Life on a Medieval Manor

Instructor: Cassie Beyer

Cassie holds a master's degree in history and has spent five years teaching history and the humanities from ancient times to the Renaissance.

Medieval life was not all castles, nobles, and knights. For the common person, life was dominated by the manor. Learn how life was lived by the vast majority of people in the Middle Ages.

People on a Medieval Manor

In the Middle Ages, the land was divided into manors. A manor was owned by a lord, who traded his loyalty to another lord in exchange for it. The lord and his family might live in a manor house although the manor house had other uses as well. It was the administrative center of the manor, commanded by the lord or by officials acting in his name.

However, most people living within the boundaries of a manor were peasants, and these were the people who maintained the majority of the territory on a day-to-day basis.

Day-to-Day Activities

Peasants woke early in the morning and worked long hours every day. Animals were fed and milked. Gardens were kept alongside the house to provide vegetables for the family. Milk was processed into cheese or butter to avoid spoilage. Wool was combed, cleaned and spun into yarn.

Large amounts of time were invested in the fields, which grew significant amounts of cereal crops such as wheat, oat, rye and barley. They also grew peas, lentils and beans, which helped return nitrogen to the soil after the cereal crops depleted it.

While each family had their own strip of land, at certain times, all the manor peasants came together to work as a team, such as during the harvest. Peasants also took turns using shared resources like oxen. No one family could afford animals of burden, but they could be held communally.

Peasants didn't own their land. The lord gave them land with which to support themselves, but, in return, the peasants often worked the portion of land the lord set aside for himself, known as the demesne. (di-man) This was commonly three days a week. So a peasant tended his own animals every day, his own lands three days a week, and the demesne three days a week.

There was no concept of a weekend. Peasants worked six days a week. Animals required daily care, so they were seen to on Sunday as well, but other work was set aside on Sundays so everyone could attend church and focus on spiritual matters.

In addition, there were several dozen holidays, most of them religious, that also granted peasants escape from work. The manor lord often provided holiday feasts for the peasants on some of these days as well.

Living Arrangements

Peasant homes were most commonly wattle and daub constructions. Wattle is created by weaving slats of wood into a lattice. A mixture of mud, manure and straw is thickly smeared across the latticework, which dries into a hard substance. The roof is thatch, comprised of many layers of straw. The building only has one or two rooms and very little privacy.

Stone building with thatched roof in Ireland
Building with thatched roof in Ireland

The buildings were quite dark. Since window glass was non-existent, windows allowed heat to escape and inclement weather to invade. As such, if windows were included, they were small and covered with wooden shutters.

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