Farmers and Peasants: Village Fights and Festivals

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Farmers and Peasants: Village Fights and Festivals


Village Tensions . Villagers lived in close proximity to their neighbors, and fights were bound to occur. The records of village meetings and manorial courts provide lists of troubles that happened in these communities, particularly when land, tools, and crops were shared. As Frances and Joseph Gies have noted, the charges included “trampling another tenant’s grain; cutting hay in the meadow without waiting for lots to be drawn; allowing one’s cows, pigs, or geese to damage another’s crops, ‘stealing plow furrows,’ that is, plowing part of a neighbor’s land.” Village bylaws and rules often stated that

”able-bodied” people should not be allowed to do the relatively easy work of gleaning reserved for “the young, the old, and those who are decrepit and unable to work,” but should be employed to their capacity in reaping. Peas and beans, especially valuable in a protein-short diet, could be picked only at specified times when all villagers were present and could watch each other. All kinds of precautions were taken to prevent the theft of sheaves. Rules restricted carting and carrying to daylight hours, via specified entries and exits to the fields.

Those who violated village procedures suffered various penalties. If they offended against a lord’s rights, the lord could extract payment or, in serious cases, even replace one tenant with another. Within the community, a villager could be ostracized. Unless he was quite prosperous and therefore able to manage his land on his own, this sentence carried serious economic consequences for his entire household because he would have no one to help him lead a plow team or bring in his crop. Honor was also important to medieval people, and shaming was another way to punish transgressors. A man whose wife cheated on him might be made to wear horns, as a sign that he had been cuckolded.

Village Time. The position of the sun in the sky determined time during the day, and the chores that needed to be done distinguished the months. The annual calendar did not really begin in a particular month, and peasants often lost track of what year it was. January was the month of cold; February was the time of digging or cleaning the fields; and March and April were devoted to chores such as taking livestock out to the fields, trimming grapevines, or cutting posts. Medieval calendars linking chores and climate to months of the year appeared in books from the ninth to the fourteenth centuries and continued to be a common artistic pattern well after the Middle Ages. A peasant generally headed to the fields at daylight, ate the main meal when the sun was at its highest point, and returned home when the sun began to set. Given this schedule, the workday was longer in the summer than in the winter, and the days were of a more consistent length in southern Europe than northern Europe. Holidays were tied


In 789 a statement of Church policy for both clergy and laity was issued under Charlemagne’s name. Known as the admonitio generalis, it mentions the chores that peasants were likely to do on a Sunday despite regulations against such work. Although it is from a slightly earlier era than the period covered in this book, it suggests ongoing difficulties in enforcing “sacred” time on a day when the only permissible chores were carting services for the purpose of supplying vital goods during times of war or, occasionally, for a funeral.

We also order that…no servants’ chores be performed on Sundays…that men not perform farm chores, that they refrain from cultivating the vineyards, from plowing the fields, from mowing, from cutting hay or building fences, constructing houses, or working in the garden. By the same token, women are not to manufacture cloth on Sundays, make patterns for clothes, sew, or embroider, card wool, scutch flax, wash clothes in public, or shear sheep.

Source : 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), p. 151.

to the religious calendar. For peasants, Sunday was supposed to be a day of rest, although harvest or other jobs could encroach on this time. In the same way other holy days or market days could also be holidays. It is estimated that medieval peasants had around 200–240 working days a year, that is, close to those of modern people. These estimates, however, cannot show if peasants actually took off the days that were supposed to be holidays.

Amusements and Festivals. Medieval people, including peasants, amused themselves in various ways. Toys such as dolls, hobbyhorses, carts, whistles, tops, balls, and swings were generally made out of wood, fabric scraps, and other easily accessible materials. Children mimicked adults by playing at harvesting, cooking, and building. Men and women went for walks, had meals together, and gossiped. Certain days of the year were especially festive, and among the most popular was May first, May Day. One of the earliest descriptions of May Day celebrations comes from Bishop Robert Grosseteste (circa 1168–1253), who wrote to complain about the festivities. According to his description, priests and commoners alike joined in a series of kissing and drinking games “which they call the bringing-in of May.” These games apparently included dancing around a large pole set up in the village. When the village could afford them, streamers were tied to the pole. Young women each took one end of a streamer and danced around the pole while inviting the young men in the village to join them. Flutes, drums, and singers provided the music. In the evening villagers made a large bonfire and continued their celebrations by firelight. Even though reforming clergymen frequently condemned such festivities, particularly the participation of some clergymen in them, these celebrations endured into the early twentieth century in some regions.


Frances Gies and Joseph Gies, Life in a Medieval Village (New York: Harper & Row, 1990).

Ronald Hutton, The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990).

Theresa McLean, The English at Play in the Middle Ages (Windsor Forest, U.K.: Kensal Press, 1983).

Jeffrey L. Singman, Daily Life in Medieval Europe (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999).

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Farmers and Peasants: Village Fights and Festivals

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