The Medieval Village

Villages were only built near a stream or spring because they needed to be close to water. Houses were dotted along a little dirt road. Some of these houses were nothing more than little huts; others were a bit bigger. A large manor house, with barns and stables surrounding it, was where the lord and his wife lived. You would always find a church nearby.

village

Around the village would be three large arable fields. One would be for growing wheat, one for barley and the third would be lying fallow (nothing is planted there because the farmers would be letting the ground rest). Each field was divided into strips. Most of the village families would have strips scattered about in each field, and the lord would have his own strips. His part of the land is called the demesne.

There would also be common grassland because the people had the right to graze cattle and sheep. Near the stream, where the ground is damp, the grass would grow tall and thick in the hay meadow, and close by would be the watermill with its big wheel turning round in the water as it grinds corn. This would belong to the lord, who would also have a windmill on a hill.

Further away, beyond the fields, are dark woods, where pigs might be kept and deer could be hunted.

The Lord and his Villeins

Most of the village people were called villeins. The lord of the manor gave each villein space for a house and small garden, strips in the arable fields and a share in the hay meadow, common land and woodland. Instead of paying rent, the villeins would work on certain days for the lord.

In February or March, they would do several days’ ploughing and harrowing on the lord’s land but they had to provide their own food. Once in summer and once in autumn, they would be expected to do one day’s ploughing and one day’s harrowing, but on these occasions the lord would give them food twice a day. There would also be other regular work to be done on the lord’s strips, like hoeing off the weeds. Besides this work, week by week, there were special times when the villein’s whole family had to work; cutting and carrying the lord’s hay and reaping and carrying his corn.

As well as this, the villeins would have to give the lord four hens at Christmas and twenty eggs at Easter. It is known that this is true because it is written in a custumal. There were so many rules about what the villeins had to do for the lord, and what the lord had to give them, that in many villages, to help their memories, they wrote down these rules or customs in a document called a custumal, which gives information about the work of the villagers, their rents, their rights and their rules.

Houses

The villeins would help each other build houses. They didn’t have bricks or stone but the lord allowed him them to cut down trees in the forest to make a wooden house. They built a framework of timber, filled in the spaces with a lattice-work of this wood, and plastered this all over with a mixture of mud and chopped straw. In this way they made “wattle and daub” walls. Finally, he thatched the roof with straw.
Inside, there would be a flat stone for a fire in the middle of the room and a smoke-hole in the roof above it. The cooking is done indoors in winter but whenever possible the women would cook out of doors. The windows have no glass but do have wooden shutters.

The house has two rooms. In one the man keeps his tools (a hoe, a spade, an axe, a wooden bucket, a sickle, a flail and his bow and arrows) and all the animals sleep there at night. In the other the family lived and slept. Most families would have a wooden table, some three-legged stools, a log against the wall for the children’s seat, and a bed like a big wooden box. The man of the house would make all the furniture himself. The floor would be mud, stamped down very hard and firm. All the clothes would go in one big wooden chest, and most of the food would be kept in baskets. In one corner there would be a wooden trough in which the wife would make bread, and an iron cauldron she used for cooking dinner, washing the clothes and bathing the baby. On the table would be wooden plates and cups, and a clay jug.

Up in the dark roof would be big pieces of bacon and strings of fish hanging by the smoke-hole to get smoked ready for eating in the winter. A tiny door led into a little wooden shed where there would be a great tub of salt water full of port pickling for the winter too.

Nobody in the village had water brought to them by pipes. There was a deep well in the middle of the village usually, where everyone went to draw water.

Feudalism

systemLords and Vassals

For safety and for defense, people in the Middle Ages formed small communities around a central lord or master. Most people lived on a manor, which consisted of the castle, the church, the village, and the surrounding farmland. These manors were isolated, with occasional visits from peddlers, pilgrims on their way to the Crusades, or soldiers from other fiefdoms.

In this “feudal” system, the king owned all of the land in his kingdom. He kept a large portion of the land for his own use, and a great deal of land was also held by the Church. What happened to the rest of the land? The king awarded land grants or “fiefs” to his most important nobles, his barons, and his bishops, in return for their contribution of soldiers for the king’s armies.

The nobles divided their land among the lesser nobility, who became their servants or “vassals.” Many of these vassals became so powerful that the kings had difficulty controlling them. By 1100, certain barons had castles and courts that rivalled the king’s; they could be serious threats if they were not pleased in their dealings with the crown.

In 1215, the English barons formed an alliance that forced King John to sign the Magna Carta. While it gave no rights to ordinary people, the Magna Carta did limit the king’s powers of taxation and require trials before punishment. It was the first time that an English monarch came under the control of the law.

The Peasants

At the lowest echelon of society were the peasants, also called “serfs” or “villeins.” In exchange for living and working on his land, known as the “demesne,” the lord offered his peasants protection.

Many peasants remained free, but most became serfs. A serf was bound to the land. He could not leave without buying his freedom, which was a rare occurrence. Life for a serf was not much better than the life of a slave. The only difference was that a serf could not be sold to another manor.

As rent, Serfs would often work the land and produced the goods that the lord and his manor needed three or four days a weeks. This exchange was not without hardship for the serfs. They were heavily taxed and were required to relinquish much of what they harvested. The peasants did not even “belong to” themselves, according to medieval law. The lords, in close association with the church, assumed the roles of judges in carrying out the laws of the manor.

Childbirth & Infancy

infancyIn medieval times childbirth could be a time of either great joy or great sorrow. Mortality rates for both mother and baby were high, and many children who lived through the birth died shortly thereafter.

During the delivery, some peasant women received help from female neighbours; others could rely only on their husbands.

A woman of the merchant or noble classes was attended by midwives and female relatives. The chamber would be dimly lit, and a warm bath prepared for the infant. Both measures were designed to ease the transition from the womb into the world.

The expectant father performed the important job of appealing to the saints for the safety of his wife and child.

The infant was wrapped in swaddling cloths – long cloths wrapped around the body and secured with crisscross bands. Swaddling kept the child warm but was also said to force the limbs to grow straight.

Unless work prevented it, peasants and artisans nursed their own babies, but wealthy mothers hired other women to serve as wet nurses. Without the burden of nursing, which can serve as a natural birth control, such women sometimes conceived as frequently as biologically possible, bearing as many as 20 children.

About 50 to 60 percent of children never saw their fifth birthday.