Town and Village Life

images-4Where and how did people live in Medieval times?

*In general, most Europeans lived in either a small village (or close to a small village) or in a larger town. In both cases the countryside (and perhaps the wilds) were never far away.

*Toft/Croft/Homestead, Castle, Monastery, Home in Town

*Examples of Peasant Homes: (Country) – TOFT/CROFT/HOMESTEAD:

*CENTRE OF HOMESTEAD: The croft and toft is where the family life was centered. It was a small piece of property (one-20 acres + acreage elsewhere in form of strip fields (beside other strip fields) for growing things elsewhere in the village, also rights to ‘common grounds’ – pasture and forests – for grazing animals, sharing in wild game/berries, gathering firewood etc. The croft or toft was where families kept all their worldly goods, cared for their animals, raised their children and entertained their friends. This home was simple and not meant to last for more than 20 years. When the old house began to get run down, a new one was built often on an entirely new piece of the property. The old house was then used as an outbuilding for farm equipment or animals – very few building regulations … people built additions to houses when necessary.

*A FEW SIMPLE DESIGNS: Archeological excavations found only a few basic types of homes. They could be small one-room cottages or larger long houses with a possible second floor.

* MATERIALS FOR BUILDING HOUSES: The materials used to build a house varied. Wood was the preferred choice, but it was not always readily available. By the 14th century, it was very scarce and was used only in the frame of the house. The walls were filled with cob, a mixture of mud, straw, and chalk; or wattle and daub, which “consisted of a screen of woven twigs and small branches covered with mud and finished off with a lime wash that left the house sparkling white.”

* WHAT WAS IT LIKE TO LIVE IN THEM? Most medieval homes were cold, damp, and dark. Very unhealthy environment to live in. For security purposes, windows, when they were present, were very small openings with wooden shutters that were closed at night or in bad weather – glass was expensive and besides leaving them exposed or open at night time meant demons would be able to charm people through the clear glass! Many peasant families ate, slept, and spent time together in very small quarters, rarely more than one or two rooms. The houses had thatched roofs and were easily destroyed.


* Houses were low and tended to be at the front of tofts close to the village main road which lay below them. The roads were often muddy/damp trenches.

* The church and the market place were the focal points of the village – the church was likely the only building built to last from one generation to the next.

*The villages were lively and active during the day but less so at night – people typically bedded early and rose very early in the morning. Children ran around and played games, or herded geese and other animals. The women bustled around the village washing clothes, fetching water, and working about town.

* Peasants typically spent part of their time working their own land and part of their time doing things for the local lord. Most villages had one or more ‘manors’ in evidence – even though the noble families were often away. When feudalism began to collapse and the money economy re-emerged peasants were released from ‘feudal fealty’. They earned money incomes on the Lord’s estate instead … many also paid rent to the local Lord who tended to reclaim vast areas of ‘common ground’ and even the land upon which peasants had built their toft, croft and the strips of field which they had farmed in return for feudal favours. With enclosure lords withdrew many of the means of survival from local peasants – a period of great hardship ensued.

Examples of How Nobles Lived: LIFE IN A CASTLE

Thousands of Castles all over Europe: many small. Usually a Noble Family lived in it – accompanied by servants etc.

*COLD DRAFTY LIVING: Not Romantic at all – lots of hardship and discomfort.

*THE CASTLE HALL: Invariably, the living quarters of every castle had one basic element: the hall. The hall was either located on the ground floor, or sometimes for greater security, on the second level. If the hall was located on the ground floor, the floor of the hall was either earth, stone, or plaster. If the hall was located on the second floor the floor was always timber. Often the family of the castle sat at one end of the hall on a raised bench, while everyone else sat on lower benches. The dining table was also located in the hall, however, it was often just a temporary setting, often being dismantled between meals. If the family of the castle had a permanent dining table it was a sign of great wealth. The hall was lit through candles and melted animal fat that were placed on spikes and candlesticks. Later on in the middle ages much of the light and heat came from fireplaces. Eventually noble families separated themselves from the servants at food times: William Langland lamented this separatism in Piers Plowman: “Woe is in the hall each day in the week. There the lord and lady like not to sit. Now every rich man eats by himself in a private parlor to be rid of poor men, Or in a chamber with a chimney And leaves the great hall.”layout

*FLOORING: Carpets were not used. Instead, the floors were strewn with straw. Although the straw was replaced every so often, many times “an ancient collection of beer, grease, fragments, bones, spittle, excrement of dogs and cats and everything that is nasty,” was found under the straw, according to Erasmus.

*BEDROOMS: The sleeping quarters were often only separated by a curtain. Later on, castles had a great chamber in which the lord and lady of the castle slept. If this chamber was located on the second floor, it often had “squints” in which the lord could peek on his guests, and make sure everything was in order. The great chamber did not hold much furniture. Rather, the main piece of furniture was a large bed. This bed had a wooden frame, and its springs were made of either rope or leather. Linen hung over the bed to offer protection from drafts, as well as privacy, because often personal servants slept on a trundle bed in the chamber.

*CASTLE KITCHEN: The kitchen was generally made with timber, and had a central fireplace where meat could be stewed in a cauldron.

*ANIMALS AND PLANTS IN CASTLE: They were everywhere! Animals to be slaughtered were kept near the kitchen. Similarly, plants/some trees which provided fruit and herbs were grown in the castle garden – also near the kitchen.

*THE CHAPEL: Seen as indispensable – located close to the hall, near the great chamber. The chapel was often two stories high; the noble family would sit in its upper story, the servants in the lower level.

*LATER Middle Ages DEVELOPMENTS: Due to the increasing number of personnel needed to run the castle in the later middle ages the castle had to undergo many accommodations. Barracks, mess halls, and bigger kitchens had to be built in order to accommodate these numbers. The barracks and the mess halls were made of the same timber as the second floor hall.

EXAMPLE OF LIFE IN Monasteries, Nunneries and other places of spiritual withdrawal: Life of Prayer: Monks and Nuns

*Monk and Nuns were basically expected to devote themselves totally to God and to Good Deeds. Upon taking Holy Orders one entered a literally ‘cloistered world’ – self-contained, so as to avoid the need of intercourse with the outer world – this was to purify monks and nuns from the impurities of the outside world.

What was life Like? [The following are some examples of life in a Benedictine Monastery]

*Four types of Benedictine monks: (1) Cenobites, those living in a monastery under an abbot; (2) Anchorites, or hermits, living a solitary life after long probation in the monastery; (3) Sarabites, living by twos and threes together, without any fixed rule or lawfully constituted superior; and (4) Gyrovagi, a species of monastic vagrants, whose lives were spent in wandering from one monastery to another, often brought discredit on the monastic profession.

.•MEETINGS: The brethren frequently meet to council upon all affairs of importance to the community. One is expected to be prompt, cheerful, and absolutely obedient to the superior in all things.

  • SILENCE: One is expected to live a life of silence or moderation in the use of speech.
  • PRAYER, STUDY, SCRIBING: One is expected to pray – this is the work of the monk. His work day is composed of the Canonical Hours, seven during the day and one at night. A set number of Psalms, etc., must be recited during winter and summer, on Sundays, weekdays, Holy Days, and at other times. Other work included studying and copying out biblical texts.

*SLEEP: Monks lived in a dormitory each monk had a separate bed and slept in his habit, so as to be ready to rise without delay – a light burnt in the dormitory throughout the night.

  • PUNISHMENT: Offences against the rules of the Monasteries brought down various punishments: first, private admonition; next, public reproof; then separation from the brethren at meals and elsewhere; then scourging; and finally expulsion
  • GIVING UP OF EARTHLY POSSESSIONS: Monks were forbidden to possess private property without the leave of the abbot, who was duty bound to supply all necessaries. Monks are forbidden from receiving letters or gifts from outside without the abbot’s leave.
  • DOMESTIC CHORES: All monks were expected to serve frequently in kitchen at regular intervals
  • READING HOLY SCRIPTURES ALOUD: A monk was expected to read aloud during meals, which was a duty to be performed by such of the brethren, week by week, Signs were used for whatever was required during meals, so that no voice would interrupt the reader.
  • REGULATIONS ON WHAT WAS EATEN: Monks were to eat a certain amount of food of a certain quality. Two meals a day were allowed with two dishes of cooked food at each. A pound of bread and a hemina (probably about half a pint) of wine was also given to each monk. Flesh-meat was prohibited except to sick or weak monks. Hours of the meals varied according to the time of year.

* IMPORTANCE OF MANUAL LABOUR: Manual labour for the monks was emphasised and thus it was timetabled into daily life – never less than about five hours a day. Often monks worked at a craft or digging the priory vegetable patch.

*CLOTHING: It was to be sufficient in both quantity and quality and to be suited to the climate and locality, according to the discretion of the abbot, but at the same time it was to be as plain and cheap as was consistent with due economy. Each monk had to have a change of garments, to allow for washing, and when traveling he was supplied with clothes of rather better quality. The old habits are to be put aside for the poor.


* DIFFERENCES: Towns and Villages

  1. Towns tended to be fortified – thus houses were tightly packed together – many more “Two Storey’ Buildings. Also many had out of the ordinary sort of building a cathedral or abbey perhaps – due to population and presence of a moneyed economy. Also these were the places garrisoned – soldiers (and other people) ‘living away from home’ tended to hang out. Protection from invaders often the prime concern – thus quite unhealthy places to live … too many people living in a very small space.

*Villages rarely fortified – peasants headed for their nearest town (or the forests) when news arrived of possible invasions etc.

  1. Towns housed greater proportion of outsiders and marginal folk (criminals/prostitutes/beggars etc.) – from other regions and lands – than did villages.images-6

*Villages more socially conservative and more based upon tight knit (socially exclusionary) domus and kinship arrangements – less impersonal than the towns.

  1. Towns subject to periodic epidemics and disasters (fires/invasions). Unsanitary conditions (sewerage/food handling/public health measures etc.) meant when one person caught something nasty the whole town did too! i.e. the Plague. The water supply was generally polluted, streets were quite unclean and unhealthy – human sewerage/animals droppings in the streets – open gutters. Large amounts of wealth and power concentrated in ‘strategic’ buildings meant towns were often the target of invading armies.

* Villages suffered various plagues too, but people were generally more healthy in the country – though easier to starve, and more primitive building conditions and medical knowledge meant that villages too were not that healthy to live in. Villages were pillaged by soldiers etc. on their way through to towns – easier to evade invaders not such a target, but there is safety in numbers and villages were burnt down easily.

  1. Towns had large markets – food storage facilities etc. tended to be focal points for more specialised goods and services. Many weird and wonderful goods and services not seen in the village environment were on show in the towns. Roads between major towns more traversed than roads leading only to villages – news traveled fast along these trading routes.

* Village markets had much less variety – less money around, more concerned with barter. Also less impersonal – everybody knew everybody else.

  1. Centres of learning (medicine/theology/philosophy etc.), culture and religious life once towns began to revive in the 12th century – thus much more connected to Europe-Wide Christian conceptions of time and geography. More connected to the concept of Christendom – – eventually became centres for Heresy also – and the fast transmission of ideas across Europe (university Towns)!

* In villages the parish church and its priest had to satisfy many of these requirements of civilisation – thus older belief systems lingered on longer in the villages and there was less openness to learning and also to the centralised models of the world which came with trade-based towns full of nobles and soldiers.

  1. Larger variety of ‘trades’ and ‘professions’ (jobs!) in towns – huge Guild halls, some schools (centres of learning), large religious houses, many more alehouses and varieties of entertainment – wandering poet/musicians, gymnasts, buffoons, story tellers, ‘circus freaks’ etc. . Many people did specialised jobs (for money!) which didn’t require contact with the country/nature at all.

*Village life saw men and women learn a variety of useful trades/skills rather than specialising – most skills were agriculturally based.

  1. Nobles and the high Clergy spent large parts of their lives in the towns – specifically they tended to organise the defence of the region or the town through the centralised and more developed bureaucracies of the towns. By the later Middle Ages many villages didn’t see a noble for years! (see Montaillou).

* Villages usually had only one noble family – if that – living in the vicinity. Often nobles spent part of the year in a town and part of the year on the country estates – worked as feudal serf or later renting freeman by local peasants.

  1. When the Feudal Monarchies of France and England began to forge out national identities for their subjects the Towns were at the forefront in defining that consciousness and providing the organisation and economic infrastructure to make it happen.

* Village people tended to be more conservative and localised in their politics.

  1. By the 13th century many serfs were running away from feudal bonds in order to find work in the towns – for money to buy their freedom.

* Village: Very difficult to get hands on enough money in the villages to buy one’s freedom.

* What was it Like to live in a Medieval Community – village or town?

* Firstly, this is one aspect of Medieval life that cannot be reconstructed by archaeology alone. We need: 1) an understanding of material aspects of Medieval villages and towns – what did the town or village look like? what is it like to walk through physically? etc.; 2) to reconstruct work, entertainment/social and domestic habits; 3) to recover and understand the rules (determinants) governing social interactions – marriage, friendship, childhood, learning etc. 4) to recover knowledge of customs/ beliefs etc. related to people’s relationship to animals and the natural world; 5) to accumulate knowledge of how religion/Saints/superstition etc. functioned in the community: a) socially b) personally; 6) to be aware of the rules governing economic aspects of life – we could continue!

*We can walk around the reconstructed streets of many Medieval towns or villages today – and this can give us some idea as to the Medieval experience – however, this can be deceptive. We have to:

  1. Edit out cars, trucks and traffic, electronic banking and computerised communication systems, sealed roads and all the other technological wonders invented after the industrial revolution.

*Replace with horses, cattle and carts – manure in the streets! – non-descript roads/paths going out of town in a haphazard sort of way to other towns – traversed by the said animals and human’s carrying trading goods on their backs. Also very little money. Early nights – burning things (Candles/torches) etc. at night was a luxury in a society with little enough firewood for keeping warm.

  1. Edit out our alienated ‘interiorised’ forms of social interaction – as well as the sense of being an individual in a mass of people one doesn’t know. Forget also our experience of sped up time.

*Replace with the ‘medieval version of the ‘small-town mentality’ – intensely social (hardly any time alone) everybody knows everybody else’s business – homes are virtually ‘open houses’ – people gossip with the owners as they pass, owners go about their domestic business and gossip back. People hang around the Town Centre playing games (entertaining/being entertained/ speaking/ listening (to news, proclamations, minstrels, folk stories etc. etc.)/ buying/selling, talking/gossiping etc. Time is more leisurely – and fits itself to the passage of the seasons.

  1. Edit out the many and sundry ‘health’, ‘socialisation’ and ‘economic’ laws and regulations which moderate, regulate and organise relationships between individuals in modern Western societies.

Despite the image we have of medieval peasants as being over-regulated we are in fact far more subject to the power of the state than they were. There were local customs certainly – and these were often quite complex in terms of their control of social life – but they were concrete, kin or neighbour based controls – not the vast impersonal workings of invisible bureaucracies such as we have. Thus we have to imagine public spaces being used for spontaneous activities – games, drinking, song, gambling etc. – often quite physical activities ‘wrestling etc.’ in ways we only see once or twice a year in our age. Also many untreatable diseases were likely to be on display, since Medieval people lived with such maladies people had more tolerance than we show today. Many people suffered skin irritations; similarly, blindness and deafness were endemic. Leprosy, small pox, and other diseases were also rife and much more on display than they are in our society

  1. We need to edit out multi-roomed, ‘intensely private’ homes and places of business as well as the relative absence of animals in our lives.

Replace with: Medieval houses were one room only – the centre was the ‘hearth’ – was used to keep warm in the winter and to cook food. Sometimes the cooking fire was outside – people cooked sat around talking etc. then slept inside (often with the animals, and kids all in the one room). All family life revolved around the hearth. People often slept within close proximity to it. Visitors came and went at regular intervals – many visitors slept in same beds as hosts (nothing was thought of this – it did not mean sexual relations). Sometimes peasant houses were one long room, with a fence or other structure dividing the humans off from the animals; sometimes humans huddles together with sheep, pigs, chickens and other domestic animals in the winter to maintain body heat. Often business was conducted from the same place in which the peasant family lived.images-2

  1. Edit out modern practices surrounding water supplies (also, soap and washing machines), sewerage and rubbish disposal practices etc.

Replace with ‘communal wells’, ‘bathhouses’ (in the bigger towns), ‘washing in streams’ – often a long way from home. Clothes not often washed – and continuously repaired. Forget about our conception of ‘fashion’. Toilet areas – holes in the ground (public areas: trees etc.) – or in the cases of Castles ‘long drops’ into moats and rivers. Rubbish often left in the streets – but less of it – almost everything was consumed or recycled through necessity.

*Edit out ‘healthy’ foods/ supermarkets and plentiful supplies of food, also fridges and other modern ways of preserving food.

Replace with: Dysentery, worms, scurvy and other food related illnesses common. Medieval life was hard on people’s stomachs – in the towns food was often ‘cut’ with non-organic matter. Health regulations were virtually non-existent so people didn’t understand the concept of ‘germs’ and thus had no idea how to guard against such things – cooking utensils were washed in disease carrying water – often close to where people or animals did their toiletry! Then there is the problem of famine – for most of the middle ages starvation was a major problem for large sections of Europe’s population – especially in the harsh winters of the northern climes.

6) Edit out (among the peasants) modern practices of separating children from their mothers (in ‘private’ rooms/crèches/schools etc.).

Replace with virtually universal ‘breast feeding’ (up to three years among peasants) though, with, wet nursing among many aristocratic mothers. Long in arms periods for young children – childhood very physical – children spent a lot more time exploring nature. … less intellectual life, more geared to learning skills knowledge off a variety of kin/village people in the village rather than through schooling.

7) Edit out work life dominated by the artificial demands of industry and commerce.

Replace with work life dominated by the demands of the Christian (or local popular) calendar, the seasons and the weather. Life revolves around the cycles and life stages of local flora. Social gatherings and festivities take place according to natural events or events related to the Christian year. The local church was the ‘spiritual’ centre of a town or village, the town centre was the ‘secular’ centre of the town.



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