Chances are slim that you’ll wake up tomorrow having slipped through a time portal and find
yourself now living in a Medieval village.
But if that does happen, here are some of the things you can expect.
First off, it’s hard being a peasant.
Fortunately, you happen not to be a slave, because that status doesn’t factor into
So you won’t be sold from owner to owner.
Unfortunately, you’re not exactly free, either.
Your social rank as villein means that you don’t own your own land.
For the sake of context, we’ll say you arrive complete with a backstory.
Villein is an inherited designation, meaning your parents were villeins, as well.
The word is definitely related to the modern term “villain,” which tells you something
about Medieval prejudices about the lower rungs on the social ladder.
Many more people died in infancy and childhood in the Middle Ages, leading to a low average
But even if you’re in your teens or early twenties--and not a monk or a nun--you’re
If you’re a woman, by age 20, you’ll likely have given birth to at least a few children,
although they may not all still be with you.
The mortality rate for children in the first year of life is one out of every six.
If you’ve given birth four times--not inconceivable, considering age 14 was fine for marriage--it’s
likely that at least one child was either stillborn or died very young.
Both parents would come to know grief as an integral part of everyday life.
But women also faced a strong likelihood of dying in childbirth.
There was a one in ten chance of death every time a woman went into labor.
As a result, among young adults, there are more men than women.
Men, on the other hand, are more likely to die a violent death.
Military service is compulsory if the lord of the manor for your village calls on you.
And, depending on where you live, war is probable in your lifetime.
If you’re in Britain or France, the Hundred Years War is getting rolling.
But even outside formal combat, society is violent.
Every man carries a sword, or at least a knife.
Executions are frequent and public, as is the display of the despatched criminals’
heads and other body parts.
Capital crimes could include what we’d consider petty theft, in addition to more serious offenses.
As you might expect, villeins tend to live in villages.
You have a small, thatched-roof house, in a defined household garden plot.
Scattered in a seemingly random pattern within walking distance are a number of identical-looking
structures, maybe just a few, but perhaps as many as fifty or more.
It’s good that they’re not right up against each other, as they would be in a city or
Thatched houses, which tend to have a wood and mud frame, are fire traps, especially
since there’s often a fire burning inside, particularly in the cold months.
You keep a barrel of water next to the house to collect rainwater for drinking, so you
might be able to deal with a fire in time.
Or maybe not.
But at least your neighbors are safe.
Historian and novelist Ian Mortimer, in The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England,
provides the source for much of these physical descriptions, along with Frances and Joseph
Gies’ Life in a Medieval Village.
Outside the nucleated village, there’s a field of several hundred acres, divided into
strips, each for the use of a different peasant household.
You might be growing barley, or if you can, wheat.
Your kids will help you in the field when they’re a little more grown up, around age
For now its the husband and wife who sow the soil and reap the grain.
Women will divide their time between endless household tasks like child care, weaving new
clothes--basic wool tunics for everybody, probably with a separate hood--washing, milking
the cow, cooking the food, and brewing the staple beverage.
Plowing with a shared ox is generally going to be male labor, but single peasant women
are known to do it.
Since your land is leased from the lord of the manor, they can choose how much of the
yield from your land to take in taxes.
Another bad deal is that in peak planting and harvest seasons, you have to put three
days a week working your lord’s land, or demesne.
On the plus side, there are plenty of days off from that, since there are slower seasons,
and every religious high holiday is exempted.
For some important feasts, the lord hosts a gathering with all the villeins.
That’s at least one benefit over freeholding.
On the other hand, religious days of fasting from meat are no problem, because your diet
is meatless most days anyway.
You might have salted meat in the wintertime, because you might slaughter one of your animals
before the annual scarcity sets in.
In the summer and fall, the peasants’ pigs can roam the forest, with permission from
the lord, who of course owns that land, too.
So far, so good.
But times are about to get bad, fast.
This year, spring comes late, and it’s especially rainy.
Too much rain will ruin the seed.
But you can’t do anything about that, so you hitch up a pair of horses you share with
other people in the village, and start plowing.
By now, like other farm workers across Europe, you use a heavy plow that’s very efficient
in turning over the soil.
But even with beasts of burden, it’s exhausting labor.
When you become parched, remember not to drink the water.
It’s incredibly contaminated.
If you slip up and forget, you might not just get sick--you could die, since you have no
immunity to the strains of diseases making their way through the humans and animals of
The flooding from the heavy rain doesn’t help.
And the weather isn’t great in the fall, either.
The grain that did germinate is now being blasted with heavy rains and hail.
The harvest is going to be meager, which is almost a good thing, because it’s also back
Long ago you learned how to use a scythe.
But of course, a bad harvest is really the beginning of disaster.
You’re probably starting out life with a diet far superior to the other people in the
village, so as the lean days of winter drag on, and your neighbors become dangerously
thin, you’re not in the same immediate danger.
But that’s about to change.
Because the next year’s weather is also terrible.
It’s a repeat of last year, only worse.
Your rent comes due, and it doesn’t matter that your harvest is again meagre.
So now there’s almost nothing left for winter.
Along with everyone in your family--somehow you ended up with a family when you slipped
through the time portal--you live in a single-room house with a dirt floor and a fire pit.
There’s a hole in the thatched roof for smoke ventilation, but it’s still pretty
Your livestock lives in the house with you, although not for long.
You’ve got a couple of goats, and they’re worth more alive than dead, since they’re
an endless source of dairy products, especially valuable for the children.
Even though the goats aren’t picky eaters, there’s less of everything to feed them.
And there’s less for your family to eat as the winter wears on.
Doing the math, you realize you’ll have to slaughter one of them.
That will provide good food for awhile, since you can salt the meat.
By early spring, some of the children and elderly people in the village start starving
Your youngest contracts a disease you can’t name, much less treat, and won’t stop coughing.
Until she does.
You’re not feeling so good, either, although you’re not as far gone.
You certainly don’t have a lot of motivation to get to plowing, and there’s no seed to
You’ve had to eat the reserve.
Maybe it’s time to consider a career change?
Like some of the other peasants, you pack up what you can cart away and hit the rough,
muddy highway toward the town a few miles over.
It’s an illegal act for a villein to move away from the manor, but you know that if
you can last a year in the town, you’ll be considered free
Unfortunately, you’re an easy target for highwaymen, who relieve you of your worldly
They’re skilled fighters, perhaps returned Crusaders, and you can draw your sword, but
you’ll be lucky if they even let you run.
You and your family arrive in town, now literally paupers.
And you’re not alone.
The bad harvests have reduced many of the poor to destitution.
Food is expensive at the marketplace, and you have nothing to trade.
Stealing would be a bad move.
It’s punishable by death, delivered the same day you’re caught.
So, like the other poor, you beg, as does the rest of your family.
And, moved by the spirit of charity, some of the middle class merchants and craftspeople
give all of you a little to eat.
Eventually you can get work doing manual labor.
Even if you knew one of the skilled crafts, like blacksmithing, baking, or carpentry,
you can’t afford to pay to join their guilds.
But for very low wages, and a little bit to eat, you can do heavy lifting, moving blocks
for the masons who are working on the town cathedral, or unloading and carrying freight
for the merchants.
But the town has another downside: the sanitation here is even worse than in the village.
There are supposed to be laws for the disposal of waste, but in practice the side streets
are like open sewers, not to mention the prolific animal droppings.
As hunger creeps into the town, disease follows along with it.
There’s a fair amount of long distance trade, and along with spices and silks, germs hop
along for the ride.
An epidemic breaks out, and there’s little anyone can do but shut themselves up in their
You don’t have a house.
You’re starving, and you’re sick.
Life in the town isn’t really working for you.
Your family, also suffering from the coughing sickness that killed your youngest daughter,
can find care in a hospital run by a monastery and nunnery.
But you’re determined to find a way to provide.
Before another winter hits, you wander back toward your old village, now largely abandoned.
You keep walking, up to the castle where your lord lives.
When he greets you, you fall to your knees and beg for his help.
As it turns out, he can use you.
War is coming, and every able bodied man is needed.
Given the circumstances, you can make the cut.
The morning before dawn, you march out with the other recruits.
There are no uniforms, let alone armor.
When you get to the camp where the knights and their attendants await the order to battle,
you do get a kind of spear with an axe attached, and a shield--a wicker shield, which seems
like a joke.
On a better note, you get fed.
It’s a simple stew, porridge with some vegetables, and--is it?
Some pieces of chicken meat, the best meal you’ve had in months.
There’s more the following day, and the day after that.
Maybe army life won’t be so bad.
Then the battle comes.
You line up with the other light infantry before dawn.
Behind you are rows of archers, and behind them, the armored cavalry.
Maybe a thousand soldiers all told?
The enemy is almost a mirror image of your side, although they seem to have better armor.
And there may be more of them.
Upon the order to fire, volleys of arrows start flying, first from your side.
And then the enemy returns fire.
It’s hard to tell, but it looks like their bows are considerably larger.
Like your comrades, you shield yourself and crouch.
You don’t look, but you can tell from the screams that plenty of people have just been
When the arrows stop, you rise to your feet and tighten ranks to make up for the gaps
in the line.
Upon command, you begin charging at the enemy, who is charging right back at you.
You scream, and hold your weapon as tight as you can.
You want to hold onto the hope that you’ll survive the day, but even as you collide with
the opposing line, you know you won’t.
Do you think you’d want to try your hand on the Medieval battlefield?
Is there another time in history you’d be more up for visiting?
Let us know what you think in the comments.
Also, be sure to check out our other video “Why Life During The Dark Ages Sucked.”
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See you next time!