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Medieval History: Peasants Life

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The life of a peasant was a hard one. They had to work long hours in their lords fields in return for a small cottage and strip of land near the manor house. Their health was poor due to bad diets and unhygienic living conditions. Most peasants did not live past the age of thirty. Peasants had very little freedoms. If they were born a peasant, they stayed tied to the land until they died.

Peasants lived on farms on a lord's manor. The average peasant lived in a two room cottage that was constructed of mud plastered branches and straw or of stone and wood with a roof of thatch. The rooms had dirt floors and a few furnishings such as stools, a table, and maybe a chest to hold clothes in the common room. In the other room, sacks of straw served as beds for the entire family. A wealthy peasant might own a bed stand and a few iron pots. In the winter, the common room was shared with the livestock, who helped provide warmth. An open kitchen hearth was also located in the common room. Windows were small slits and didn't have glass in them. The interior of the cottage was lit by candles made of tallow.

The clothing of the peasants and other lower class people was usually made of rough wool or linen. Peasant women spun wool into threads and wove cloth that was turned into clothing for their families. Peasants probably had only one set of clothing, two at most. Men wore coarse tunics, and long stockings or leggings. Women wore long dresses of coarse wool, and stockings. Some peasants may have worn linen undergarments to offset the uncomfortable wool clothing. The outer garments were almost never washed, though the undergarments were laundered regularly. Wood smoke permeated the clothes and acted as a kind of deodorant for peasants. The base for the cloth was usually a russet (brown), so most clothing was a fairly drab combination of browns, reds, and grays, with only small variations. Children were dressed as miniature adults. Both men and women wore wooden clogs or shoes made of thick cloth or leather. In cold weather, peasants would have worn sheepskin or woolen cloaks, woolen hats, and woolen mittens to keep out the rain and cold. Many peasants died during the winter months from over exposure to the elements.

Peasants had a fairly unchanging diet of baked bread, porridge, stew, seasonal vegetables, and some meat. If a peasant lived near a stream or ocean, he may have caught fish to supplement his diet. Otherwise, he ate what he could grow. Peasants mainly grew crops of corn, beans, and wheat. Each family also had a vegetable garden near their home that provided lettuce, tomatoes, peas, beans, radishes, carrots, and other vegetables. Some peasants may have had fruit trees as well. Peasants also harvested acorns and other nuts and berries from the nearby forest. Peasant women made butter and cheese from the milk of cows as well. In the fall, they slaughtered most of the animals for their meat. If it was too rainy or too dry for a good crop to grow, peasant families had a very good chance of starving to death.

Birth and infancy were the most dangerous stages of life for people in the Middle Ages. Records from the time period suggest that approximately 20% of women died during childbirth and 5% of infants died during delivery with another 10-12% dying in their first month. Healthy children were regarded as a gift from God. Most families wanted sons, who would one day carry on the family name, as opposed to daughters, who would require a large dowry when they married. However, many parents probably rejoiced at the birth of a daughter as well, especially if they had been childless for many years or their infants had died. Childbirth during the Middle Ages was very dangerous for both the mother and the infant. When the mother went into labor, she was attended by a midwife, generally a townswoman who was experienced in delivering babies. If the delivery went well, so much the better, but in the event of complications the midwife could do very little. There were no Cesarean sections and no advanced medical equipment to help mother and child. Many women died during childbirth and many infants died during delivery.

If both mother and infant survived childbirth, the child was usually bathed in lukewarm water and then swaddled in warm cotton or wool fabric. If it was thought the infant would not live, it was immediately baptized by the midwife or by a man nearby, often the father. If the infant was thought to survive it was baptized several days after its birth in a local church. Here it was named, often after a close relative or a saint, and was promised to be brought up as a Christian. After the baptism, the child was brought home and life returned to normal. The infant was generally nursed at home by its mother or a wet nurse. In peasant families, where every person was needed to work the fields, infants were sometimes left alone in the home for long periods of time, or in the care of a brother or sister who was as young as 2 or 3. Many accidents befell infants left alone or in the care of other children, helping to account for the high infant mortality rate. If the child lived through the first year, it was soon



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