LIFE ON AN ENGLISH MANOR
Peasants and their home 41484kju85lhm5v
The Normans called most ordinary peasants villeins (from the French word ville, meaning a village or town). Villeins were not free. They were ‘tied to the soil’; forbidden to leave the manor without the lord’s permission. Their land, their home, even their person was the property of the lord.
Villeins lived in small one- or two-roomed huts. These usually had a main framework of timber, filled in with wattle and daub- plaited twigs smeared with mud. Roofs were thatched with straw or reeds. Inside, the floor was simply hard-trodden earth, perhaps spread with rushes gathered from beside the village stream. Windows had no glass; they were covered with wooden shutters. This meant huts were very dark in cold weather, when shutters had to be closed.
In the middle of the floor a wood fire burned on a stone slab. There was no chimney, so the smoke escaped as best it could. The inside of the hut was therefore very sooty. It was smelly too, because dogs, pigs and chickens shared the living space with the family!
All furniture was home-made: a few stools, a trestle table, which could be folded away after use, and a wooden chest for clothes. Beds were just bags of straw, covered with rough woollen bloankets. An iron cauldron was used for cooking. jh484k1485lhhm
Meals were very plain and varied little from day to day. Breakfast, at dawn, was no more than a lump of dry bread and a mug of watery ale. At ten or eleven in the morning peasants returned from the fields for dinner. Lumps of bread and cheese, perhaps flavoured with an onion, were washed down with ale or cider. There might be a little fish or salted meat too.
During the summer, country folk liked to be out-of-doors. But in cold weather they sat at home doing useful jobs. Men repaired tools, made boots from cow-hide, and furniture, plates and cups from wood. Women spun and wove wool into coarse cloth, plaited reeds into baskets, and made rushlights from peeled rushes soaked in animal fat. These gave a feeble light, so peasant families went to bed early.
‘Open field’ farming
The Normans did not bring new methods of agriculture to England. Peasants carried on farming the land as their forebears had done for centuries. Over a large part of the country, especially in the Midlands and the South, the village arable (plough) land was cultivated in three large open fields. These were divided into narrow plots, or strip, which were shared out among the villagers. Each family’s strips were scattered about all three fields, so good and bad soil was evenly distributed.
Each family looked after its own strips. But for some jobs, including ploighung, it joined forced with its neighbours. Few peasants owned enough oxen (bullocks) to pull a heavy plough. So groups of villagers worked together, each contributing a share in the ploughing team.
Beyond the open fields lay areas of rough pasture and waste land. These were the commons, where villagers grazed their cattle and sheep during the warmer months. Pigs were taken into the nearby woods in the autum to be fattened on acorns and beech nuts. In the woods peasants also gathered wild fruits, berries, and logs for fuel. Each villein also had a share in the meadow, which lay beside the river, where grass grew longest.
The hilly areas of the North and West were not suited to ‘open field’ farming. Here people lived mainly off sheep, goats, and cattle. They had no need to work together on th land, so they lived in smaller groups or even in isolated dwellings.
Duties to the lord
Very few, if any, of villagers were freeholders, who simply rented their land and were to come and go as they wished. All the ordinary peasants, the villeins, had to work for the lord of the manor. The lord had land of his own, called the demesne (pronounced demain). It included strips in the open fields, which the villeins had to cultivate. To make sure the peasants did their duties properly, the lord appointed a foreman called a reeve. The reeve, who was usually just an ordinary villein, had to know the farming customs of the manor and see that the necessary tools were ready for each task. He even checked that the peasants began work on time. In return the lord laid him a small wage.
As well as working on the demesne, villeins had to give the lord some of their produce-perhaps a dozen eggs at Easter, some corn in the autumn and a hen at Christmastide. A villein could not sell his livestock at market, nor give his daughter in marriage, without getting the lord’s permission and paying him. Similarly, when a villein died his son paid for the right to take over his land. Such matters were settled in regular meetings of the manor court, headed by the lord or his chief official, the steward.