Farmers and Peasants: Building Peasant Communities

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Farmers and Peasants: Building Peasant Communities


The Appearance of Medieval Europe . European society in the Middle Ages was essentially rural, and most of its population made its living through agriculture. Beginning in the tenth century, as the worst of the Viking raids tapered off and the European population and economy began to rebound, medieval people started to clear land at a rate that had not been matched for centuries. The extent of these clearances has led some historians to talk about a “new rural landscape” developing in Europe by 1100. Villages—communities with populations of fifty to four hundred people—expanded all over Europe, even into areas that had not previously been populated. Despite these clearances, however, much of Europe was still unsettled. Peasants lived close to forests that could be mysterious and dangerous, and, when the sun set, darkness settled every where. With unknown threats surrounding them, many people spent most of their lives within a twenty-mile radius of where they were born. In this sense, then, the village in which the peasant lived and the manor of which it was a part were the basic social units of medieval Europe.

Manors and Communities. Approximately 90-95 percent of the medieval European population lived in the countryside, and many of these people lived in villages. The size of a village depended on many conditions, including its age, location, prosperity, and level of health. Villagers were essentially farmers, and they distributed neighboring lands and cultivated them in different ways depending on where in Europe they were located. As a general rule, the land-distribution system known as open field was practiced on the plain of northern Europe and in a large band of land stretching through England. In woodlands distribution,

country pasture and arable lands were intermixed; the areas where this distribution was practical included Brittany, Normandy, and patches of the west, northwest, and southeast of England. In southern Europe, in particular, some villages were located on hills overlooking the lands the villagers cultivated. The judicial and administrative unit of the manor overlay these villages; it is sometimes useful to think of the village as a piece of paper with the basic outline of a picture on it, and the manor as another transparent piece of paper that is put on top of the churchormanorhouse atacrossroads. This combined with the village, adds depth to the picture. The manor was the basic source of revenue for medieval lords and nobles. While a manor was usually about the size of a village and its lands, some villages were divided between manors, and other manors controlled several villages. In general the manors and their lords controlled 35–40 percent of a village’s land, although at times this figure could be as high as 75–80 percent. The populations of villages—and the people whom manors controlled—were often quite small when seen village by village. For example, there were approximately two dozen households and 125–150 people living in the English village of Cuxham during the thirteenth century. Even within this small community, however, there were distinctions in wealth and status that every member of the community appreciated. At the top of the village hierarchy were the village priest, two free tenants, a miller, and the reeve (the lord’s representative and all-purpose judge). Next came the approximately fourteen unfree tenants who had their own land, some of whom were women. Below them in the community came the approximately eight unfree cottagers, that is, people without their own land to cultivate.

Village Organization in Northern Europe. Although villages did vary region by region, successful villages shared some common patterns. Villages in much of northern Europe were either organized around a village square that often had the church and churchyard in the center or around a main street or junction with the church or manor house at a crossroads. This second pattern is often the sign of a planned village with layout and lots determined by a representative of the villagers’ lord. Most European villages did not have fortifications nearby, and the church frequently served as the village stronghold. The roads and paths between houses were dirt, and in a well-located site a stream was nearby to supply water for the community. Village houses did not share walls, as increasingly happened in cities. The houses were built on long, not quite rectangular lots (known in English as tofts), which the tenant either leased or in rare cases owned. On a toft would be a garden, a cesspit, and whatever outbuildings the peasant could afford. Chickens, goats, and other small livestock would be kept on this property, and their produce—along with that of the garden—would supplement the peasant’s harvest from the fields. At the center of the village might be a village green on which cattle and other livestock could graze and wander. This green or the village churchyard also served as a meeting place where villagers might have community councils, determine the allocation of fields, or even hold a festival. Here, too, would be the location of a market, if a village had permission from its lord to hold one, and sometimes the market stalls would spread into the cemetery that was part of the churchyard. The living and the dead existed near each other in the medieval village.

Village Organization in Southern Europe. While villages in southern Europe had many of the same components as their northern counterparts, they could be organized quite differently, depending on the environment. In hilly or mountainous regions villages tended to be on a hillside with the village lands spreading down the hillside or in flatter spaces. Such a village also had a village square and individual peasant homes with small lots. In general, however, the houses were far closer together—sometimes even touching—than in northern Europe; the lots were also much smaller, and the population density was much higher. Many such villages were built along one or two primary streets and almost looked as if they were part of the hillside. Although there is no set explanation for why the appearance of southern European villages evolved so differently from that of the north, it has been suggested that they were built in these locations for protection and convenience. These large villages proved more difficult to conquer, and in them it was easier to obtain help from a neighbor.

Peasant Residences. While peasant houses were not the size of some modern homes, they were not the tiny hovels that popular imagination often makes them out to be. It has been repeatedly shown that in England, France, and Germany medieval peasant homes were rectangular, about 49–75 feet long by 13–20 feet wide—that is 637 to 1,500 square feet, the size of an average apartment or a two-to-three-bedroom house. Particularly in northern Europe, these buildings were divided into two parts, one for the humans and another for the animals; in southern Europe, where the climate was milder, a peasant might be able to afford a separate small stable or lean-to for his animals. There was typically a single door for the human residents and perhaps another for the animals’ side and the storage areas. A wooden bar was placed across a door to lock it at night; only the rich used keys and generally only for chests and secure storage. Because windows let heat out and glass was expensive, the residence typically had only one window, which had no glass and was covered with shutters at night for security and warmth. The floor was dirt, but a wealthier household might strew some rushes or straw on it. In a peasant house that had been in place for several decades the floor level was often slightly lower than the ground outside because of years of sweeping and packing down the earth by walking. The fire was generally located in the center of the residence in an open pit. There was a small hole in the roof that was supposed to let out the smoke, but the room would often remain smoky. For peasants, wall fireplaces and enclosed stoves were generally later developments. Only in early thirteenth-century Germany did wall fireplaces with chimneys appear, but even at that time they were uncommon because of the difficulty and expense of construction.

Building a Peasant Home: Foundations and Walls. Houses were constructed in various ways, depending on the wealth of the peasant and the available building materials. The most basic houses had foundations that were just support posts driven into holes in the ground. Other foundations were posts set in trenches, while a third type had posts set in the ground on top of relatively flat stones, and the spaces around the posts were filled with a mixture of stones and dirt. The third type was the most labor intensive and expensive, but it made the foundation last longer because it did not have as much direct contact with dirt and moisture, which rotted the wood. The most expensive and elaborate constructions had stone foundations, but only in areas of predominantly stone construction would peasants be likely to have houses built with such supports. In most parts of Europe wood was the basic building material for the walls of peasant houses. Compared to stone, wood was relatively easy to obtain, move, and shape, and wooden walls kept the interior of the house warmer than stone walls. Wood walls, however, needed more frequent maintenance and rebuilding than stone. The most common wall-building method was to interlace tree branches to form the basic support and then to coat them with a clay and straw mixture, a process generally known as wattle-and-daub construction. While this method minimized drafts between the branches, it required continuous maintenance, but it was work that a relatively unskilled peasant could perform. More-elaborate peasant structures in northern European areas, such as Germany, were built with wooden planks linked together, but such construction was extremely expensive and became even more costly as wood became scarcer. Though stone was the most durable material, the costs of quarrying it, the skill needed to work it, and the time involved in building with it made stone peasant houses rare. Of course, there were exceptions. In certain areas of Scotland and Ireland wood was a precious commodity, and stone was the most plentiful building material available. Moreover, in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries villages of predominantly stone arose, especially in southern Europe, but they were also in regions where wood was considered too valuable for building and stone was easy to obtain.

Roofs and Materials. Roofing a peasant house was a problem. A roof needed almost the same amount of wood as the walls, which made construction expensive. Moreover, finding roofing materials to put over the wooden framing could be difficult. The most common roofing material was of some form of straw; wheat, rye, or various wild grasses were used, depending on the region. Groups of trained men wove the straw and then layered it to a thickness of approximately 1–2 feet. They performed this work on the wooden roof framework, which had to be built at a 40–55 degree angle to allow for water runoff. While the materials were relatively inexpensive and easy to obtain, there were drawbacks to such a roof, commonly called a thatched roof. It was quite flammable and provided a home for mice, wasps, spiders, and other small pests. Wooden roof shingles were also used in areas where wood was relatively plentiful, such as medieval England and Scandinavia. Stone and turf were other possible roofing materials, but they were available in only a few areas or were too expensive for common use in villages. Tiles and slates were generally luxury materials and, as such, might be found only on the roof of the village church or the local manor house. Even when only the least expensive and most basic materials were used, a peasant house was still a substantial investment. An excavation of a Neolithic house that was built by construction methods almost exactly like those used in medieval France provides a telling example of the materials and effort involved in building a house. The tools used to build were an ax, sickle, and spade. The roof required 200 wooden poles about 1½–2½ inches in diameter; 80 of these poles were 13 feet long, and 120 were 8 feet long. A total of 1½ tons of reeds were also used for the roof. To tie the poles and reeds together the builders used three miles of vegetable material, such as hemp. The walls needed 6,000 flexible sticks of ⅜ to ¾ inches in diameter and 4 feet long. The walls also required 15 tons of clay soil and 440 pounds of chopped straw mixed with around 1,000 gallons of water to form the daub that filled in the spaces in the walls between sticks. All these materials were used in a building 18 feet wide and 39 feet long, in other words a relatively small house.


Jean Chapelot and Robert Fossier, The Village and House in the Middle Ages, translated by Henry Cleere (London: Batsford, 1985).

Christopher Dyer, “English Peasant Buildings in the Later Middle Ages (1200-1500),” Medieval Archaeology, 20 (1986): 19–45.

John Hunt, Lordship and the Landscape: A Documentary and Archaeological Study of the Honor of Dudley c. 1066-1322 (Oxford: BAR, 1997).

Norman J. G. Pounds, Hearth and Home: A History of Material Culture (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989).

Pierre Riché, Daily Life in the World of Charlemagne, translated by Jo Ann McNamara (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1978).