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Dennis: Come and see the violence inherent in the system. Help! Help! I’m being repressed!
King Arthur: Bloody peasant!
Dennis: Oh, what a giveaway! Did you hear that? Did you hear that, eh? That’s what I’m on about! Did you see him repressing me? You saw him, Didn’t you?
Sorry, Monty Python fans. It’s a great scene, but it does nothing to help viewers understand the social position of the medieval peasant.
Régine Pernoud wants to be especially clear on this point: “The fact is, there is no comparison between the ancient servus, the slave, and the medieval servus, the serf. Because the one was a thing and the other a man.  The disappearance of Roman law in the 5th and 6th centuries brought with it the disappearance of slavery, a practice seen as incompatible with Christianity.  The biggest definition is that under Roman law, slave masters had the right of life and death over their slaves, but masters did not have the right of life and death over their serfs. 
The serf was, however, tied to the estate: he was forbidden to leave it. Pernoud puts this information in a specific context for the reader. Agriculture, which depended on the serf, organized and defined medieval culture. “[T]he lord of the domain could not expel him any more than the serf could ‘clear out.’ It was this intimate connection between man and the soil on which he lived that constituted serfdom, for, in all other aspects, the serf had all the rights of a free man: he could marry, establish a family, his land, as well as the goods he was able to acquire, would pass to his children after his death. The lord, let us note, had, although obviously on a totally different scale, the same obligations as the serf, for he could neither sell nor give up his land nor desert it.” 
A slave master, in contrast, had complete control over the life of the slave. A slave had no rights to marry, establish a family, or own property. He could be bought or sold. The serf could not.  Records exist of serfs who did own property and who sold it to buy their freedom.  The Church greatly encouraged emancipation of serfs, and entrance into its ranks could be a great source of social mobility.  Monasteries often rented land to serfs and free men alike, and “examples of serfs who attained high ecclesiastical or lay positions show…that the religious communities did not consider peasants to be a convenient reserve labor force….” 
Giving an adequate picture of life for “the peasant” is a difficult task since circumstances differed greatly by country, agricultural climate, and from lord to lord. The following information consists of generalizations. A lord’s area of jurisdiction would usually be divided into 3 sections. The first section, lord’s personal lands, would be worked by serfs attached to it, by paid labor, or by free peasants who lived on the land with wages set to agreed-upon terms. The second part was usually owned by free peasants who worked it and had rights of inheritance, though they fell under the governing jurisdiction of the relevant lord. The third part was communal, usually woodlands or uncultivated land.  The lord held the position of judge in his community, at least in minor affairs—capital punishment was often left to his superiors. 
The feudal lord was responsible for protecting the people living on his land, both with fortifications and military defense.  The lord and his vassals both took vows to each other, and both were expected to uphold their ends of the bargain. When needs were not met, peasants revolted—an occurrence probably as common as modern strikes.  Peasants could also appeal to a higher authority if their lord failed in his duties to them. When plagues wiped out a huge part of Europe’s population, peasants had even more bargaining power because they were so vitally needed in their smaller numbers.
Picturing the feudal lord as a tyrant is not always an accurate picture. Medieval society understood that classes had duties to each other. Frederick B. Artz summarizes Aquinas on the topic: “Society and the state represent a mutual exchange of services to which each contributes, the peasant and the craftsman by supplying material goods, the priest and the monk by conducting religious work, and the ruler by governing…. Each must act in his place, and all relations between classes and individuals must be based on a distributive justice—‘to each his due.’”  Society had a distinct hierarchy rooted in agriculture. “Everyone was assigned to his place by nature; individuals are differently endowed, but the endowment given to each individual is for the benefit of the whole.”  While plenty of men still failed to uphold the duties of a good lord, society had a definition of what a good lord should do.
Common sense dictates that a starving horse is useless as a workhorse, and even if we had no records of laws or property from the Middle Ages, common sense dictates the same. Badly-treated workers will not be good workers. This does not mean that peasants were never mistreated, but that Dennis the Peasant’s pile of filth is probably not the norm for medieval Europe.
Origins of the Stereotype
In Part 1, I mentioned that modern society has had a tendency to compare tribal cultures with medieval culture, even though there is little reason to connect the two. This is probably a contributing factor to the stereotype of the filthy peasant, but literature is a bigger factor. Peasants were often satirized in medieval literature for various purposes. In general, “satire often emphasized not only the peasant’s filth, poor clothing, and minimal diet, but also a sort of bestiality that at times placed him almost at an intermediate level between beasts and humans.”  I have emphasized in this article that peasants were not the slaves of the other classes—I did not say that the aristocracy treated peasants as social equals.
The purpose of satire is social criticism, but to recognize the function of satire within a piece of literature, the reader must be able to recognize that it is satire. Without grounding in medieval history, it’s easy to read satire as a record of facts, thus losing the nuances of the piece and understanding of social function in medieval society.
- Pernoud, Régine, Those Terrible Middle Ages: Debunking the Myths. Trans. Anne Englund Nash. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000), 86–87.
- Ibid., 87.
- Ibid., 88.
- Ibid., 90.
- Ibid., 94.
- Ibid., 73.
- Cherubini, Giovanni, “The Peasant and Agriculture.” Medieval Callings. Ed. Jacques Le Goff. Trans. Lydia C. Cochrane. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1990), 124.
- Ibid., 126.
- Ibid., 129.
- Ibid., 129.
- Artz, Frederick B. The Mind of the Middle Ages: An Historical Survey A.D. 200–1500, 3rd ed. (1953; repr., Chicago, University of Chicago Press: 1980), 289.
- Ibid., 290.
- Ibid., 132.