Peasant Life

The Norman Conquest signalled the beginning of a new era in English history. William the Conqueror installed a new, French-speaking ruling class and asserted his authority across the land. For many members of the Anglo-Saxon nobility, life would never be the same again. But what about ordinary people? How did they live their lives during Norman times?

Peasant Life

To the Manor Born

Anglo-Norman England was a largely agricultural economy and life for most ordinary people revolved around a manor – an estate held by a nobleman who did military duty for the king in return for the use of the land. Aspects of the manorial system existed in Anglo-Saxon England but it became more established under William, who allocated hundreds of land parcels to trusted nobles in the wake of the Conquest.

The peasants who worked a nobleman's manor were divided into different strata. A villein was a higher class of peasant, who had the use of a few acres of estate land. In return for this land, he worked around three days a week in his master's fields. Bordars and cottars (cottagers) were lesser peasants, who had correspondingly less of their "own" land and who owed more of their time in bonded labour to their masters.

The Domesday Book, William's ambitious administrative review of the England of 1086, indicates that 10 per cent of the rural population were fully enslaved by their masters. This practice was discouraged by Norman landholders, who regarded slaves as a drain on their resources. Slavery began to die out and the self-supporting villeinage system took its place.

Fragile Harvests

Peasant farmers grew rye, wheat, oats, barley, peas and beans, using a crop rotation system that always had one third of the land lying fallow (unused), allowing it to recover its nutrients. Yields were relatively low by today's standards. If a harvest failed – and it might – starvation was a real threat. Severe frost, too much rain, not enough rain, wild fires and blight could spell disaster.

After a hard day in the fields, there wasn't much comfort on offer once you got home. A poorer English peasant lived in a one-roomed, timber-framed house with an earthen floor and walls of mud plastered on wattle (a lattice of wooden sticks). The construction was damp, draughty and always needed repairing. Cooking was done over an open fire and the family would be expected to share the house with their animals in winter. Peasants wore clothes of wool, flax (a rough linen) and animal skin. These garments were rarely changed.

A reasonably well-to-do villein might have a more substantial dwelling, perhaps with two rooms. Prosperous villeins could become reeves (overseers). A reeve enjoyed luxuries such as glazed pottery, oil lamps, candle holders, tablecloths and basic sanitation in the form of an outdoor, earth-closet toilet. Best of all, perhaps, his family could walk around on a timber floor.

On the Town

Although Anglo-Norman England was mainly rural, towns were beginning to appear: the Domesday Book lists 112. A century and a half later, there were double that number. Trade was the central activity of any town. All towns had markets and some specialised in a particular trade. The Worcestershire town of Droitwich, for example, developed because of salt deposits in the area.

Urban dwellers, known as burgesses, were often craftsmen, such as weavers, goldsmiths and leatherworkers, or tradesmen like bakers, butchers and fishmongers. They paid for their tenure with money rather than labour. A burgess's house was built on a narrow plot that ran off the high street. The plot usually had a kitchen garden and even some outbuildings.

Plain Fare

Ordinary people had a pretty basic diet of bread, beans, peas and root vegetables, supplemented with cheese, eggs and chicken. If times were good, fish or meat might be on the table. More prosperous families had access to butter, milk and honey: the Domesday Book reveals that beekeeping was widespread in Anglo-Norman England.

Naturally enough, Norman nobles missed their wine, so attempts were made to start vineyards in England. But the results were disappointing and the practice never caught on. Instead, wine was imported from France. Clean water could not be guaranteed, so most people, rich or poor, drank weak beer as the everyday beverage. They got through a lot of the stuff, too: an average monk's daily beer allowance was said to be a whopping three gallons (almost 14 litres)!