Medieval Life and Social Structure

Dec 2008
I am curious about something. How many of you think that peasants in medieval villages grew close to one another and cherished relationships with one another? (Now I know peasant life was harsh.... but I just wonder about people having close relationships....) Many medieval Europeans felt that they were supposed to suffer on Earth so they'd get a better life in heaven.... but I'm just curious. Sorry if this question seems a bit vague. :)
Jul 2007
Does a person's social status decide how they interact - I don't think so.

Regardless of one's social position, I feel certain that there would have been considerable personal interaction between the peasant folk - business, marriage, joint suffering during war and famine and other hardships.


Forum Staff
Jun 2006
I'd recommend reading through "Medieval Lives" by Terry Jones. Fascinating and entertaining insight into the 'common man' in this period.
Jul 2008
I can not answer for continental peasant communities, but in England through the medieval period there was a strong sense of community amongst the peasantry. Within each village there was an economic hierarchy but evidence would seem to indicate that those who belonged to the upper echelons of the community would stand surety for those of lesser economic means in the manorial courts. There is plenty of evidence of people losing their lives helping others, such as in house fires or freeing wagons from mud. In sum medieval peasant communities were living communities that helped members of the community survive hardships.
Medieval peasant communities were based on the concept of the family as an economic unit, the peasant family was as nucleated as modern families, mum and dad with several children. Parents tried to help their children for adult life, daughters would be given money or land as a dowry, and non inheriting sons would be helped with finding new holdings.
This is not to paint to rosy a picture of peasant life, within the village there would have been the same problems of communal life through the ages, theft, defaulting on debt, adultery, scandals and gossip, fights, feuds and sometimes murder.
I do not think that the average thinking peasant thought that it was Gods will that suffered on Earth to gain a better place in heaven, better that they would rather not want on Earth and hope for a place in heaven.
May 2008
London, UK
Surely the strength of human relationships has been the same in almost any period of history, and any class or society. Laws controlling relationships may change, but the actual emotions never really do. In fact, hardship can bind people even closer, can't it?

Black Dog

Ad Honorem
Mar 2008
Damned England
A defining feature of an agrarian society, such as existed in most of England during the middle ages, was close ties by necessity. Being close knit, and interdependent on each other, this had very important ramifications for how they interrelated. For instance: their was not a propertied society: for many, even their home was rented from the local lord or squire, and expensive material goods tended to be common property, (such as a plough), or the property of the local lord, who usually made in mandatory to use his mill. He'd gone to a lot of expense to have it built, and now he wants his money back.

This plainly had a knock on effect on crimes such as theft, burglary etc. Expensive items would be hard to get rid of, whilst interreliance on one's neighbour was a deterent against such crimes.

Another defining factor- right up until the end of the Early Modern period, in fact, was an abiding lack of privacy, even for the rich. Church Court records tell us that complaints and gossip about one's neighbour, especially sexual matters, were absolutely rife. Neighbours were hard to avoid, and the church in particular encouraged such interference. The rich had it likewise: houses did not have corridors, and to get to one bedroom, you may have had to pass through everyone else's. That's one reason why they had curtains around 4 poster beds. Plus, the rich had lots of servants and retainers- and these were not above spying and gossiping.

However, there's no evidence that this annoyed people as much as it would a modern person- it was normal to them. And this was a deferential society, where people were not often resentful of having social "betters", and this deference was commonly two way: a squire respected a peasant who knew his job and behaved well, or a good craftsman. "Deferential" does not mean "crawling" or "servile". It was a two way code of behaviour: being respected was a benefit of being respectful, and vice versa. Old fashioned "Working class pride" was probably a remnant of that attitude.

In short, personal relationships in the past were probably little different from now, but were tightened by far more than just sexual attraction, belonging to the same club, or having the same job or interests. Necessity was a very important spur to good behaviour and a close knit society.
Jan 2009
Aberdeen, Scotland
In medieval England, much land was organised under the manor system, where the lord of the manor exercised a huge amount of control over the people living on his/her land.

For example, a peasant, whether he were free or a serf, would have to request permission to marry, and would usually only be able to do so within the village he lived in, as you also required permission from your lord to move.

I think, because of this, that within a medieval community people would generally be very close knit. There was far less travel anyway, and most occupations, whether it was farming or working in an industry such as cloth, would involve working together in a team, highly sociable!

Interestingly, the Feudal Tenure act was abolished in Scotland fairly recently, in 2000. Prior to this, as a home-owner you still had to request permission from you "lord", in this case the local council, to perform such tasks as cut down a tree that fell entirely within your own grounds.