7. The Life of a Middle Ages Peasant Was Rough, but it Had Some Upside
The modern perception of Middle Ages peasants is often one that views them as exploited, downtrodden, brutalized, oppressed, and overworked minions. To a large extent, peasants back in the Middle Ages were, indeed, exploited, downtrodden, brutalized, and oppressed. They were placed at the bottom of the social pyramid as a lower caste that had fewer legal rights and protections than the nobles and clergy above them. Moreover, a significant chunk of the fruits of their labor went to support their social betters.
A European medieval peasant might have been reduced to the status of an outright serf, bound to the land and unable to leave without the proprietor’s permission. Depending on location and era, a peasant might be required to put more time and effort to tend an aristocrat’s fields than his own. However, when it comes to whether peasants were overworked, then, well – as it turns out, not so much. As seen below, modern Americans put in longer hours, with fewer holidays and vacation time, than peasants did back in the Middle Ages.
6. Americans Work Hundreds of Hours More Per Year Than Middle Ages Peasants
On long workdays, we might comfort ourselves with the thought that at least we don’t have it as bad as workers in the Middle Ages. No, sir, at least we are not like our peasant ancestors who toiled from dawn to dusk, or medieval artisans who began work at sunup, and kept at it past sunset and well into the night with candlelight. We could console ourselves thus, but we would be wrong. Long hours and the frantic rat race are a feature of the modern era and its innovative linkage of work to a regular schedule and the clock. Before that, people did not work very long hours, life’s tempo was slow, and the pace of work was relaxed.
Our ancestors might not have been rich, and they lacked many of the creature comforts we take for granted, but one thing they had more than we do is free time. For example, an average American in 1987 worked 1,949 hours annually. By 2015, that figure had dipped to 1,811 hours a year. An improvement, but still nearly 200 hours more than a thirteenth century adult male English peasant, who worked an average of 1,620 hours annually. A typical Middle Ages workday stretched from dawn to dusk. The labor could be backbreaking, but there were many breaks for breakfast, lunch, an afternoon nap, and dinner. There might also be midmorning and midafternoon refreshment breaks. After a harvest, peasants might enjoy up to eight weeks off of slack times. And that is without counting all the holidays and religious feast days.
5. Middle Ages Peasants Might Work as Few as 150 Days a Year
James Pilkington, a Bishop of Durham, complained thus about all the breaks taken by peasants: “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.” Between slack time and holidays, a Middle Ages peasant might get away with only 150 workdays in a good harvest year. By contrast, an American worker would be lucky to get 8 vacation days in a year, as the US “continues to be the only advanced economy that does not guarantee its workers paid vacations“. Although we work more hours than medieval peasants, at least we don’t have it as bad as nineteenth century American workers, who put in around 3,650 hours annually. That is more than double the 2021 American worker’s average of 1,757 hours a year.
In the Middle Ages, people, especially in England, liked to play an exceptionally rough ball game in the days before Lent, that came to be known as mob football. There were variations throughout Europe, but the game shared basic similarities across regions. Teams from different villages and towns, that numbered anywhere from a few dozen players to hundreds, met in a fairly central location. Then a ball was thrown, and the rival teams vied with each other to capture the ball and take it back home – usually to their church’s front porch.
Restrictions as to team sizes or ball-handling were few or nonexistent. The massive matches usually lasted for an entire day, and many players dropped out due to fatigue or injuries. Bruises, scratches, cuts, and lacerations were common, and deaths in a game were not unheard of. Despite those risks, medieval mob football remained popular throughout Europe for centuries. However, the game’s destructive nature eventually led King Edward II to ban it in England in 1314. In what might or might not be a coincidence, Edward II went down in history as one of England’s most unpopular and despised kings.
In the Middle Ages, Vlad III came to rule of Wallachia, a region of modern southern Romania. Better known to history as Vlad Dracula or Vlad the Impaler, his methods of governance and warfare terrified his contemporaries, and still send shivers down spines to the present day. His nickname Dracula, which means “son of Dracul”, is from the Latin draco, or dragon, after his father was inducted into the Order of the Dragon, created by Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund to rally Christians against the Ottoman Turks. He was the real-life inspiration for Bram Stoker’s fictional vampire. His other sobriquet, The Impaler, he got from his preferred method of punishment. The real life Dracula did not suck people’s blood. Instead, he shoved sharpened stakes up their behinds.
A son of Vlad II, an exiled aristocrat, Vlad III was born circa 1430 in Transylvania. The father took over the throne of Wallachia in 1436, but was kicked out a few years later by rivals. So he switched sides, and allied with the Ottoman Sultan, who restored him to power. As proof of loyalty, he sent two sons, Vlad III and his brother Radu, to the Sultan’s court as hostages – a common practice in the Middle Ages. Radu eventually converted to Islam, but Vlad disliked the Ottomans and resented his father for his betrayal of the Order of the Dragon, into which Vlad had been inducted when he was five-years-old.
2. A Man Who Loved to Impale People So Much, He Became Known as “The Impaler”
The father of Vlad the Impaler was overthrown once more in 1447, and this time his enemies killed him while they were at it. The Ottomans marched in and installed Vlad on Wallachia’s throne, but his rule lasted only a few months before he, too, was overthrown. He regained the throne in 1456, this time with help from the Ottomans’ enemies, the Hungarians. To celebrate, he invited two hundred aristocrats and their families to an Easter Sunday feast in 1457. At some point, he asked his guests how old they were. He wanted to know who had been old enough to have participated in his father’s overthrow back in 1447.
He then dragged those who fit the bill outside, and had them promptly impaled – a horrific way to die. Victims had large, sharpened, wooden stakes driven through their bodies, often through their rear end. The stake was then planted vertically into the ground, so that the victim was left to dangle in the air. Vlad impaled people in a manner that avoided damage to vital organs, and thus averted immediate death. Instead, the victims suffered hours or even days of agony before they expired. To add an artistic touch to the horror, Vlad impaled aristocrats arranged in rows that came to be known as “The Forrest of the Impaled”.
1. A Display So Scary it Terrified Invaders and Made Them Turn Around and Head Back Home
The mass impalements did not halt Vlad the Impaler’s Easter Sunday feast, and the party went on. Afterward, the wives and children of the impaled aristocrats were taken to the mountains to rebuild a fortress, still dressed in their Easter finery. He worked them hard, until most died of exhaustion. Months later, when the job was finally done, Vlad’s reward for the few survivors, now skeletal figures clad in tattered rags, was to impale them. That was just the start of The Impaler’s passion for impalement. To solidify his rule, Vlad systematically exterminated the aristocratic class that had given his family so much trouble. Impalement was his preferred method to deal with them and anybody else who angered him.
He also warred against the Ottomans. Sultan Mehmed II the Conqueror, who had seized Constantinople and extinguished the Middle Ages Byzantine Empire a few years earlier, sent a force of 10,000 cavalrymen to deal with him. Vlad ambushed and defeated them, then impaled the survivors, with their leader mounted on the highest stake. In 1462, the Sultan led an army of 90,000 against The Impaler. As they approached Vlad’s capital, the Ottomans met no resistance. Instead, the road was lined with 20,000 impaled Turks and Muslim Bulgarians. The horrific sight was enough to spook the Sultan, who promptly turned around and went back home.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading