Mid Ages Labor

      Most ancestors of Edna Ethel Robinson lived in England during the Middle Ages and probably were not wealthy, since they eventually gave up what they had in England to start a new life in America. Life in a Medieval village is surprisingly similar to village life experienced by our greatgrandparents during the 19th century in England.

Lord of The Manor.

      Although each Medieval village had a lord, very few lived in the village. A resident lord was usually a knight who only had one manor. Earl, Count, Abbot or Bishop was a title used for someone who had many manors scattered over England. The steward, bailiff, and reeve were the main officials of the manor. The steward supervised all the manors of the estate of the Lord. There was a bailiff on each manor who supervised that particular manor. The steward seldom visited a particular manor. The bailiff was the chief law officer. The reeve assisted the bailiff and was chosen by the villagers.

      The lord of the manor appointed the rector for the parish church. Sometimes the rector employed a vicar because he didn�t serve in person. Doing this, he could make a profit by paying the vicar less than he received. Wealthy peasants would pay to get their son licensed and trained and then sometimes their son could become a rector or vicar.

      A court called a �hallmote� was held twice or more each year. The villagers ran it all � judge, prosecutor, lawyer, and witness. The law was the �tradition� or ancient customs of the manor. The hallmote was also the legislative body and could pass new laws.

Peasants of The Manor.

      Villein tenants were peasants who were required to provide service to the manor. In other words, they farmed their rented land, paid rent for it, and also had to work on the farm of the lord of the manor. It meant long days, especially at harvest time. In the 15th century, a peasant who had freed himself from providing this labor (serfdom) to the manor was called a �yeoman.�

      A �virgate� was a measurement used for land during the Middle Ages. A half virgate was 12 to 16 acres. Some wealthy peasants, or villains, had more than half a virgate and could produce a surplus beyond providing for their family. By the late 14th century a few peasant families in most villages had become landlords, owning a small amount of property.

Farming Narrow Strips of Land.

      The farmland was divided into narrow strips. When it was ploughed, you didn�t have to turn. It was a very long strip of land. It could be ploughed in about one day. It was about � acre. A furlong was a bundle of strips planted in the same crop.

Tudor Village Misconceptions.

      Most people have a misconception of what a Tudor village was like based on the tourist village of today. The actual Tudor villages were filthy, untidy, decayed, and dilapidated. There were piles of muck and rotting straw where flowers bloom today. The people matched the houses (Parker 110).

      According to Gie, the 13th century ��village was a place of bustle, clutter, smells, disrepair, and dust, or in much of the year, mud. It was far from silent. Sermons mention many village sounds: the squeal of cartwheels, the crying of babies, the bawling of hogs being butchered, the shouts of a peddler �, the ringing of church bells, the hissing of geese, the thwack of the flail in threshing time. To these one might add the voices of the villagers, the rooster�s crow, the dog�s bark, and other animal sounds, the clop of cart horses, the ring of the smith�s hammer, and the splash of the miller�s great waterwheel (Life in a Medieval Village 33)�.

Peasant�s Cottage.

      A cottage had one or more bays. A bay was about fifteen feet square. A rich peasant had about five bays. The most common cottage was about three bays. The cottages commonly lodged animals too. A few windows lighted the interior. The windows didn�t have glass. They used shutters or just left an open whole. The floor had straw or rushes. There was a fire in the center of the room. It was on a raised stone hearth and vented through a hole in the roof. Some cottages had a chimney for the smoke. The house was almost always smoky because the fire was kept constantly lit. Roofs were thatched. When you looked at the ceiling, you looked at the thatch or through the thatch. The roofs rotted. They attracted mice, rats, hornets, wasps, spiders, and birds. They caught fire easily. The thatched roof was cheap and overwhelmingly used for centuries in villages and towns. Most of the cottages had a yard and garden. The �toilet� was just a latrine trench at most; sometimes they just left the cottage to do �their business.� The �toft� was a small area in the front of the house and the �croft� was a small area in the rear.

      In the fifteenth century the houses were built better. More wood was used. More peasant houses had two separate rooms or even two floors. The sleeping quarters were reached by a ladder. A stone fireplace with a brick chimney replaced open fires in the middle of the room in the better houses. Straw was the most popular roofing material used for thatch. Straw, rushes, and reeds were used for floor coverings. In the 15th century, peasants had cow barns, stables, pigsty, dovecote, and kilns.

      The houses had more furniture in the 15th century including chairs, stools, benches, cushions, bed curtains, and wall hangings (painted cloths). A trestle table that could be dismantled and put out of the way was used. Chairs were rare. The family ate at a trestle table with benches. Hams, bags, and baskets hung from the ceiling. Clothing, bedding, towels, and linen was stored in chests. A well-to-do peasant could own silverspoons, brass pots, and pewter dishes.

Peasant�s Food.

      The peasant�s food was based on grains. The basic foods were bread, pottage (porridge) and ale. The peasants sold their wheat. The peasant�s diet was based on oats and barley. The bread used a mixture of wheat and rye or barley and rye. It was a coarse dark loaf weighing about four pounds or more. Poorer families ate pottage. They sprouted the barley grains first, then boiled them in a pot and drained off the water. The water was fermented to ale (beer) or sweetened with honey and drunk as barley water. Peas and beans were used in bread and pottage to provide protein. Pork fat, onions, and garlic were sometimes added to the pottage for taste. In some crofts they grew fruit trees. Nuts and berries were gathered in the forests.

      Most villages had a communal well for water. They kept a few livestock in their toft. The croft had a garden of approximately half an acre. If you were a rich peasant, it was common to keep a manure pile. There were communal ovens to bake bread.

      Ale was a favorite beverage. The women brewed the beer most often. Brewing beer was freely permitted. On the other hand, you needed a license to make bread or grind wheat. Wheat, barley, and oats were used to make beer.


      Peasant dress changed very little for centuries. Men wore a short tunic, belted at the waist, and either short stockings ending just below the knee or long hose fastened at the waist to a cloth belt. They also wore a cloth cap, thick gloves or mittens, and leather shoes with heavy wooden soles. Women wore long loose gowns belted at the waist. The outer garments were wool.


      Walking was largely the only transportation available. There were paths rather than streets. After a pathway received sufficient use, it became a street.


      Very few people were literate. The wealthiest peasants educated their children to work in the priesthood, law, or serve a noble.


      Before the 14th century, marriage vows were exchanged informally in trees, beds, gardens, the blacksmith�s shop, a kitchen, a tavern, or on a street. By the 14th century, a priest performed most marriages. The groom gave the bride a ring, which was put on the fourth finger. Vows were exchanged at the church door. Then the couple would go into the church and a mass was celebrated. Informal marriage, where a couple exchanged vows anywhere (woods, tavern, etc.) without a priest, was still accepted. This kind of vow was abolished in the 16th century. Divorce was rare among peasants.

      The father had almost unlimited power and authority within the household. However, peasant families were less authoritarian. In the 15th century, women would weed, transport grain, drive plow oxen, or break stones to mend roads. They were paid about the same as men.

Birth and Christening.

      Women gave birth in the home and a priest would baptize the baby immediately. Anyone else could say the prayer if a priest was not available, �I christen thee in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost. Amen.� The words had to be stated in exactly this order or it was invalid. If the mother died before the baby was born, the child was immediately freed by with a knife, if necessary, to assure quick cesarean birth and baptism.


      Games played by peasants were blind man�s bluff, bowling, checkers, chess, backgammon, and dice. Cockfighting was a popular spectator�s sport.


      Sanitation was poor. Peasants bathed infrequently. When they bathed, they used a barrel with water. If you lived beyond childhood, old age was about 45. The big year for the �Black Death� in England was 1349. About two-thirds of the villagers died in some rural areas. In the 15th century, peasants were commonly making wills (Life in a Medieval Village, Marriage and the Family in the Middle Ages).

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