This is a short piece I wrote which originally appeared on the blog of The History Press.
When we read about the Middle Ages, most of what we learn is about the rich and powerful – the kings and queens, the lords and ladies, the abbots and bishops. But these people made up only a tiny fraction of the population: what do we know about the rest?
In the early thirteenth century some 90% of the population worked on the land (the rest were not just the nobility and clergy but also townspeople and those with trades such as blacksmiths) where they eked out a living with varying degrees of success. Some aspects of village life are unsurprising, the first being that life was hard. A household would need anywhere between about twelve and twenty acres, depending on the area and the quality of the land, to support itself at a subsistence level; this required dawn-to-dusk, all-year-round work, made more arduous by the fact that most households would owe service in the lord’s fields, generally two days a week but rising to three or even four at harvest time. The labour required just to keep everyone alive did not allow much opportunity to put anything by against the possibility of a bad year, and those who did not own or lease the requisite number of acres needed to make sure they undertook enough waged labour to enable them to buy the food they did not grow. Margins were small, and many people were ‘harvest-dependent’, meaning that they were liable to starve after one or two bad harvests.
The mortality rate was high; people died of diseases, infections and injuries which would be curable now. Men were frequently victims of industrial accidents and women domestic ones; pregnant women had roughly a one in eight chance of dying in labour or afterwards from complications; and infant mortality was rife – a conservative estimate would be that some 15-20% of babies died in their first year and that 30% of all children did not reach the age of 15. Young children were vulnerable to accidents as well as disease, with burnings (every house had an open fire) and drownings being particularly prevalent.
However, it would be wrong to assume that everyone lived in a state of chaos, dirt and starvation. Village life was much more organised and structured than is often supposed: various officials such as the bailiff, the reeve and the hayward were appointed to oversee and co-ordinate agricultural work – necessary when each field of individual strips had to be sown with the same crop throughout, or where the village only owned one shared team of ploughing oxen – and the manor court could impose fines for infringements of local laws. Organisation also happened unofficially: for example, ale was most efficiently brewed in large quantities but it went stale quickly, so the women of the village would make informal agreements about who would brew and when, with the surplus being bartered between them.
If they were lucky people were able to create decent lives for themselves. If all went according to plan with harvests, livestock and the seasonal growing of other crops the peasant diet was adequate, albeit dull. Milk and eggs were seasonal, not the all-year-round staples they are today, so most people’s daily meals would revolve around bread and pottage – a kind of thick, hot stew made out of grains and whatever vegetables were in season – enlivened by a few herbs and possibly the odd bit of bacon or fish. If there was enough of it to go around, it is probable that this diet was actually healthier than that of the nobility, who ate almost exclusively meat.
The village was a real community. Neighbours looked out for each other because it was not in anyone’s interests to let one or two families starve through bad luck; there were feast days, church holidays and fairs to break up the work cycles. Peasants were far more likely than nobles to have met and formed a relationship with the person they would marry, and to have more choice when selecting their life partner. So although most modern people would not want to swap their lives for those of thirteenth-century peasants, things were not quite as bad as you might think.