Farming in Medieval England The lifestyle of peasants in Medieval by accinent


									Farming in Medieval England

The lifestyle of peasants in Medieval England was extremely hard and harsh. Many worked as
farmers in fields owned by the lords and their lives were controlled by the farming year. Certain
jobs had to be done at certain times of the year. Their lives were harsh but there were few
rebellions due to a harsh system of law and order.

The peasants were at the bottom of the Feudal System and had to obey their local lord to whom
they had sworn an oath of obedience on the Bible. Because they had sworn an oath to their lord,
it was taken for granted that they had sworn a similar oath to the duke, earl or baron who owned
that lord’s property.

The position of the peasant was made clear by Jean Froissart when he wrote:
“It is the custom in England, as with other countries, for the nobility to have great power over the
common people, who are serfs. This means that they are bound by law and custom to plough the
field of their masters, harvest the corn, gather it into barns, and thresh and winnow the grain;
they must also mow and carry home the hay, cut and collect wood, and perform all manner of
tasks of this kind.”

The one thing the peasant had to do in Medieval England was to pay out money in taxes or rent.
He had to pay rent for his land to his lord; he had to pay a tax to the church called a tithe. This
was a tax on all of the farm produce he had produced in that year. A tithe was 10% of the value
of what he had farmed. This may not seem a lot but it could make or break a peasant’s family. A
peasant could pay in cash or in kind – seeds, equipment etc. Either ways, tithes were a deeply
unpopular tax.

After you had paid your taxes, you could keep what was left – which would not be a great deal.
If you had to give away seeds for the next growing season, this could be especially hard as you
might end up with not having enough to grow let alone to feed yourself.
                                        Life of the Peasants

Peasants lived in cruck houses. These had a wooden frame onto which was plastered wattle and
daub. This was a mixture of mud, straw and manure. The straw added insulation to the wall
while the manure was considered good for binding the whole mixture together and giving it
strength. The mixture was left to dry in the sun and formed what was a strong building material.

Cruck houses were not big but repairs were quite cheap and easy to do. The roofs were thatched.
There would be little furniture within the cruck houses and straw would be used for lining the
floor. The houses are likely to have been very hot in the summer and very cold in the winter.
Windows were just holes in the walls as glass was very expensive. Doors might be covered with
a curtain rather than having a door as good wood could be expensive

The houses would have had none of the things we accept as normal today – no running water, no
toilets, no baths and washing basins. Soap was unheard of and as was shampoo. People would
have been covered with dirt, fleas and lice. Beds were simply straw stuffed mattresses and these
would have attracted lice, fleas and all types of bugs. Your toilet would have been a bucket
which would have been emptied into the nearest river at the start of the day.

Water had a number of purposes for peasants – cooking, washing etc. Unfortunately, the water
usually came from the same source. A local river, stream or well provided a village with water
but this water source was also used as a way of getting rid of your waste at the start of the day. It
was usually the job of a wife to collect water first thing in the morning. Water was collected in
wooden buckets. Villages that had access to a well could simply wind up their water from the
well itself.

It was said that a peasant could expect to be fully bathed just twice in their life; once, when they
were born and when they had died! Face and hand washing was more common but knowledge of
hygiene was non-existent. No-one knew that germs could be spread by dirty hands.

Families would have cooked and slept in the same room. Children would have slept in a loft if
the cruck house was big enough.

The lives of peasant children would have been very different to today. They would not have
attended school for a start. Very many would have died before they were six months old as
disease would have been very common. As soon as was possible, children joined their parents
working on the land. They could not do any major physical work but they could clear stones off
the land – which might damage farming tools – and they could be used to chase birds away
during the time when seeds were sown. Peasant children could only look forward to a life of
great hardship.

For all peasants, life was "nasty, brutish and short."

Feudalism is the name given to the system of government William I introduced to England.
William could not rule every part of the country himself - this was physically impossible. He
needed a way of controlling England so that the people remained loyal. Feudalism became a way
of life in Medieval England and remained so for many centuries.

William divided up England into very large plots of land - similar to our counties today. These
were 'given' to those noblemen who had fought bravely for him in battle. William argued that
those noblemen who were willing to die in battle for him, would also be loyal to him. The land
was not simply given to these nobles. They had to swear an oath of loyalty to William, they had
to collect taxes in their area for him and they had to provide the king with soldiers if they were
told to do so. In the eleventh century, a sworn oath on the Bible was a very important thing and
one which few men would dare to break as it would condemn them to Hell. The men who got
these parcels of land would have been barons, earls and dukes Within their own area, they were
the most important person there. In the terms of the Feudal System, these men, the barons etc.,
were known as tenants-in-chief.

The barons etc. had to further divide up their land and these were 'given' to trusted Norman
knights who had also fought well in battle. Each knight was given a segment of land to govern.
He had to swear an oath to the baron, duke or earl, collect taxes when told to do so and provide
soldiers from his land when they were needed.

These lords worked to maintain law and order. The people in their land - or manors - were
treated harshly and there was always the constant threat of Norman soldiers being used against
the English people wherever they lived. The lords had to do their job well as unsuccessful ones
could be removed from their position. Their job was simple - keep the English people in their
places. Under the Feudal System, these men, the knights, were called sub-tenants.

Note that both groups were officially tenants - a word we associate with land that does not
belong to you. Both all but rented out their land in that they had to provide money or services to
the real owner of all land - William the Conqueror.

Medieval Education in England was the preserve of the rich. Education in Medieval England had
to be paid for and medieval peasants could not have hoped to have afforded the fees. When
William I conquered England in 1066 at the Battle of Hastings, he took over a country where
very few were educated – including the wealthy.

As Medieval England developed so did the need for a more educated population - especially in
the developing world of merchant trade. Important trading towns set up what became known as
grammar schools and it was not unusual for a wealthy local merchant to have funded such a

All lessons taught in a grammar school were in Latin. Lessons were taught in a way that boys
had to learn information by heart. Whether they understood what they had learned was a separate
issue! Books were extremely expensive in Medieval England and no school could hope to kit out
their pupils with books.

By 1500, many large towns had a grammar school. One of the oldest was in the important market
town of Maidstone in Kent. Schools then were very small. Many had just one room for all the
boys and one teacher who invariably had a religious background. The teacher would teach the
older boys who were then responsible for teaching the younger ones.

Lessons frequently started at sunrise and finished at sunset. This meant that in the spring/summer
months, school could last for many hours. The opposite was true for the winter. Discipline was
very strict. Mistakes in lessons were punished with the birch (or the threat of it) In theory pupils
would never make the same mistake again after being birched, as the memory of the pain
inflicted was too strong.

The sons of the peasants could only be educated if the lord of the manor had given his
permission. Any family caught having a son educated without permission was heavily fined.
Historians today feel that this policy was simply an extension of those in authority trying to keep
peasants in their place, as an educated peasant/villain might prove to be a threat to his master as
he might start to question the way things were done.

Very few girls went to what could be describes as a school. Girls from noble families were
taught at home or in the house of another nobleman. Some girls from rich families went abroad
to be educated. Regardless of where they went, the basis of their education was the same – how
to keep a household going so that their husband was well kept. Girls might learn to play a
musical instrument and to sing. But the philosophy of their education remained the same – how
to keep a successful household for your husband.
Women in the Renaissance

For centuries girls had been told and, if educated, that they were inferior. So by the time, they
became women, they would have acted as if they were inferior to men. The Church taught this
and used the Bible to justify this belief. Both men and women believed that women were inferior
to men and that this was ordered by God.

Young girls were taught that they had to obey their parents instantly. As a father dominated a
household, this basically meant that the girls grew up to instinctively obey men. Even uncles,
older brothers and male family friends could expect instant obedience from girls. Girls received
no formal education (though very few boys did) but they were taught that their sole function in
life was to marry, have children and look after their homes and husbands. Girls were taught that
God had commanded them to be obedient to men – be it father or husband.

Girls from a poor home received no education as we would recognize it. They learned skills for
life from their mothers. Girls from the homes of the rich received some form of education but it
was in things like managing a household, needlework and meal preparation. It was generally
believed that teaching girls to read and write was a waste of time.

Young ladies from a rich family would have no choice over who their husbands would be.
Marriages were frequently arranged so that the families involved would benefit – whether the
young lady loved her future husband was effectively irrelevant. There was no legal age for
marriage and many girls aged 14 would have got married at that age. In the homes of the poor,
there was almost a rush to marry off daughters as it was believed that once they reached a certain
age – about 14 – they would have been seen as being too old for marrying off and therefore a
liability at home - one extra mouth to feed and no extra income coming into the house.

Once married, the main function of a wife was to produce a son to continue the family line. This
was true for royalty right down to the common peasant. In would not have been unusual for
wives to be pregnant every twelve months. In Tudor England, pregnancy and especially
childbirth was dangerous for the wife. Death in childbirth was not unusual. One ‘tradition’ at this
time was for a wife to prepare a new baby’s nursery but to also make arrangements for the baby
should she, the mother, die in childbirth.

The law gave a husband full rights over his wife. She effectively became his property. A wife
who committed adultery could expect to be severely punished as Catherine Howard found out. A
peer could have his adulterous wife burned at the stake if the king/queen agreed. A wife who
killed her husband did not commit murder – she committed the far worse crime of petty treason.
This also lead to her being burned at the stake. Wife beating was common and the logic of Tudor
England was that the wife would have provoked her husband into beating her and if she had
behaved properly, he would not have beaten her. Therefore she herself was responsible for her
beating! In theory, a wife could walk away from a marriage – but to what? Who would keep her?
Who would employ her? Therefore, women had to stay in a marriage even if it was a brutal one
as there was very little else she could do.
Law and Order in Medieval England

Law and order was very harsh in Medieval England. Those in charge of law and order believed
that people would only learn how to behave properly if they feared what would happen to them if
they broke the law. Even the ‘smallest’ offences had serious punishments. The authorities feared
the poor simply because there were many more poor than rich and any revolt could be potentially
damaging - as the Peasants Revolt of 1381 proved.

By the time of Henry II, the system of law in England had been improved because Henry sent
out his own judges from London to listen to cases throughout all England’s counties. Each
accused person had to go through an ordeal. There were three ordeals:

   1. Ordeal by fire. An accused person held a red hot iron bar and walked three paces. His
      hand was then bandaged and left for three days. If the wound was getting better after
      three days, you were innocent. If the wound had clearly not got any better, you were
   2. Ordeal by water. An accused person was tied up and thrown into water. If you floated
      you were guilty of the crime you were accused of.
   3. Ordeal by combat. This was used by noblemen who had been accused of something.
      They would fight in combat with their accuser. Whoever won was right. Whoever lost
      was usually dead at the end of the fight.

In 1215, the Pope decided that priests in England must not help with ordeals. As a result, ordeals
were replaced by trials by juries. To start with, these were not popular with the people as they
felt that their neighbours might have a grudge against them and use the opportunity of a trial to
get their revenge. After 1275, a law was introduced which allowed people to be tortured if they
refused to go to trial before a jury.

If you were found guilty of a crime you would expect to face a severe punishment. Thieves had
their hands cut off. Women who committed murder were strangled and then burnt. People who
illegally hunted in royal parks had their ears cut off and high treason was punishable by being
hung, drawn and quartered. There were very few prisons as they cost money and local
communities were not prepared to pay for their upkeep. It was cheaper to execute someone for
bad crimes or mutilate them and then let them go.

Most towns had a gibbet just outside of it. People were hung on these and their bodies left to rot
over the weeks as a warning to others. However, such violent punishments clearly did not put off
people. In 1202, the city of Lincoln had 114 murders, 89 violent robberies and 65 people were
wounded in fights. Only 2 people were executed for these crimes and it can be concluded that
many in Lincoln got away with their crime.
Life of the Wealthy in Medieval England

Medieval manor houses were owned by Medieval England's wealthy - those who were at or near
the top of the feudal system. Manors were built of natural stone and they were built to last. Their
very size was an indication of a lord's wealth. By the standards of Medieval England, they were
probably the largest buildings seen by peasants outside of castles and cathedrals.

All those who worked on the manor slept in the hall - reckoned to be as many as 100 at Penshurst
in Medieval times - except for the lord and his family who retired to the solar at night. Light into
the Great Hall came from the large windows at the side of the building. The solar, effectively the
lord's private chambers, is on the left of the photo. Again, the room would be lit by large
windows hence giving it its name - solar (light). The kitchen was on the extreme right of the
photo by the arched doorway. This section also contained the buttery. To all intents, the manor
was a self-contained entity. Food for the kitchen was grown on the estate and it had its own
water supply.

All lords would seek to impress other members of the nobility and the grander the manor the
more self-important a lord might feel. Even the entrance to your manor was designed to make a
statement about your importance.

What was life like in a Medieval manor house? For the lord and his family, tolerably
comfortable. Though the comforts of a modern house did not exist, they would have had privacy
from the estate workers. For the estate workers, a winter's night would have been almost
certainly very cold and uncomfortable. At Penshurst, the Great Hall contained one large fire but
the hall itself would have been very draughty. All those who slept here would have slept on
straw. Washing facilities would have very poor (by our standards) and there would have been a
very limited amount of time to wash as workers worked from sunrise to sunset. There were no
obvious toilets at Medieval Penshurst Place - as would have been true in Medieval England as a
whole, except in the monasteries. For the peasants who worked on the land, life was still difficult
and the feudal system gave them no freedom. Even the lords of a manor were bound by the
duties required by the feudal system - and manors could be taken from noble families who were
deemed to have angered the king. uk

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