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A Day in the Life of a Medieval Peasant

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History has never halted for want of peasants. But crucial as they may have been to Europe's agricultural well-being, they weren't exactly well loved by nobility. Barbara Tuchman, in A Distant Mirror: the Calamitous Fourteenth Century, tells us they were considered

aggressive, insolent, greedy, sullen, suspicious, tricky, unshaved, unwashed, ugly, stupid and credulous... in satiric tales it was said the [peasant's] soul would find no place in Paradise or anywhere else because the demons refused to carry [him] due to the foul smell.

Unfortunately for our intrepid subsistence workers, literature of the time is similarly uncharitable. A contemporary author laments

... by what right does a [peasant] eat beef? ...Rather let them eat thistles and briars, thorns and straw and hay on Sunday and peapods on weekdays... they should chew grass on the heath with the horned cattle and go naked on all fours.

The Sacking of Grammont, from the Chronicles

Not a pleasing prospect, but we do note that the peasant actually got his hands on some meat now and again. Tuchman reports he "also had access to eggs, salt fish, cheese, lard, peas, beans, shallots, onions, garlic... etc," which doesn't sound all that bad. What did the fourteenth century peasant do to deserve such a bad reputation? While obviously illiterate [the peasant, not us], we will attempt to bring his daily experiences to life by producing a fictional account of his day: a peasant's diary, if you will. For historical context, editorial comments will appear in brackets. We've also taken the liberty of cramming about thirty years together, so 'today' could be anywhere from 1327 to 1358. Trust us, most peasants wouldn't get this much excitement in a decade.

Dear Diary,

Woke up this morning. Little Jacques lost some more teeth in the evening; so did I. Marie has dysentery, the less said about that, the better. Julianne continues to breast-feed Robert, even though he's four years old [Extended breast feeding lowers fertility, at the cost of introducing some Freudian issues. -HH]. Michel showed up this morning with my spade; he'd buried four of his plague-stricken children himself. He was unable to hire gravediggers as they won't bury diseased dead. I'm not sure I want my spade back.

Went to town. Left seven-year-old Jacques to borrow one of Lord Foix's oxen and plow the field. He's a tough little bugger. Saw a large party, maybe 300, striding through town, beating themselves with iron-studded leather whips in front of sobbing townspeople. Pretty strange bunch. They must have a lot of free time. [The flagellants, as they were later called, felt corrupt clergy could no longer save mankind and decided self-abuse was the proper way to absolve humanity's sins. Tuchman tells us "they were forbidden to bathe, shave, change their clothes, sleep in beds, talk or have intercourse..." without their leader's permission. "Evidently this was not withheld, since the flagellants were later charged with orgies in which whipping was combined with sex." While originally possessing religious fervor, the flagellants grew secular and attempted to usurp power from the Church. Failing that, they settled for slaughtering some 10,000 Jews before France's Philip VI hanged and beheaded them. -HH] After the crowd moved through, saw neighbor Jean, covered with red rashes, staring openmouthed at the sky, talking about demons, frogs, and wildflowers. He looks different. His wife tells me his left arm fell off last week [Jean has St. Anthony's Fire, a poisoning caused by the ergot fungus in rye flour kept over winter. Ergot contaminates grains in the field, causes wild hallucinations, blood vessel constriction and limb loss and is still a threat to modern agriculture. -HH].

A Beheading from Jean Froissart's Chronicles

Ran into friends Charles, Philip, and Gaston in

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