What you can learn about medieval Europe if you focus on peasants.
Why should we care about peasants? Historians understand that history is richer when seen from the margins. By looking at medieval peasants, we can see both their rural world and the broader medieval society of which they were a critical part. We stand on the muddy margins with peasants and, looking upward and inward, we can better understand not only poor peasants but also prosperous churchmen, knights, and merchants, all of whom relied on peasant labor.
Clues about how privileged people in the Middle Ages regarded peasants can be found in their courtly songs, sarcastic proverbs, nasty jokes, and pious sermons. Knights and ladies were fond of songs known as pastourelles that told, among other things, about how easy it was for knights to have sex with peasant women or, failing that, to rape them; monks and students enjoyed jokes that portrayed peasants as ludicrously dumb and foolish; and priests, friars, and bishops preached sermons that depicted “those who work” as objects of pity, charity, and disgust. Even Piers Plowman, a sympathetic portrayal of rural life, portrayed the peasant’s lot as hard and pitiable. These literary texts are useful for understanding the often astoundingly negative attitudes of elites toward peasants, but they tell little about the peasants themselves.
Peasants, usually unable to read or write, have left no direct testimonies about their hopes, their fears, their delights, or their disappointments. As a result, we know about peasants and their lives indirectly—from the writings of their social superiors. In the tripartite view of society that was popular by the High Middle Ages, peasants rested at the bottom of three orders. As “those who work” (in Latin, laboratores), peasants supported people more privileged—“those who pray” (oratores) and “those who fight” (pugnatores). Each of these three orders ideally helped the other, with clergy contributing prayers and knights providing protection, but the mutuality of the system was more ideal than real. Also, the three groups were not equal. A peasant might have benefited from the prayers of a nun or from the protection offered by a knight, but a peasant was deemed to do work of lesser value and to be a less worthy person. Born into this unexalted state, a peasant’s lot was to labor for the benefit of others. This was unfortunate for peasants but fortunate for historians. For information about the daily lives of peasants, the most abundant and most useful sources are legal and economic documents that report on the administration of [ … ]