled, his brother’s wife Ilwen, and their two young children. All seven of them sleep under one roof in his cottage, the land of which his gracious lord, Sir Octo, granted to Aldhelm’s father in their time of need. Aldhelm has concentrated on making sure that his small plot of land can keep his family fed and safe. Life isn’t easy. Aldhelm’s wife died 16 years ago during the birth of her son, Eni. He lost his two daughters two years ago to hunger, even though he gave them both all he could, and kept for himself only what he needed to continue working.
Everyday lifeEanfled and Aldhelm wake up early in the morning and join the rest of the farmers who head to the fields. Aldhelm was lucky enough to get a very fertile strip in the grain field this year, which might mean that the family has some surplus grain to sell to the market. The biggest problem will be that they no longer have an Ox to plough; they will have to work on the land of a Freeman called Alric in order to be able to rent an ox for a day or two to plough their 8 strips (rods). Unfortunately, it is already almost the end of March, and if they cannot plough by April then their growing season will be too short and the grain will not mature before harvest time.
Typically Ilwen, Eanfled’s wife, works at Alric’s pig farm, but with most of the pigs sold there isn’t much work to go around. She is still able to work for Alric once a week, but the rest of her days she spends either at home spinning wool or in the pasture taking care of the animals and, once a week, in the mill making flour and the bake house baking bread. Both her children are employed by a local fisherman called Swidhelm, helping him with fixing his nets and running errands for him. Swidhelm rewards each child with a fish every week, which is so far the only meat the family eats.
Eni and Cynwise were lucky enough to get noticed by Lord Octo’s wife, and they now work on the Manor six days a week helping out with the animals there. Two of those days (two days each) they work in service of the Lord, but for the other four days, their work is paid with flour and eggs. If it wasn’t for the kindness and charity of Lady Hild, life would be unbearable.
When Lady Hild’s youngest boy, Sighard, fell in the old well it was Eni who jumped inside without thinking and saved the young lad, who had only a drop of life left in him when they emerged at the rim of the well. Lord Octo was so grateful for this that he rewarded Eni with a cage full of chickens and one of his cockerels. Eni was moved to tears – this honour could mean that his family would have food, and a way to pay their dues, for years to come.
The cottageAldhelm’s father built their house with the help of his children and their wives. It is about 25 ft long and 12 ft wide. The frame is made of thick timber and is filled with wattle (interlocking twigs, woven together), which in turn was covered with daub (a mixture of manure, earth and hay). When the house was built (read more about building materials here) there was no time to plaster it, but today the cottage is covered with a yellowish glaze of earth and limestone which gives its walls a cream colour. The timber of the frame remains exposed and it’s obvious that extra support was required to hold the house together. The top of the house is covered with a tilted roof of thatch which was gathered from Lord Octo’s meadow. The house has no chimney, so the smoke of the hearth slowly escapes from between the gaps of the thatched roof, making the house very smoky. Last winter, Aldhelm had to re-daub a big part of the south-face of the house due to damage from strong winds. There are two small 1 ft x 2 ft windows, one facing east and another facing west. The windows have no glass – during night and throughout winter they are kept closed with wooden shutters. Despite this, the house is quite cold and draughty.
The house interior is not separated into any rooms. The only visible separation is a low fence that keeps the animals confined. The house has only one level and no loft. Unusually for a serf’s house, part of the floor is laid with flat stones; the children decided that it would be a game to lay stones in the house, and indeed many of the serfs laughed at the idea, but it does indeed make the house much easier to clean, something that Ilwen is very happy about.
Furniture and toolsIn the house, the family mostly sits and sleeps on the pile of straw at the south side of the cottage, away from the door, but there is also a wooden table and a two wooden stools. Most of the family’s clothing is kept in a big, oak chest. All the cutlery is kept in a wooden tub, which is also used to wash both the cutlery and the clothes by the river side. There are 9 wooden bowls, 11 wooden spoons and one brass ladle – the latter was given to Ilwen by Alric in recognition of her fine cooking skills. The family’s cauldron was sold last year to Omrik, a travelling merchant, in exchange for oats he brought from the North. Since then, Ilwen has only a medium sized copper pot in which to cook.
A wooden bucket with a lid is used to defecate in during the evening hours; it’s emptied first thing in the morning in a nearby stream. The hearth is positioned in the middle of the house and it’s surrounded with large, rather tall, stones (10” high) to contain the fire. The logs are also stored in a pile close to the fire, in order to keep them dry. Most of the family’s tools are hanging by the western wall, from the three structural wooden columns of the house. Aldhelm owns 1 iron axe, 2 flails, 2 forks (haymaking), 3 bronze sickles, 1 iron spade and one oak ard (ox-plough) which has been in the family for 4 generations now and bears the marks of several family members.
The gardenThe cottage stands within a small plot of land 35 ft by 25 ft wide, surrounded by a 2 ft high, dry-stone wall (without mortar). Most of the garden is separated into small vegetable patches, where the family grows onions, parsnips, garlic, leeks, lettuces, cabbages, carrots and beetroots. On the North side of the garden stands a wild cherry tree which was there even before the cottage was built, nine years ago. The jewel of the garden is a small patch of strawberries – Eanfled started them after finding a wild strawberry plant on his way back from the town. Right beside the cottage door there is a wooden raised bed filled with sage, thyme, mint and lavender which Ilwen uses sometimes when washing the clothes.
Land and AnimalsWhen Aldhelm’s father came to the village he was given 8 rods of land in the fields (2 acres) and a plot of 35 ft by 25 ft feet (875sq.ft) in the village to put his house on. After nine years of serving Lord Octo, the family still has 2 acres and lost their only Ox when Aldhelm’s father died.
Currently the family has 1 sheep called Didi and a lamb (that Didi gave birth to) called Hen. In addition to that, the family also has 1 cockerel and 6 chickens (awarded to Eni for his bravery) with 4 tiny chicks.
With 2 acres of land, Aldhelm is never allowed to have over 4 heads of livestock and 8 fowls, which means that some of those chickens will either be given to Lord Octo, in the form of taxation, or eaten, or sold. Apart from the limitations imposed on the number of animals by Lord Octo, the reality is that a family wouldn’t be able to sustain many more animals unless there was a surplus of food for them during the winter.
Four of the eight rods are in the grain field of the village and, if all goes well, they will produce five bushels (1 bushel = 25kg Sack) of grain. Half a sack of that will go to Lord Octo and a quarter of the same sack Aldhelm will give as tithe to the goddess Shelyn for her protection (or, in a Medieval world, to the Christian church). That will leave four and a quarter sacks for the family. In order to always have bread on the table, the family will need 22 sacks in total. They are missing almost 18 sacks which they will have to work elsewhere to find.
The four remaining crops will be seeded with Barley (2 rods) and Oats (2 rods), in order to provide an extra food supply for the family, and to feed the chickens.
Wares and food storesBeing mid-spring, the stores are half-empty but Aldhelm is positive that they will be able to survive until harvest. Currently in the house the family has stored:
- 6 sacks of Wheat (25kg each) 2 of those sacks to be used as seed for 1 acre
- 4 sacks of Barley (25kg each) 2 of those sacks to be used as seed for 1/2 acre; the rest to feed the chickens for another 2 and a half months
- 3 sacks of Oats (25kg each) 2 of those to be used as seed for 1/2 acre
- 6 bales of Hay to feed the sheep, Didi and Hen (enough for 4 more weeks)
- 2 kg of Salt stored in a linen pouch hanging from the ceiling
- 1 kg of Honey stored in a linen-covered clay pot
- 5 litres of Vinegar in a leather flask hanging from one of the support columns
- 18 Eggs in a straw basket
- 3 Trout (2kg each) preserved in salt
- 20 Onions smoked in a straw basket
- 15 Beetroots pickled in a clay jar
- 5 Garlic garlands (10 heads each) hanging by the support columns
- 100 Carrots
The garden is separated into squares, each almost five by five feet. With less than 330 square feet of garden, the family can support around 13 squares of fruits and vegetables. Some vegetables grow quite quickly and will allow the family to replant them twice, or even more frequently, within the year and all the way to the first snow. This month the family planted:
- 100 Lettuce heads (500 within a year including late autumn hardier crops)
- 400 Carrots (1200 – 1600 within a year)
- 400 Leeks
- 100 Broad-bean plants
- 400 Onions (800 within a year)
- 25 Cabbages
- 25 Cabbages
- 300 Pea plants
- 225 Spinach plants (hardy greens)
- 100 Artichokes
- 400 Beetroot (1200 within a year)
- 400 Radishes (2000 within a year)
It is safe to assume that, in a good year, 75% of the above will become edible whilst the rest will be failed seeds. In a normal year this will fall to 60% and in bad year could even fall below 40%. Some of the plants that survive will not be eaten and will be left to “go to seed”, so that the family will be able to gather and replant them for the years to come.
TaxationBeing a cottager, Aldhelm has to pay Lord Octo several types of taxes in order to pay for rights to the land he is using, and also to repay his debt. During harvest he has to pay 10% of his grain harvest (quite low, considering that the Lord of the next village asks for 20%) to the Reeve. During Easter, Aldhelm gave his Lord 2 dozen (24) eggs to show his gratitude. Aldhelm also has to provide Lord Octo with 4 man-days every week, which Eni and his wife are providing by working in the stables of the manor.
Finally, Aldhelm gave an additional 5% of his grain to the church of Shelyn (the patron Deity of the Kingdom) to thank her for her blessing and protection.
In ConclusionMost cottager families had to work very hard to survive. Making money always came second to ensuring that there was enough food to survive the winter, and to have food supplies until the next harvest. Although all members of the family had to do their part, charity, and the kindness of others, played a very significant role in their survival.
Aldhelm’s house is a very small space where all members of the family, and also the animals, live together. It’s cold and smoky, and surely quite smelly during the winter time. There’s only a very small amount of furniture, and a lot of things hang from the ceiling and support columns, or are stacked in piles; this also would characterise the interior of a cottage in a medieval village. If Aldhelm experiences several very good years of harvest he may, in time, earn enough money to pay in part, or even in full, his father’s debt. Lord Octo might elevate him to a higher class of serfdom, such as bordar or villein, or he may repay his bond altogether and become a Freeman as his father once was. On the other hand, a few years of drought or pestilence could mean starvation for his family. The cottager’s life was a precarious existence, one in which the weather could mean the difference between life and death.
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