Farmers and Peasants: Household Goods

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Farmers and Peasants: Household Goods

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Lighting a Peasant House. Because medieval residences had few windows, peasant homes were often so dark that it took one’s eyes a few seconds to adjust when a person entered, even in daylight. Candles were a medieval invention. They could be made of wax from the honeycombs of bees or fashioned from tallow, which was made from sheep fat. Such candles, though, were often beyond the means of the ordinary peasant. When they had artificial lighting at all, most peasants made do with rushlights, which were lengths of rush, a variety of grass, dipped in fat. When lit, they offered little light and more smoke. Sometimes, particularly in southern Europe, peasants also used oil lamps, made according to a technology that went back to the Greeks and Romans. Each of these solutions cost precious

resources, however, and many peasants just made do with natural light and whatever illumination they got from their fire. Soon after sunset, the day’s activities ended because there was no longer enough light to work. At times several families congregated during the evenings in one residence to share light while socializing or working.

Basic Utensils. A peasant’s basic goods were quite limited and varied greatly depending on whether the peasant was male or female, a landholder or landless; the descriptions in this article focus on what a peasant family comprising a husband, wife, and young child might have owned if they had a middle level of wealth. Farm implements were stored in the home and included a wooden shovel (preferably metal shod around the end), a small axe, sickles (one that could be held in one hand and a large one that had to be used with two hands), and a knife for each adult. If the peasant had his own plow team, there would be a harness to attach animals to the plow, a goad to move the animals along, and the plow itself. For furniture, there was a table and a bench. Chairs required specialized carpentry, so they were more expensive and much rarer than benches. At least one metal pot was suspended from a metal pole that could swing over and away from the fire pit. There was also at least one wooden spoon for stirring the food in the pot, and there might also be a pot that could be used to roast meat or vegetables in the coals. Various baskets and pots were used to carry water or food. They were most often made of wicker or leather because making good pottery required access to the right type of clay and a kiln. A few wooden bowls held meals, and the basic eating utensils well into the end of the Middle Ages were a knife and fingers. Soup was drunk like water or eaten with fingers, and the same bowls were also used for beer or wine. Linens were a mark of status, and a peasant took pride in being able to cover his table with a cloth. In the same way bedding was a major expense in a peasant household. Beds were generally thick fabric stuffed with materials such as dried grasses, wool, and old clothing scraps. Woolen blankets, leather hides, and fur, when available, were layered on top of them. There is some evidence that by the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries a prosperous peasant might have had a raised bedframe, which made the bed substantially warmer and more comfortable. A few rushlights or oil lamps might lighten the night, and a few barrels might be off to the side holding beer or wine. A medieval peasant lived with such basic supplies.

Carpentry. Many of the goods in medieval houses were made of wood, and carpentry was an essential skill. While many peasants might be able to effect basic repairs and whittle basic tools, a carpenter was called in to produce objects that needed firm joinery or specialized attachments. For example, a plow required various pieces of wood to be cut to size and assembled in such a way that it could take repeated heavy use. Moreover, making plows demanded that a carpenter know how to attach metal parts to wooden frames. Although not every village needed a resident who concentrated on carpentry, a peasant with a solid knowledge of carpentry had a valuable source of supplementary income. Carpentry skills were also useful when building or repairing houses, but, prior to a series of innovations in building during the late thirteenth century, most villages did not need specialized building craftsmen.

Village Fairs. Village fairs were the source of goods that peasants could not produce or buy in smaller villages. Most small villages in settled areas were located within half a day’s walk of a larger one, which hosted markets where its residents and those of neighboring villages offered their goods for sale. These markets occurred at regular intervals: every seven or ten days. From a small village peasants started out early in the morning with carts of goods or what could be carried on their backs. They then spent the morning selling what they had and buying what they needed. Market days were also times for negotiating contracts, paying taxes, and holding celebrations. Later in the day they walked back to their villages.

Sources

Frances Gies and Joseph Gies, Marriage and Family in the Middle Ages (New York: Harper & Row, 1987).

Hans-Werner Goetz, Life in the Middle Ages from the Seventh to the Thirteenth Centuries, translated by Albert Wimmer, edited by Steven Rowan (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1993).

Cecil Alec Hewett, English Historic Carpentry (London: Phillimore, 1980).