10 Facts About Life as a Peasant in Medieval Times

Society, for much of Europe during the Middle Ages, was dominated by feudalism and manorialism, systems in which serfs or peasants lived on farms or in villages and worked the land under the authority of noblemen. In essence, kings owned all the land, while peasants toiled on it.

Here are 10 facts that shed some light on what it was like to be a peasant in the Middle Ages.

1. Peasant food was foul

Pottage - as tasty as it looks.

Pottage – as tasty as it looks.

Peasants generally ate something called pottage which was anything they could dig up in the fields that day, boiled for a couple of hours and then served. It was not pleasant.

2. Peasants had a lot of free time

Today we have about 8 public holidays a year. The medieval church, however, insisted on around 80.

3. English was for poor people

Every since the Norman invasion, English was a language reserved for poor people. French was spoken by the aristocracy and most of the early medieval Kings could barely speak English. It was only Henry IV who broke with tradition and took his coronation in English.

4. Jesters had freedom of speech

Jesters were in an unusual position of being able to tell truth to power.

Jesters were in an unusual position of being able to tell truth to power.

The only person who could get away with criticising the King was a jester. This is because any words that came from a jester’s mouth were said to be meant only in jest. Today satirists do the same thing.

5. Life was tough for peasants

If you were a peasant and you could keep running long enough they'd let you go.

If you were a peasant and you could keep running long enough they’d let you go.

Most peasants spent their time labouring on their Lord’s land for which they received a small plot of land to call their own. Here they were allowed to grow enough food and rear animals to feed their family.

6. The plague actually helped peasants

The Black Death Tipped the scales in favour of the survivors.

The Black Death Tipped the scales in favour of the survivors.

The Great Plague, which wiped out up to half of the population in the 14th century, went a long way towards evening the playing field for peasants. Those that remained were in a much better bargaining position so the laws of supply and demand helped them get a much better price for their work.

7. It was illegal to wear a mask

medieval facts

The idea of banning hoodies goes back some time – or at least the medieval equivalent, which was masks. It was illegal to wear a mask in public, or carry a weapon.

8. If a serf kept running long enough they’d let him go

Serfs were bound to their local town and village and if you ran away you could be fetched back and punished. However, if you managed to stay free for a year and make it to a town you could become a freeman of that town.

9. Peasants had excellent teeth

Peasants had a rough diet without much sugar. This meant that they didn’t have much in the way of tooth decay.

10. Being an idiot could be a community service

Every year the poor of the towns would elect someone to be a lord of misrule. They could then don a paper crown and cavort around the place getting up to all sorts of mischief.

Tom is a freelance journalist who studied history at Essex University. His work can be found in many different publications focusing on business and politics.