THE PEOPLE IN THE MIDDLE-AGES

76. How the People Lived. Very different from the life of the warlike nobles was that of the poor peasants. They spent their days in hard work and knew nothing of the fierce excitement of tournament or battlefield.

In the Middle Ages the lands of a baron or knight were called a "manor." Let us see if we can picture to ourselves how one of these would have appeared in the eleventh or twelfth century. In the center of the estate, often on a steep hill, towered the castle with its turrets and battlements, above which fluttered the lordís banner. Below it clustered the humble dwellings of the peasants. They were only huts, built of mud, with roofs of straw. They had no windows, and a hole in the roof took the place of a chimney. A rude bench or two, a rack for tools, and some straw for a bed often made up all their furniture.

A few among the people might be a little better off, such as the miller, the blacksmith, and the priest. Each peasant village had, of course, its church, which was, after the castle, the chief building of the manor. Then there was the mill, the smithy, and perhaps other workshops, if the village were a large one.

Except for a few persons who had special tasks like the smith and the miller, all the peasants worked in the fields. But they were not free to do as they pleased as are our farmers to-day. The peasant of the Middle Ages was a "serf." A serf was not exactly a slave, for his lord could not sell him or even take his land away from him, yet his lot was hard. He was bound to remain always on the manor on which he was born, and .if the manor were sold to another noble the serf went with it, just as if he were a tree or a house. No matter how hard conditions might be, he could not leave the land without his lordís consent, unless indeed he ran away and took to the woods as a desperate outlaw or robber.

Usually the serf must work for three days in each week on the lands of the lord. Only on the other days could he till his own little fields. Extra labor for the lord was required too at certain seasons of the year, and besides this the serf must present the lord with eggs, chickens, or other gifts on occasions like Easter and Christmas.

The serf must have his corn ground at the lordís mill, his bread baked at the lordís oven, and obey all the other rules of the manor. He could not even marry without the lordís consent, or sell his horse unless he gave the lord a part of the price.

Moreover, his wife and daughter must help with the household work of the castle and in spinning and weaving.

Though all their time was given to agriculture, the poor serfs of that rude day knew little about bow crops should be raised when compared with the skillful modern farmer. A visitor to a manor would have seen no neat fields, separated by fences or hedges, in which each man planted the crop he saw fit. Instead, there would have been three or six huge fields in different parts of the manor, each divided into long, narrow strips which were separated only by little ridges of earth. In such a field each serf would have One or more strips. He usually possessed in all somewhere from ten to thirty acres. Much of the labor the serfs did by working together, for none of them owned all the oxen, plows, and other implements required. Each must help the others with such tools as he had.

Every year these poor people had to waste one third of their land, for they did not know how to treat it with fertilizers so as to keep it producing. In one of their great fields they planted wheat or rye, in the second barley or oats; the third they had to let rest or lie "fallow," while the ground renewed its power. The next year -field number one would rest, number two would have the wheat or rye and number three the barley or oats. So a field had the same crop only once in three years. Such a change is called a rotation of crops, but it is very easy to see that the three-field rotation is very simple and wasteful.

Many things which farmers raise to-day were then unknown in Europe. Potatoes, tomatoes, beets, and indeed most of the vegetables which we find so delicious had not yet appeared. Even a lord must live mostly on meat, fish, and bread. Tea and coffee had, of course, not yet come to Europe, and all must drink water, milk, and ale or wine.

The serfs could, however, keep a few animals, such as sheep or hogs, for every manor had its stretch of green common pasture where they might feed. In the forest, too, the serfs were allowed to collect fallen branches for firewood or even to lop off limbs of trees, but the trees themselves they might not cut down.

To us the life of the poor serfs seems miserable. Huddied in their wretched huts filled with the smoke which would not go out of the hole in the roof, cold in winter and burned by the heat of summer, they seemed hardly better off than animals. Many indeed had only a single garment to wear, a sort of long shirt tied around the waist by a bit of rope for a girdle.

Worst of all, they could hardly ever improve. Only very rarely was there a school where the children could learn even to read and write, and had it been possible for them to go to some neighboring monastery to be taught by the monks there would have been no books for them to use when they came away.

As many manors were surrounded by dark forests where lurked bands of fierce outlaws, the serfs did not often see people from outside. Nearly everything they used or had must be made on their own manor. Perhaps salt and iron were all they purchased from without.

In many cases, however, a great fair was held once a year at some place not too far away. How wonderful it must have seemed to the poor serfs who were able to go to see the curious things offered by merchants who perhaps had come from across the sea, and to watch the jugglers, acrobats, and performing bears which were always features of these meetings. For them the fair was the great event of their whole lives.

And yet the peasants were not always unhappy. If the lord of the manÁr was unjust and cruel their lot was terrible, but if he was kind and strong enough to protect them they were usually contented. To thousands of them it never occurred that any other sort of life was possible.

For hundreds of years the peasants of Europe lived in very much the same way. There could be little progress or new knowledge until things began to change. How the Towns Grew. But things did change. As the years rolled by some of the villages increased in size. Those under the sheltering care of a monastery had especial advantages. Others were situated on some good harbor of the seacoast, or on some large river where men began to come for commerce. Even a crossroads gave some encouragement to growth.

So some of the little clusters of peasantsí cottages gradually grew into towns where markets were held, and these again into cities,ónot indeed into such huge centers of population as New York and Chicago are to-day, but yet places of considerable importance.

At first the townspeople were still the serfs of various lords, but they soon began to wish for more freedom than the rules of the manor permitted. Now they demanded a charter, that is, a document signed by the lord, giving them the right to govern their own affairs, at least to some extent. And in the end the lord gave way and granted what they wished.

Sometimes the people rose in fury, attacked the nobleís castle, and compelled him to yield. But far more often the citizens of the town, who had now begun to grow rich, paid the lord a large sum of money for the charter. It often seemed to him a good bargain, for he could use the money to hire soldierg and fit out expeditions against other feudal lords whom he hated.

Many of the stronger towns managed to get rid of their lords entirely. Thus they became "free cities," which ruled themselves and had no one above them but the king or emperor. In Germany, especially, there were many free cities.

The cities of the Middle Ages surely did not look very much like those of the United States of to-day. Some of the old towns of Europe still stand much as they were in centuries gone by. The traveler who visits "Sleepy Chester" or York in England, or quaint Nurernberg in Germaay, or Carcassonne on its sunny hilltop in southern France, may well feel that he has stepped back into the days of Simon de Montfort or St. Louis. Round such a city ran a high and massive stone wail, provided with

battlements and towers. Outside it was a deep ditch filled with water. At only a few points were there gates with drawbridges, by which persons could enter the town, and each gate was fortified by an especially strong tower. Defended by its sturdy citizens, a city of this period could not easily be captured even by a strong army.

Since the city had to be built inside of such a wall, it did not usually cover as much ground as cities of our time. The streets were generally narrow and crooked, and though there was nearly always an open market place near the center, it was not likely to be very large. The houses, however, were often several stories in height and were so built that each story projected a little over the one beneath. Thus in some of the narrow streets the upper stories of the buildings were not very far apart. In some countries the houses had very high roofs and tall chimneys, which would make them look very quaint to us.

Every rich city was sure to have several beautiful churches. But the crowning glory was often a huge "belfry," or bell tower which rose high above all the roofs of the town and where a guard was kept constantly to watch for fire or for the approach of an enemy.

Through the narrow streets of such a city there rushed no stream of automobiles or heavily laden trucks like those we know. Occasionally might have been seen the clumsy cart of some peasant, or a string of packhorses brought by a rich merchant. But even if wagons and carriages were few, the city of the Middle Ages was often a busy place: Especially if it was market day, and the neighboring peasants had come to sell their produce and to purchase in return some of the fine things made in the town, the quaint, narrow streets bustled with life, and the wooden shoes of the peasants made a merry clatter on the cobblestones of the paving.

78. Industry in the Towns. How did the people in the towns make their living? By making things which other people wanted to use, and selling them. At first they sold to the peasants who lived round about, but soon they began to trade with other cities and even with distant countries.

The way the people of the towns of the Middle Ages manufactured articles was very different indeed from that used to-day. In those old cities were seen no great factories or mills with their tall chimneys and noisy machines. People then did not know how to use steam or electricity to turn wheels or drive engines.

They made everything by hand, and understood only simple methods. Men worked in their own houses and themselves sold whatever they made. All the people who were making the same article had to belong to a society called a "craft guild." Thus there were the "weaversí guild," the "shoemakersí guild," the "goldsmithsí guild," and very many more. No town would let any one make or sell a thing who was not a member of the right guild. And it was not always easy to become a guild member, for these societies did not want very many to engage in their business.

Those who were full members were called "masters." Each master owned one of the tall, quaint houses, where he lived with his family. In this was his shop, where he worked every day with his men. There was also a place where he kept the goods he had to sell, and some of those he hung out so that people passing could see how fine they were and be attracted to stop and buy. All the members of a guild lived on the same street, or at least in the same neighborhood, so if a man waited to buy a candlestick, a piece of cloth, or a gold chain he knew just where to go.

We think to-day that a man does right to put whatever price on a thing other people are willing to pay. But in the Middle Ages people believed it was wicked to ask much more for anything than it cost to make it. Every guild had strict rules about the prices its members should charge. It had rules, too, about the way in which articles should be made. If any of its members charged higher prices, or worked in a hurry so that their



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© 2001 by Lynn Waterman