Society in King Egbert's Time, Part 4

Society in King Egbert's Time

Part Four-
Peasant Life, Farming, Gardens and Plants, Common Peasant Tasks, The Home, A Typical Village

Peasant Life

Serfs were peasant farmers who were neither fully free nor slaves.  They could not leave the village, sell an ox, or marry without the lord of the manor's permissions. The peasants had a little more freedom but still rarely left their local area. According to the law serfs did not belong to themselves. They and all their belongings, their house clothes and even their food were owned by the lord of the manor. They were bound to work for their lord, who allowed them to farm their own piece of land in return. Their lives were ones of constant toil. Most struggled to produce enough food for their own families as well as fulfilling their duties to the lord of the manor. Forbidden from leaving the manor without permission, the only way for serfs to gain their freedom was by saving enough money to buy a plot of land, or by marrying a free person.

Peasants worked hard every day of their lives except for Sundays and holy days. Bad weather and a typically poor diet meant that most died before they reached 27. They made some of their own tools and utensils, although skilled craftsmen produced their pottery, leatherwork and iron. Besides wood and leather the most important material was horn from cattle and sheep. Light and strong horn did not absorb flavors like wood and did not require much effort to shape. Horn spoons saved on washing-up because according to one writer "with a little licking they will always be kept as clean as a die.”

Clothes like tools were mostly home-made from local materials. Peasant women spent much of their time spinning wool into course thread, which was then woven into cloth and made into garments. Sheepskin cloaks were worn in winter to keep out the cold and rain, and wooden overshoes, called pattens, could be put on over leather boots in muddy conditions. Although outer clothes were never washed, linen underwear was laundered regularly. People's clothes generally smelled of wood smoke which had a deodorizing effect


During the Middle Ages the main economic units were the villages and manors.  These were self-contained economic units which ate most of the food that was raised.  They sold the surplus food only in good years.  The peasants or serfs raised the food. The lords required taxes from both the serfs and the peasants in both food and labor.  The church required a tithe of 10% from everything that was produced. 

Each farmer would have to pay to work a strip of land that was defined by the acre.  The acre was the amount one could plow in one day’s work.  The farmer would also have a set number of days required to work on the lord’s land.  There was a system called the open-field system. The strips were only regarded as owned by the serf during the time of crop growing. Temporary hedges would be set up to keep cattle out of the strips.  After the crop was harvested the land would revert to common land for cattle grazing.  Each year the land split into strips was given out to different serfs. This open-field system did not encourage developing the land or conserving the soil. They used a three or four crop rotation in their fields.  The rotation might be wheat the first year, barley the next, and the third year the land would lay fallow. The village or manor also had lands, which were known as the commons, where all the serfs or peasants could graze their animals.  Since the cattle were grazed in common areas it limited the possibility for any selective breeding.   

The open-field system was introduced by the Saxons, great-fields with raised cultivated strips separated by drainage channels. Traces of these can still be seen all over England. Each strip was half to one acre. One great-field was left fallow each season. An individual tenant would have his strips scattered over several great fields, thereby ensuring a fair share of the good land with the bad. Ancient Celtic fields appear to have been rectangular, less than 400 feet long and more than 100 feet wide. Saxon great-fields are about 660 feet in length (a furlong or "long furrow") and roughly ten times longer than they are wide.

The medieval farmer usually had two crops: a spring and a fall crop, the spring consisting of barley, vetches, oats, peas, and beans, while the fall was mainly wheat and rye. Each type of seed was used in a different manner. The rye and wheat, in addition to being sold for cash, were used for bread. The barley was used for beer and the hay and oats were fed to the horses and other livestock such as oxen. To get the fields in proper growing condition, the farmers used oxen to plow the land. Most farmers did not own enough oxen themselves, so plowing was a communal activity. Fertilizer was commonly used. A common technique was called marling. The marling process consisted of spreading clay containing lime onto the soil, thus restoring much needed nutrients to grow crops. They also used the manure from their animals to fertilize.

The wife of a farmer also played an important role on the farm. She would usually help with the chickens. These were sold for extra money or killed and eaten by the family. She also cooked and preserved the food, and she acquired extra money by spinning thread and then selling it. Additionally, the thread was woven to make clothes for the family to wear. She also brewed ale, made butter and cheese for the house to use.

Gardens and Plants

It is not always easy to distinguish between pleasure and utility gardening. Any space in which people were cultivating plants can be called a garden.  There were several categories of them even in King Egbert’s time. The kitchen garden was where some vegetables and herbs might be grown for food as well as for fuel or as habitat for animals which were hunted. The physic garden would be planted with various medicinal herbs. The aesthetic garden was developed largely for ornament and pleasure. Many times a gardener would use a plot of ground for a mixture of the recreational, aesthetic, and practical purposes. Flowers in a garden with their sweet fragrance would be practical and aesthetic. Medieval gardens were frequently enclosed; the fragrances of flowers and herbs were confined and concentrated.

Among the useful garden flowers were those of the artemisia family. Southernwood’s hair-like leaves were used to relieve fevers and wounds and, when dried, it was valued for its aroma. The ability to purge a person of worms and poisons was attributed to wormwood, which was also respected as a cure for constipation and stomach discomfort, and as a flea repellent (shared by pennyroyal). Wormwood has a bitter taste, unlike mugwort, which was used to flavor drinks. The tansy flower was an insect repellent. The entire plant is aromatic and bitter to the taste, and all parts of the plant were used in cooking. Another useful flower was the marigold, which was used both as a medicine, against stings and pestilence, and in cooking, as a bitter spice. The blue iris had many uses. The iris root made a good ink and, when dried, had a sweet smell. Iris leaves could be used in making mats, patching thatched roofs, or for rushes used in covering floors. The iris also made a dark blue juice that was used for spot removing, as a salve for teeth and gums, and as an ingredient in a dye for cloth.

Periwinkle garlands and wreaths could easily be woven because of the long, supple stems, and the plant grew low, making it a useful and attractive ground cover. Medieval English  liked flowery meadows, or meads, of scythe-mown grass, fragrant herbs, and flowers like violets, daisies, primroses, and periwinkles, to walk, dance, and lie among the visual beauty and surrounding aromas. Violets were popular, and symbolic of humility, freshness, purity, and innocence. Dishes made were sometimes garnished with violets. The petals were used as an emetic and purgative, and the oil could scent a bath or soothe the skin.

 Like periwinkles, daisies were made into garlands and crowns, and were included in gardens. The primrose could be made into wine. The leaves were used on wounds to ease pain and on the skin to avoid blemishes, and they were eaten to ease muscle aches. The petals were also eaten for pain relief, cooked into tansy cakes and pottages, and floated in comforting baths.

The gillyflower, ancestor of the carnation, was respected for its usefulness and attractiveness. It was used in cooking as a spice for its aroma and clove-like taste, and was used to cover the bitter taste of some medicines as well as in wine and ale. The seeds of the peony were used in flavoring meat, or were eaten raw to warm the taste-buds and stabilize the temperament. They were also drunk in hot wine and ale before retiring at night to avoid disturbing dreams. Sweet woodruff was frequently used for garlands, with a sweet fragrance and white color, and was also added to drinks. The leaves were so scented that they were known as “sweetgrass,” and were strewn when dried on floors and packed with clothes as a freshener.

The white rose was a garden favorite. Red roses, like white, were to be found in England throughout the Medieval period. Along with these cultivated roses there was the native wild rose, known as the sweet briar or eglantine. It has a lovely smell, is a good climber for walls and fences, and was used in the making of mead and various medicines. The flowers of Medieval cultivated roses were smaller, more open, and more fragile than today's roses, and they had a more delicate fragrance. The Medieval rose plants were more like rambling bushes, and the thorns were longer and more plentiful. When the rose petals were dried and powdered they had the most powerful fragrance. The petals of the red rose were used in the making of rose water, rose oil, rose preserves, petal garnishes, and rose sugar. Roses were used as symbols of the Holy Spirit, and were scattered in churches.

The lily was a special devotional flower, associated with the Virgin Mary. The white petals represented her purity and the golden anthers the light of her soul. The lily was an ancient fertility symbol, and it suited the Mother of God. The lily represented purity, innocent beauty, and chastity, a neat parallel for the virgin birth of Christ. The central setting of The Song of Songs in the Old Testament is that of a garden. Therefore the example of sensual literature most widely known to Medieval people took place in a garden.

Common Peasant Tasks

January & February - work indoors repairing hunting nets, sharpening tools, making utensils - on mild days work outdoors gather firewood, prune vines and mend fences.

March - work in the fields, plowing and cultivating.

April - clean ditches, pruning trees, fixing sheds, hauling timber, and repairing roofs

May - sheep cleaning and shearing, planting and field maintenance

June - mowing and gathering hay crop

July - harvest grains, bundle sheaves, weeding gardens

August - threshing and winnowing of grains, grinding of grains into flour

September - fruits picked and dried or stored, grapes picked and pressed for juice and wine

October - gather nuts, roots, berries, and mushrooms, plow and sow empty fields with winter wheat, repairing and cleaning equipment.

November - firewood gathered, split, and stacked, pigs and cows slaughtered and meat smoked, flax and hemp processed to make thread and rope

December - trim trees, grape vines pruned, and hunting

The Home

The home of the average worker consisted of wooden supports with spaces filled with a mixture of material called wattle and daub. The lumber was mostly oak, purchased from a lumber-jack or cut down by the family. The wattle of the house was usually of willow or oak sticks woven together to form a type of mesh that stood up to the elements and provided some insulation in the winter. The daub was applied to the wattle to seal it and make it waterproof. Daub was made from mud, clay, horsehair, and the dung of the animals in the area. The floor was dirt, covered by a layer of reeds. The reeds would absorb liquids as well as give some insulation. The roof was made of a similar type of woven reed/daub combination or shingles made of wood or slate. It was sturdy as well as waterproof.

The house could either be one or two stories high, and if there was a second floor, it was usually a loft or attic of some kind, used mainly for storage and sleeping. A cooking fire of peat or wood burned day and night in a clearing in the middle of the dirt floor. The smoke seeped out through an opening in the roof, called a louver. In almost every crofter’s home (craftsman) there was a large frontal window with two horizontal shutters. These folded out to create an awning and a small counter on which he could sell his wares.

Homes of the rich were more elaborate than the peasants' homes. Their floors were paved, as opposed to just being strewn with rushes and herbs, and sometimes decorated with tiles. Tapestries were hung on the walls, providing not only decoration but also an extra layer of warmth. Some times there were fenestral windows, with lattice frames that were covered in a fabric soaked in resin and tallow. These allowed in light, kept out drafts, and could be removed in good weather. There were very few windows with glass even in the king’s home, allowing birds, bats and insects to come and go, as well as the smoke from their fires. 

A Typical Village

The ninth century Anglo-Saxon, who was not a nobleman, serf, or slave, was known as the ceorl, or peasant. These ceorls normally made their living by farming. They usually lived and worked in close association with others belonging to their own class of society. In origin many of the ‘ingas’ place-names imply a direct personal relationship with a particular individual–such as Cooling, Godalming, Reading, and many more names in which the first part is the name of an individual, sometimes of the founder of the ceorl settlement. Many of the ‘ingas’ names are compounded with ‘ham, the element denoting a collection of individual dwellings which together constituted a village. This element is most common in the main areas of Anglo-Saxon settlements.

Apart from churches and the remains of some monastic communities, very little is known about Anglo-Saxon buildings. This is partly because the village houses probably lie beneath medieval and modern buildings, and because wood was the ordinary Anglo-Saxon building material. Before the ninth century, stone was used only for church buildings, and even then only where nearby Roman buildings provided quarries of stone. Once discovered, the site of a wooden building can be made to disclose its history in considerable detail, as at Yeavering. The place was dominated by an immense timber hall which had a number of smaller halls set about it, one of them possibly used initially as a temple for pagan worship, and also with a large timber grandstand for assemblies held in the open air.

The royal palace represented the highest level of society, but it was only a more elaborate form of the longhouse, a rectangular wooden building commonly being three or four times as long as it was wide. Houses of this kind have been found at several sites in the Saxon and Frisian areas of the North Sea coasts. They were constructed of timber, with wattle and daub, and were associated with circular pits which may have been used for storage. The plan of the longhouse was reflected in the long, narrow and lofty proportions which were characteristic of the nave of Anglo-Saxon churches.

Village communities which lived by agriculture and stock farming required a wide variety of buildings used as barns, stables, byres and storehouses, and for the trades of smith, carpenter, weaver and potter. Barley, oats, wheat, and flax were among the crops cultivated. Barley was probably of importance, since it was used by the brewer as well as the baker. The life of the Anglo-Saxon peasant was one of hard and continuous effort to make a living for himself and his family. The farmers gradually spread from tracts along the river banks where many of the earliest settlements had been made, to the areas with poorer soils, clearing scrub and forest to bring new fields into cultivation. This process can be found by comparing a map of settlement sites at the time of Domesday with those known in the same area five centuries earlier.

Two factors tended towards the growth of a life in towns. The arrival of Christian missionaries brought some men who were familiar with the city life around the Mediterranean, and with the development of a diocesan organization some of the old Roman centers were chosen as seats for the bishoprics. Also there was the revival of trade, particularly maritime trade, and a return to more stable conditions. Away from the coastal areas, towns did not play a prominent part in the life of Anglo-Saxon England before the times of the Viking invasions.

An example of a typical village of the period has been uncovered at Wharram Percy. Each peasant house had a small “yard” surrounding it called a toft, and a croft which served as a small “garden” to supply the family with root crops, legumes and grain. The houses were spread out on the western edge of the valley from south to north interrupted by the two manor house enclosures. In the floor of the valley–north of the church–there is a row of smaller tofts/crofts. There is also a group of house sites across the “head” of the village; these houses run east and west. At its largest the village was made up of about 37 houses. This village plan was similar to many English villages of today.

  depiction of a serf

illustration of farmers with their sheep

woodcut of peasant working

tree planting

Herbal garden in Cantebury

medieval crop sites seen from the air
near Kempsford, Gloucestershire

woodcut  of peasants working in the herb garden

Reconstructed home near West Stow, Suffolk

village reconstruction near West Stow, Suffolk

depiction of the village at
Wharram Percy

Historical Time Line
The Making of Kings- Kingship, The Army and Warfare
Events before King Egbert's Time- Beginning in Europe, The 7 Kingdoms and the ChurchLineage, Ancestors and Parentage
The Life of King Egbert- The Early Years (775-802)
The Kingship- Chronicle Excerpts, 802-824, 825-829, 830-839, Reasons for Success

The People and Places Important to King Egbert - The People, The Places
Society in King Egbert's Time- Part 1 (Government, Household, Allegiance, Finances) Part 2 (Great Hall, Cooking & Eating, Food, Feasts, Christmas)
Part 3
(Crafts & Trade, Clothing and Appearance, Hygiene, Medicine) Part 4 (Peasants, Farming, Gardens & Plants, Common Tasks, Home, Village) Part 5 (Art)
Sources and References