The Daily Life of English Peasants

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  • 0:05 The High Middle Ages
  • 1:11 The Obligations of a Peasant
  • 2:30 Peasants at Home
  • 3:42 Daily Schedule
  • 4:57 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Elam Miller

Jessica has taught college History and has a Master of Arts in History

Peasants of the Middle Age faced a very harsh life. This lesson explores the typical lifestyle for an English peasant in the 11th through 13th centuries, including the daily tasks they performed.

The High Middle Ages

The High Middle Ages was a time period that spanned from the 11th century to the 13th century. This time in history was full of conflict. Kings fought for authority and expansion. The pope fought for the same - but had the added stress of maintaining authority over the Christian empire as well. The Holy Roman Emperor also fought for control over Christendom as well as his landholdings in Germany and Italy. England fought France for control over English territories in French borders. Meanwhile, the pope also called for a crusade, or a holy war, against the Muslims to gain control of the Holy Land in Jerusalem.

The system of government at the time was called feudalism. Feudalism was a system in which a landowner held control over the lower-class workers of the land. In the Middle Ages, the king was considered to be at the top of the feudal system, but the landowners were the direct administrators over their workers. Peasants lived at the bottom of this system. They had to swear obedience to their masters, leaving them legally bound to work for the landowner. Their lives were under the control of the farming season, and they were punished harshly for disobedience. At this time, there were few rebellions, and the peasants had very little say in the matter.

The Obligations of a Peasant

The peasants were forced to bear the heaviest tax burden. They had to pay money either in taxes or rent to their lord for the land they worked. They also had to pay a tax to the local church, called a tithe. The tax was valued at 10% of the worker's yearly produce. Though the amount seems small, peasants produced and kept so little of their produce that this could break their ability to support their families.

In addition to their daily work, peasants also had to provide free labor on their local church's land. This took time away from the peasant's work on their lord's land. The church taught, however, that neglecting this duty was a sin, and those who did not provide free labor would be punished by God.

An added stress was the Domesday Book. This book was a record of what each person owed to the king in taxes. The book was a creation of William I, who gained control of England in 1066. He ordered a book be made that would hold record of who owned what land in his country. The book would also keep a record of what taxes were owed. Because this information was written in the book, there was no allowance for disputing it. By creating this book, William lessened the ability of nobles (who were also subject to these taxes) to fund private military expeditions against him, but it also added an additional burden on the peasants. Once taxes were paid, peasants could keep whatever remained, which was often very little.

Peasants at Home

A peasant's family lived in a cruck house. These houses were framed in wood and plastered with a mixture of mud, straw, and manure. The straw helped insulate the house. The manure was used as a binding agent and held the mixture together. The mixture would be dried in the sun and formed the building material.

Homes were small and cheap to construct and had thatched roofs. Floors were lined with straw, and there would be very few pieces of furniture. Windows were holes in the wall, and doors may have only been covered with fabric.

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