During the middle ages (medieval times) the lives of villagers (serfs) were far from easy. Hard work and continuous effort – required to ensure the necessities of life – characterised most aspects of their existence.
Please note that by Villager we mean any serf, including villeins, bordars and cottagers, and exclude any Freeman who was farming land.
A villager’s house
Villager homes (also known as cruck houses) were simple structures based on a wooden frame. The walls of the frame were panelled with wattle and daub and plastered with quick lime and earth, a process also referred to as whitewashing. The colour of the local soil gave the plaster vibrant white, yellow or red colour, depending on the minerals present. The roof was usually made out of straw, reeds and other dried vegetation, commonly referred to as a thatched roof. There were no panes of glass in the windows. Instead, wooden shutters were used, closed at night or during winter, and would have made the houses quite draughty. Although this draught would have lowered the overall temperature of the house, it would have provided much-needed ventilation to combat the high concentration of smoke from the fire, and the smells of both animals and people living in close quarters. The floors were of hard, compacted earth sometimes covered in straw for warmth. The materials made the building relatively easy to erect and to maintain, because the components were readily available and frequently free to obtain.
In most cases the house was not internally separated and thus consisted of one long room. In some instances the house would have been separated in two rooms and possibly also would have had a raised floor spanning about 1/3 of the structure, which would have been accessible by a wooden ladder. This floor was used mostly as living quarters, primarily inhabited by the younger members of the family, since it was considered safer.
Furnishings and Tools
In the middle of a peasant’s hut was a fire used for cooking and heating. However, there was no chimney – the whole of the house would have been filled with smoke, which would slowly escape from the thatched roof. This would have kept pests (such as rats) and some parasites under control to a certain extent. Any furniture would have been very basic. Peasants sat on benches or stools, with chairs being considered more expensive, luxury items, only usually found in the manor house of the village. They would have a simple wooden table and chests for storing clothes and other valuables. Hooks were used to hang clothes and equipment around the house. The bed mattress was made out of straw and pillows were a luxury that peasants could not afford – it is theorised that logs were used to support their neck. Houses had no fresh water or a lavatory. A bucket was used and was emptied at the closest creek nearby in the morning. Food would have been cooked in a suspended cauldron on top of the hearth.
During summertime, the peasant’s animals would also live with the family in the house during the night. During winter the animals would have stayed in the house throughout the day. This contributed to a fairly low hygiene but also kept the house warm. Animals were expensive property and vital for survival, and keeping them inside would have ensured their security overnight.
These houses mostly provided shelter for a whole family; that would have included the serf, his wife, their children and quite possibly the extended family. The average household would have numbered eight peasants.
During the late middle ages the house would also have had a well and an outhouse, and also a barn.
The surroundings of the house would have had a fenced area to keep the animals inside, and also a small garden for the serf to cultivate vegetables and some basic herbs for his family.
The medieval serf’s clothing was basic and practical. A medieval serf’s clothing or dress consisted of:
- A blouse of cloth or skin, fastened by a leather belt round the waist
- An overcoat or mantle of thick woollen material, which fell from his shoulders to half-way down his legs
- Shoes or large boots
- Short, woollen trousers
- A sheath for his knife, hanging from his belt
- In cold weather or in rain he wore a woollen hat
- Gloves were only worn for their practical clothing value and were padded for use in tasks such as hedging
Peasants ‘enjoyed’ a rather monotonous diet. Meat was a rare luxury and would have usually been rabbit or pork; rabbits were easy to catch, provided the villagers had permission to use traps from the Lord of the manor. Pigs were the most standard meat animal and were usually slaughtered in the early winter, since feeding them throughout the lean winter was difficult and impractical. The bulk of a peasant’s diet consisted of brown bread (coarse barley bread) and cheese, made using the milk of their goats, lambs and, less commonly, cows. They only had one cooked meal a day, ‘pottage’, which was a broth of grains, vegetables and possibly some meat or fish. During late summer and early autumn peasants would gather nuts and fruits, as well as acorns, to fatten up the pigs for slaughter during winter time.
During the middle ages, starvation was not an uncommon cause of death, especially during times of drought. Peasants lived hand-to-mouth and anything which depleted their already meagre supplies would have had a devastating effect on the household.
Despite recent dramatisations (ahem Blackadder) the hygiene of peasants was not as bad as is commonly supposed. In fact, there is considerable evidence that most medieval people tried to keep themselves clean. The evidence also suggests that most people washed and changed their clothes quite frequently. They also tried to keep their houses clean. The idea that people were filthy and stinky is a myth.
The myth may have arisen because villagers rarely took baths. Before the 19th century it was difficult to heat a large amount of water in one go. Suppose you heated a cauldron of water and poured it into a tub. By the time you had heated a second lot of water, the first lot would already be cold.
The Romans solved this problem by having public baths, which could be heated from underneath. However, after the fall of Rome, it was much easier to have a strip wash. In hot weather people bathed in rivers. There is also evidence that villagers washed their clothes quite often.
Health manuals from the period note that it was important to get rid of dirt and grime. They also explained that it was important to keep the entire body clean. For example, the fourteenth-century writer Magninius Mediolanesis stated in his work Regimen sanitatis that “the bath cleans the external body parts of dirt left behind from exercise on the outside of the body”.
Children & Education
During the 1330s, only 5% of the population of England had any sort of education. In fact some lords of the manor had laws against educating the serfs. Some manors allowed particularly bright children to attend grammar school if that was available in a town nearby. The lack of education was, perhaps, one of the most powerful tools that the nobles had for exerting control over the numerous serfs. The nobles of the land knew that their lack of education, combined with continuous, draining physical labour, was a very effective way to keep the populace subjugated and tame.
Farmland & Animals
Depending on his classification, a serf could have anything from one acre (1 to 5 acres for Bordars and Cottagers) to 30 acres (20 – 30 acres for Villeins).
An acre is defined as the land that a man behind one ox can plough in a day. One acre is 4840 square yards and would cover about half a full-size football (soccer) pitch.
Considering the fact that in order to make a living, a family needed about 10 acres, many of the villagers had to work on other serf’s land in order to survive.
The lands of a villager were divided into strips, called selions or ridges, scattered within two of the three active fields of the manor; the third field was left uncultivated (fallow) every year to ensure the land’s fertility. The strips in the first field would have been used to cultivate grains in order to pay their dues to the Lord of the Manor and the strips on the second field would have been used to grow barley and legumes for personal consumption.
In addition to their strips, each villager would have had a small vegetable garden close to his house to grow vegetables for his family.
Most of the villagers would not have been able to afford to have a team of oxen by themselves, which mostly meant that two villagers would have to team up in order to plough their fields.
In addition to an ox, which was of vital importance to all villagers, each family would also have had some geese, chickens (for eggs), goats (for milk), and lambs (for wool and milk). In some cases, a villager might have also owned cows and/or pigs. The amount of animals that a villager had depended on how many his family could afford to feed and support, and how many animals the Lord of the manor allowed to graze in the commons (pasture and meadow).
Taxation and Fees
As we’ve discussed, serfs were not land owners; they were using the land of their lord (not renting) in order to repay their hereditary debt to him. Most of the serfs hardly ever had coins and, for their transactions with their Lord, would have to pay by working for him and with items produced.
Each household had to pay two to three man-days per week in their Lord’s service, doing anything the lord needed at the time, from cleaning the manor to taking care of the fields of the lord (ploughing, seeding etc). The amount of days was completely arbitrary and each lord could have requested more household members for more days. In times of high labour need, such as during harvest, this work tax was regularly increased.
The serfs had to use the manor’s mill in order to grind their grain, and the manor’s oven to bake their bread and for both those services the Lord would demand a portion as a fee.
During Easter, the serfs would offer the Lord an additional dozen eggs, and during Christmas the serf would offer a goose to his lord.
When the father of the household died, his son would have to pay a Feudal relief to the Lord as a reassurance of his fealty and in order to inherit the right to use the land. This, in most cases, was the best animal or the best part of the serf’s bounty. If a freeman or a serf outside the manor wanted to marry one of the serf’s daughters, her father had to pay a fee to the Lord.
Last but not least, a serf had to pay a food-rent to the Lord called feorm, which was essentially a significant part of his grain production.
A serf was able to pay a very heavy fee in order to purchase his freedom, or occasionally he could prove extraordinary valour in battle in order to have a chance to gain Freeman status. In some cases, serfs who gained their freedom by showing their valour were also ennobled.
Serfs were considered part of the land of the manor. They did not own the land they were living on or cultivating. Although serfs might have enjoyed some “freedoms” that slaves did not, for all intents and purposes serfdom was considered a form of hereditary ownership. A serf could not leave the land, but he could save enough money to repay his debt and buy his freedom if his Lord wished it.
Some serfs were able to escape and hide within cities; after a year and a day they could be recognised as freemen, but if they were found the penalty was a most cruel punishment, both for them and their whole family. Accounts of these punishments are violent, graphic and extraordinarily ostentatious – clearly these were intended to serve as examples to other would-be escapees.
Work & Holidays
Serfs worked for 6 days a week either on their fields or in the service of their Lord. Sundays were days of rest and prayer. In addition to Sundays, serfs did not work during holy days (holidays) which were usually accompanied by festivities, patronised by the Lord of the manor.
Common Tasks for Medieval Workers
January & February – work indoors repairing hunting nets, sharpening tools, making utensils – on mild days work outdoors to gather firewood, prune vines and mend fences.
March – work in the fields, ploughing and cultivating.
April – clean ditches, pruning trees, fixing sheds, hauling timber, and repairing roofs.
May – sheep cleaning and shearing, planting and field maintenance.
June – mowing hay crop and raking it into piles.
July – harvest grains, bundle sheaves, weed gardens.
August – threshing and winnowing of grains, grinding of grains into flour.
September – fruits picked and dried or stored, grapes picked and pressed for juice and wine.
October – gather nuts, roots, berries, and mushrooms, fields ploughed and empty fields sown with winter wheat, repairing and cleaning equipment.
November – firewood gathered, split, and stacked for themselves and the lord, pigs and cows slaughtered and meat smoked or salted, flex and hemp processed to make thread and rope.
December – trim trees, grape vines pruned, and hunting.
Most serfs had very hard lives and, in most cases, struggled to keep their families alive and well. Most of a serf’s clothing was scented with smoke (due to the lack of a chimney), though contrary to popular opinion they had a good understanding of hygiene. Their everyday food was a very humble warm meal once a day and, in some rare occasions, meat was part of it. Most, if not all of the villagers, were uneducated. All villagers had to pay very harsh taxes, consisting of both manual labour and produce; these taxes were tailored to suppress the serfs and make it impossible for them to recover from their hereditary debt and gain their freedom.
Do you have any questions?
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Serfdom, Wikipedia, 20 February 2015 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Serfdom
Everyday life in the Middle Ages by Tim Lambert, 20 February 2015: http://www.localhistories.org/middle.html
The Lifestyle of Medieval Peasants”. HistoryLearningSite.co.uk. 2014, 20 February 2015 http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/medieval_peasants.htm
Medieval Life – Housing, 20 February 2015, http://www.historyonthenet.com/medieval_life/houses.htm
Medieval Serfs, 20 February 2015, http://www.medieval-life-and-times.info/medieval-life/medieval-serfs.htm
Peasant life in the middle ages, 20 February 2015, http://www.camelotintl.com/village/peasant.html
A brief history of baths and showers by Tim Lambert, 20 February 2015, http://www.localhistories.org/washing.html
Did people in the Middle Ages take baths?, 20 February 2015, http://www.medievalists.net/2013/04/13/did-people-in-the-middle-ages-take-baths/