Friday, June 1, 2012

Peasants

"Free"dom isn't "free"

Before discussing the first "Occupy" movement--the Peasants' Revolt of 1381--I thought I would first briefly address the topic of peasants.

One unexpected facet to life as a peasant in Medieval England was that you could be either free or unfree. There were, in fact, several levels of "free"dom represented by various terms:
  • sokeman
  • villan/villein
  • bordar
  • cottar/cottager
  • slave
Being "free" had disadvantages as well as benefits. The unfree peasant was tied to a lord and that lord's domains. His fate and his family's was bound to that place, and he worked for the lord. The benefit, however, was that he had a place to live, and the lord was obligated to make sure his tenants thrived (or else he would lose his workforce).

You could free yourself by marrying a freeman, or else by running away and living elsewhere for a year without being discovered and dragged back (and likely punished with fines, etc.). Finding employment as a runaway peasant wasn't that easy, however.

Something curious arises from a study of inheritance records: medieval English peasants often had saved sufficient funds to purchase their freedom; purchasing their freedom is rare, however, as evidenced by how much money they leave to their inheritors. Why would this be?

The free peasant could rent land from a lord, or purchase and work his own land; his obligations to the lord (in the form of taxes/tithes) was less than that of the unfree peasant. The freeman could uproot and travel to greener pastures, if they were available. The lord, however, had no obligation to take pity on the freeman if the harvest was bad. Being free meant being free to sink or swim on your own. The unfree peasant had stable expectations for what he owed the lord that did not change from year to year and could be planned for. The lord could raise the rent on the freeman, if he felt like it. The unfree peasant was a dependent on whom the lord himself depended for labor. This symbiotic relationship lasted for centuries, until thrown off-kilter by the Bubonic Plague.

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