It is a fact that the medieval European economy was largely agrarian. The physical structure of the this economy was largely defined by the 'manor', literally a large house belonging to a feudal lord, but also his holdings and the surrounding fields and village. What follows is a description the general topographical outlines of a manor so far as it is a economical system, what goods and foodstuffs were produced, how both male and female labor was organized, and how people were compensated for their labor by the lord.
The Manse and Surrounding Fields
The village was usually located some distance away from the manor itself was made up of contiguous parcels of land called manses. The manse was an enclosure, solidly rooted to its site by a permanent barrier such as a palisade or a living hedge, carefully maintained. All the people in a farmer's family, his possessions, animals, and food were kept here. The usually small-to-medium sized family lived in a house at the center of each manse. Most houses apparently had small, fenced-in gardens called "tofts" around the house to grow vegetables and other small, subsistance products. By proximity alone the site of peasant settlement fertilized itself: household waste and the domestic animals that loitered both inside and on the doorstep of the house were sufficient to establish a permanent condition of fertility around the dwelling. Outside an individual house but within the manse, there lay the property of the lord that everyone used (for a fee) such as the oven or mill. The church was usually located here as well, for the convenience of all.
The fields were the next ring out from the house (after the toft and immediate land, a sort of precursor to the "yard
"). Medieval manses practiced the three-field system
, in which the land was divided into three sections. Each year, one would lay fallow
, one would have winter wheat
, and the last would have summer crops
. They would alternate each year in order to replenish the soil in the natural nitrogen cycle
, as well maintain activity on some part of the land all year. There was also a "common field
" outside of an individual manse, where the animals of many families grazed with one another. Where the cultivated fields ended, wooded or otherwise wild lands began. Regardless of whether this was actually wooded, it was usually referred to as the King's Forest
, so called because this land was reserved for his majesty's hunts. The wood may have belonged to the king, but it was more likely inhabited by bandits
, deer, and wolves
. Do not shoot the deer
. This was usually severely punished, and was sometimes treated as a capital crime
. The woods were also sometimes inhabited by sheep
, and horse
s that had been released. And, of course, wild boar.
Goods and Foodstuffs
Very little is known for sure about the diet of the medieval peasant. We know that some of them had sheep, cows, pigs, horses (though I don’t think they ate those), and chickens. From these, they could get wool, milk, eggs, and if the animal wasn't extremely important alive, meat. Monks and lay brothers ate a lot of grain on monasteries, and nobles drank a lot of wine. Commoners probably ate some grain, but very little wine. Grapes were hard to grow in many places of Europe and wine had to be imported or traded for at great expense. It was a luxury the serfs could not afford. Bread, at least, was probably a staple for everyone, and the peasants somtimes fed their animals bread as well, or hay. However, the bread was not whole wheat, but made from barley and oats. Meat was desirable, as a good accompaniment to bread, but a rare thing. They also had porridge, and drank a lot of beer. In fact, beer was one of the commonest drinks, especially in Germany and England. This actually might sound like the peasants are producing a veritable cornucopeia, but it was all very subsistent. Little more was produced than was eaten, and much went to the lord. Georges Duby comments:
"When the scraps of food remaining to them after the demands of their masters had been exhausted, the yearly nightmare of hand-to-mouth existence began, and the pangs of hunger had to be stilled by devouring garden herbs and forest berries and by begging bred at the gates of the rich. At such moments the threat of starvation over-shadowed the whole village world."
Division of Labor on the Manor
Peasant men spent most of their time in the fields." They also hunted in the wood (though not the king’s deer, obviously) where "river, marsh, forest, and thicket offered to whoever could take advantage of them, fish, game, honey, and many other edible substances in generous measure." Women, on the other hand, had babies, and that took up a lot of time. They tended the toft gardens, and took care of the kids, and wove and died cloth for clothing, and fed the chickens, and sometimes worked in vineyards on the occassion that the manse was located in a suitable climate. The Lord’s house (the manor itself) had a gymnaeceum, or women’s workshop, where all of that was done for the Lord’s house, by peasant wives of course. I don’t suppose that Mrs. Lord did much laundry.
For the lord, then, the peasants paid annual fees, tithed goods and foodstuffs, as well as devoted time to working solely for the lord's benefit. What compensation did they receive? Very little. In many ways, the feudal system resembles a protection racket. The Lord had a standing army (or a gang of thugs, depending on the size and value of his holdings), with which he defended the peasants from marauding knights or rival lords. However, the peasants also paid for protection from their own lord, for if they didn't pay the correct tithes and fees, bad things hapened to them. In many ways, the lord were the peasants' police, judge and jury because the king was too far off to have much of an effect.
Source: Georges Duby, Rural Economy and Country Life in the Medieval West, (London: Edward Arnold, 1968)