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 The role of the peasant in Medieval society.

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Islanddawn
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PostSubject: The role of the peasant in Medieval society.   Fri 26 Oct 2012, 20:00

In the discussion on the Richard III thread I found this comment from Nordmann extremely interesting,

@Nordmann wrote:
Never underrate the *peasant*. It is a
much misunderstood status in medieval history with regard to its
function, influence and ability.

In my rather simplistic view of the Medieval world I had imagined that the elite and the lower classes were two very important parts of a whole, one unable to exist without the other. Ie the peasant grew the food, grazed the animals and produced the goods for all and in return for this necessary labour, the upper crust provided the law, order and protection from enemies, thus allowing the peasant a modicum of peace and security to produce more food and goods.

So what was the role, function and influence of the peasant in Medieval society and could it be said that the elite were merely a necessary evil and existed only for and by the compliance of the lower classes?
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PostSubject: Re: The role of the peasant in Medieval society.   Sat 05 Jan 2013, 13:05

I think that there always has to be a 'pecking order' of structure in societies, if only in ancient ones for the masses of poor and enslaved 'workhorse' folk to serve their 'masters'?
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nordmann
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PostSubject: Re: The role of the peasant in Medieval society.   Sun 06 Jan 2013, 16:29

But is there a danger that we have traditionally exaggerated what being low in the "pecking order" actually meant for those who occupied that stratum in medieval times? Even aside from the occasional circumstances that contributed to widespread improvements, such as the labour shortage in the wake of the Black Death which temporarily improved their earning power and mobility, can we any longer assert with the same assuredness as before that the status and quality of life of the peasant was quite so abject as hitherto claimed when these circumstances did not prevail?

Quality of life is a difficult and subjective thing to qualify or quantify, but if one accepts that general good health, good diet, financial security and generally expressed contentment with the status quo are important factors in its determination then we must be very careful before we paint the typical peasant as having been necessarily lacking in any or all of these things. The evidence in fact points very much to the contrary, and in recent years this evidence (quality of housing, midden material, wills and other documentary sources etc) have led many historians to a radical re-evaluation and restatement of peasant life in the centuries up to the Reformation.

In England one can go even further than simply asserting that the peasant's quality of life was actualy much better than previously supposed generally. One can argue, for example, that both the principle of an impartial legal system and the actual mechanics required to deliver it were formulated, designed and implemented essentially from within that class. Royal imprimatur may have been applied to call it the law of the land officially, but notions such as trial by jury, judgement by peers (as in "of equal status"), explanation of verdicts, consistency of penalties and, most essentially, the drawing up of a table of reference by which valid grievances could be understood and standardised throughout the whole land, all appear to have grown out of how the so-called members of the peasant class controlled their own affairs. In as far as "law of the land" means that which applies to the great majority then this was indeed it, and it was one that had been worked out and enacted at society's lowest levels, not its highest. The upper class applied the same principles later, and in some respects very much later indeed.

That there was a two-tier society is without doubt, but to draw an inference from this that therefore the "upper" tier automatically had a greater claim on a better life is so way off what the evidence suggests that it could almost be dismissed as being simply historically ignorant. Without even going into the obvious military and economic dependencies that this upper tier had upon the peasants' cooperation and the real power therefore that this dependency imparted, one can see from the archaeological evidence alone that to be materially poor in feudal society did not, as today, automatically mean that one was disempowered. In fact in many crucial ways the poorest peasant had a greater stake in his own and society's future than even the more moderately "rich" examples of his modern middle-class counterpart!
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Priscilla
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PostSubject: Re: The role of the peasant in Medieval society.   Mon 07 Jan 2013, 23:50

Was it a two tier society? I stand on a quicksand of ignorance here - however, let me hazard opinion that there was a growing middleclass once the Normans had settled down to their estates. The growth of the trade guilds, for instnace, widespread trading and the consolidation of towns smacks of evidence of this. Their organisation - for which law and rules are inevitable probably strengthened the rural peasants lot, I imagine. Mix the power of the church establishment into this broth and - well for starters, the growth of politics is inevitable. Now whether that was to the peasants' advantage is moot.
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nordmann
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PostSubject: Re: The role of the peasant in Medieval society.   Tue 08 Jan 2013, 14:34

The feudal pyramid as drawn in my school textbook was something I always reckoned was a bit misleading. It did indeed have multiple layers - the barons under the king, the bishops and knights under the barons etc. However in reality society was strictly divided between those who owned real estate and those (the vast majority) who didn't. It is tempting to exaggerate the extent and status of town citizenship but in truth it was trifling in terms of population size right up to the end of the medieval period. I agree with you however regarding the towns' contribution to the process of formulating law. It was in towns that the by-law (literally "town law") came into its own and the concepts of detailed regulation, points of law, legal precedence, and indeed professional lawyers first emerged. Before that common, as opposed to ecclesiastical, courts used a very simple approach to interpreting injustice and an equally simple language to express it.

Another point worth noting is that many of the merchant guilds' members were "peasants making good" as opposed to nobility getting their hands dirty. They were therefore formed largely based on the precepts, traditions and mores of the peasant class. This in itself should be a clue as to how much more sophisticated, erudite and indeed power-capacitating peasant culture was, at least in comparison to how it has often been generally viewed.

In Britain and Ireland the transition from freedom to fiefdom had been rather sudden - the peasant class was made up primarily of people who under Saxon and Gaelic society had enjoyed considerable input into and responsibility for the systems whereby justice and what we would now call social welfare were administered. Their abrupt change of status with regard to freehold, I imagine, would not have extinguished this self-perception or the practises based on it. In Germany and Russia at the moment there is quite an interest in a re-evaluation of the peasant's nature and role in early medieval society, with many books being written by historians pointing out how the documentary evidence alone reveals a population who, without formal education, was still able to cohere and function at quite a sophisticated level. If this can be demonstrated in cultures in which the feudal system developed at a very gradual pace, then it must mean that it should be doubly true for those other societies on which feudalism was suddenly enforced.
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Priscilla
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PostSubject: Re: The role of the peasant in Medieval society.   Wed 09 Jan 2013, 16:47

Perhaps I was first drawn to enjoy Breugal The Peasant's art because it reflected so many aspects of a class wringing the best they could from their lot. Although the period is at the tag end of your thread, this work reflects peasantryas it must have been for many a year. He depicts spirited liveliness without a hint of being down trodden.

Of my own experience of tribal/rural people who are grinding poor and still living in a feudal manner ruled by feudal lords, they too have their own codes of life - and a knack of enjoying their own festivals and milestones; their lords know just how far they can intervene and push such folk. The underlying problem today is surely much as it has been in such communities for hundreds of years - land sharing among large broods. It is by splitting the holdings that poverty takes its toll. Loyalty to the feudal lord is a binding necessity. I suppose this is an example of a symbiotic relationship - unless I misunderstand what that means. It is an interesting thread which has made me think having lived among rural communities; to some extent I have always felt them to be self contained worlds - and managing quite nicely on what is to hand.... whilst also making crafty free with what is 'me lord's.' 'Me lord' and what is his, being fair game in the arts of comfortable survival.
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Caro
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PostSubject: Re: The role of the peasant in Medieval society.   Wed 09 Jan 2013, 22:30

Quote :
In England one can go even further than simply asserting that the peasant's quality of life was actualy much better than previously supposed generally. One can argue, for example, that both the principle of an impartial legal system and the actual mechanics required to deliver it were formulated, designed and implemented essentially from within that class. Royal imprimatur may have been applied to call it the law of the land officially, but notions such as trial by jury, judgement by peers (as in "of equal status"), explanation of verdicts, consistency of penalties and, most essentially, the drawing up of a table of reference by which valid grievances could be understood and standardised throughout the whole land, all appear to have grown out of how the so-called members of the peasant class controlled their own affairs.

In more modern times labour laws have also begun from the bottom up (though I have qualms about the use of "bottom" and "top" with their assumptions one is better than the other) with workers forming united groups to fight for better conditions. In general social laws probably start from the ordinary people rather than those for whom the status quo is most favourable and easy.

There's a tendency in modern times (maybe it was ever thus) to assume beneficiaries and poorly paid working people are hopeless and helpless and need state intervention to make them more middle class, but I worked for some years as an educational pre-school worker visiting people in their homes and also did interviewing work visiting lots of houses, and the organisation of a class of people I otherwise didn't see much was quite impressive. I would visit people who were about to take round to friends their cooking or who were swapping one set of goods for another. I live now where a similar group help each other, buy from each other, trade goods they have made on the street etc. And when streets are chosen for gentrification there is often an outcry from the residents who see it as their community which is about to be stolen from them.

When I mention this sort of thing to people they say, "But you live in a rural area and it's different there." I suppose the medieval peasants were living in semi-rural conditions too. Although the 19th-C people of urban Sheffield, for example, had community spirit it's hard to see their living conditions and life expectancy as anything other than something that needed improvement.
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Priscilla
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PostSubject: Re: The role of the peasant in Medieval society.   Thu 10 Jan 2013, 00:41

Those who went to the towns for employment from a rural life surely suffered greatly in the 19th C. There is always food to be gleaned from the countryside by those familiar with it. And rural does mean rural in nordmann's thread context. Small hamlets were the local smoke. other dwellings could be far from others. The place I stayed in as a child was 3 miles from the nearest home - all without running water or any services whatsoever - not even roads. In truth I had great childhood holidays and memories of life among those folk.

I have just been reading about one mill owner beside the R. Derwent near Derby, a J. Walter Evans, who did his best by building homes for his workers - now greatly sought after, so not hovels. He also gave each family a cow and use of nearby common grazing. Possibly he was a very unusual man for his times and the picture of dark satanic mills of heavy industry always come first to mind in this context.
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Islanddawn
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PostSubject: Re: The role of the peasant in Medieval society.   Thu 10 Jan 2013, 09:16

I think Nordmann raised a good point regarding the Guilds. They were societies of merchants, tradesmen and artisans formed to oversee and protect their common interests, they existed in most towns and cities and they were enormously wealthy organisations that wielded social and political clout.

In some places Guilds also became the governing bodies of towns, such as London. And these centres and buildings were statements of power!


Antwerp's Guildhalls


Guildhalls of Grand Place, Brussels


A result of the Guild network was also the development of universities such as Oxford, Bologna and Paris around 1200, as these seats of learning originated as Guilds of students.

Surely if the peasant classes were quite as downtrodden as assumed today these societies would not have been allowed to form, little on evolve into the powerful organisations that they became?
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Caro
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PostSubject: Re: The role of the peasant in Medieval society.   Sat 12 Jan 2013, 22:15

I meant to reply here days ago but forgot. I don't think, whatever the guilds came from, that their members would have considered themselves as coming from the peasant class. They would have thought of themselves as middle class (or whatever the term was then).

Quote :
I have just been reading about one mill owner beside the R. Derwent near Derby, a J. Walter Evans, who did his best by building homes for his workers - now greatly sought after, so not hovels. He also gave each family a cow and use of nearby common grazing. Possibly he was a very unusual man for his times and the picture of dark satanic mills of heavy industry always come first to mind in this context.

They weren't unusual for their times but perhaps he was unusual for his place. The 19th C seemed to be strong on these owners who made a little community for their workers and cared for them well in return for the workers accepting the rules of the place (sometimes no alcohol etc). They are sometimes considered paternalistic but that seems better to me by a long way than neglectful. When I was reading my Truby King book there was comment there about King's way of looking after his workers being the tradition of the times and linking to what was done in Britain. (In return he expected the people he was caring for - such as mental health inmates - to do gardening. (He did think this was good for their health too.)
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PostSubject: Re: The role of the peasant in Medieval society.   Sat 12 Jan 2013, 23:34

Of the time nordmann defines, I have no knowledge of the feudal system in Germanic regions - where , so current thinking has it, the peasant's life was better than first thought. Was it a feudal society suc as the Normans introduced with bonded serfdom, for instance? Were the Franks any better - in the Aachen regions, anyway.
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Islanddawn
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PostSubject: Re: The role of the peasant in Medieval society.   Sun 13 Jan 2013, 10:54

@Caro wrote:
I don't think, whatever the guilds came from, that their members would have considered themselves as coming from the peasant class. They would have thought of themselves as middle class (or whatever the term was then)

Guilds were cofraternities of workers, the early form of trade unions and you couldn't practice any trade as a master craftsmen without being a member of the appropriate guild. Stone cutters, masons, carvers, wood cutters, carpenters, glass makers, tanners, leather workers, weavers, dyers, fullers, bakers, brewers, blacksmiths, armourers, knife makers, locksmiths, harness makers, harness polishers, farriers and the list goes on.

The word peasant has connotations today, which I don't think existed then. The majority of the European population were peasants, which in reality, was merely a farmer. The peasant class itself was divided into 3 classes, slave, serf and freeman and a peasant could either hold title to their land free simple or by other forms of land tenure like lease. But not all the children of farmers or peasants could stay on the land, they would have been given to a master craftsmen to serve apprenticeships, which would bind the minor from anywhere from 5 to 9 years. After which he became a journeyman which lasted another several years, working for other master craftsmen and gaining experience, it was only after all these stages of learning were complete that he could finally become a master craftsman in his own right and a full member of a guild. Thus any guild member would have been from the peasant classes.

Not surprisingly the church denounced the guilds, supposedly for their binding oaths and drunken banquets on Dec 25th at which these oaths were made, but to my way of thinking the real reason was that the guilds were one major section of the social and economic structure in which the church had no control.


Last edited by Islanddawn on Sun 13 Jan 2013, 12:05; edited 1 time in total
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nordmann
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PostSubject: Re: The role of the peasant in Medieval society.   Sun 13 Jan 2013, 11:34

I think it is worth remembering that no one who lived in a feudal system understood it in that term, nor indeed did anyone else afterwards for several centuries. And in fact the more one analyses the term (coined in Victorian times) the more one is forgiven for wondering if, in several centuries time, future generations won't consider that we also lived in a feudal system ourselves and that in essence the system had simply evolved over the last thousand years but retained its defining characteristics throughout.

In British history the concept is indelibly linked to the Normans who are credited with its introduction, and this is simplistically the truth. However to say that the Normans invented a political system whereby the exercise of power over society is achieved through abrogation of the majority's ability to influence its terms in favour of strictly enforced ties of fealty would be to ignore the previous thousand years completely - and especially the development of monarchical "super states" in Europe in the first centuries after the demise of Rome. Of all these the one which contributed most to the imposition of this system as a standard was the Carolingian state.

It is hard to really understand looking back at the superficial evidence what was so "great" about Charlemagne. We can see that he cobbled together a territory under his rule which on a map was on a parallel with ancient Roman acquisitions in terms of sheer size. However an impressively large spread of one colour on a political map was hardly a unique achievement, even in his day, and all the less so if that entity promptly disappears again shortly after the great leader's own demise, as happened almost inevitably and happened again in his case. But it is the unique nature of the Carolingian demise which was the factor which contributed most to the establishment of feudalism and its widespread adoption.

Under Charlemagne the two basic concepts which define feudalism were enshrined in law, not for the first time in principle but for the first time in a manner which consolidated their role in reshaping society. The concept of ownership was applied to everything, including people, and the concept of administration from the top down was redefined in absolutist terms. The effect of this was revolutionary, and almost immediately so. Suddenly no one who was "owned" could "own" without permission from one's "owner", and this fundamental principle automatically - and practically overnight - placed wealth and power ultimately in the "ownership" of the ruling elite. An elite had always enjoyed unparalleled access to both and even claimed it as their right - under Roman as well as monarchical systems - but the crucial difference now was that the formation of the elite and all other levels below it were now also the sole preserve of that elite to define.

When Charlemagne's successors failed to preserve the political hegemony he had established, thereby opening his kingdom to invasion and dimantlement, it is what happened next which played such an important role in European history. The usurpers of power, from within and without, did not - as had become almost standard practise before - remove these laws he had put in place. And why should they? Their presence gave the usurper a huge immediate reward in terms of guaranteed wealth and a longer term reward in that the society over which they assumed control was already rigged to function (ie. produce even more wealth) as long as the coup at the top was complete. It was a form of stability, and one which had been absent from Europe since Roman times. The general population was less inclined to be arbitrarily massacred by invaders, crucial wealth generation could better survive takeovers at the top, and for those who took over at the top the jackpot had grown considerably. No wonder they called Charles "great" by common consent at the time.

It is a moot point whether Saxon rule in England was heading in that direction too anyway, even without a Norman takeover. However in two crucial respects it still differed from feudal rule when William took over in that it still accommodated a diffuse elite who could decide their own leadership (an exercise of power totally in the wrong direction by absolute feudal thinking) and also retained notions of private ownership in all ranks in how the means of production were administered. Once these were abolished (and in short shrift by William) the rest of the system could be adopted almost seamlessly into feudalism.

And there is another "however" regarding England which is also important. Historically the first great challenge to feudal logic in Europe which is recognised as a tentative step towards democratisation - the Magna Carta - emanated from a society where feudalism had been applied later than in most of the rest of Europe and where the baron class could still claim in legacy terms a descendancy from the "witan", however justifiable that claim might be. Even their "demands" were self-serving and hardly democratic in modern terms, and very few of them were ever met anyway. However in openly dictating terms to their regent they had subverted feudal logic in a fundamental way which caught the attention of the whole of Europe at the time. The implications of this reverse of the chain of authority, albeit at one of the upper levels, was not lost on observers at all points below.

To me, it is from this point on that the "peasant" as a simple concept underpinning the whole feudal structure started to become untenable and increasingly meaningless a concept. Around Europe similar challenges to the status quo sparked quite a bit of societal adjustment in this lowest rank who, after all, made up 95% of the entire population. An increasing ability to place monetary value on their contribution to the feudal process of wealth generation empowered them even further. Ultimately they developed the ability to organise structures within their own broad ranks which made a mockery of their official status in society. We can retrospectively call this the emergence of "middle classes" or "democracy", but what we cannot do is deny that they emerged from the peasant class. Guilds and the banking system are prime examples of this development but there are many more subtle ones too - involvement in the judicial structure being one often overlooked.

In fact if we itemise social innovation for good or bad from that moment on we can trace almost every root back to the so-called peasantry. We can also say that the feudal system, in a purist sense, "failed" from that point on. However it is equally true to say that it was simply adjusted in terms of access to wealth with the peasant now potentially able to utilise a greater share of it. In practical terms however the association of wealth with power remained intact, as did the notion of ultimate ownership of that wealth. Social stability came at a price, and still does as much today as for our Carolingian ancestors, that being that the abrogation of the lower ranks' automatic right to own rather than simply utilise the wealth they generate is still a fundamental part of our modern social and political structures. This is not a set of principles which would necessarily have been recognised, let alone agreed with, in Gaelic, Norse or Saxon societies - to name but a few of relevance to contributors on this website. They were replaced by feudalism, and one could argue that feudalism itself (including its peasant class) has yet to be replaced in turn.
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