Story of the Middle Ages - S. B. Harding

Life of the Village

One thing about the life of the knights and squires has not yet been explained; that is, how they were supported. They neither cultivated the fields, nor manufactured articles for sale, nor engaged in commerce. How, then, were they fed and clothed, and furnished with their expensive armor and horses? How, in short, was all this life of the castle kept up,—with its great buildings, its constant wars, its costly festivals, and its idleness?

We may find the explanation of this in the saying of a bishop who lived in the early part of the Middle Ages.

"God," said he, "divided the human race from the beginning into three classes. There were, the priests, whose duty it was to pray and serve God; the knights, whose duty is was to defend society; and the peasants, whose duty it was to till the soil and support by their labor the other classes."

This, indeed, was the arrangement as it existed during the whole of the Middle Ages. The "serfs" and "villains" who tilled the soil, together with the merchants and craftsmen of the towns, bore all the burden of supporting the more picturesque classes above them.

[Illustration] from The Story of the Middle Ages by S. B. Harding


The peasants were called "serfs" and "villains," and their position was very curious. For several miles about the castle, all the land belonged to its lord, and was called, in England, his "manor." He did not own the land outright,—for, as you know, he did homage and fealty for it to his  lord or "suzerain," and the latter in turn owed homage and fealty to his  "suzerain," and so on up to the king. Neither did the lord of the castle keep all of the manor lands in his own hands. He did not wish to till the land himself, so most of it was divided up and tilled by peasants, who kept their shares as long as they lived, and passed them on to their children after them. As long as the peasants performed the services and made the payments which they owed to the lord, the latter could not rightfully turn them out of their land.

The part of the manor which the lord kept in his own hands was called his "domain," and we shall see presently how this was used. In addition there were certain parts which were used by the peasants as common pastures for their cattle and sheep; that is, they all had joint rights in this. Then there was the woodland to which the peasants might each send a certain number of pigs to feed upon the beech nuts and acorns. Finally there was the part of the manor which was given over to the peasants to till.

This was usually divided into three great fields, without any fences, walls, or hedges about them. In one of these we should find wheat growing, or some other grain that is sown in the winter; in another we should find a crop of some grain, such as oats, which requires to be sown in the spring; while in the third we should find no crop at all. The next year the arrangement would be changed, and again the next year. In this way, each field bore winter grain one year, spring grain the next, and the third year it was plowed several times and allowed to rest to recover its fertility. While resting it was said to "lie fallow." Then the round was repeated. This whole arrangement was due to the fact that people in those days did not know as much about "fertilizers" and "rotation of crops" as we do now.

The most curious arrangement of all was the way the cultivated land was divided up. Each peasant had from ten to forty acres of land which he cultivated; and part of this lay in each of the three fields. But instead of lying all together, it was scattered about in long narrow strips, each containing about an acre, with strips of unplowed sod separating the plowed strips from one another. This was a very unsatisfactory arrangement, because each peasant had to waste so much time in going from one strip to his next; and nobody has ever been able to explain quite clearly how it ever came about. But this is the arrangement which prevailed in almost all civilized countries throughout the whole of the Middle Ages, and indeed in some places for long afterward.

[Illustration] from The Story of the Middle Ages by S. B. Harding


In return for the land which the peasant held from his lord, he owed the latter many payments and many services. He paid fixed sums of money at different times during the year; and if his lord or his lord's suzerain knighted his eldest son, or married off his eldest daughter, or went on a crusade, or was taken captive and had to be ransomed,—then the peasant must pay an additional sum. At Easter and at other fixed times the peasant brought a gift of eggs or chickens to his lord; and he also gave the lord one or more of his lambs and pigs each year for the use of the pasture. At harvest time the lord received a portion of the grain raised on the peasant's land. In addition the peasant must grind his grain at his lord's mill, and pay the charge for this; he must also bake his bread in the great oven which belonged to the lord, and use his lord's presses in making his cider and wine, paying for each.

These payments  were sometimes burdensome enough, but they were not nearly so burdensome as the services  which the peasants owed their lord. All the labor of cultivating the lord's "domain" land was performed by them. They plowed it with their great clumsy plows and ox-teams; they harrowed it, and sowed it, and weeded it, and reaped it; and finally they carted the sheaves to the lord's barns and threshed them by beating with great jointed clubs or "flails." And when the work was done, the grain belonged entirely to the lord. About two days a week were spent this way in working on the lord's domain; and the peasants could only work on their own lands between times. In addition, if the lord decided to build new towers, or a new gate, or to erect new buildings in the castle, the peasants had to carry stone and mortar for the building and help the paid masons in every way possible.

[Illustration] from The Story of the Middle Ages by S. B. Harding


And when the demands of their lord were satisfied, there were still other demands made upon them; for every tenth sheaf of grain, and every tenth egg, lamb and chicken, had to be given to the Church as "tithes."

The peasants did not live scattered about the country as our farmers do, but dwelt all together in an open village. If we should take our stand there on a day in spring, we should see much to interest us. On the hilltop above is the lord's castle; and near by is the parish church with the priest's house. In the distance are the green fields, cut into long narrow strips; and in them we see men plowing and harrowing with teams of slow-moving oxen, while women are busy with hooks and tongs weeding the growing grain. Close at hand in the village we hear the clang of the blacksmith's anvil, and the miller's song as he carries the sacks of grain and flour to and from the mill. Dogs are barking, donkeys are braying, cattle are lowing; and through it all we hear the sound of little children at play or women singing at their work.

[Illustration] from The Story of the Middle Ages by S. B. Harding


The houses themselves were often little better than wooden huts thatched with straw or rushes, though sometimes they were of stone. Even at the best they were dark, dingy, and unhealthful. Chimneys were just beginning to be used in the Middle Ages for the castles of the great lords; but in the peasants' houses the smoke was usually allowed to escape through the doorway. The door was often made so that the upper half could be left open for this purpose, while the lower half was closed. The cattle were usually housed under the same roof with the peasant's family; and in some parts of Europe this practice is still followed.

Within the houses we should not find very much furniture. Here is a list of the things which one family owned in the year 1345:

2 feather beds, 15 linen sheets, and 4 striped yellow counterpanes.
1 hand-mill for grinding meal, a pestle and mortar for pounding grain, 2 grain chests, a kneading trough, and 2 ovens over which coals could be heaped for baking.
2 iron tripods on which to hang kettles over the fire; 2 metal pots and 1 large kettle.
1 metal bowl, 2 brass water jugs, 4 bottles, a copper box, a tin washtub, a metal warming-pan, 2 large chests, a box, a cupboard, 4 tables on trestles, a large table, and a bench.
2 axes, 4 lances, a crossbow, a scythe, and some other tools.

The food and clothing of the peasant were coarse and simple, but were usually sufficient for his needs. At times, however, war or a succession of bad seasons would bring famine upon a district. Then the suffering would be terrible; for there were no provisions saved up, and the roads were so bad and communication so difficult that it was hard to bring supplies from other regions where there was plenty. At such times, the peasants suffered most. They were forced to eat roots, herbs, and the bark of trees; and often they died by hundreds for want of even such food.

Thus you will see that the lot of the peasant was a hard one; and it was often made still harder by the cruel contempt which the nobles felt for those whom they looked upon as "base-born." The name "villains" was given the peasants because they lived in villages; but the nobles have handed down the name as a term of reproach. In a poem, which was written to please the nobles no doubt, the writer scolds at the villain because he was too well fed, and, as he says, "made faces" at the clergy. "Ought he to eat fish?" the poet asks. "Let him eat thistles, briars, thorns, and straw, on Sunday, for fodder; and pea-husks during the week! Let him keep watch all his days, and have trouble. Thus ought villains to live. Ought he to eat meats? He ought to go naked on all fours, and crop herbs with the horned cattle in the fields!"

Of course there were many lords who did not feel this way towards their peasants. Ordinarily the peasant was not nearly so badly off as the slave in the Greek and Roman days; and often, perhaps, he was as well off as many of the peasants of Europe to-day. But there was this difference between his position and that of the peasant now. Many of them could not leave their lord's manors and move elsewhere without their lord's permission. If they did so, their lord could pursue them and bring them back; but if they succeeded in getting to a free town, and dwelt there for a year and a day without being re-captured, then they became freed from their lord, and might dwell where they chose.