Posted by Matt Ward on February 16, 2014
As you most likely know Europe operated on a feudal socio-political structure throughout most of the Middle Ages(for more info on feudalism). In this political system peasant, also known as serfs, were the lowest class of the medieval totem pole. The lack of wealth and power made life for the serfs especially difficult and required a great deal of hard labor and service to the lord. This was coupled with a strict set of legal rules and disciplinary measures to keep the peasant in line and attempt to prevent rebellions against their wealthy overlords.
Just like today in the US the powerful seem to enjoy taxing the poor beyond their means to help keep them in poverty(subject of another debate). In medieval times however this was extremely problematic. The poor serfs who struggled, often unsuccessfully, to live off the land were required to pay massive taxes to their lord of the land. Unfortunately the taxation on the land the serfs rented varied, but it is believed that the rates lords charged were somewhere between 10 and 25% of the entire produce of the land.
As if this hardship wasn't enough, the Church required the peasants to pay a tithe of 10% of the proceeds of the land as well. The serfs were also required to labor away without pay on Church lands or face risk of eternal damnation in hell from god. This system of exploitation by the Church would continue throughout the Middle Ages and lead to the massive wealth accumulation of the Church and its eventual position of extreme power.
Peasants were a people of the land. They toiled hard away at the fields from around 3am during peak farming seasons to produce as much produce possible. The process of medieval farming began with ploughing to break down the earth to form ridges. This allowed the seeds to be sown in the ideal spots for growth with would lather be harvested by reaping(cutting) the crops.
In addition to the activities specifically geared toward farming the peasants also needed to maintain their dwellings and land(they didn't own land). These included cutting and curing grass to make hay, building and repairing their homes(cruck houses), and making tools to perform their tasks better.
Peasants during the Middle Ages lived in very simple dwellings of wood and straw known as cruck houses. These homes were similar to the Adobe mud huts of the Southwest US and Mexico during the same time period. These cruck houses featured a wattle and daub construction and a mixture of mud, manure and straw to strengthen and insulate the dwelling. This was then left to heat and cook itself in the sun into a fine home.
As you would expect of handmade homes of poor peasant, they were not very large or ornate. The entire familiy often lived in a single room which also functioned as the living room, dining room and kitchen all in one. Without the convenience of modern insulation these homes would have been extremely cold and frigid during the winter and overly warm in the hotter months. Unfortunately the crevices of the home were quite simplistic. Door and windows were virtually non-existent in cruck houses due to their cost. In order to allow entrance and ventilation these opening would likely be covered by a mere cloth curtain(which of course absolutely destroyed their insulation and ability to regulate temperature).
Life in Medieval Europe revolved around the manor. Peasant lived in a small village on the land of the manor and made their lives here. Because of the lack of travel and trade between the fiefs and lands of Europe the manors were required to be entirely self-sufficient. Villages needed to produce the food, clothing and goods necessary to survive and could not rely on modern style capitalistic trade to accomplish this.
For this system to survive, generation after generation of peasants were tied to the land of the lord and made to spend their lives toiling away. Life pretty much sucked for serfs during the Middle Ages. There was no legitimate prospect of advancement or truly "changing one's stars(destiny)".
Personal hygiene pretty much sucked in the Middle Ages. This was a huge contributor in the overall poor health and lifespan of the time and led to the desolation of the many plagues. Water during the Middle Ages was quite questionable for a great deal of time which led to Europe's many alcohols to use as daily drink. The water would often be contaminated and unhealthy and cause a great main issues for the serfs and townspeople. And of course modern necessities like toilets, bathing and soap were not even within the framework of the mind.
Though some bath houses existed in major medieval cities they were few and far between. With the time and care needed to create one of the few pieces of clothing owned by serfs they could little afford to have their clothes or overcoats stolen while cleaning themselves(interested in period styled, custom tailored medieval cloaks?). Therefore peasants are not known to have ever bathed themselves.
These issues compounded with the lack of modern medical knowledge and terrible vitamin lacking diets led to greatly reduced lifespans for the Middle Ages man. It is estimated that one in every three children born would not reach the age of five while this number is less than 0.05% today in the US. This horrify statistic led to an average life expectancy of approximately 30 years. When taking out the absurdly high infant mortality rate however significantly sweeter. For anyone who made it past their twentieth birthday, you could expect another thirty to thirty five years of miserably hard and difficult life on the manor...sounds like fun right?