Peasants in the Middle Ages and Their Role in Rural Life

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By exploring illuminations depicting rural life, Dr. Alixe Bovey examines the role of the peasant in medieval society, and discusses the changes sparked by the Black Death.


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By Dr. Alixe Bovey
Head of Research
Courtald Institute of Art

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In the Middle Ages, the majority of the population lived in the countryside, and some 85 percent of the population could be described as peasants. Peasants worked the land to yield food, fuel, wool and other resources. The countryside was divided into estates, run by a lord or an institution, such as a monastery or college. A social hierarchy divided the peasantry: at the bottom of the structure were the serfs, who were legally tied to the land they worked. They were obliged both to grow their own food and to labour for the landowner. They were in effect owned by the landowner. At the upper end were the freemen who were often enterprising smallholders, renting land from the lord, or even owning land in their own right, and able to make considerable amounts of money. Other workers carried out trades such as basket-weaving or bee keeping. A complex web of ties formalised by a sworn oath defined the relationships between kings, lords, vassals, serfs and so on.

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The Luttrell Psalter, c.1320-1340 / This celebrated manuscript was commissioned by a wealthy landowner, Sir Geoffrey Luttrell, in the first half of the 14th century. It is one of the most striking to survive from the Middle Ages. Painted in rich colours embellished with gold and silver, with vitality and sometimes bizarre inventiveness of decoration, this manuscript is unlike virtually any other.

The juxtaposition of ‘the Lord’ with Lord Luttrell (top center image) seems to indicate the role of the manorial lord as a protector, in legal and practical terms, of his household and tenants.

What is special about the Luttrell Psalter?

The Luttrell Psalter is one of the most famous medieval manuscripts because of its rich illustrations of everyday life in the 14th century. It was not the first to include scenes of contemporary rustic life, but it is exceptional in their number and fascinating detail. Its lively and often humorous images provide a virtual ‘documentary’ of work and play during a year on an estate such as Sir Geoffrey’s.

As we turn the pages of the book, we see corn being cut, a woman feeding chickens, food being cooked and eaten. There are wrestlers, hawkers, bear baiters, dancers, musicians, throwing games, a mock bishop with a dog that jumps through a hoop – and a wife beating her husband with her spinning rod.

Such images played a large part in fostering the 19th-century romantic vision of a ‘merrie Englande’ peopled by bountiful lords and ladies and happy peasants playing as hard as they worked. Copies of the manuscript were published, and its pictures widely reproduced as illustrations in history books. Today scholars are more inclined to see the Psalter’s scenes as idealised versions of reality – they were, after all, designed to please Sir Geoffrey, not his workers.

What are those strange animals doing there?

The finest decoration is in the central section of the manuscript, painted by the most gifted of the artists. His pictures display acute observation and attention to detail – he even tidied up some of the other painters’ work. His clear talent for inventiveness and gentle humour is expressed in the so-called ‘grotesques’: hybrid monstrosities that may combine a human head, an animal/fish/bird body, and a plant tail.

The animals have attracted the interest of scholars and public alike. Many of these must have been products of the artist’s imagination, and seem unrelated to the text they accompany. Like those in the Hebrew manuscript of the Duke of Sussex’s German Pentateuch, they also terminate in leafy foliage. On this page they form a striking contrast to the more clearly religious imagery of a praying man that appears in the initial.

What is a Psalter?

The Psalms are 150 ancient songs, grouped together to form one of the Old Testament books of the Bible. In the Middle Ages (and down to the present day) they formed a fundamental part of Christian and Jewish worship, for ecclesiastics and lay-people alike; many people learnt to read by being taught the Psalms. The Psalms were often written out separately from the rest of the Bible, preceded by a calendar of the Church’s feast-days, and followed by various types of prayers. Such a volume is known as a Psalter.

Why is this called the ‘Luttrell Psalter’?

The manuscript is named by modern scholars after its original patron, whose picture appears in the book. Geoffrey Luttrell was lord of the manor at Irnham, between Grantham and Spalding in Lincolnshire, but he owned estates across England, thanks to his great-great-grandfather, also called Geoffrey. His ancestor’s loyal support and service to King John had been rewarded with grants of various properties, which were greatly added to by marriage to an heiress. The style of the illumination shows that Sir Geoffrey commissioned the Psalter some time between 1320 and 1340.

Who made the manuscript?

Most medieval manuscripts were produced by more than one person: one or more scribes wrote the text and one or more artists added decoration and pictures. The Luttrell Psalter was the work of one scribe and at least five artists, none of whose names are known. For so many people to collaborate, the book must have been made somewhere of substantial size (unlike the village of Irnham), and Lincoln is a possibility.

How did the manuscript come to the British Library?

The British Museum tried to buy it in 1929, but they didn’t have the then-record asking price of 30,000 guineas (£31,500). An anonymous benefactor loaned the money interest free; ironically, it was US millionaire John Pierpont Morgan, who could have bought it at auction for himself had he wished.

Images from rural life

It is possible to catch glimpses of rural life painted on the pages of medieval manuscripts, though it must be remembered that such images were almost always made for the wealthy patrons who had commissioned the works and so reflect their perspective on country life rather than that of those lower down the social scale. An interesting example of this is an image from a fine 13th century manuscript made in Paris, which shows a lazy ploughman, asleep by a tree as his team sit doing nothing; the ploughman represents ‘Idleness’. Below ‘Labour’ is symbolised by a sower scattering seed, who is visually likened to the powerful David in the act of hurling a stone at Goliath.

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Illustration of ‘Prowess, Idleness, David, Labour’, from Laurent d’Orléans’s La Somme le Roi, c.1300 / Each of these four images represents a different scene or state of being. Idleness is depicted in the image of a lazy ploughman sitting down while his team are left to stand nearby. Labour is depicted in the image of a man scattering seeds. Prowess is shown in both left-hand images: in the top, a queenly figure is depicted standing on a bull holding a medallion of a lion passant or coat of arms, and in the bottom box the courageous David slays Goliath using only his slingshot. These two very different depictions of prowess suggest both a celebration of royal, womanly prowess and the bravery and wit of the ordinary man.

A wonderful visual record of life on a 14th century manorial estate in England is painted in the margins of the Luttrell Psalter, a deluxe illuminated manuscript made for Sir Geoffrey Luttrell, a Lincolnshire lord, and his family. Uniquely, a cycle of images shows the agricultural cycle from the preparation of the ground and sowing wheat to its harvest and transport. The cycle includes absorbing details, such as a man using a slingshot to hurl rocks at crows to scare them away from a freshly ploughed field.

The conclusion of this cycle shows the lord of the manor, Geoffrey Luttrell, and his household being served supper. Interestingly, this scene takes place under the verses of Psalm 114:4: ‘I met with trouble and sorrow: and I called upon the name of the Lord’.

Through the year

The calendars of medieval prayer books reveal that time was measured out by the movement of the heavens; by religious saints’ days and feast days; and also according to the seasons and agricultural cycle. Images of the Labours of the Months in calendars often show labourers pruning vines (March), reaping wheat (July), or knocking acorns from oak trees for pigs (October) which are later slaughtered (November); in other months, we see the gentry enjoying the benefits of this labour, for example feasting (January), or indulging in leisure activities. In April, gentlemen are sometimes shown hawking, and in May, elegantly dressed lovers are shown strolling in a meadow.

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Full title:  Book of Hours, Use of Rome (the ‘Golf Book’)

The Golf Book is a book of hours: a religious text that contains prayers and psalms for private worship.

It was written in Latin in Bruges, Flanders, around 1540. The Golf Book is particularly well-known for its miniatures which are attributed to one of the most celebrated artists of the time, Simon Bening.

Only part of the manuscript survives. It includes a calendar which records the religious festivals and saints’ days. In the Golf Book, each month is depicted with an outstanding illustration of the labours of the months: 12 scenes depicting activities (both agricultural and leisure pursuits) that took place during the year, all entirely typical of books of hours.

The lower margins of the page are decorated with illustrations of contemporary sports and pastimes.

The Golf Books contains a representation of a game resembling golf, which has given its name to the manuscript.

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The Queen Mary Psalter, 1310-1320

The Queen Mary Psalter was named after Queen Mary I, having been presented to her in the 16th century, however it was originally created for an unknown patron between 1310 and 1320, nearly 200 years before Mary Tudor was born.

The Psalter opens with a unique cycle of 223 Old Testament miniatures, followed by a liturgical calendar (illustrated with images reflecting the signs of the zodiac), a bestiary, 87 colour and gold images depicting the life of Christ, and, of course, the Psalms.

The codex is illustrated with over 800 images, many of which depict everyday life in rural England, and reveal much about medieval life and medieval hunting techniques in particular. In one illustration, for example, we see two men beating oak trees with clubs in order to knock down the acorns to feed their pigs. In another we see medieval peasant women hunting rabbits using ferrets and nets.

Many of the images, in fact, reference women, including images of childbirth, mothers with their children, and many of the female biblical characters and saints. In part, because of this, many believe the original patron would have been a woman, the most likely candidate being Queen Isabella of France, Queen of England and consort of Edward II.

The margins of a law book illuminated in London c.1340 include images of ale houses, usually marked with a broom jutting out from the peak of the roof, communal bakers to which villagers could bring their risen loaves for baking, and mills to which grain could be brought for grinding. These images are not without a sense of irony: in one pair of images, for example, a woman brings a sack of wheat to a miller for grinding; in the next image, she is shown setting the mill alight, presumably as rather extreme revenge against an unscrupulous miller.

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The Smithfield Decretals, c.1340

While at least five of the images in the Smithfield Decretals can be considered ‘original’, the vast majority are thought to have been added about 40 years after the scribe, probably in France, finished writing it. By this time the book was in England, where its owner commissioned a group of artists to illuminate its folios.

Alongside the 1,971 papal letters on specific points of ecclesiastical law, these images teach us much about rural life in the Middle Ages. One illustration, for example, shows two people baking bread in a communal bread oven, a common practice in the 1300s, which allowed all members of the village to bake their own loaves

Another image shown here is the second of two illustrations that tell the story of a woman. In the first picture she is seen taking her wheat to the mill while in the second she is shown setting fire to it. Although there is no record of the story that this is based on, we may infer that she burns the mill in retaliation, after being cheated by the miller.

At the end of the manuscript, on the back of page 314, the scribe has written ‘The whole thing is finished; give the guy who wrote it a drink’ in Latin.

The Black Death and Peasants’ Revolt

In the mid-14th century, the catastrophic plague known as the Black Death hit Europe, and swept through the continent rapidly. It would eventually kill between a third and half of the population. These huge death tolls sparked off a chain of events that would redefine the position of the peasant in England. Due to the fact that so many had died, there were far fewer people to work the land: peasants were therefore able to demand better conditions and higher wages from their landlords. Many advanced to higher positions in society. Thus the Black Death was ultimately responsible for major shifts in the social structure.

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A firsthand account of the Black Death written at the Cathedral of Rochester, William de la Dene, Historia Roffensis, 1314-1350 / This manuscript extract provides a first-hand account of the Black Death, a devastating plague that reduced the population of Europe by a third. The account tells how relatives of the dead had to carry the corpses themselves to open mass graves. The Black Death killed so many that there was a severe shortage of people to work in the fields and this became a major catalyst in the rise of the peasant revolt. Knowing how much the land owners needed workers, the labourers used this as leverage in demanding higher wages and better living conditions.

The chronicle above, written at the cathedral priory of Rochester between 1314 and 1350, includes a firsthand account of the Black Death, describing the changes in the everyday lives of people across the social scale: ‘there was such a shortage of servants, craftsmen, and workmen, and of agricultural workers and labourers…[that] churchmen, knights and other worthies have been forced to thresh their corn, plough the land and perform every other unskilled task if they are to make their own bread.’

Resentment among the peasantry was simmering when between 1377 and 1381, a number of taxes were levied to finance government spending. This prompted a violent rebellion in June 1381, known as the Peasant’s Revolt. A large group of commoners rode on London, storming the Tower of London and demanding reforms from the young Richard II. The rebellion would end in failure. A number of prominent rebels were killed, including their charismatic leader Wat Tyler – pictured here. Richard quelled the rebellion by promising reforms but failed to keep his word. Instead, punishments were harsh.

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Miniature of the death of Wat Tyler, from Jean Froissart’s Chroniques, 1460-1480 / This illustration depicts the death of Wat Tyler, the leader of the Peasants’ Revolt. In this image he had gone to meet with the young Richard II, but during a heated exchange he was attacked by William Walworth, the Mayor of London, who cut his neck. The most reliable chronicle states that Tyler attempted to escape after the attack, but was unable to ride more than 30 yards, where he was then dragged from his horse and decapitated. The image shows Tyler and Walworth fighting, as well as depicting the King twice, once gesticulating at Tyler and then again addressing his troops. Despite the lack of change achieved by the rebellion, the Peasants’ Revolt and Wat Tyler become embedded in our history and mythology as the first moment when the peasant classes attempted to break away from the shackles of serfdom.

The image above is from the Chronicles of Jean Froissart (the chronicles cover the years 1322 until 1400; this version was created c.1483). Froissart described the Peasants’ Revolt in detail. Here he explains the roots of the rebels’ resentment: ‘Never was any land or realm in such great danger as England at that time. It was because of the abundance and prosperity in which the common people then lived that this rebellion broke out…The evil-disposed in these districts began to rise, saying, they were too severely oppressed;… [that their lords] treated them as beasts. This they would not longer bear, but had determined to be free, and if they laboured or did any other works for their lords, they would be paid for it’.

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