The bulk of the population of England during the period this book covers were peasants, who are the subject of this chapter of the book. Peasants generally lived in small two-generation family households – i.e. a couple and their three or four children. They lived in villages, and as well as farming their own plots would either work for or make cash payments to the owner of the manor on which they worked. They worshipped at their local parish church. In some areas the village, manor and parish were the same thing but in other areas there might be multiple villages per manor or vice versa. The same could be true for the relationship between parishes & villages.
Peasants were not all the same. One important distinction was between free and unfree peasants. The latter, also known as villeins, were liable to perform labour services for a lord and had many restrictions on their lives – effectively they were their lord’s property or chattels. They had to pay fines to their lord on a variety of occasions (such as when inheriting their father’s land or marrying). Although in practice many of the restrictions were more theoretical than actual there was still a great social stigma attached to being unfree. The labour services owed varied by manor, and might be to do particular work or to do a particular number of days work. It didn’t necessarily have to be done personally – a wealthy villein might be obliged to provide so many men to do the work. Often, and increasingly over the period, these services were commuted to cash payments – it was better for all sides of the agreement for the lord to hire willing labourers rather than force the villeins to do the job themselves. The labour services weren’t without recompense – generally the lord was required to provide food for the days when the men were doing labour for him.
Peasant landholdings weren’t static. Inheritance was generally by primogeniture or ultimogeniture (first or last son inherits all respectively). So this meant that the other sons had to be provided for somehow – and this was often done by buying and selling land (even by villeins although technically this was forbidden to them). This was also profitable for the lord – they charged entry fines when someone took over a landholding whether by inheritance, buying it or leasing it.
Most of the records that survive about the peasantry concern those who have land. As such women are proportionally under-represented. It’s clear that widows and single women had more legal independence than married women. Some information about the lives of women can also be gleaned from records such as coroner’s rolls recording accidental deaths. Women tended to be more involved in domestic matters than men – ie more women died drawing water, more men were involved in carting accidents. Gender played a huge role in determining occupation – agricultural work was primarily for men, baking and butchering were also male jobs. Brewing, however, was dominated by women. Landless peasants also don’t show up in the records much and Prestwich says that the existence of such people is a matter of deduction by historians. One source of information is records kept by the nobility about almsgiving.
Over the 13th Century the economy expanded and so did the population. Prestwich poses the question of whether living standards went up for the peasantry over this time or not – and comes to the conclusion that there is no single answer. Some areas did well overall, some did not. And within an area there were winners & losers at the individual level. One trend is that there is increasing social differentiation between peasants during this period. In general, however, the peasantry didn’t do as well out of the economic boom as the aristocracy did. In the early 14th Century the economic good times came to an end – the weather got worse, there were more famines. The peasants bore the brunt of this.
There is surprisingly little organised or successful resistance to the demands of the aristocracy on the peasants. What there was was generally pursued through the courts – the peasants normally lost, but clearly they felt they had the right to justice from the courts rather than needing to take things into their own hands. The peasants also seem generally litigious – Prestwich discusses village life by drawing out several anecdotes from legal cases between villagers. Lots of petty neighbourhood disputes go to the courts, and causing problems and stirring up trouble in the village could eventually lead to expulsion from the village.
Prestwich finishes the chapter by thinking about the effects of the wider world on the peasants – in the form of war and politics. In a lot of cases the wider world had little impact on any given peasant’s life. But the demands for fighting men and for food to support the armies would have a significant impact. These lead to a degree of resentment against the Crown, but this still did not boil over into outright rebellion – Prestwich suggests this is through a lack of leadership.