Introductory Note: The “Get Medieval” series explores the historical world of the middle ages in Europe, particularly in the 13th and 14th centuries in England, as a potential source for inspiration in D&D and other fantasy role playing games. Though the worlds of fantasy obviously differ in many regards from the “real” Middle Ages, the genre clearly owes a great imaginative debt to the period. Understanding the medieval world can lead to a richer and more nuanced game setting and can provide the kind of detail and insight that make encounters and description stand out. The author of this series, Wallace Cleaves, has taught medieval, Renaissance and Classical literature at a number of universities and still strives to reconcile the realms of fantasy with the historical medieval world.
The Village in the Middle Ages: Economy and Society in 13th and 14th Century England
Two competing visions of the medieval village are usually found in the layman’s mind, as well as throughout the genres of fantasy literature and gaming. The first is a William Morris utopia of social equality and natural harmony; the second, a Python-esque vision of mud-eating, oppressed proto-communists. Neither of these versions comes close to the complex and fascinating truth of the community in which over 95% of those living in late medieval England spent their lives.
The village is a vital space in fantasy literature and role playing. Many characters come from villages, eager to break away from the stifling responsibilities of farm life. It can be quite helpful to know exactly what a character is escaping from and what he or she left behind. Innumerable adventures call upon the party to save some poor downtrodden village from being destroyed/subjugated/oppressed by bandits/hordes/giants, but what exactly are they saving? It is hard to imagine a campaign in which a party doesn’t regularly visit or at least pass through a village. A good game master should at least have an idea of what might be there for the purpose of evocative description, and with a little knowledge, a whole host of possible motivations and conflicts for generating adventures becomes apparent.
Map of a Typical Late Medieval Village
Economy and Social Structure
First, it may be helpful to understand a few peculiarities of medieval measurement and demographics that help explain the form and function of the medieval village. Starting with the purpose of the village, which was essentially to be a farming community that produced food (and to a lesser extent raw materials in general), it is vital to know how much land it took to actually feed people.
Land Measurements and Population
The basis of the village economy was, not surprisingly, the amount of land that it took to feed a family. This unit of measurement was known as the Virgate (or Yardland) and it represented an area of about 30 acres, usually as a share of a communal field. The virgate could generate enough food to feed 5 to 7 people, essentially one family. The next unit of measurement was the Hide, which took up an area of about 120 acres. That’s 4 virgates if you are keeping track. A hide of land could feed somewhat more than 25 people. The hide is the unit of measurement that whole manors and noble holdings tend to be measured in, while the virgate is the unit that the peasants think of in terms of their own holdings.
|Common Land Measurements & Output|
|1 Virgate = 30 Acres (feeds 5-7),|
|4 Virgates = 1 Hide =120 Acres (feeds 25-30)|
|5.25 Hides = 1 Square Mile (feeds 125 people)|
To think in larger terms, a square mile comprises 640 acres or 5.25 hides. That area can easily feed 125 people if the land is arable. In fact, those numbers are a bit conservative since not all land is equally bountiful, nor is all land likely to be under cultivation. Still, if you assume 125 people to a square mile of arable land, you’ll have a very reasonable approximation of demographic patterns in the medieval period. It may also be worth noting that the Middle Ages (contrary to popular belief) saw significant developments in agricultural technology, particularly in plow and collar innovation, so that number might be lower in areas approximating Dark Age or Classical technology.
The average population of a village is surprisingly hard to estimate, given that peasants tended to generate little documentation and even tax rolls are only marginally useful in determining reliable numbers. Most villages probably averaged around 250 to 300 residents, though certainly much smaller and significantly larger population centers might be described as villages as well. At the bottom end of the scale a village would need to comprise at least a few distinct households. About 25 people on a hide of land would be a reasonable bare minimum. At the other end of the spectrum, villages could become quite large and in densely populated regions might merge together. Still, there were practical limitations on how large villages could become as increasing size led to greater commuting distance from the communal fields; hence, smaller villages would likely be far more common and efficient. A village of 500 people would be large but not at all unheard-of and that total might even be doubled before the settlement truly began to qualify as a town.
Still, for the sake of illustration, let’s imagine a village contains, on average, about 250 people. That would likely take up just over 10 hides of land or 2 square miles. There would probably be between 50 and 75 households in such a village and perhaps 100 structures.
To bring this up to scale, so we can glimpse just how many villages would appear in a kingdom, let’s imagine a base area of 10,000 square miles (a region about the size of Vermont or Maryland) that has a population of 1 million people. That’s a bit less than would be indicated by the prior stat of 125 people per square mile, but not all of that region would likely be habitable. In a population of 1 million people, 95% of whom would be villagers, there would be about 3,800 villages. For purposes of comparison, by 1300 England had a population of about 4.5 million, France had 21 million and the area that would become Germany had about 14 million. (These numbers are subject to substantial debate, but these estimates are from the middle of the pack and supported by solid scholarship, see -Rosener, Peasants in the Middle Ages, p. 34.)
|Typical Medieval Village Stats|
|250 People, 75 Households, 100 Buildings, 2 Square Miles|
|or – 10.5 Hides of land, or 42 Virgates|
The Village Itself
It is important to recognize that the village, as thought of by inhabitants, took in quite a bit more than just the houses in which the peasants lived. Villages had many possible configurations, but a relatively standard format began to appear by the fourteenth century throughout much of Western Europe. The village usually included a central street or two lined by the homes of the peasants. Both the arrangement of structures and paths were often fairly haphazard and determined by use, but some enterprising villages did attempt to regulate and rationalize the layout of the village center. The homes themselves were small cruck-built wattle-and-daub halls, often home to both people and livestock.
Behind the house might be a barn, and certainly a small, often fenced-in garden that was privately farmed. The land immediately surrounding a house might also be fenced in to delineate private space. At one end of the village would be the manor house, a more substantial set of buildings forming a compound for the lord and his retainers. There would also be a church with a parson’s house, and the adjacent glebe lands, worked by the village priest. A village green would often be set aside nearby for gatherings and as a common pasture.
There would also likely be a mill and its attendant pond. The pond was home to fish and much sought after reeds, used for construction. The mill had a monopoly on the grinding of grain, and charged a fee on all grain that passed between the millstones. It also made money off the tolls charged for crossing the river by means of its bridge. The town bakeries, often near the manor also held a monopoly on the baking of bread, and charged for the privilege.
The village was much more than just these buildings, though. The fields surrounding it were as much a part of the community as were the individual homes or the parish church. The surrounding land would be divided into 2 or 3 separate fields, one of which was left fallow every year. On the 2-field system, half the remaining field was planted with spring crops (peas, beans, oats and barley), and the other half with winter crops (mainly wheat). Villages that used the 3-field system split the 2 non-fallow fields among the spring and winter crops. The fields would be plowed and farmed communally as activities like plowing and harvesting had to be carefully coordinated. (Perhaps there was something to those Monty Python bits about socialist peasants, after all!) Peasants who did not conform could find their crops trampled or eaten by gleaning herd animals.
|(Source: Peter Blickle, Obedient Germans? A Rebuttal: A New View of German History. Translated by Thomas A. Brady Jr. Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 1997, p. 13.)|
Other potentially vital features of the landscape existed, depending on the local region. For instance, nearby areas of waste land, such as a local marsh, might provide useful building materials such as reeds. Many villages would have a nearby area of light, moderately cultivated forest that would serve as the Lord’s woods. Peasants paid a steep price to cut timber from the woods, and to graze their pigs on the acorns found there. A great deal of open pasture was also held by the village for the grazing of the animals and for the production of hay. Because these outlying regions were important to the survival of the village, they were jealously safeguarded.
So, now that you know the basic facts of medieval agriculture, let’s move on to the social structure of the village. One of the most mis-represented aspects of village peasant life is the conception of the village as a static and egalitarian society. There is also a standard misconception that the greatest difference in social standing for the peasantry hinged on their status as either “free” or “villein.” (“Villein” refers to those bound to the manor, owing substantial labor services to the local lord.) The truth is that wide variations in social status existed among individuals, who had to navigate a bewildering array of social markers and signs.
Often a village elite dominated both the political and economic life of the village, and a substantial underclass was perhaps even encouraged in order to provide the necessary pool of cheap day labor necessary for the harvest. What largely set the elite of the village apart was not their status as free men (indeed, the majority were often villeins), but rather their “ownership” of land. Of course all the land was theoretically the property of the local lord, but traditional inheritance of fixed money and labor “rents” for a family’s land had become a long accepted tradition by the fourteenth century–the period of time that best represents what people think of as medieval. Land was the key factor in determining wealth, and a peasant would eagerly grasp at the chance to get more of it under his control (or her control!–women often made land purchases and sales). This could happen even at the cost of losing “free” status, as it was the particular holding that was rated as “villein” and thus placed its owner under such obligations. The land market was very active, and was only loosely regulated by the lord (whose land it truly was), usually by the application of traditional “fines” for the sale.
At the top of the heap were the large landholders, practically lords in and of themselves. They might own a hide of land (roughly 120 acres), portions of which they would in turn rent out to other peasants. Almost all of these wealthy landholders were free, and lived on the cusp of gentrification. They might even aspire to marry into the local aristocracy. Not all villages had such individuals (they would comprise less than 5% of the village population), and where they existed they more closely resembled secondary manorial holdings in their own right.
Among the more standard villagers, the cream of the crop were the Virgaters, those holding upwards of 30 acres of land, and making up about 20% of the village population. This amount of land provided enough revenue in a good year to live comfortably and even save for the future. Only about a fifth of Virgaters were free, and those who were not owed substantial labor services: two days or more a week, plus almost all their time at harvest. Still, they earned enough for modest, relative affluence; their families were unlikely to starve, even in famine years. Virgaters might hope to buy more land, or remit their services with their surplus. They also held most of the important local government positions.
Below these families were those of the Half-Virgaters (holding around 15 to 20 acres); about a quarter of the village populace fell into this category. Half-Virgaters could be expected to turn a very modest profit in a good year, and break even in a bad one. As with full Virgaters, about one-in-five of the Half-Virgaters were free, but even those who weren’t free owed only half the labor obligations, just as they owned half the amount of land. Half-Virgaters could rarely save enough to hope to improve their conditions unless they practiced a trade on the side, or were very industrious with their free time on the labor market.
Another step down the scale were the Quarter Virgaters, with 8-12 acres of land (the name being only an approximation). Quarter-Virgaters made up a relatively small class of about 10% of the population. They would just break even in a good year, and would often have to supplement their income with labor. A little over half of these peasants were of free status, though almost all would willingly take on villein status if it meant more land. Quarter-Virgaters only owed a half-day every week, but would also be expected to work the lord’s harvest. Their rents were often higher per acre than those of the Half-Virgater or Virgater.
Finally, at the bottom of the village social scale, were the Smallholders, each owning less than 5 acres and often no land aside from a small garden behind a house. Smallholders comprised 40% of the village population, representing its largest class of resident. Smallholders owed very minimal labor services (two-thirds were free), but would have to spend most of their time working for others to make ends meet. Many of these Smallholders were also craftsmen: smiths, plowmen, carpenters, and other skilled tradesmen of the village. As such, they might be respected members of the community, but in an agrarian economy, land was the true signifier of wealth.
There were many other subdivisions and local categories, but this overview gives a rough approximation of the various levels of status within the peasant community, and a general notion of the economy of the village.
|Standard Village Demographics(for a village of 250 people)|
|1 gentry family holding a hide (120 acres) of land (5 people)|
|10 Virgaters holding a virgate (30-40 acers ) of land (50 people)|
|14 Half Virgaters holding a half virgate (15-20 acres) of land (70 people)|
|5 Quarter Virgaters holding a quarter virgate (8-12 acres) of land (25 people)|
|20 Smallholders with less than 5acres of land (100 people)|
Government and the Lord
Of course all of these varied strata of the peasantry were still the tenants of the lord. The Manorial economy (to give the system its correct appellation) was designed to create wealth for the lord, and it did that job well. All villages and the land within them were owned by some manner of lord, whether sacred or secular, the king or a minor knight. Some villages were split into two holdings, owned by separate lords, and some manors served as the center of more than one village. However, the standard pattern was for a coterminous village and manor, held by a single lord (who might well own other manors).
For the most part the lord stayed out of village affairs, letting villagers run themselves while collecting incomes from their lands. The lord’s income came not only from the rents and fees the villagers owed, but also from the Demesne lands held directly by the lord. The demesne comprised around a third of the farmland in the village, divided among the strips in the common fields. It was worked both by a domestic staff, known as the famuli, and by the villagers in payment of their labor services. Some lords did try their hand at agricultural micromanagment, with mixed success, but the standard formula was to leave much of this work to a series of officeholders who ran the day to day economic machinery of the village.
At the top of the lord’s staff was the Steward or Seneschal, possibly a minor knight or a cleric if the village was held by the church. These officials were more often seen on the estates of great magnates who held many villages, visiting the individual holdings two or three times a year to check up on things. On the singular manor holding of a knight there might be no seneschal at all, or merely a designated relative who looked after affairs while the lord was away.
All villages would have a Bailiff, hired from among the lower gentry or the rich peasantry. When the lord was absentee he would live in and use the manor house, and acted in the lord’s steed as chief officer of the law in the hall. It was the Bailiff who managed the day to day running of the manor, making sure the lord’s property was looked after and that order was kept in the village. For this he was paid 20 shillings or more a year (250 crowns), and given room, board, and a host of perks.
The Reeve was the official closest to the peasants, usually elected by them, and was always a villein. His main responsibility was to see that the work obligations of the villagers were carried out, and that the lord’s Demesne fields were cared for. He would also see to the lord’s livestock and to the collection of rents. For these services he was forgiven his own labor services, and it was not uncommon for him to turn a greater profit by fudging accounts and taking advantage of labor duties.
The Peasant’s Life
Peasants lived in small nuclear families: a husband and wife and their young children. The myth of extended peasant families is just that, a myth. Older parents might “retire” in favor of their heirs, but their children would usually live in a separate house. Despite the frequency of intermarriage and close contact, loyalty was to one’s own immediate kin, not to an extended kinship group. Sons would generally inherit a father’s land, though which son depended on the region. Lands were not normally broken or divided, as the resulting fractions could not provide a living. Non-inheriting sons must either hope their fathers could buy them a parcel of land, or else join the ranks of the itinerant day laborers, or else find a profession. When a man inherited his father’s lands he was required to pay heriot, his best animal or possession, to the lord and might have to rebuild the family’s house.
Children were cared for and, despite much spurious literature to the contrary, were well loved. They were given tasks and chores, but these were commensurate to their abilities, and there was plenty of time for play. Young men helped their fathers in the fields, as young women helped with the household tasks (though women did work in the fields as well, especially during harvest time). Youths courted and married with a surprising degree of freedom and self-initiative, setting up their own homes as soon as they were able to provide for a family. When a villein woman married she or her father had to pay a fee called merchet to the lord for the privilege. The fee was initially burdensome but a sixth century papal decree fixed the sum at no more than one Solidus–and less if the bride’s family were poor.
Work varied throughout the year, but there was a steady parade of chores to perform year-round.
Starting in January, the peasants would mend homes and fences or walls, make or repair vital tools and take care of the household. In February this work might continue and be supplemented with the collection of manure and marl (basically a lime rich mud that was laboriously dug out of pits) to be spread as fertilizer through the fields. In March, the plowing of the fields began at about at the rate of half an acre a day for a plow team. This team was made up of either oxen or, later on with the development of the horse collar, horses pulling a heavy wheeled plow. Plowing prepared the fields for planting and kept down the weeds.
In April the sowing of spring crops would commence followed by harrowing, the use of a tool called a harrow to pull weeds, break up clods of earth and cover the planted seeds. In May the fallow fields would be plowed to prepare them for next year’s crop, and sunnier weather would also make palatable other outdoor chores like digging ditches for drainage. June saw a second plowing of the fallow fields and haymaking in the pastures. Sheep would also be sheared and their valuable wool collected for local production or for sale at regional trade fares. July saw a continuation of the previous month’s chores along with a weeding of crops.
At harvest, from August to September, the peasant labored constantly to bring the crop in, first for the lord, and then for himself. In later September the threshing of the grain crops would begin and fruit would be picked and stored or dried and the trees would be pruned. As always, there was also more plowing to be done. October generally saw the last plowing of the year and the collection from the woods of nuts, roots, berries and even acorns to feed the pigs. Empty fields might also be sown with winter wheat.
As winter approached, the peasants could find some leisure time, and have a chance to do repairs to the house in preparation for the coming storms. They might get some meat in their diet at this time as well, for animals for which there would not be enough fodder were slaughtered in November and December. The feast days and celebrations of Christmas also led a festive atmosphere at this time.
For a more detailed account of the medieval calendar year, see this article.
Religion and Recreation
Every village had a church and parson, either within its bounds, or nearby. Religion played a major role in a peasant’s life at all stages, though it could sometimes be surprisingly informal. Recreation consisted of various sports often played on Sundays after church, and often in the churchyard (much to the dismay of medieval moralists). Ball games were popular, as were archery and a variety of rough games of skill and chance. Food and drink were the most significant forms of celebration. The feast days of various saints gave license to indulge in culinary pleasures. Ale was a significant nutritional factor for the medieval villager, and the brewing of it a major economic enterprise. Male ale testers regulated the craft, but it was women who brewed it and controlled the industry. When a batch was done, a peasant’s home would temporarily be turned into a kind of impromptu tavern for the duration.
The late medieval village was the central social model and experience for the vast majority of the population. Its simple rhythms belied the complex and stratified social relationships within, and also the multifaceted relationships between its members. To recreate a medieval setting for a game, it is centrally important to understand the village–its most basic feature of the world experience. Know the village, and you will know what life was like for the vast majority of the people in the medieval world.
Table of Standard Peasant Holding Data in Medieval England of the 14th Century
Note on Currency: The Gold Piece (gp.) and Silver Piece (sp.) are used here as the basic unit of monetary measurement, but this is only a gross approximation as the economy of D&D is not terribly medieval (or even rational, but that is a subject for another column). Still, 2 sp. is given as the average wages for an unskilled laborer, and that is close to the relatively standard wage of 2 pence (confusingly abbreviated as d. for denarius–a Roman standard currency unit–in medieval price lists) for much of the thirteenth and fourteenth century in England.
Holding Size: Though this is the amount of land the peasant holds, only half to a third of the land may be worked in a single course because of crop rotation. The Cotlander and the holder of Quarter Virgate are often lumped together and are quite similar in status, but are shown here to accentuate the numerous degrees of peasant status as they straddle the break-even point.
Production: As is standard, this is given in quarters (290 litters) of grain, and represents a variety of crops planted: wheat (35% of crop), barley (50% of crop), peas (10% of crop) and oats (5% of crop). This is calculated after the tithe (of 1/10th) and some waste before threshing.
Consumption: This figures in both the seed required to set up next year’s crops and the amount the family requires for its own sustenance. A bit more than a fifth is required to re-seed. A peasant family requires about 10 qr. of grain for food, drink, and mill tolls for the grinding of it. The rate of food consumption is figured for an “average” family of five: a father, a mother, and three children of various ages. Ten quarters of grain are necessary for a decent diet, but bare subsistence could be achieved by around 8 quarters.
Remainder: This indicates the amount of surplus grain the farmer will be able to sell on the market; the number here may actually represent a deficit. If a peasant family is unable to supply their needs by their own land, they will have to make up the difference by laboring for pay and buying someone else’s surplus.
Value: This is calculated at a rate of 50 silver pieces per quarter. This is an average of wheat (72 sp.), barley (52 sp.), peas (32 sp.) and oats (33 sp.) per quarter.
Livestock: A peasant’s sheep, pigs, cattle, horses, oxen and poultry could often mean the difference between a comfortable year and starvation. This figure represents the sale of surplus dairy, meat and other animal products. This could easily be used to offset a dietary or financial deficit.
Rent: Lords require payment of cash or kind rents in addition to labor services, and there are a variety of fees and tariffs also included in this figure. Large land holdings are actually more economical for the peasant in terms of rent; a Virgater would pay substantially less per acre than a Smallholder would.
Profit: This is quite simply the amount of money (or often resources) which the peasant could generally hope to recover in a year. With this he would hope to save some actual coin to weather potential disasters, use some for luxuries, pay any fines or dues for particular events (like merchet for a daughters marriage, or heriot for the inheritance of the holding), and perhaps eventually expand his holdings. In many cases this column represents a deficit, in which case it indicates how much a peasant would have to work as a laborer in order to make ends meet. In such a community, opportunities for labor are readily available at a rate of around 2 Crowns a day.
Labor Duties: Villein or unfree peasants owe labor service to their lord, usually in addition to their cash rents. Free peasants may not owe any labor services, or only half that of their equivalent unfree neighbors. These are presented as an annual average of days per week. In reality, the peasant would see this service dramatically increase around the harvest, doubling or even tripling his duties. It is also standard that a meal be provided for those who work a full day in the lord’s service, or else their obligation is cut to a half a day.
The Village in the Vault – How the Fantastic World of D&D Might Alter the Village
The villages of the Vault differ from the standard model depicted above in a few ways. Many areas of the Vault are more heavily urbanized than medieval England was, with about 10% of the population living in cities and perhaps another 10% in towns. This is partly because the higher level of danger in the form of monsters and other external threats tends to cause people to cluster for protection in more fortified settlements and partly due to the fact that magic makes a more advanced economy possible and lessens the reliance upon agriculture, allowing more people to pursue craft and mercantile occupations.
Still, the experience of village life for the majority of the inhabitants of the Vault (or at least the human inhabitants) is much the same as that of the medieval European villager, and the manorial system is by far the most common social model. The internal stratification of village society exists, though Virgaters and Half-Virgaters are perhaps a bit more common, replacing portions of the Cotlander and Smallholder percentages, due to the availability of unclaimed land. Despite the seeming availability of vast tracts of unworked lands, the dangerous animals and unstable political conditions tend to force villages into more heavily settled areas.
Free peasants are much more common in regions of Moric culture, often owing rents or tithes but rarely tied to the land by legal bonds. Villeinage is quite common in many other regions, as are even more brutal forms of bondage such as outright slavery. Because the world of the Vault is so large and diverse a great number of differing social systems can be found, especially among the non-human races, but the manorial system is still a recognizably standard pattern for advanced, stable cultures and economies. The manorial system provides a relatively stable and productive framework that enables an elite class to flourish in a largely agricultural and agrarian economy without creating too great a strain on the lower orders. It efficiently produces and distributes food and labor and it promulgates strong group social bonds.
Another significant change is wrought by the wide variety of crops available to peasants in the Vault. Most important among these are maize and potatoes. Maize, or corn, provides a very high yield to seed ratio, and dramatically increases the availability of animal fodder, for which it is mostly used. Potatoes are grown in peasants’ vegetable gardens, and are used as a crop in many hilly and otherwise uncultivable regions.
All this means that while Vault peasants share much in common with their medieval European counterparts, they will generally have a slightly higher quality of life, a bit more meat in their diet, and less of a chance of succumbing to famine. On the other hand, political instability and dangerous fauna make things a bit more treacherous for the villager in the Vault, so it’s a bit of a tradeoff.
Life in a Medieval Village by Frances and Joseph Gies: This book is part of a truly fantastic series of texts that accurately and simply depict the medieval environment. Using the sample village of Elton, the pair recreate the medieval world with loving care. It is chock full of useful information and detail, yet is both readable and enjoyable. A must-read for anyone interested in learning about how things really worked in the Middle Ages.
Standards of Living in the Later Middle Ages: Social Change in England.1200-1520 by Christopher Dyer: This book is a masterwork by a the master social historian. The text is at the opposite end of the spectrum from the Gies’ work, filled with graphs, charts, statistics and economic analysis. Still, for all that, it is surprisingly readable and unbelievably informative. A must-read for the serious medieval scholar.
(Note: Graham Robert Scott has created a village called Mistmill in response to this article.) †