4 Miserable Moments In The Daily Life Of A Medieval Peasant
Certain things in the recent era can feel akin to the Middle Ages … or at least what we think of the Middle Ages. The truth is a lot of what pop-culture presents of the period doesn't match the actual history. This week at Cracked, we're doing a Middle Ages deep-dive – the good, the bad, and the ugly.
You wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat after the most peculiar dream. You dreamt you were in a strange world where a lass engaged in commerce and amassed great riches by selling her flatulence in jars but then switched to selling … what was it again? Pictures of her fart jars? But the pictures weren't real somehow? Thankfully, the memories of that bizarre place are starting to fade away, and you realize you are safe back home in your peasant hut somewhere in Medieval Europe. Doesn't really matter exactly where or when. Those are things for men who don't live in houses made from literal manure to worry about. Speaking of which, you think you know why you've been dreaming about farts because something in your house stinks ...
The Smells, Good Lord The Smells
While it's true that your house is plastered with mud, straw, and cow dung (called "wattle and daub"), with the straw serving as insulation and the manure being a good bonding agent, it's probably not what you're smelling. Despite its ingredients, the composite doesn't really stink. It also couldn't be your fat-based candles. Yeah, they have a pretty powerful aroma when burned, but they've been out for hours now. You look around and find the culprit: One of your farm animals has crapped all over your pristine earthen floor.
"That's not good," you think to yourself. Not because there are animals in your house. Where else are they supposed to spend the night? OUTSIDE?! Where they'd be at the mercy of wild animals, thieves, or that weird guy three huts down who always moans "Yeeeeaaaah" while milking his cows? No, thank you. You can't afford to lose any of your livestock. That's why a good third of your hut has been set aside for your four-legged farm equipment. But the turds on the floor are not good because, as everyone knows, diseases are carried by bad vapors or "miasma," and you can't have that. What if another one of your kids dies? Who would endlessly toil away at the field with you the second they're able to stand?
So you get up and throw a tunic over the "shift" undertunic you sleep in and haven't changed in … wait, if today is Tuesday then … all your life. Because it's the only piece of clothing that you own. You heard a tale that a well-to-do local freeman owns a change of clothes and sometimes has his tunic washed with a bit of lavender mixed in with the stale urine and wood ash. But you try not to think too much about it because such decadence must be some sort of sin. It's a bit chilly, so you also put on your red hood with a short cape, and for a split second, a memory from your dream life makes you worry about a terrifying bat creature punching you right in the nuts. You shake it off, shovel the crap into a bucket, and go outside to throw it on your manure pile.
In the distance, you see a gong farmer or "nightman," forced by law to live far away from people and only work when it's dark out, heading into town to jump into latrine pits and clean them out. You instantly feel a smidge of jealousy because you know that those guys make mad bank.
The Two Sleeps
You can see small flickers of light coming from your neighbors' huts, meaning that it's around "Matins," a time when monks wake up to bang out a "Hey, my dude, thanks for making the world and all of us worthless, ugly sinners" to the big guy upstairs. Some people skip it and stay in bed all through the night, but those people are clearly going to Hell. The pious and virtuous such as yourself and your community follow the monks' examples and wake up for Matins, dividing their rest time into four-hour-long "first" and "second" sleep.
The thing is, though, Matins lasts for about an hour, and that's a bit long to pray. You look at your wife, who's also up (because you didn't marry a sinner). There is a look between you two. Should you, you know, give her a green gown? Play nug-a-nug? Ride below the crupper? Or any other of the 100% real expressions for the ol' horizontal bangarama? All you would have to do is push the kids to the corner of the one bed you all share, and it'd be princum-prancum time (again, 100% a real expression.) But let's think it over first.
You definitely want another kid cause one of the ones you already have got a splinter yesterday, so they're a goner. But it takes sooo long to get your wife to release her seed, or what the folks in the dream world called an "orgasm." And you might be an uneducated serf, but you heard the learned men talk about how in order to conceive, both the man and the woman must climax because a woman is just a mirror version of a man. That's why a vagina is a mirror penis, the ovaries are mirror testicles, and so on. So it would make logical sense that women have some kind of … mirror sperm inside them, meaning that if you want a kid, you better nut up and make her nut before you nut so that the two nuts can combine into a baby.
Also, you'd want to be sure it's a boy this time, so you should first pop into the barber in town to remove your left testicle because the left one makes girls and the right one makes boys. Everybody knows that. You could technically take care of that right here and now with your trusty, rusty knife, but … nah, better leave those kinds of delicate medical procedures to the professional. Which, again, would probably be the town barber. So, in the end, you decide to go back to bed for your second sleep.
It's A Hard, Unfair Life But … No, That's Basically It
You wake up at the crack of dawn. Your wife starts the hearth and hotboxes the house with smoke. The kids are coughing again. Weird how the two events always coincide. You take the family toilet bucket to empty it in the nearby river. You briefly consider washing up, but, honestly, you can't remember what's the official stance on bathing these days. In the early Medieval period, Roman-style bathhouses were all the rage until the Christian priests proclaimed that everyone hanging together in communal sausage/clam soups was making baby Jesus vomit with rage.
But then the knights returned from the crusades and brought back the Muslim custom of regular bathing. But then the Church proclaimed that hot temperatures inflame the lust, so you should wash in cold water. Now, you're no sinner, but a hot bath does sound nice. Probably not worth the risk, though, because thieves love targeting "stews" (as the communal baths are called in your times) and rob folks when they're in their pruney birthday suits. Better get to it and just start your day of hard work then.
You are a serf or a "villein"/"vilain" bound to a strip of land belonging to the local lord, to whom you've sworn loyalty on the Bible. You must work his fields and give him most of your crops, only keeping enough to keep you and your family alive (though the second part is negotiable.) You technically aren't allowed to ever leave your land, but you can get special permission to go into town for supplies and the occasionally deballing. It's not the easiest of lives, but, hey, it could be worse. Imagine if someone took your title of "villein"/"vilain," which comes from the Latin "farmhand," and started using it as an insult to call people "low-bred," eventually transforming the word into a synonym for "bad person." How messed up would that be?!
Wait, what day of the month is it? Ah crap, you just remembered that you are due to work the local church's fields today as well (for free, of course), after you tithe them 10% of everything you own. Luckily, you've been doing this long enough to know to bring your stuff directly to the church's giant tithe barn, where they keep all they collect from the local peasants. On the way there, you pass your wife, who informs you one of your kids died of malnutrition. Dammit. You really should've "played couch quail" with her last Matins. You tell her you'll discuss the kid's funeral with the priests after you finish dropping off the cart full of food to their loot castle.
But Hey, At Least Your Willy Works And That's Not Nothing
You may sleep on a mattress full of equal part straw, bedbugs, and lice, your kids may be dropping like the flies circling the plow horse that's also technically your roommate, and you might technically be a slave in all but name, BUT your dong can joust. That may not sound like much, but in these times, that can spare you one of the most embarrassing experiences ever: getting divorced on the grounds of having an empty sausage casing where your man meat should be.
Now, you've, of course, never read it, but there is this massive collection of papal letters called the Decretum that was compiled around 1139 and instantly became the basis for most European law. And based on a letter by Pope Gregory II, if a husband and wife can't "fadoodle," their marriage was as much a waste of time as washing your hands after a night of gong farming and should thus be annulled. Of course, it'd take more than just the woman's word that her husband is slack in his slacks to make it happen. What a silly world it would be if women were treated like credible, thinking adults!
You heard it from your neighbor, but apparently, a woman in a village past that small hill (aka The Land of Dragons) asked the Church to annul her marriage because her husband couldn't get it up. The guy denied it, so they had a bunch of "wise women" watch the couple in bed for a few nights, seeing if the man would rise to the occasion. And as shocking as it may sound, the husband failed to get hard while being watched by his grandma's bridge club, and now he's divorced. Still better than what happened to one John of York. According to Dr. Kate Lister, in 1433, John was being examined by one of these matrons when she suddenly jammed her tongue in his mouth and tried to give a helping hand while calling him a loser for not getting a stiffy. In the end, John not only ended up without a wife, but the court also recorded the size of his little John, which was apparently "scarcely three inches long."
Honestly, you would probably prefer the Medieval German take on divorce where a husband is buried waist-deep in a hole, has one hand tied behind his back and has to battle his wife, who's equipped with a bag of rocks. Yeah, it would suck to get brained by a sack of stones but not as much as there being an official record that you're only packing a pinky in your pants. But, again, you don't have to worry about that sort of stuff, and with this comforting thought, you lay your head down for your first sleep, hoping you'll once again dream about that strange world with the magic Scandalous Box that shows you wench's ankles for free.
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Top image: Pietro Crescenzi