| Author's Note: I have simplified information in the article below in the interest of clarity. No two villages were alike, and villages were different at different times in different countries. Although various aspects of this description hold true for other times and places, the text below is most accurate for Southern England in the 1200-1400s.
Medieval Rural Life
What is a Village?
In the Middle Ages over 90% of the population of Europe lived in peasant farming communities called villages. Physically, a village was a cluster of peasant dwellings surrounded by fields. It commonly had the lord of the land's manor house with his demesne lands at one end, as well as a church, and a mill. It usually also had a few artisans shops such as a blacksmith and a carpenter. A village was typically self-sufficient, containing all the essentials for rural life.
Who Lived There?
The peasants who lived in the villages might be serfs who owed both rent to the lord of the local manor, as well as a certain number of days work per week on his demesne lands (often three days). Or they might be free-men who were tenants paying rent in cash or goods to him for the use of his land. Although the word peasant brings to mind someone in abject poverty, in the Middle Ages some of the peasants, free or villein, might be comfortably well off, or even wealthy by the standards of the village. Some did live in severe poverty, but not the majority of them.
The lord and his family in the manor were usually traveling between their various "honors," as they often held more than one manor. However, if they only owned one manor, they would stay in residence. Regardless of where the lord was, his officials (the steward, the bailliff, and the reeve) lived there year round.
The village's parish priest might be an educated man capable of witnessing legal documents and saying the mass properly in Latin, or he might be a former peasant with little education. A rich parish might be given to a priest of noble blood who would appoint a vicar to serve the church in his stead. (A portion of the church's income went to the noble rector of course.)
Interestingly the village, the manor and the church's parish were sometimes the same plot of ground. But often they were not. A village might be a part of two manors, or a parish might contain more than one village. So a medieval man was often a member of a village, a manor, and a parish all at the same time.
Each farmstead had a house with a little fenced land around it for growing vegetables and fruit trees, and keeping animals. The villagers shared meadows for pasturing their animals, a common well, and the woodlands. The lord who owned the lands had certain rights to the common lands, but he usually recognized the villagers' right to use the land from the long established customs that each village had.
The farmers used an open field system meaning they did not fence the fields and shared some of the lands in common. Because of the communal nature of their agriculture, the villagers had to agree on what crops to plant, when to plant and when to harvest. The villages, in general, used a three-field system. Each year one field was left fallow, one was planted in the spring with barley, oats, peas, beans and other such crops, and one was planted in the fall with winter wheat or other grain crops. (This system greatly increased productivity over the old Roman two-field system which only planted on one field each year.) In places where it was possible, the villagers rotated crops in a multiple field system, or used fertilizer to boost production. (In most places fertilizer was so scarce that animal and human waste was carefully collected for use.)
Fields were long narrow strips of ground. Each villager having several strips scattered throughout the village fields that were to be planted in any given year. Plowing was done once in early spring, and then again just before planting. Villagers who owed labor dues to the lord would plow until none (3 pm) or until vespers (sunset) on the demesne. (See Photos of narrow fields.)
Peas and beans were planted in the furrow, while grain was planted on the ridge. Grain was sown two or more bushels per acre.
Fall planting, of course, required more plowing and sowing. The common meadow and the demesne also had to be mown for hay.
Harvesting grain crops required that it be cut, tied into sheaves and then set up in shocks to dry. The grain would then be hauled to a barn with a threshing floor and beaten with a jointed flail to disengage the grain kernels from the stalks. Villagers winnowed the grain by tossing it into the air for the breeze to blow the chaff to the side, while the grain dropped back into the winnowing sheet.
In late September many of the vegetable crops would need to be harvested as well.
During harvest women and children traditionally helped in the fields, but during the rest of the year women typically were busy spinning, weaving, making cheese, cooking, cleaning, and tending the garden by the house as well as the animals.
Where did they live?
All buildings: manor houses, farm houses, barns, and churches, were built as "halls." These were long rectangles of multiple 15 foot "bays." In general a single nuclear family lived in a single house, usually around 5 people. The house of a rich villager might have four or five bays. A poor peasant might have only one or two bays. The walls were made of daub and wattle while the the floor was of beaten earth. In the center of the house would be an open hearth for a fire. Smoke would drift up to the roof and vent out one of the holes in the eaves of the roof. For a better look at medieval housing go to the Rural Life Photos .
What did they eat?
The crops the farmers grew and ate were peas, beans, barley, rye, oats and a few vegetables like cabbage, lettuce, leaks, and spinach. Although they grew a great deal of wheat, peasants sold most of their wheat rather than eating it. They also kept pigs, geese, and goats as meat animals as well as chickens for eggs and cows for milk. (Sheep were kept for their wool and oxen were kept as draft animals.)
Nuts, berries and roots could be gathered in the woods and some villagers had fruit trees and bee skeps for honey.
The poorest of the peasants would not be able to afford the fee and wastage of having their grain milled, so they would not be able to make bread. Instead they subsisted largely on pottage made from sprouted barley flavored with onions, garlic and a bit of pork if they had it.
Most peasants though baked and ate a dark bread made of maslin (a mixture of wheat and rye or barley.) Each loaf weighed about 4 pounds. Another staple in the diet of all the villagers was ale and beer, which they drank with all their meals. (Brewing was so important that the village named "ale tasters" each year to test the beer which was sold.)
In the years between 1000 and 1300, agriculture flourished as never before, making food more readily available. This was due to advances in farming technology, like the coulter and moulder board on a heavy wheeled plow; better collars on the harnesses for the plow teams; and the change from a two to a three field system. It was also due to a long spell of good weather. (Warmer and less rainy than Europe is now.)
Even so, a family of five would need 12 acres (without any manorial dues) for their subsistence.
If I was a Villager What Would My Life Be Like?
If you were a villager, you would have been born at home. The midwife would have washed you and swaddled you. Your godparents would have been called immediately and would have taken you to the church in the village to be baptised at a font which was kept always filled and ready. (Infant mortality rates were very high, so every precaution was taken to make sure that all babies could be baptised. Including allowing the midwife to do emergency baptisms.) After the ceremony at the church everyone would return to the parent's house for a celebration feast.
Your mother would have nursed you herself. And as you grew up, you would have stayed with your parents and learned the ways of the farm from them.
If you were the eldest male, you would inherit the farm on their death. If you were a younger son of a free holder, you might be fortunate enough in good times to be able to set up as a farmer yourself. Otherwise you probably did day-labor for pay or stayed home and unmarried working for your older brother.
If you were a serf, you had to pay a merchet fee in order to marry. However, unless your family was wealthy and wished to arrange your marriage, you were probably allowed to marry a person of your own choosing. You said your marriage vows on the steps of the church and then went to a "bridal ale" celebration at someone's house.
You would farm your fields, go to church, pay your fees, and celebrate holidays with the rest of the village. The most common of leisure activities was to visit one of the temporary taverns in the village. A woman in the village would brew up a large batch of ale or beer, have the ale testers approve it for sale and then hang out a sign in front of her house. Her house would then serve as the village tavern until all the drink was gone.
When you became old, you might turn over your farm to your eldest child with a pension contract that specified how he was to take care of you in your old age. (If he didn't live up to the contract, you could bring him before the "hallmote," the lord's manorial court).
Old age was considered to begin at age 45, and it would not be unusual for you to die sometime around that age. After your death if you were a serf, your family would have to pay the lord heriot (a fee for your death, sometimes payable with the best beast on the farmstead). Whether free or villien, your heir would have to pay an entry fee to the lord in order to inherit your house and lands. (Which weren't exactly yours by law, but custom was very strong that the land should pass to your heir.) Go to the Photos
Bibliography of Readable Works
Bennet, Judith M. and C. Warren Hollister. Medieval Europe: A Short History. NY: McGraw Hill, 2006.
Gies, Frances and Joseph. Daily Life in Medieval Times. NY: Black Dog & Leventhal Pub., 1999.
Gies, Frances and Joseph. Life in a Medieval Village. NY: Harper Perenial, 2001.
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