Good morning, medieval peasant! Rise and shine! The sun is rising and it’s time for you to get to work. You roll out of bed, which you share with your spouse, yawn and stretch, and trudge across the room to wake your three children. Your house has just one bedroom that everyone shares, but you don’t mind. It’s a step up from the one-room, windowless house of your grandparents. Your family enjoys average prosperity so your house has two rooms and a shed out back for the animals (which do NOT live with you in the winter now because you’re not on the very bottom rung of peasantry anymore). Your cousin, however, has done very well for himself over the years and his house has separate rooms for parents and children, boys and girls, AND it’s two-stories tall! Someday, you think, someday we’ll be that prosperous too!
You wander out to your main room to fix breakfast: a lovely bit of bread, some cheese, maybe an onion or turnip from your back garden, all washed down with some milk or, of course, ale. You gotta love that ale! You drink it with every meal. You’ve heard a rumor that in the monastery down the road each brother is given an allowance of three gallons of ale a day. How’s that for monastic life! With breakfast washed down and lunch of pottage made with cabbage and seasonal vegetables yet to come, you might head out to the fields, whether you’re a man or a woman, or go to work at your trade if you happen to be a carpenter, dyer, weaver, tanner, or something along those lines. Whatever your father and his father and his father’s father did, that’s what you do. Or if you are a tradesman but don’t have work at the moment you might look for a job in the fields as a day-laborer. If you’re a woman you might see if the lord in his manor house needs cleaning or other household work done. Some people hundreds of years from now might mistakenly call you a servant if you do this, but you and your medieval lord both understand this is a temporary assignment.
Okay, hold on, you say. How come I’m a peasant? How do you know that’s what I would be doing if I lived in the Middle Ages? Hey, I’m just telling you like it is. In the Middle Ages 90% of the population of Europe were peasants. Odds were that you would be too. Medieval Europe was agrarian and local. Sure, there were cities, but they were few and far between. Rural life was what it was all about. Last week I talked about manorialism. Well here it is. Manors, the villages and fields surrounding a lord’s estate and administrated by him, were the essence of medieval life.
So let’s get back to what your day would look like.
Contrary to shockingly inaccurate modern belief, your status as peasant didn’t mean you were dirt-poor, dispossessed, and on the verge of being squashed by a lord who owned you, body and soul. There was as much variation amongst the peasant class as there is in the middle class of the twenty-first century. Some peasants were pitiful and little more than slaves. Some were wealthy and loaned their lords or the church cash in hard times. A lot depended on the region where you lived and the grander economics of the time. And the weather. Oh my gosh, the weather decided everything. Too much or two little rain could set everyone back years. But for the sake of argument I’m putting you smack in the middle of the peasantry.
So there you are, working in the field, building things, dying things, weaving things, generally being useful and producing the food and goods necessary for survival. Why are you doing this? Because Wal-Mart hasn’t been invented yet. Trade in the Middle Ages was a fraction of what it is today. It was hard enough to ship goods from one village to another, let alone through big cities and off to exotic foreign locales. Most peasants rarely ventured more than 25 miles away from their home village in their lifetime. So everything that you needed to sustain yourself, your family, and your community had to be made locally.
Of course, this wasn’t all that bad. I’ve made you an average peasant and I’m also putting you in an average village during an average time. You’ve got enough to eat. The grains and other staples you grow in the fields are enough to sustain both you and your lord year-round. The vegetables you grow in your back garden are enough to feed your family. You can get nuts in the forest next to your fields and fruit seasonally. In fact, this is what you eat most of the time. Sure, you have some chickens, a couple of pigs, sheep and maybe some cows. That wealthy cousin of yours even has a few horses to help with the plowing. But you save meat for special occasions only, Christmas, Easter, Michaelmas, Candlemas. The lord might eat meat more frequently, but for all intents and purposes you’re a vegetarian. You have no idea that this is good for your health. So is all that exercise you’re getting through work. In fact, since you made it past childhood you’re pretty damn fit.
You have three children, that’s about average. Of course there were a couple that died in infancy or early childhood. That couldn’t be helped. Either they got sick or there was an accident or they never really were healthy to begin with. It happens. It’s sad, but common. Even healthy adults die before their time in your world. I mean, married women spend an awful lot of time pregnant and still have to work while in that state. Childbirth is always risky. Men have their dangers too. When there’s nothing to do but drink in the winter after everything is harvested but planting hasn’t begun yet it’s amazing how many silly accidents happen. You had a brother who was in his cups when he wandered out into the woods in the dead of winter and was found frozen and mauled the next day. Not that uncommon really. Same with pub brawls and on the job accidents. Must be all that ale.
Plus there are opportunities for bettering yourself. You can work hard and save up, passing your wealth down to your children, for example. But you could also send your children off to a nearby monastery. A generation or so back your ancestors saved up enough to buy their way out of serfdom. Happens all the time. Or if you’re really ambitious and up for a little adventure you could join the intrepid groups who are draining the fens, cutting down forests, or reclaiming marshland to build new settlements. Colonists aren’t just a post-1492 invention, you know.
So there you have it. That’s what your life would have looked like in the Middle Ages. It really isn’t a bad life after all. You’ve got your family around you and you know you can depend on them in times of crisis. You are fiercely loyal to and identified with your village community. You know your place in the world, something not many of your twenty-first century brethren can necessarily say. Life is simple but satisfying for the most part.
“What about your life, Merry? Are you down here working in the fields with us?” Nope. Not me! Because my family, the Gyllenhaals, were nobility. We can trace our family tree back to 788! So no, I wouldn’t have been a peasant. I would have been a land-owning noble.
But more about that next week….