Village Life

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Village Life



Rural Crisis. By 1300, even after the surge of urbanization that characterized the High Middle Ages, perhaps 90 percent of the European population still lived in the countryside. Throughout Europe at this time, rural society confronted a host of problems, such as uneven levels of population density, inadequate nourishment, overstraining of natural resources, overall economic depression, and surges in population growth that exacerbated all the aforementioned problems. Earlier, between 1100 and 1300, peasant communities throughout central and western Europe had indulged in large-scale clearings, uprooted woodlands, and drained marshes in order to grow more grain and feed a steadily growing population. For certain areas this uninhibited exploitation resulted in unproductive soil under cultivation, upon which some communities were still depending hundreds of years later. In addition, rapid deforestation caused problems of erosion as it lowered the water table and allowed valuable nutrients to wash out of the soil. The gradual reduction of village commons as well as the conversion of woodlands—which in the Middle Ages had been used to graze livestock—into arable farmland caused a notable decrease in the raising of livestock, and as a result the nutrition level of peasants’ diets was lowered. The decline of the forests also reduced the supply of mushrooms, nuts, herbs, and berries, further reducing the peasants’ diet. Firewood and timber for building became valued commodities, and strict regulations were introduced stipulating when and how much wood a peasant could gather. Moreover, there was no longer enough manure to fertilize adequately all the fields. With the shortage of grazing lands, early-modern lords and village authorities restricted the public use of the commons, which meant villagers became reliant on shepherds to graze their cattle in far-off pastures. Conflicts between shepherds and villagers became a widespread feature of village life. In attempts to meet the increasing demand for grain, many villages in the early modern era were built along rivers on terrain that was too low, and consequently they experienced regular and severe flooding. Petitions that were sent throughout the sixteenth century to the Elector of Saxony from Elster, a village on the Elbe River, exemplify this problem. The villagers pled for reductions in their taxes because severe flooding of the river damaged their harvest every few years. In short, a situation had been created that guaranteed regular famines and bad harvests after 1300.

Settlement Patterns. Villages were laid out in a variety of settlement patterns. Some villages were circular in design with all of the houses facing a central common, which would probably be used for pasture. Perhaps the church, if the village had one, or a fish pond might stand in place of a common pasture. Individual farmland would extend behind each house. This design awarded protection to farms and livestock during times of war. Another prevalent pattern involved building the houses along a single road, with the majority of the farmhouses forming a long row. The village settlement was thus arranged in somewhat of a straight line, with strips of farmland extending far back behind each house well into the forests. The advantage of this type of settlement lay in the ease with which one's farmland could be expanded without interfering with one's neighbor. This pattern was preferable if the village lay near a marsh because the peasants could build canals running parallel to the main street that drained the soil nearest to the village. In German lands the most common type of settlement pattern was characterized by a village center reserved for the peasants’ homes and individually owned, fenced-in gardens, which would be connected to one another by various paths and lanes. These backyard gardens often meant survival for the great majority of families that lacked the thirty or forty acres of individually owned land necessary for economic independence. The arable land lay in a wide ring surrounding the village, and portions of it were divided among the village's families, some plots permanently and others on a year-to-year basis, according to complicated laws and customs. As there were no paths in the arable land, conflict often ensued because peasants, taking heavy tools and draught animals, had to cross each other's portions to get to their own, and thus were often accused of damaging a neighbor's crop. Finally, surrounding the arable would be an outer ring, this one containing the common pasture and extending into the nearby woodlands. Sometimes referred to as the “common mark,” this area was used collectively by all members of the village as a place for grazing livestock, obtaining timber, gathering firewood, picking berries, and finding nuts and honey. In short, the traditional village had a complex topography consisting of individually owned farmhouses and gardens, as well as parcels of meadow and arable, some of which were individually farmed, some of which were communally worked, and some of which changed ownership on a rotating basis. Finally, it should be noted that the famous “three field system” of crop rotation, in which fields alternated between lying fallow and producing either summer or winter crops, did not exist from time immemorial, but rather emerged as the result of complicated mutual restrictions developed by village communities as a response to the crises caused by population growth and land shortage. Its widespread adoption in Western Europe (in grain-producing areas—rarely in wine-growing regions) resulted in the vast

increase of cereal production that enabled Western Europe to urbanize in the late Medieval and early-modern eras, but it was by no means universally incorporated, and settlement patterns and agricultural practices in Russia, for instance, were quite distinct from West European models.

Woodlands and Marshes. In an effort to attract settlers in some wooded and marshy areas, peasants were given better property rights, had minimal ties to the local lord, and had to satisfy fewer feudal obligations. These legal and social improvements compensated those peasants who endured the added hardship of clearing wood, draining swampland, and living in scattered settlement patterns. In areas where villages lacked nucleated centers, manorial institutions were weak or nonexistent, and the predominant mode of agriculture—dairy farming or cattle and pig raising—did not rely on the more cooperative systems of farming typical in open-field villages. In addition, women were given a higher degree of independence, and their labor represented a much higher proportion of the total agricultural labor than it did in villages committed to growing grains. The economic reliance on women in wooded and marsh areas seems to have created a crisis in gender relations by 1600 and might explain both the increase in misogyny and the witch craze of the early seventeenth century.


The following description of a peasant's house in an area near the German city of Frankfurt am Main is written in a tongue-in-cheek style, comparing the home of a peasant to the castle of a king. Despite the author's comic intent, his portrait of a wealthier peasant's home (note the mention of servants) and its furnishings is accurate. The description of the looting of the house by hungry soldiers who, during military campaigns, lived by plundering peasant villages, is less funny, and reveals the frequent and unexpected hardships to which peasants were subjected.

My father . . . owned a palace as good as the next man's. It was so attractive that not a single king could have built one like it with his own two hands; he would rather have put off the construction for all eternity. It was well chinked with adobe, and instead of being covered with barren slate, cold lead, or red copper, it was thatched with straw.... He had the wall about his castle not made of fieldstone picked by the wayside, or of indifferently manufactured brick—no, he used oak planking, from a noble and useful tree on which grow pork sausages and juicy hams [peasants relied on the acorns which fell from oaks to feed their pigs which grazed in the forests].... The rooms, halls, and chambers had been tinted black by smoke.... The tapestries were of the most delicate texture in the world, for they were made by [spiders]. His windows were dedicated to St. No Glass for no other reason than that he knew windows woven of hemp and flax took more time and trouble than the most precious Venetian glass. . . . Instead of pageboys, lackeys, and stable boys, he had sheep, rams, and pigs, each neatly dressed in its own uniform. They often waited on me in the fields until, tired of their service, I drove them off and home. His armory was sufficiently and neatly furnished with plows, mattocks, axes, picks, shovels, manure forks, and hay rakes. He drilled and exercised these weapons daily; hoeing and weeding was his military discipline . . . hitching up the oxen was his captaincy; taking manure to the fields his science of fortification; plowing, his campaigning; splitting firewood, his troop movements and maneuvers; and cleaning out the stables, his war games and most noble diversion. With these activities he made war on the whole earth . . . and thereby obtained rich harvest every fall.

[Inside the house, robbing soldiers] bundled up big bags of cloth, household goods, and clothes, as if they wanted to hold a rummage sale somewhere. What they did not intend to take along they broke and spoiled. Some ran their swords into the hay and straw, as if there hadn't been hogs enough to stick. Some shook the feathers out of beds and [stole] bacon slabs, hams, and other stuff. . . . Others knocked the hearth and broke the windows. . . . They burned up bedsteads, tables, chairs, and benches, though there were yards and yards of firewood outside the kitchen. Jars and crocks, pots and casseroles all were broken. . . . In the barn, the hired girl was handled so roughly that she was unable to walk away, I am ashamed to report. They stretched the hired man out flat on the ground, stuck a wooden wedge into his mouth to keep it open, and emptied a bucket full of stinking manure drippings down his throat. . . .

Source: Hans Jacob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen, The Adventures of Simpllcius Simplicissimus, translated by George Schuiz-Behrend (Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1993), pp. 2-7.

Government. While there are exceptions to every rule, the majority of early-modern villages were not preindustrial Utopias in which neighbors eagerly helped one another and lived in happy communities. Although the introduction of the common-field system forced village peasants to cooperate with each other, and even though individual farming was increasingly subjected to the stipulations of the village's self-governing institutions, few villages developed a truly communal spirit. For instance, conflicts arose regarding complaints over how fairly the fields in the common had been distributed; accusations that all members of the village had not performed their share of work on the communal fields; disputes involving charges of having damaged another's crop, either by having carelessly trampled over a neighbor's field or by failing to prevent one's livestock from grazing on a neighbor's field; and arguments over where property lines legally existed. As a result each village had its own complex form of government whose members and committees oversaw and strictly regulated every aspect of village life. This system included deciding who would help install a new fence around the village; determining the exact days that villagers would be responsible for sowing their crops, harvesting them, and removing them after the harvest, so that livestock could graze on the stubble fields; allocating how much wood each family could remove from the forest; and coordinating, on an almost day-to-day basis, when different portions of the arable could be farmed, to prevent, given the lack of direct access to most plots, one peasant farmer from interfering with the labor of another. Firewood, the sole fuel supply, was frequently scarce, so the village government would also determine when the communal oven could be lit for baking bread. Most villages possessed a rather large oven housed in a separate structure that was lit at established times and with which multiple households baked their food simultaneously. The use of such an oven also reduced the risk of fire, as it was usually kept apart from the homes and barns.

Officials. Villages in German-speaking lands were governed by several officials. The bailiff was in charge of overseeing additional clearings and planning of the settlement. He had high status in the village, generally possessed more land than his neighbors, and mediated between the village community and the secular and ecclesiastical lords who retained feudal rights over the village. The forest ranger regulated how much timber and firewood each household would be allowed. Complaints suggest this official was susceptible to bribes and often committed relatively minor crimes with some degree of impunity. The Schultheiss, or chief-administrative official, was a wealthy villager, sometimes appointed for life by the local lord, and sometimes elected by the other wealthy male peasants within the village. He exercised varied political and judicial functions, and usually concerned himself with collecting and channeling the villagers’ tax payments to the higher authorities. Richters (village officials) were also elected by the wealthier male peasants to sit on a committee that met throughout the year to appoint and hire night watchmen, shepherds, cowherds, and rodent catchers; to deal immediately with any emergency or serious crime; to resolve interpersonal conflicts; and to see that debtors paid their arrears. The superintendent, an official of the church and not officially of the village, monitored the moral life of the village, and made sure that the adults went to church, sent their children and servants to Sunday school, paid their fixed dues to the church, repaired church properties as needed, and received punishment for transgressions such as adultery, abandonment, and the physical abuse of one's elderly parents. Finally, the schoolmaster was involved in certain areas of village politics, notably when a child was involved in a disturbance. For instance, in the village of Leonberg near Stuttgart, in the late seventeenth century, the schoolmaster was forced into the political spotlight when a thirteen-year-old schoolgirl dramatically accused herself of being a witch, of having caused harm to various domestic animals, and of imperiling the eternal souls of her classmates.

Social Relations. By the sixteenth century, economic polarization had separated a few relatively well-off peasants from their poorer neighbors. Through luck, hard work, or successful marriage alliances, some peasants had managed to accumulate enough land to be able to sell surplus grain at the regional market. With such funds these peasants built up their herds, produced enough manure to fertilize their fields effectively, and grew even more grain. They then had started lending money to their poorer neighbors, often with the result that they took their neighbors’ land as collateral. Eventually they had the wherewithal to hire poorer peasants, some of whose land they now owned, as day laborers. In times of crop failure these poorer peasants had to purchase food from their wealthier neighbors at exorbitant prices, further polarizing the distribution of wealth. This vicious cycle was played out in nearly every village in early-modern Europe, and, not surprisingly, this dynamic created village animosities and conflicts. It is with good cause that more than one historian has identified envy as the paramount emotion of early-modern village life.

Cottagers. Beneath the wealthiest peasants (called Hüfner in Germany) were those who owned neither draught animals nor farmsteads (a house with a barn and some individual holdings) but possessed only a simple plot with a one-room cottage, usually on the periphery of the village. These peasants were called, appropriately, “cottagers” (manouvriers in French and Kotsassen, Gärtner, or Kötter in German). A high percentage of cottagers were the younger sons who had bheen denied a partial inheritance of their parents’ land. This may seem unfair, but if a family divided its holdings evenly among the sons, all would, within two generations, be reduced to the status of cottager. Other cottagers might originally have possessed their own fields, but, lacking oxen or horses, these peasants were forced to work their fields by hand without access to key technologies such as the wheeled plough and harrow, which were dependent on animal labor. Thus, as regional markets increasingly commercialized agriculture during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, those peasants lacking the necessary tools and livestock emerged as the cottagers, for they could not produce enough to sell. Often to make ends meet, cottagers worked as day laborers on the fields of the wealthier peasants or they allowed runaway serfs, escaped convicts, deserters, and itinerant con artists to lodge under their roofs, which vexed their wealthier neighbors. Cottagers also worked as village artisans, performing necessary, though socially embarrassing, jobs such as butcher, tanner, weaver, and gravedigger.

Day Laborers. At the lowest level were the day laborers who lived, at best, in tiny houses erected on the land of the wealthy peasant or of the lord, close to the fields on which they would work, and, at worst, in barns and stables. Unlike the cottagers, who at least owned a home, maintained a relatively small backyard garden, and earned money through artisanal enterprise, the day laborers had nothing, and relied upon the charity of their neighbors just to survive. Their wives and children—if they had any— begged in front of the church on Sunday. In times of great inflation (and this covers much of the early-modern period), however, day laborers were probably better off than the cottagers, for the former were generally fed by their employers as part of their labor contract, while the latter would have to spend incredibly high percentages of their household incomes just to keep their families from starving.

Obligations. Though the seignorial conditions under which peasants labored varied greatly across Europe—in early modern times French peasants were freer than their counterparts in England, and peasants in Western Germany were much better off than those on lands east of the Elbe, in Eastern Europe and in Russia, where serfdom bordered on slavery—only a small percentage of peasants were able to accumulate land sufficient to achieve economic security. Secular and religious lords, in both Protestant and Catholic lands, siphoned off peasant surpluses through a series of tithe, tax, and rent obligations. The peasant had to endure forced labor for his feudal lord (well after nation-states had clearly emerged, local petty lords still retained privileges over the peasants whose villages stood on their lands), which might amount to several weeks each year. The courvée (work tax) included not only farming the lord's fields, fixing his fences, and tending his livestock, but involved gathering timber for his needs, repairing roads, and running errands for him. It was common for peasants to thrash through the woods to scare up the deer or other animals on those days when the lord planned his hunt. Documents from sixteenth-century Germany reveal that church officials punished peasants for missing Sunday services, when, in fact, the peasants had been ordered to help on the hunt; in this instance, peasants were caught between conflicting obligations. In addition, the peasant's wife and daughters would have to spin, weave, and launder for the lord's family. Peasants in some areas of Europe saw their labor obligations converted, roughly between 1100 and 1400, to additional payments of money and farm produce. Such a conversion gave peasants more time to work their own fields, and, even with the added payments, these peasants would be better off at the end of the year. They also enjoyed greater political independence, as the local lord no longer disrupted their lives as frequently. By the sixteenth century, however, population increases caused shortages of land that enabled lords to restore the hated work tax, as few peasants had enough land to satisfy both their family's consumption needs and their payments to the lord. As a result, lords intervened more closely in the daily affairs of the village, causing a great deal of resentment, as most peasants could not appreciate the broad demographic and economic changes transforming Western Europe. They knew only that they were expected to perform duties from which their grandfathers had been exempt. A series of peasant rebellions in Germany, culminating in the Peasants’ War of 1524-1525, signify this frustration, and, as the peasant forces were always roundly defeated by the lords’ mercenary armies, the peasants’ economic and political condition in any given region deteriorated considerably after an uprising, because the lords punished rebellion with further exactions.

Hardships and Joys. Life in the peasant village was hardly the rustic idyll celebrated by the Romantics or the pure simple life envisioned by many in modern society. As suggested by close readings of the tales of the Brothers Grimm or those by Mother Goose, the peasant world was filled with danger and hardship. Gangs of drifters and detachments of soldiers frequently descended on the village, pilfering food and supplies, raiding chicken coops, stealing laundry left to dry, and snipping off horses’ tails, which they could sell to upholsterers. A village would be lucky if no one was seriously harmed or killed during such raids, or if it was not burned down. Hunting parties made up of dozens of nobles often rode with reckless abandon over peasant fields, destroying in minutes months’ worth of work. Wolves and bears attacked domestic animals and ate crops as well as the occasional villager who wandered too far into the woods. Disease came regularly and killed both men and livestock.

Bees. Peasants had relatively little free time and worked from sunrise well through sunset. When not involved with toil on his individual strips of land or on the commonly held portions of arable, the peasant, with his family, raised flax for spinning, brewed beer for private consumption, and produced vegetables, cheeses, chickens, and eggs to sell at regional markets. Peasants whittled and spun late into the evening in bees or large gatherings held in a single home to preserve the wood needed for heating and lighting. Such gatherings were important because they provided an opportunity for villagers to talk, sing, and gossip among themselves at the end of a day. Teenagers, segregated during the day by the gendered division of labor, had the chance to flirt with one another at these bees, and their parents negotiated marriages during them. Because of the great amount of gossip and negotiation that went on during these bees, local lords and supraregional authorities tried to prevent them; but, as firewood was truly scarce, the villagers could usually justify the holding of bees with a sound economic argument about the prudence of lighting and heating only one workspace.

Misconceptions. Other forms of entertainment included drinking binges and village feasts, which were held to celebrate engagements, weddings, the completion of the harvest, and the major religious holidays of Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost. While these events undoubtedly occurred and provided the peasants with merriment and necessary outlets to relieve the constant stress of living at near-subsistence levels, they probably were not as consistently extravagant and debauched as various sources claim them to be. Surviving sermons, petitions of complaint brought by local lords, essays such as Sebastian Brant's Ship of Fools (1490), and the texts of the popular plays that were performed in cities at Shrovetide all attest to the great decadence and carousing that went on during village celebrations. However, when reading these documents, one must remember that they were produced during an age when the secular authorities were obsessed with maintaining the vast differences in rank between the nobility, the city burghers, and the peasants, and when the religious authorities, particularly in Protestant lands, were trying to fashion new forms of piety and sobriety in daily life. The peasants’ lifestyle was probably not as extravagant and immodest as either the scolding clerics, or the rapacious tax officials, desirous of increasing the peasants’ tax burdens by painting a picture of their ability to feast perpetually, would have had their contemporaries believe. Depictions of peasants feasting and drinking to excess in urban plays should also be seen, partly, as comic stereotyping, in which boorish and gluttonous peasants were in essence stock characters created to delight urban spectators and to confirm for them their sense of cultural superiority. In fact, the so-called luxury regulations, which limited the number of guests who could attend a peasant feast, how much they could be served, and how long the affair could last, existed for the most part to prevent peasants from celebrating in a manner deemed unsuitable for their estate and not to reduce excessively high levels of feasting already intrinsic to village life. Life in the village was quite hard, and few peasants had the wherewithal to celebrate either regularly or regally.

Changes in the Countryside. Throughout early-modern Europe, wealthy urban nobles maintained rural estates. These properties enabled the privileged, much like the aristocrats of ancient Rome, to escape the oppressive heat and foul odors that characterized cities in summertime and provided a refuge to which they could turn if plague or political rebellion broke out in their town. Rural estates also gave the urban nobility a place where they could pursue the favored sport of their order—the hunt. A ruling family of Renaissance Florence, the Medici, maintained a fortified rural villa in the Tuscan countryside with its own chapel and gardens, while Henry VIII of England favored Hampton Palace, a residence in London's countryside that he sequestered from Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, for hunting parties, horseback riding, and tennis. However, lesser figures than these copied their betters, and even a relatively obscure fifteenth-century Venetian condottiere (a captain of a mercenary army) such as Jacopo Marcello possessed a spectacular castle on the Italian mainland in the Euganean hills south of Padua to which his family retreated whenever plague visited Venice. Likewise, the Westphalian adventurer Heinrich von Staden, who spent part of his adult life in the service of Ivan the Terrible, possessed, even though he was neither Russian nor noble, properties in the countryside to which he turned when political unrest or disease befell Moscow.

“New Men.” As capitalism developed in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, nonnoble (or recently ennobled) merchants, lawyers, and state bureaucrats accumulated vast sums of wealth. These “new men” invested portions of their fortunes in rural estates, in part to imitate their social betters, and in part because too much wealth had already been invested in the cities. Many of these rural developers (for that is what in essence they became) were able, through their vast economic resources, to seize peasant farms as collateral against unpaid loans, to enclose large areas of the countryside, and to penetrate—and destroy— centuries-old communal institutions. Such dynamics often resulted in violence, such as the infamous “Carnival in Romans” (1580) where street violence during a pre-Lenten holiday feast erupted into a territorial civil war fought by the traditional urban elite of the city of Romans, the long-standing rural elite in the Dauphine countryside, and the “new men” who were attempting to gain a foothold in both realms.


Robert Darnton, The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History (New York: Basic Books, 1984).

Margaret L. King, The Death of the Child Valeria Marcello (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994).

Michael Kunze, Highroad to the Stake, translated by William E. Yuill (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987).

Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, Carnival in Romans, translated by Mary Feeney (New York: George Braziller, 1979).

Werner Rösener, Peasants in the Middle Ages, translated by Alexander Stiitzer (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992).

David Warren Sabean, Power in the Blood (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984).

David Underdown, “The Taming of the Scold: the Enforcement of Patriarchical Authority in Early Modern England,” in Order and Disorder in Early Modern England, edited by Anthony Fletcher and John Stevenson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985).

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Village Life

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