The Hardest Realities Of Daily Life As A Peasant In Medieval Times

The Hardest Realities Of Daily Life As A Peasant In Medieval Times

Reaching middle age during the Middle Ages was an accomplishment. From the 5th to 15th centuries, the lowest rung of medieval European society — peasants and serfs — had no rights and little else. With filthy conditions, brutal hobbies, and chaotic sleep schedules, it’s a miracle some peasants made it to adulthood. These were just some of the harshest aspects of a peasant’s existence.

Housing

What were peasant homes like? They were small structures with thatched roofs, designed to be easy to repair. Serfs called these little dwellings cruck houses. No matter the weather, they weren’t very comfortable places to be. Winters were harsh, and summers were unbearably hot. And instead of a dog curled up at the end of their beds, peasants did things a bit differently.

The Clink Prison Museum / Facebook

Animals Indoors

Whatever animals peasants owned were rounded up at night and brought inside with the rest of the family. Cows, pigs, chickens, all would crowd into the cruck house for a few different reasons. First was the risk of animal theft. Leaving your critters outside was gambling whether they’d be there in the morning. Though, that wasn’t the only potential problem.

Heritage Images / Contributor / Getty Images

There Were Tons of Bugs

Sometimes the animals ran off all on their own. Losing your animals was a huge blow to a peasant family. Living with your livestock and farm animals wasn’t easy. In fact, it was just as filthy as you’d expect. Flies, fleas, lice, you name it, — peasants in medieval Europe scratched and swatted them as they slept.

PHAS / Contributor / Getty Images

Incredibly High Taxes

When they weren’t working the land at all hours, peasants were paying hefty amounts of taxes. Yep, even the serfs! No one was exempt when the taxman called. Officials accepted forms of non-cash currency, like seeds, which weren’t exactly cheap. Sacrificing seeds meant you’d have less to plant. Needless to say, this wasn’t a sustainable cycle.

Hulton Archive / Handout / Getty Images

Different Sleep Schedule

In medieval Europe, sleep was handled much differently. Rather than retiring to bed for the night, peasants broke hours of sleep into smaller increments. They’d snooze for 2-4 hours, only to wake up and do other activities, like work, have sex, or even leave the house to visit friends. Then, they’d go back home to bed for a few more hours.

Mondadori Portfolio/RM Image Partner / Contributor / Getty Images

Owed The Church

Just when a peasant had a moment to rest from the seemingly never-ending labor of working their own land, they had to do the same for the church. That’s right, in addition to the forced labor owed to lords, the church also had unflinching rules about sweat equity. Though this unpaid work was done without complaint, not participating was considered a sin.

Culture Club / Contributor / Getty Images

Sunday Funday

At the end of a backbreaking week was Sunday, a peasant’s only day off. That day was relegated to the church, where, beyond worship, was an opportunity to sing and play music. In some cases, the church offered reading lessons to peasant children. Still, outside of their faith, peasants had a few additional bright lights in their difficult lives.

Photo by William Thomas Cain/Getty Images

Blood Sports

Think exposing children to gory movies is bad? Well, in the Middle Ages, a typical family outing involved attending a bear-baiting. Crowds gathered to witness dogs attack a chained bear, who would ultimately be freed and execute the canines. But for those not interested in bear-versus-dog battles to the death, there was the other popular pastime of cockfighting, or even a version of soccer, which wasn’t much better.

Culture Club / Contributor / Getty Images

Soccer Was Cutthroat

Football, or soccer, was a hugely popular game amongst medieval peasants, but you had to be willing to get hurt. Games lasted days and were punctuated by broken bones, unchecked aggression, and sometimes death. Things grew so bad that in 1363 King Edward III made playing soccer an imprisonable offense.

Michael Steele / Staff / Getty Images

Dealing With Violence

Violence wasn’t something peasants enjoyed by any means, but it was a huge problem, and it’s not difficult to see why. Physical punishment was a socially acceptable response. Domestic violence in marriage was normalized, despite contradicting codes of chivalry. Other times, violence was born out of extreme financial desperation. Options were limited and tensions were high, so they eventually boiled over.

Heritage Images / Contributor / Getty Images

They Protested

The lower classes of Middle Ages society weren’t ones to put up with injustice quietly. Peasants organized and attended protests against “The Man,” and while some wildly waved pitchforks and other weapons, most showed up surprisingly well-prepared. They cited their rights from the Domesday book as evidence, despite lacking formal education. Ultimately, though, these protests were met with swift and brutal ends.

adoc-photos / Contributor / Getty Images

Torture

The worst part about living in the lowest tier of medieval society was the lack of rights. If someone pointed the finger at a peasant, or worse, a serf, living a life of slavery, the accused was at the mercy of the punisher. Serfs were valued for labor, so they usually would be whipped rather than maimed or killed. In some severe cases, the punishment was brutal and cruel, like live burial.

adoc-photos / Contributor / Getty Images

Multi-Purpose Liquid

Water was even more valuable in the Middle Ages for its wide array of uses. The first stop in a peasant’s morning was the nearby water source, probably a river, where they’d dump their putrid bucket of human waste. Ah, how refreshing! If you’re questioning whether their waste went straight into their drinking and bathing water, the answer is a grotesque “absolutely.” However, bathing itself was a whole other issue.

Rigamondis / Getty Images

Baths In A Lifetime

Running water wasn’t yet an amenity in medieval times, so even the societal elites were far from fresh as daisies. The situation was way stinkier for peasants. Some historians say that in their lifetimes, a typical peasant bathed only twice: once at birth, the other after death! However, for those looking to wash, there was one rough option.

Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

The Stews

Peasants searching for a rare scrub went to the stews, or what we’d call a public bath today. They stripped down and simmered together in the water, though admittedly, most didn’t go there for hygiene. The stews were mostly known as a brothel, a hub for public sex — and for thieves! It was a treasure trove for pickpockets to rifle through the clothes that “bathers” cast aside.

Wikimedia Commons

Childhood

Helicopter parents be warned: the lives of peasant children will make you sad. It was a feat for babies to survive beyond six months, so each year was counted as a small victory. Schooling was out of the question for children in this rung of society. Instead, they went straight to work, albeit doing more minor tasks like chasing away birds.

Universal Images Group/Hulton Fine Art / Contributor / Getty Images

Women’s Roles

While so often throughout history, women were so oppressed that they weren’t allowed to participate in certain aspects of society, that wasn’t the case in the Middle Ages. Peasant women, in particular, were very busy. No, it wasn’t a highly progressive society, but women, especially on the lower rungs, held a lot of responsibility.

Heritage Images / Contributor / Getty Images

Food

What was on the menu for a typical family dinner? It depended on what was available. A grain, usually bread, was the mainstay of all their meals. Beans were another staple along with some salted meats, though meat was a luxury few could afford.

Wikimedia Commons

Lifespan

Given their filthy conditions and limited resources, peasants had the shortest life expectancy of anyone in the rigid class structure of medieval society. The Black Death was the major culprit, killing 25 million people in a span of 5 years, and since serfs lived only an estimated 35 years on average, it’s fair to say many of those deaths were the poorest of the poor.

Heritage Images / Contributor / Getty Images

Drunk All The Time

One way to combat the depressing banality of a work-laden life is by drowning it in booze! That was the peasant strategy anyway. While some suggest peasants downed beer over water due to accessibility, that wasn’t accurate. Still, heavy drinking was commonplace across all classes, and it only increased as the Middle Ages continued and distilling was popularized.

Wikimedia Commons

Alternate Eyebrows

Yes, the middle ages were a time of confusing beliefs and trends. Like if a woman got tired of not having eyebrows after plucking them, she could make a pair from rodent fur. Sometimes their eyebrows stopped growing back after years of constant removal, and this was their only solution for hair.

Danny Kelly / Twitter

Animal Laws

Animals were held to the same judicial process as humans. If they were accused of a crime, they had a trial. If they were convicted of their crime, they were sentenced to death by either being burnt at the stake or hanging. This hopefully taught the animals that crime doesn’t pay.

Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Playing with Food

Medieval chefs loved to experiment with different animal combinations during their meals. Helmeted cock was one of these meals. They sewed a rooster on top of a pig so it looked like it was riding the creature.

MyTrueAncestry / Twitter

Forehead Oo La La

Medieval women hated hair. They saw their foreheads as their face’s central attraction. To draw more attention to this feature, some would pluck their eyebrows and eyelashes. The most devoted even plucked their hairlines into an oval.

Photo by Fotografo\Agenzia\Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images

Look At Those Shoes!

Rich people loved to show off their wealth by wearing fancy clothes. For instance, European men had a period in which they all wore long, pointed shoes. The lengthiest shoes were stiffened with whalebone to hold their shape.

bjornfalkevik / WikiCommons

Festival of the Ass

Another popular yearly tradition was the Festival of the Ass. A little girl would ride a donkey into a church during service. The churchgoers would then end all of their prayers in donkey noises, instead of “amen.” This lasted until the Protestant reformation.

Baudolino / Twitter

Courtly Love

Since their marriages were for political gain, people of the court needed some outlet to express their feelings of romance. This was “courtly love,” a system that allowed the royals to show affection for their crushes, while remaining married.

Photo by Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

Messy Divorce

The most popular way to resolve a serious spousal dispute in Germany was trial by single combat. The unhappy couple went into a ring and fought each other, while following another bizarre set of rules for fighting. Whatever works, we guess.

Photo by David Benito/Getty Images

Shrovetide

The ancient English were very serious about their favorite sport, Shrovetide football. Played in Derbyshire, England, there wasn’t a limit to how many people could participate in a game — which would take over a town — and matches often ended in violence.

visitpeakdistrict / Instagram

Dying Day Dreams

Death was a major part of existence in the Middle Ages. People were concerned with making their own death as beautiful and peaceful as it could be. If their final moments were at hand, they tried to be free of despair, disbelief, impatience, pride or avarice, and fill themselves with peace.

John Collier / Wikimedia Commons

Did You Mean Ox Or Unicorn?

When the Bible was mistranslated, it compared Jesus to a unicorn, instead of an ox. This idea grew around the medieval art communities, and unicorns became a major subject in their work.

Domenichino / Wikimedia Commons

Jesters Who Jest

Jesters were given the unique privilege to say pretty much anything. Whatever they said was ruled to be treated as jest, so some even gave their political opinions to their royal audience.

Photo by Horacio Villalobos – Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images

Feast of Fools

During the Feast of Fools in January, the upper and lower classes would switch places. A king of misrule was crowned during this raucous festival. There were parades, comedians, singing, and plenty of drinking.

Photo by Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

Rose of Lily

Flowers and roots were used for lipstick – especially in shades of rose of lily. These connoted a sense of purity for the wearer didn’t offend the church as much. As long as the color wasn’t too bright, women could get away with wearing their homemade makeup.

Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Blondes

Another important female trend was being blond. Angels were depicted as blond, and women wanted to mimic this in their humanly forms. Once they achieved their desired shade, they wore opal necklaces to charm their hair into lightness.

Photo by Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

And Brunettes

For those who wanted to go brunette, there were a few options. Women would cook roots and nuts and then soak their hair in the mixture. They would keep it in for two days before rinsing the solution.

YouTube

“Is That A Freckle?

Moles, freckles, and birthmarks were associated with witchcraft at the time. There were a variety of ointments and home remedies for lightening or attempting to rid yourself of “unsightly” blemishes.

Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The Do In ‘I Do’

Marriage traditions were much different in Medieval Europe. When children reached puberty, they were ready for marriage, and weddings were often a major event with plenty of public interest. Audiences would ensure the couple properly consummated the event.

Wikimedia Commons

See Through

Being pale was in during Medieval Europe. Women would use blue ink to draws blue veins on their skin. There were also special powders to whiten their appearance. Their goal was to make themselves look almost translucent.

John William Waterhouse / Wikipedia Commons

Curing A Disease With Touch

One of the many diseases that ravaged Europeans was the King’s Evil, a kind of tuberculosis that appeared in the form of oozing black sores on someone’s neck. Until the 1700s, it was believed the only cure was the touch of a royal’s hand. That wasn’t an effective treatment.

Photo by Horacio Villalobos – Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images