Peasants and their role in rural life

By exploring illuminations depicting rural life, Dr Alixe Bovey examines the role of the peasant in medieval society, and discusses the changes sparked by the Black Death.
In the Middle Ages, the majority of the population lived in the countryside, and some 85 percent of the population could be described as peasants. Peasants worked the land to yield food, fuel, wool and other resources. The countryside was divided into estates, run by a lord or an institution, such as a monastery or college. A social hierarchy divided the peasantry: at the bottom of the structure were the serfs, who were legally tied to the land they worked. They were obliged both to grow their own food and to labour for the landowner. They were in effect owned by the landowner. At the upper end were the freemen who were often enterprising smallholders, renting land from the lord, or even owning land in their own right, and able to make considerable amounts of money. Other workers carried out trades such as basket-weaving or bee keeping. A complex web of ties formalised by a sworn oath defined the relationships between kings, lords, vassals, serfs and so on.

Copyright: © British Library

Images from rural life

It is possible to catch glimpses of rural life painted on the pages of medieval manuscripts, though it must be remembered that such images were almost always made for the wealthy patrons who had commissioned the works and so reflect their perspective on country life rather than that of those lower down the social scale. An interesting example of this is an image from a fine 13th century manuscript made in Paris, which shows a lazy ploughman, asleep by a tree as his team sit doing nothing; the ploughman represents ‘Idleness’. Below 'Labour' is symbolised by a sower scattering seed, who is visually likened to the powerful David in the act of hurling a stone at Goliath.

Illustration of 'Prowess, Idleness, David, Labour', from Laurent d'Orléans's La Somme le Roi

Prowess, Idleness, David, Labour

View images from this item  (1)
A wonderful visual record of life on a 14th century manorial estate in England is painted in the margins of the Luttrell Psalter, a deluxe illuminated manuscript made for Sir Geoffrey Luttrell, a Lincolnshire lord, and his family. Uniquely, a cycle of images shows the agricultural cycle from the preparation of the ground and sowing wheat to its harvest and transport. The cycle includes absorbing details, such as a man using a slingshot to hurl rocks at crows to scare them away from a freshly ploughed field.

The conclusion of this cycle shows the lord of the manor, Geoffrey Luttrell, and his household being served supper. Interestingly, this scene takes place under the verses of Psalm 114:4: 'I met with trouble and sorrow: and I called upon the name of the Lord'.

Copyright: © British Library

This juxtaposition of 'the Lord' with Lord Luttrell seems to indicate the role of the manorial lord as a protector, in legal and practical terms, of his household and tenants.

Through the year

The calendars of medieval prayer books reveal that time was measured out by the movement of the heavens; by religious saints' days and feast days; and also according to the seasons and agricultural cycle. Images of the Labours of the Months in calendars often show labourers pruning vines (March), reaping wheat (July), or knocking acorns from oak trees for pigs (October) which are later slaughtered (November); in other months, we see the gentry enjoying the benefits of this labour, for example feasting (January), or indulging in leisure activities. In April, gentlemen are sometimes shown hawking, and in May, elegantly dressed lovers are shown strolling in a meadow.

Copyright: © British Library

Copyright: © British Library

The Queen Mary Psalter

Harvesting acorn to feed swine

View images from this item  (2)
The margins of a law book illuminated in London c.1340 include images of ale houses, usually marked with a broom jutting out from the peak of the roof, communal bakers to which villagers could bring their risen loaves for baking, and mills to which grain could be brought for grinding. These images are not without a sense of irony: in one pair of images, for example, a woman brings a sack of wheat to a miller for grinding; in the next image, she is shown setting the mill alight, presumably as rather extreme revenge against an unscrupulous miller.

The Smithfield Decretals

Baking bread

View images from this item  (2)

The Smithfield Decretals

Woman sets a mill on fire

View images from this item  (2)

The Black Death and Peasants' Revolt

In the mid-14th century, the catastrophic plague known as the Black Death hit Europe, and swept through the continent rapidly. It would eventually kill between a third and half of the population. These huge death tolls sparked off a chain of events that would redefine the position of the peasant in England. Due to the fact that so many had died, there were far fewer people to work the land: peasants were therefore able to demand better conditions and higher wages from their landlords. Many advanced to higher positions in society. Thus the Black Death was ultimately responsible for major shifts in the social structure.

A firsthand account of the Black Death written at the Cathedral of Rochester

A firsthand account of the Black Death written at the Cathedral of Rochester

View images from this item  (1)
The chronicle above, written at the cathedral priory of Rochester between 1314 and 1350, includes a firsthand account of the Black Death, describing the changes in the everyday lives of people across the social scale: ‘there was such a shortage of servants, craftsmen, and workmen, and of agricultural workers and labourers...[that] churchmen, knights and other worthies have been forced to thresh their corn, plough the land and perform every other unskilled task if they are to make their own bread.’

Resentment among the peasantry was simmering when between 1377 and 1381, a number of taxes were levied to finance government spending. This prompted a violent rebellion in June 1381, known as the Peasant's Revolt. A large group of commoners rode on London, storming the Tower of London and demanding reforms from the young Richard II. The rebellion would end in failure. A number of prominent rebels were killed, including their charismatic leader Wat Tyler – pictured here. Richard quelled the rebellion by promising reforms but failed to keep his word. Instead, punishments were harsh.

Miniature of the death of Wat Tyler, from Jean Froissart's Chroniques

The death of Wat Tyler

View images from this item  (1)
The image above is from the Chronicles of Jean Froissart (the chronicles cover the years 1322 until 1400; this version was created c.1483). Froissart described the Peasants’ Revolt in detail. Here he explains the roots of the rebels’ resentment: ‘Never was any land or realm in such great danger as England at that time. It was because of the abundance and prosperity in which the common people then lived that this rebellion broke out…The evil-disposed in these districts began to rise, saying, they were too severely oppressed;... [that their lords] treated them as beasts. This they would not longer bear, but had determined to be free, and if they laboured or did any other works for their lords, they would be paid for it'.
  • Alixe Bovey
  • Alixe Bovey is a medievalist whose research focuses on illuminated manuscripts, pictorial narrative, and the relationship between myth and material culture across historical periods and geographical boundaries. Her career began at the British Library, where she was a curator of manuscripts for four years; she then moved to the School of History at the University of Kent. She is now Head of Research at The Courtauld Institute of Art.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.