What Did Peasants Do In The Middle Ages?

What Did Peasants Do In The Middle Ages?

The Middle Ages, spanning roughly from the 5th to the 15th centuries, were defined by socioeconomic hierarchies, with peasants making up the majority of the population in medieval Europe. Here we dive into what the life of a medieval peasant entailed, focusing on their work, leisure time, and overall lifestyle.

The Life of a Medieval Peasant

In the Middle Ages, the term “peasant” referred to individuals who lived in rural areas and whose lives were primarily defined by agricultural work. Unlike the nobility and clergy, they were not afforded the luxuries of wealth or status, and their lives revolved around the land they cultivated. The daily routine of a peasant varied depending on the time of year and their specific roles within their community.

The Paradox of Medieval Peasant Work Hours

Contrary to modern belief, medieval peasants worked less than we do today. A study by Juliet B. Schor, author of “The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure,” suggests that medieval peasants may have worked as little as 150 days a year. This estimate includes not just the time spent in fields but also in other activities, such as building houses and making tools.

Roles and Jobs of Medieval Peasants

Medieval jobs for peasants primarily consisted of farming and animal husbandry. However, their work was wider than these roles. Peasants also functioned as carpenters, blacksmiths, millers, and brewers, providing essential services to their communities. The type of work a peasant did could often be determined by their status, with wealthier peasants, known as villeins, often owning their land and having greater autonomy over their work.


The bulk of a peasant’s work was tied to the land. They planted and harvested crops, tended to animals, and managed the overall upkeep of the fields. A typical peasant’s diet was made up of the produce they grew: vegetables, grains, and legumes, supplemented by dairy products and occasional meat.

Crafts and Services

When not toiling in the fields, peasants might be found engaged in various crafts or providing services essential to the community. The blacksmith crafted tools, the miller ground grains into flour, and the carpenter built houses and furniture. These jobs required specialized skills, making those who held them valuable members of their community.

What Kinds of Work Did Peasants Do on the Manor?

A medieval manor was a self-sufficient entity, and the work done by peasants on it was essential to its functioning. The manor’s lands were divided into three main parts: the lord’s demesne, the peasants’ strips of land, and common grounds. Each of these areas required different types of work from the peasants.

The lord’s demesne was a portion of land peasants worked on as part of their feudal obligation. This labor included plowing, sowing, weeding, and harvesting the crops. The yield from the demesne went directly to the lord and his household. The types of crops grown varied according to the region but generally included cereals like wheat, rye, barley, and oats.

Peasants also cultivated strips of land allotted to them. Here they grew a mix of crops for consumption and to sell or barter within the community. Caring for these plots entailed similar duties as those on the demesne.

Livestock was another significant part of the manor’s economy. Peasants raised animals like cows, sheep, and pigs, ensuring a supply of dairy products, wool, and meat. They also maintained the pastures and meadows on the common lands where livestock grazed.

In addition to these agricultural tasks, peasants performed various other duties around the manor. These included maintaining buildings and infrastructure, chopping firewood, and tending the lord’s gardens. Skills like blacksmithing, carpentry, and milling were also crucial to the manor’s functioning.

Moreover, some peasants specialized in particular crafts or trades. For example, a cooper would make barrels; a tanner would process hides, and a weaver would make cloth. These specialists provided essential goods and services, contributing to the manor’s self-sufficiency.

So, while the primary job of peasants was agricultural labor, the variety of tasks they performed was wide, reflecting the complexity of medieval manor life and the crucial role peasants played within it.

What Did Peasants Get in Return for Their Work? 

In the feudal system of the Middle Ages, peasants, serfs, and villeins formed the lowest social class, laboring on lands owned by lords. In return for their work, peasants received protection, the right to cultivate certain plots of land and a share of the produce.

Protection was the primary incentive for peasants to submit to the authority of a local lord. Given the instability and threats from Viking invasions, banditry, and warfare, a noble’s fortified manor or castle offered a measure of security. Lords were expected to defend their tenants, ensuring their physical safety.

Peasants were also given the right to work on a portion of the land, known as a tenant farm. The crops they grew were divided between their sustenance, dues to the lord, and seeds for the following season. They also had access to common lands to gather firewood, graze livestock, and forage for food.

Despite the challenging conditions, the feudal arrangement provided peasants with a degree of economic security. The yield from their farming efforts and access to shared resources enabled them to sustain themselves and their families. Thus, while the life of a peasant in the Middle Ages was far from easy, their work on the land guaranteed them shelter, sustenance, and relative stability within the constraints of feudal society.

Medieval Peasant Vacation Time: Work and Leisure

Peasant life wasn’t all work and no play. During the Middle Ages, peasants had days off, known as “holy days” or holidays. These were usually tied to religious celebrations and could number up to 80-90 days per year, including Sundays. Additionally, the workload of peasants was lighter in winter when fields lay fallow. This could be considered a form of vacation time, as it allowed peasants some respite from their rigorous routines.

Feasts and Festivals

Feasts and festivals were common during holidays and after the harvest. These were times for relaxation, merriment, and communal bonding. They involved dancing, games, and an abundance of food. During these times, the hard work of the preceding days was momentarily forgotten in favor of celebration.

Winter Activities

Peasants had more leisure time in the winter months when the fields were at rest. They engaged in communal activities like storytelling, playing games, and crafting household goods. Though winter could be harsh, it also brought respite from the demanding agricultural work.

What Did Peasants Wear? 

Clothing in the Middle Ages, as with many aspects of life, was greatly determined by one’s social status. Peasants at the lower end of the social hierarchy typically wore simple, functional garments made from coarse, locally sourced materials.

The primary garment for both men and women peasants was a tunic. Men’s tunics fell to their knees while women’s extended to the ground. Tunics were often dyed in dull colors like brown or gray, primarily due to the cheaper and readily available natural dyes. A sturdy belt was typically worn to secure the tunic at the waist.

Peasant men also wore hose, a type of tight-fitting trousers, along with simple leather shoes or boots. Women wore long dresses, often with an additional apron-like garment to protect their clothing while working.

Clothing for the head varied with the task and weather. Men might wear a coif or hood, while women often covered their hair with veils, wimples, or scarves. During winter, cloaks or shawls provided extra warmth.

Peasant clothing was primarily functional, designed for durability and comfort during long hours of physical labor. Despite their simplicity, these garments were crucial in protecting peasants from the elements during their daily toils.

What Did Peasants Eat? 

The diet of medieval peasants was humble but nutritionally balanced, primarily based on grains, vegetables, and dairy products. The bread was a staple food made from barley, oats, or rye. Wheat was considered a luxury, reserved mostly for the upper classes.

Vegetables such as cabbages, onions, leeks, and carrots were commonly consumed, either boiled or used in pottage, a type of thick stew that was a mainstay of the medieval peasant diet. Fruits like apples, pears, and berries were also part of their food intake, usually consumed fresh, dried, or turned into preserves.

Protein came from legumes like peas and beans, dairy products like cheese and curd, and occasionally meat. Peasants often kept chickens for eggs, pigs for pork, and cows for milk. However, meat was not a daily part of their diet and was usually reserved for special occasions or times of plenty. Fish was also consumed, especially during periods of religious fasting when meat was forbidden.

In terms of beverages, ale and cider were common since the water was often unsafe to drink. These were typically weak in alcohol content, making them suitable even for children.

Thus, the diet of medieval peasants, while simple, was varied and nutritionally dense, fueling their physically demanding lifestyle.


The life of a medieval peasant was undoubtedly challenging. Still, it was not a ceaseless grind of toil as often portrayed. The notion of medieval peasants working less is not a romanticization of their lifestyle but a reflection of a different socioeconomic structure, one that was dictated more by the seasons and religious observances than by a standardized workday.

The questions like “what do peasants do” or “what were the medieval jobs for peasants” show that beyond the field, they contributed to society through a range of roles and skills, from carpentry to brewing, forming the backbone of the medieval economy. While not considered ‘vacation’ in the modern sense, their leisure time allowed them to rest, celebrate, and engage in community activities, proving that even in the Middle Ages, life was not all about work.