Historian Reconstructs Everyday Lives of Medieval Peasants

The stereotypes of peasant life in the Middle Ages are inaccurate and oversimplified, says Sherri Olson. Based on the careful study of centuries-old documents, she paints a different picture.

<p>Sherri Olson, associate professor of history, at her office in Wood Hall. Photo by Peter Morenus</p>
Sherri Olson, associate professor of history, at her office in Wood Hall. Photo by Peter Morenus

Try to imagine the life of a peasant during medieval times and you will likely envision a penniless farm laborer who, perpetually bound to the soil, enjoys no freedoms and suffers under the control of an unkind lord.

Yet such commonly held ideas represent an inaccurate, oversimplified picture of the Middle Ages and of the peasants who were the great majority of the population during the period from 300 to 1500 A.D., according to Sherri Olson, associate professor of history in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Negative depictions of medieval peasantry persist today, Olson says, in the popular understanding of history, in mainstream history textbooks, and even amongst some professional historians.

“There are all of these incredible stereotypes,” she says of medieval Europe, “that are as divorced from reality as it would be to say that the modern period – the ‘enlightened’ 21st century – is an age of perfection and progress, where we’re all equal, where there’s no more hunger, hardship, or warfare.”

Farming Villages

Exploring what daily life was really like for medieval peasants is part of what Olson strives to do through her research, which touches on medieval European rural society, agriculture, farming villages, peasant culture, and lord and peasant relations.

Through the study of archival documents, some of which have miraculously survived from as far back as the 13th century, Olson attempts to “reconstruct peasant mentality, their worldview, and climb into their shoes – or their wooden clogs – and walk around.”

Contrary to popular belief, for example, medieval peasants were not slaves, she says. Families were provided acreage that they farmed collectively alongside one another in common field villages, on interconnected plots of land owned by lords. Peasants typically paid rent for dwellings in the centers of these villages, cultivated their fields and harvested crops together, had the right to marry, and could pass the land they farmed on to their children, who were recognized as legitimate heirs.

Nor were peasants universally poverty-stricken. “If you were a peasant with plenty of acres, a nice bumper crop of sons and daughters to help you work it, and you had good luck and were a good farmer, you lived very well,” Olson says.

The peasantry also governed themselves, with individual villages across Europe regularly convening their own local courts, which Olson likens to a “modern-day police court, rolled in with a neighborhood crime watch organization.”

Here, peasants made and enforced their own laws and settled their private affairs, with fellow villagers as witnesses. Through a kind of “grassroots democracy,” Olson says, these local courts served as “a way of ensuring a predictable social life, day after day.”

Many local courts kept detailed records – called court rolls – that cataloged the court’s activities and key participants, many of whom are identified by name. It is surviving archival documents such as these that offer Olson an invaluable insider’s glimpse into the everyday lives of peasants.

“They weren’t nameless to the people making the records in the Middle Ages, and they don’t need to be nameless to you and me,” she says.

Deciphering the Records

Olson has pored over hundreds of court rolls and other documents, deciphering the manuscripts’ elaborate medieval Latin script and transcribing an estimated 1,000 pages’ worth of court roll records alone.

Through her books and many scholarly articles, Olson brings the villagers to life.

A collection of her essays about specific aspects of village culture, many of which resulted from years spent examining court rolls, is brought together in a recently published book, A Mute Gospel: The People and Culture of the Medieval English Common Fields (Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 2009).

Another book, Daily Life in a Medieval Monastery, is expected to be published later this year by Greenwood Press in the ‘Daily Life through History’ series.

“These people are just as complex as you or I, with their own lives, their own idiosyncrasies, their own limitations and failings,” she says. “Every person who’s come before us who is now dead and gone – they all made history, just like we make history.”

Her work, Olson says, requires a love of history and chronology, along with creativity, imagination and, ultimately, a respect for diversity.

“You have to put your own ego aside and try to understand another person, another culture, another time, on its own terms,” she says. As historians, “we have to try to get to the closest approximation of the truth that we possibly can.”