The peasants comprised the third order. There were two types of peasants, viz. free peasants and serfs.
Free Peasants: The free peasants held their farms as tenants of the lord. They had to render military service; at least forty days per year. Peasant families had to devote three or more days of the week to work at the lord’s estate. The output from such labor was called labor-rent which would go directly to the lord. The kings sometimes imposed a direct tax (taille) on peasants.
Serfs: The serfs cultivated the land which belonged to the lord. Much of the produce from such land went to the lord. They received no wages and could not leave the estate without the lord’s permission. Serfs could use only their lord’s mill, oven and winepresses. The lord could decide whom a serf could marry. The lord might give his blessings to the serf’s choice but on payment of a fee.
Feudalism developed in England from the eleventh century. The Angles and Saxons came from central Europe to settle in England in the sixth century. William, the Duke of Normany crossed the English Channel in the eleventh century and defeated the Saxon king of England. William 1 had the land mapped, and distributed it in sections to 180 Norman nobles. The lords became the chief tenants of the king. The lords soon began to gift some of their own lands to knights. But they could not use their knights for private warfare, which was forbidden in England. Anglo-Saxon peasants became tenants of various levels of landholders.
Some of the changes which affected social and economic relations in Europe are as follows:
From the fifth to the tenth centuries, most of Europe was covered with vast forests. This left limited land for agriculture. Dissatisfied peasants often took refuge in the forests. The cold climatic condition led to severe winters. It resulted in a shortened growing season and reduced yield from agriculture.
Europe entered a warm phase from the eleventh century. This resulted in a longer growing season. The soil could be more easily ploughed. Forest line significantly receded in many parts of Europe. This made it possible to expand the area under cultivation.
Agricultural technology was primitive. Wooden plough, drawn by a team of oxen, was used by peasants. The wooden plough could only scratch the surface of the earth. Field had to be dug by hand, usually once in four years. Additionally, an ineffective method of crop rotation was in use. The land was divided into two halves. One field was planted in autumn with winter wheat, while the other field was left fallow. Rye was planted on this fallow land the next year and the other half was left fallow. This system resulted in gradual deterioration of soil. Famines and chronic malnutrition was quite common.
But the lords wanted to maximize their incomes. The peasants were forced to bring under cultivation all the land in the manorial estate, and spend more time on the manorial estate. The peasants resorted to passive resistance. They spent more time on their own fields, and kept much of the product of that labor for themselves. The peasants also avoided doing unpaid extra work. They came into conflict with the lords over pasture and forest lands. The peasants saw such resources meant for the whole community, while the lords treated them as their private property.
Many technological changes took place by the eleventh century.
These changes helped in significantly increased food production. Availability of food became double. Peas and beans provided more vegetable proteins in the diet and served as a better source of fodder for their animals. The average holding size reduced from about 100 acres to 20 to 30 acres by the thirteenth century. Smaller holdings could be managed more efficiently.
Some of the technological changes cost a lot of money. Windmills and watermills were installed by the lords. But peasants were able to take the initiative in many things. Peasants extended the arable land. They switched to the three-field rotation of crops. They set up small forges and smithies in the villages, where iron-tipped ploughs and horseshoes could be made and repaired cheaply.
From the eleventh century, the economic transactions were becoming more and more money based. This led to a weakening of the personal bonds. The increasing use of money began to influence prices. Prices became higher in times of poor harvest. In England, agricultural prices doubled between the 1270s and the 1320s.
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