I remembered once reading on a forum that Singapore resembled a “modern feudal society”. Few years later, I chanced upon the phrase, “Medieval peasants worked less than you do.” That got me thinking: what is medieval peasantry like?
Most of us think of peasants of being illiterate, over-worked and incapable of managing themselves. Evidence has shown this to be a biased misconception. This article is written to show that today’s modern people are not that different from peasants from medieval period. As feudal systems varied in different regions across the world, I will be focusing on medieval England as it is well-documented and accessible.
Feudalism was a system whereby the King gave his lands to his vassals in return for military service, labour and products, like wheat, in the form of taxation. The vassals granted some of the same lands to the serfs to live and work on them, in return for services and products. In addition, the vassals were expected to support the serfs by charity during times of difficulties, such as famine.
Within the peasantry, there were also sub-classes to differentiate their social status. They were freemen villeins, bordars and slaves. Freemen were rent-paying tenants of their landlords and owed little or no feudal burden to the latter. Villeins, bordars and slaves collectively formed the serfs.
Serfs were bound to their land, under serfdom. Even as they owned the lands, serfs were barred from selling their lands, neither could they abandoned their lands without their lord’s permission. However, they were free to accumulate wealth and personal properties. Serfs could also raise anything on their lands and sell the surplus to the market, though they had to pay their taxes in wheat.
Villeins were the most common of the serfs, enjoyed higher status and more rights than other serfs. They rented houses from their landlords, which may or may not include the lands around the houses. Bordar, the next status down the serf ladder, owned just enough lands to feed his family. Like villein, they were required to work on his landlord’s land on certain days of the week. Slaves were the lowest of the serfs, for they owned no property or wealth. They lived on the charity of their lords and worked exclusively for the latter.
“The labouring man will take his rest long in the morning; a good piece of the day is spent afore he come at his work; then he must have his breakfast, though he have not earned it at his accustomed hour, or else there is grudging and murmuring; when the clock smiteth, he will cast down his burden in the midway, and whatsoever he is in hand with, he will leave it as it is, though many times it is marred afore he come again; he may not lose his meat, what danger soever the work is in. At noon he must have his sleeping time, then his bever* in the afternoon, which spendeth a great part of the day; and when his hour cometh at night, at the first stroke of the clock he casteth down his tools, leaveth his work, in what need or case soever the work standeth.”
-James Pilkington, Bishop of Durham, ca. 1570
*bever, Anglo-Norman for either a drink or a snack.
How many hours did a medieval peasant work in a year? Although there were several calculations in the number of working hours, it was generally thought that medieval peasants worked lesser hours than we do today. However, do note that peasants worked around sunlight, and worked longer when the day is longer in summer than in winter. Singaporeans worked an average of 2307 hours in 2009. In the 13th Century CE, an English peasant worked 1620 hours in a year. It was 1440 hours for a causal labourer in 14th Century CE. From 1400-1600 CE, an English farmer-miner worked 1980 hours. Another calculation though puts medieval labourer as committing 2309 hours into work.
From Pilkington’s description of a labourer, it seem that he or she enjoyed more breaks in his work than modern humans. That does not mean peasants were lazy, as medieval peasants ate less calories than us. Thus, they had less energy for output, their tasks being extremely physical labour-intensive and needed breaks to conserve them. They generally did not work on Sundays (some shops opened for half a day on Sundays) and religious holidays, which there was at least one in every month (with the exception of April).
Thus, it could be seen that medieval England had more holidays than Singapore’s calendar. That also explained why medieval peasants worked lesser hours than us due to the holidays they enjoyed.
It’s not true that all medieval peasants were illiterate. Education were provided free to children of peasants by the Church. This was to ensure that there was a pool of people from which the Church could recruit to become clergymen. These children were either taught by their village priests, the monasteries, or in public schools founded in the name of charity.
Why did medieval peasants need to read and write? This was to enable them to read legal documents concerning their assets and taxation. Latin was used for administrative purpose in England. Anglo-Norman French became the language of legal proceeding after the Norman conquest of England, until 1363 which was replaced by English.
Besides being taught Latin, peasants also learned English, their native tongue. Being able to read in English helped brought about religious upheavals as people began interpreting the Bible, translated into English, on their own. This would lead to the Lollardry, a religious and political movement, in the 14th Century CE. It was considered a religious heresy and a threat to the monarchy, thus was brutally oppressed until the English Reformation (which had its roots in Lollardy) in 16th Century CE.
Law and Order
Manor lords led very busy lives. They engaged in warfare overseas and within Britain, conducting business in London, praying to God and were occupied with enjoying the many pleasures of life.
Hence, they had no time for peasants and their trivial matters, being often away from their manors, leaving the overseeing of their lands in the hands of... peasants. The overseer, known as reeve, would either be elected by his fellow peasants or appointed by the lord. The reeve not only had to oversee the work of his fellow peasants, he was also responsible for the finance of the lord’s estate such as the collection of moneys and the sales of produce. He was pretty much the equivalent of today’s accountant and supervisor.
In some manors, the lord had a court leet to assist the reeve in administration and the policing of law and order. This court leet would be consisted of free peasants and held court to try civil and criminal matters. Civil matters would sometimes involve in the management of individual strips of land, known as the open field system, where peasants would farm and its borders. Courts leet are still in existent today, one of which in Laxton, Nottinghamshire, UK, staffed by the descendants of peasants. This system would go on to evolve into the jury system in modern legal proceeding.
Having regular contact with legal matters made peasants somewhat minor legal. One example was in Gotham, Nottinghamshire, UK, during the reign of King John. King John was said to be passing through Gotham, making the village part of the Royal Highway. Villagers, who knew that meant they had to pay a Royal Highway tax, set out to fool the scouts sent ahead of the King. The whole village feign insanity, which were thought to be in those days contagious. The King made a detour away from the village, the latter thus avoided paying the tax.
End of Serfdom
From the 11th Century CE onwards, England benefited from more productive harvest, despite rampant warfare, thanks to the Medieval Warm Period. More farmland were created out of clearing forests and marshes. The population grew from 1 million in 1086 to 5-7 million. England grew prosperous.
One of the reasons England became richer than its neighbours during the medieval period was the autonomous rule of each shires run by reeves. England was unique in the sense that the people govern themselves using written records, which was more effective than words of mouth. In addition, it helped that the King and his supporters were busy in Normandy preventing and fighting off invasion (since the Norman conquest, the monarch of England is the Duke of Normandy, the title Queen Elizabeth II still holds in the Channel Islands), essentially ruling England in absentia.
All things must come to an end. The serfdom was weakened when the English economy moved to a money-based proto-capitalist economy, meaning taxes, products and services were beginning to be paid in money, instead of food. Famine of 1315-1317 and the Black Death during the 14th Century CE killed more than half of England’s population. Massive number of deaths caused a severe labour shortage, boosting demands for better working conditions and wage increases. Peasant revolts became more violent towards the ruling elites, with more frequencies and becoming more widespread.
Manor lords realised that peasants had become more unprofitable, and started to replace them with sheep, since the animals do not have human rights and provide dairy products, wool and meat, not possible with peasants. The wool industry contributed greatly to England’s coffer. By the end of the Renaissance era, serfdom had effectively died out in England. This increased the urbanisation of cities and its expansion, leading to improved economy than when the economy was largely based in the manors and villages.
As this article has shown, life as a medieval peasant wasn’t the worst of the worse and all gloom. That’s because people believed that everyone had a place. Serfs worked for all, knights fought for all and priests prayed for all. In some cases, serfs were actually wealthier than their free counterparts.
Depending on your perspective, peasants had a decent, if not a good quality of life. Though they did not enjoyed the healthcare and life expectancy we have today, they had work-life balance, control over their job scope and a say in local governance. Perhaps they might be happier than us when times were good and food were plenty.
So, is today’s Singaporeans better off than medieval English peasants? To a certain extent, yes. We pay higher tax to our government because the latter provides higher education, healthcare, housing and other services to everyone, which were not available to all peasants. However, we seem to be worse off than the peasants as people have become un-happier with life and have lesser leisure time and holidays.
We work longer hours as the invention of electric light enabled us to worked virtually in any hour of the time as we need not depend on sunlight for our work. Medieval calendar had more holidays than Singapore’s calendar, due to the religious significance of the holidays and people were more religious. During holidays, peasants would indulge in feasting, singing and dancing, something we still do today though we now spend lesser time indulging ourselves, some to the point of over-doing it.
Unlike medieval peasants, people today have less regular contact with legal proceedings. How many of us can say to know what is written in the Singapore Constitution? Of course, today’s laws are made more complex than medieval laws. However, that does not mean we can neglect what’s our basic rights as citizens as stated in the Constitution.
Singapore is a modern feudal society? Of course not, it’s a capitalist society. Otherwise every Singaporeans, native and new, would have been replaced by sheep long ago.