Speaker: Professor Christopher Dyer
17 October 2017
What have medieval peasants done for us? Visitors to the Thurcaston and Cropston Local History meeting in October were given some answers to this question posed by Chris Dyer, Emeritus Professor of History, University of Leicester.
Prof Dyer suggested that when looking back at history too much importance is paid to kings, and that there should be more focus on ordinary people who helped to create the world we know. Their names are one such inheritance. For example the poll tax records for Thurcaston in 1379 show that people’s surnames were often: place names such as Normanton, Langton or Birstall; trades - Smith, Carter and Wright; or characteristics - Big, Long, and Brown. First names included William, Henry and Alice, all of which are in fashion today.
Society was divided broadly into three: those who pray – the clergy; those who fight – the Lords; and those who work – the peasants. Everyone was bound together in a community working for themselves and each other. There is an abundance of written evidence, for example, the surveys conducted by Leicester Abbey, and the archives of Merton College Oxford who owned Kibworth Harcourt that provided a very full picture of an English village (this was one of the reasons that it was chosen for Michael Wood’s Story of England TV series.) https://www.kibworthvillage.co.uk These accounts were not written by the peasants themselves, however, as they would have been unable to read and write.
Evidence of the way peasants lived remains. Excavations in Anstey found a 14th century peasant’s house, and there are more than 70 cruck-framed buildings surviving in Leicestershire, including cottages, barns and farm buildings. Locally, examples can be seen at Town Green Rothley and in Newtown Linford.
Lords of the Manor had a say over all parts of peasants’ lives, for example they would have to get permission to leave the village. They paid rent for their land and worked on the Lord’s land a certain number of days each week. Leicestershire, however, was a less oppressed county than some. The Lord’s manor was run day to day by the tenants, with reeves and churchwardens playing an important part in collecting rents and raising money for the church.
Giving many examples from written sources, Chris Dyer showed that peasants were active participants in the life of the village, local government and industry but that they had largely developed themselves out of existence by the 19th century unlike some European countries where the peasantry still survives.
Browning, J and Higgins T. Excavations of a Medieval Toft and Croft at Cropston Road, Anstey, Leicestershire. Trans. Leicestershire Archaeol. and Hist. Soc., 77 (2003)