Those Who Work

What you can learn about medieval Europe if you focus on peasants.

By Judith M. Bennett

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Female head, England, c. 1420. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. Digital image courtesy the Getty’s Open Content Program.

Why should we care about peasants? Historians understand that history is richer when seen from the margins. By looking at medieval peasants, we can see both their rural world and the broader medieval society of which they were a critical part. We stand on the muddy margins with peasants and, looking upward and inward, we can better understand not only poor peasants but also prosperous churchmen, knights, and merchants, all of whom relied on peasant labor.

Clues about how privileged people in the Middle Ages regarded peasants can be found in their courtly songs, sarcastic proverbs, nasty jokes, and pious sermons. Knights and ladies were fond of songs known as pastourelles that told, among other things, about how easy it was for knights to have sex with peasant women or, failing that, to rape them; monks and students enjoyed jokes that portrayed peasants as ludicrously dumb and foolish; and priests, friars, and bishops preached sermons that depicted “those who work” as objects of pity, charity, and disgust. Even Piers Plowman, a sympathetic portrayal of rural life, portrayed the peasant’s lot as hard and pitiable. These literary texts are useful for understanding the often astoundingly negative attitudes of elites toward peasants, but they tell little about the peasants themselves.

Peasants, usually unable to read or write, have left no direct testimonies about their hopes, their fears, their delights, or their disappointments. As a result, we know about peasants and their lives indirectly—from the writings of their social superiors. In the tripartite view of society that was popular by the High Middle Ages, peasants rested at the bottom of three orders. As “those who work” (in Latin, laboratores), peasants supported people more privileged—“those who pray” (oratores) and “those who fight” (pugnatores). Each of these three orders ideally helped the other, with clergy contributing prayers and knights providing protection, but the mutuality of the system was more ideal than real. Also, the three groups were not equal. A peasant might have benefited from the prayers of a nun or from the protection offered by a knight, but a peasant was deemed to do work of lesser value and to be a less worthy person. Born into this unexalted state, a peasant’s lot was to labor for the benefit of others. This was unfortunate for peasants but fortunate for historians. For information about the daily lives of peasants, the most abundant and most useful sources are legal and economic documents that report on the administration of manors.

Manorialism was the economic system whereby peasants supported the landowning elite. On manors, in other words, the working lives of peasants intersected with the financial needs of their social superiors. Manors consisted of land and tenants, and they were common in regions with fertile soils that rewarded intensive cultivation: southeast and central England, northern France, western Germany, and certain regions of southern Europe, such as the Rhone and Po valleys. The land of the manor belonged to a landowner, the lord (dominus) or lady (domina) of the manor. (Roughly 10 percent of manors were held by women, mostly widows.) Some manorial land, called the demesne, was reserved for direct use of the landowner; most was held by peasants who owed various rents and dues for their holdings.

Manorialism first developed in the Early Middle Ages, and manors were originally worked mostly by slaves and other dependent tenants. Some were descendants of the coloni who had once worked the villas of the Roman Empire, others had been forced into a dependent state by violence and war, and still others had surrendered themselves into bondage in return for protection. By the eleventh and twelfth centuries, slavery was disappearing in most of Europe, thanks to a combination of church policies, opposition from peasants, and practical concessions on the part of the landowning elite. By the end of the thirteenth century, most manors were worked by free peasants and serfs. Freedom or serfdom was determined at birth; if born of parents who were serfs, a boy or girl was bound to serfdom. Serfs were not slaves; they could not be bought and sold at will, and they were protected by custom (that is, they were obliged to serve their manor as their parents had served—and no more). But because serfs were obliged not only to stay put but also to supply labor services, they provided landowners with an unusually exploitable workforce for the cultivation of the demesne. In England in 1300, about half of all peasants were serfs and the other half were free.

As manors developed, they grew more economically complex. In the Early Middle Ages, manors generated profit directly: the crops peasants cultivated in the fields, the goods they produced in manorial workshops, and the rents they paid for the plots they tilled on their own. By 1300 lords and ladies profited from manors in additional ways. First, they took the produce off the demesne and either consumed or sold it. The demesne, once cultivated by slaves, was by then usually cultivated by serfs and wage laborers. Second, they collected rents from peasants who held plots of land from the manor. Tenants paid rent in cash, in kind (perhaps a chicken at Christmas and a few eggs at Easter), and, if serfs, in labor (under the direction of the manorial officers, serfs sowed, weeded, and harvested the demesne). Third, lords and ladies profited from legal rights that had accrued to manors over the course of centuries. Tenants had to attend manorial courts, where their small fines and fees produced valuable income; they were often obliged to pay for the use of manorial mills, ovens, winepresses, and other such facilities; and they had to pay a variety of small charges when they married, when they traveled, and even when they died.

Free peasants and serfs endured the burdens of manorialism because they had little choice. The economic privileges of “those who pray” and “those who fight” were buttressed by considerable military, political, and social powers. In this regard, manorialism was complemented by the culture and power of the military elite. Between the ninth and eleventh centuries, a cohort of warriors had emerged in Europe distinguished by their skill in fighting on horseback, their close ties to one another, their hereditary claims to knightly status, and their control of the land. Historians have since coined the term feudalism to describe the culture, relationships, and rules by which these warriors lived, but this word often generates more confusion than clarity.

Feudalism is a modern word (a medieval person would probably have talked about vassalage), and the term implies more order, system, and standardization than was the case. Worse yet, feudalism has two distinctive and confusing meanings today. Some scholars use it to describe the general economy of the Middle Ages; to them, feudalism is a stage of economic development in which serfs on manors were forced to labor on behalf of a warrior class. This stage was seen by Karl Marx as falling between slavery and capitalism. Many students encounter this definition of feudalism in economics and sociology courses. Yet most medievalists use feudalism in the more limited sense employed here: that is, to describe the customs and relationships of an elite who governed ordinary people by virtue of their military, political, and social power. In the England of the end of the thirteenth century, this small feudal elite, headed by a king, ruled the land. They waged war and negotiated peace; they judged and punished wrongdoers; they decided who could pass through their territories. In short, they governed by virtue of their wealth, aristocratic birth, and military might. Peasants were taught to respect the authority of the feudal elite as natural and good, but respectful demeanor was a practical matter, too. Faced with a powerful and arrogant knight, any peasant knew that deference and obedience were the safest behaviors.

To profit from manors, lords and ladies needed not only to wield power effectively but also to manage their manors efficiently. In the late eighth century, Charlemagne, king of the Franks, had sought to compile detailed lists of royal manors, and in the ninth century, registers of lands, tenants, and income were kept for some ecclesiastical estates. But it was in England in the thirteenth century that systems of manorial record-keeping more fully developed. There an array of stewards, bailiffs, reeves, clerks, and other manorial officers supervised manors, and they kept copious records to prove that they were conscientious and honest administrators (and, in some cases, to hide their cheating). These records tell a great deal about the peasants with whom manorial officers dealt on a regular basis.

It was in the interest of monarchs and ecclesiastics to keep good records of these additional dealings with peasants. Wherever tax lists, military requisitions, ecclesiastical court books, or bishops’ registers survive, they provide further information about the lives of ordinary people in the medieval countryside. As with manorial documentation, so too with these other types of records: they are especially full and abundant for England in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.

We can especially study peasants in England because the archives there are especially full. In some cases, the superiority of English archives stems from the more careful record-keeping of its administrators, but, in most cases, it has been a matter of survival through the centuries. Thanks to a strong legal system, a relatively stable social order, and a hefty dose of luck, England’s medieval archives have survived especially well. In France, for example, many medieval archives were destroyed during the French Revolution, and in Scotland, untold thousands of state documents were lost when a ship carrying them sank in 1661. History is built on evidence, and if there is little evidence, historians have much less to study and much less to say. Fortunately, the extant English archives allow us to say a great deal indeed about English peasants, and from that foundation, we can sometimes see enough in other archives to know how the English peasantry matched or differed from the peasantries of France, Scotland, Spain, Germany, Italy, and elsewhere.

Although all records pertaining to manors and peasants are useful, the most useful are manorial court rolls. Peasants brought most of their legal business to these courts. Although free peasants could take some complaints to county or royal courts and serious crimes (such as murder and rape) often had to be judged in higher courts, it was to manorial courts that most rural disputes, crimes, inheritances, and contracts were reported.

In its origins, a manorial court was an instrument of seignorial power, a way for the lord or lady to control the manor’s tenants and to extract income from them. In actual practice, peasants used manorial courts for their own purposes, and the courts reflected local customs as well as the landowner’s interests. In a sense, the manor was the institution that convened the courts and kept records of the proceedings, but another institution, the peasant community, helped to determine what actually happened at any meeting. If jurors did not want to tell the court that a young woman had broken into the manorial sheepfold, then she could get away unpunished. If local custom determined that youngest sons inherited their fathers’ lands instead of oldest sons, then no lord or lady could go against that tradition in court. If tenants were unhappy about an action taken by a manorial officer, they would not hesitate to complain in court and even seek redress.

Some peasants were more active and powerful in the court than others, but most probably saw it as a necessary burden and a useful forum; through it, they resolved conflicts, punished assaults and crimes, registered inheritances and transfers of land, checked that brewers and bakers did not cheat their customers, recorded loans and other contracts, and otherwise managed the day-to-day life of their community.


Excerpted from A Medieval Life: Cecilia Penifader and the World of English Peasants Before the Plague by Judith M. Bennett. Copyright © 2021 University of Pennsylvania Press. Excerpted with permission of the University of Pennsylvania Press.