Medieval peasants. it is often now assumed, had little opportunity to express their own ideas or to choose for themselves what to do. This is actually not true. Although some peasants were legally restricted by having servile status, being "serfs" (not the same as slaves), all of them had opportunities for independent action or "agency," as the social scientists call it.
The term peasant means a country person (paysan in French, from pays, countryside), whose days are spent in farming, often paying rents and dues to a landowner who was supported and fed by the peasant's labor. A peasant would live in a small village, not a town. As much as we would all like to imagine we are descended from lords and ladies of the Middle Ages, most medieval people were peasants, and hence so were most of our ancestors.
These people, mostly being illiterate, did not produce written records, appearing instead either in the records of more powerful laymen or in records of the church. Scholars thus long assumed they were marginal or even silent, at any rate not worth trying to study. Interestingly, the same assumptions were once made about medieval women. Once scholars stopped assuming "We'll find no information on women in the records" and thus didn't bother to look, and instead started looking, they found a lot. The same is true of peasants.
Where peasants are seen most frequently is in legal disputes or in negotiations with their landlords. Landlords were not in a position simply to impose whatever they wanted on their peasants. Everyone believed in the value of tradition, meaning that sudden changes did not seem right, and even more importantly, peasants had a lot of leverage. If a landlord gave them too hard a time, they could just leave. No aristocrat wanted to end up walking behind his own plow or harvesting his own grain.
Peasants could also play different aristocrats off against each other. Nobles wanted to be considered "defenders of the poor," and peasants knew that and could exploit it. Where a serf had both a lord of the body and a landlord (different persons), he (or she) could appeal to one against the other. Peasants could also appeal to the big regional courts.
In one well-known case, peasants appeared before the court complaining about a local noble, saying they were helpless, saying all they had was their "tormented voices." They understood very well what all medieval people knew (though many moderns have forgotten), that professed weakness can be a real source of strength. The court had little choice but to rule in favor of these "tormented" peasants.
It was through negotiation that twelfth-century peasants managed to get out of some of their more burdensome obligations. For example, one of the markers of servitude was having to pay an annual head-tax, usually a penny a head. Peasants who had been selling their produce to the growing towns and had saved up could and did offer their lords of the body a fairly large one-time payment in return for not having to pay the head-tax. The lords of course accepted, but this meant that there was no longer an annual ceremony indicating that these particular peasants were serfs. In a generation, they would have "forgotten" that they and their ancestors had ever been other than free peasants.
As landlords opened up previously-uncultivated land for farming during this period, they needed to attract peasants, and thus offered them low rents and the opportunity to regulate themselves in what was known as a commune. In some cases the peasants insisted on having this in writing; the local priest could read it for them.
Certainly being a medieval peasant would not have been an easy life. By our standards even the most well-to-do were desperately poor, with none of the material goods we take for granted, living in a rough house with a dirt floor, snuggled up to the cowshed. There was always the worrisome question whether the harvest would come in this year (no peasant ever decided he needed to go on a diet), and the back-breaking work would have worn them out by the time they were in their fifties. But they were smart, and resourceful, and entirely capable of outwitting those who considered themselves their betters.
© C. Dale Brittain 2017
For more on medieval peasants, see my ebook, Positively Medieval: Life and Society in the Middle Ages.