Peasants

   Throughout late antiquity and the early Middle Ages, society was divided into a number of legal and social classes. Society was ruled by kings and powerful landed nobles and was served by slaves; between the ranks of the great free and the unfree were the peasants. The peasants, descendants of the ancient coloni (plural of colonus, Latin for farmer), remained essentially legally free until after the year 1000 and were the most important figures in the economic life of the period. The peasants, or coloni as they are often called in contemporary sources, were also the most numerous members of society. Although they were the largest part of the population, it is impossible to get a complete picture of the peasants because they figure in so few contemporary documents, and those that do portray them often present a misleading picture. The most famous of the sources for early medieval peasant life are the polyptychs of Charlemagne and the Carolingian dynasty.
   In all likelihood, the great majority of residents in the countryside of barbarian Europe were free, landholding peasants, but the terms on which the land was held and the economic wealth of the peasants varied greatly. Most peasants and their families lived on small properties, of one mansus, or Anglo-Saxon hide, which were large enough to support a family. These properties could be freely disposed of by the peasants, who could buy and sell their lots and pass them along to their children. Of course, as small proprietors, the peasants were constantly under the pressure of wealthy and powerful figures who sought to acquire the mansi of the peasants. As a defense, peasants sometimes made a grant of their holding or part of it to a local church or monastery, which then allowed the peasant to receive it back and work it for his family's benefit. Peasants were also sometimes forced to squeeze several families on a parcel of land designed for one family. Moreover, rural families sometimes held land in tenancy and were obligated to offer payment or service to the landowner. Their tenant holdings were part of a large estate and were often not contiguous but scattered across the estate. The size and number of holdings varied as well, and some tenants had quite extensive lots to work. Both tenant farmers and small freeholders often hired themselves out to other landowners in order to supplement their incomes. Some peasants, however, were able to acquire several mansi of their own and teams of animals to work the fields, and thus became relatively comfortable. The owners of four or mansi were expected to do service at the lord's court.
   The mansus was made up of a number of parts, and the peasants were members of a large community, the village. The individual holding, whether free or tenant in whatever form, included, among other things, a simple hut of stone, wood, or clay where the peasant family lived. Although some were larger and more elaborate, these homes generally had a single room divided into sections, a dirt floor, a bed, benches, and tables. Around the hut were fields for farming, forests, meadows, vineyards, and mills and other buildings necessary for the agricultural economy of the peasant. The peasants spent most of their lives working the farms, raising wheat, oats, and other grains, as well as livestock, including chickens, cows, sheep, and pigs. Beyond the individual landholdings of the peasants was the village. This larger community provided some relief from the more onerous burdens of peasant life and tenant farming. Members of the village often worked together, and the more successful free peasants often regulated the daily affairs of the members of the community and arbitrated their disputes. Decisions affecting the village, such as when to plant and to harvest or how to manage the wastelands, were made by the community as a whole.
   See also
   Bibliography
 ♦ Bloch, Marc. French Rural History: An Essay on Its Basic Characteristics. Trans. Janet Sondheimer. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966.
 ♦ Duby, Georges. The Early Growth of the European Economy: Warriors and Peasants from the Seventh to the Twelfth Century. Trans. Howard B. Clarke. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1979.
 ♦ Riché, Pierre. Daily Life in the World of Charlemagne. Trans. Jo Ann McNamara. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983.
 ♦ Wolfram, Herwig. The Roman Empire and Its Germanic Peoples. Trans. Thomas J. Dunlap. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.
 ♦ Wood, Ian. The Merovingian Kingdoms, 450-751. London: Longman, 1994.

Encyclopedia of Barbarian Europe. 2014.

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