Weird History

What Did The Relationship Between Medieval Knights And Peasants Actually Look Like?  

Genevieve Carlton
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In 1023, Bishop Warin of Beauvais suggested a few additions to the knight's oath. Warin asked King Robert of France to modify his loyalty oath. The bishop recommended asking knights to swear not to assault, rob, or kidnap villagers. Knights should also vow to avoid plundering and pillaging the poor or burning down their homes. With his recommendations, Warin hoped to address the intense onslaught caused by knights.

Bishop Warin wasn't the only one pleading with knights to stop targeting the defenseless. In 989, Archbishop Gunbald of Bordeaux warned knights not to go after unarmed priests and monks. He also told knights to stop taking from the poor, particularly by abducting their farm animals. 

Today, we often imagine medieval knights as honorable warriors fighting for the chivalric code. Knights protected the weak, defending women's honor and fighting nobly for their lords. When they weren't off fighting, knights practiced their skills with jousts and competitions. But during the medieval period, many saw knights as a menace that was tearing apart society. As noblemen who had more wealth and power than peasants, knights frequently took advantage of Europe's poorest farmers and villagers. As a result, men like Warin and Gunbald repeatedly pleaded with knights to stop targeting peasants.

 

Knights Blackmailed And Kidnapped Peasants During Wartime

Medieval knights wielded their swords in the name of honor. They fought for their kings, raising troops and training on horseback to hone their skills. But during those clashes, the main victims were often peasants. Although we imagine knights riding off to fight each other, most clashes involved raiding, pillaging, and wiping out Europe's peasants and the land they worked.

Peasants often became pawns in the conflicts between nobles. Knights burned the fields, villages, and manors held by their rivals, ending the lives of peasants in the process.

And sometimes knights even targeted their own peasants. In France, during the disastrous Hundred Years' War, French knights vented their rage at the peasants. According to cleric Jean de Venette, the nobles "subjected and despoiled the peasants and the men of the villages." Instead of protecting the weak, as the code of chivalry demanded, these knights "trample [their country] underfoot, robbing and pillaging the peasants' goods."
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In the 12th century, chronicler Orderic Vitalis strongly praised a knight for not slaying 100 unarmed peasants. By sparing their lives, the knight "did something that deserves to be remembered forever," according to Orderic. The knight could have kidnapped the peasants and held them for ransom, which would have earned him a "great price." Instead, the noble only looted their homes. Orderic's praise for sparing the lives of the peasants shows how often knights slayed peasants.

Cruelty was common among the knights. One, Count Waleran, stumbled on peasants cutting wood and decided to take them as prisoners. He cut off their feet, making the peasants worthless to their lord. Because nobles depended on peasants for their wealth, targeting defenseless peasants was a common way knights punished their rivals.

 

Nobles Exploited Peasants With Heavy Taxes And Few Rights

Knights relied on peasants for their livelihood. While knights in stories devoted their time to noble quests and adventures, in practice knights spent most of their time acting as landlords. And many nobles misused their powers, demanding heavy taxes and giving peasants little control over their lives.

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In the medieval period, around 85% of Europe's population lived as peasants. But not all peasants lived in the same conditions. Some were called freemen. They might rent land from a noble or even own their land. At the bottom were the serfs, legally bound to the land. In many ways, the serfs were owned by the nobles. Serfs owed their labor to the landlords, who demanded work from the serfs in exchange for a place to live. Serfs generally worked at least three days a week on the lord's lands. During harvest time, they were expected to work even more to earn their keep.

In some places, the labor obligation of the serfs transformed into heavy taxes. In 1366, Swedish peasants paid the equivalent of over 350 pounds of butter each year in taxes to the royal treasury. Peasants also had to pay rent and a tithe to the church, equivalent to 10% of the peasant's entire farming output. Many were forced to pay in seeds, farm animals, or crops. After paying all their taxes, many peasants were left nearly destitute. To add to the peasant burden, nobles were often exempt from paying taxes.

On top of taxes, nobles charged serfs fees for all kinds of things. When the lord's daughter married, the serfs had to pay a fine. If a serf perished, the lord claimed an inheritance tax on everything passed on to the deceased's heirs. If a serf's daughter married someone who didn't live on the noble's estate, the serf had to pay a fine. These fees increased resentment between knights and peasants.


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Peasants Were Described As Ignorant And Treacherous By Nobles

Nobles owned the land while peasants worked it. Peasants certainly felt dependent on the landowners, but nobles also feared the power of the peasants. As a result, many sources written by the nobility described peasants as treacherous, animal-like, and ignorant.

In 1381, England's peasants revolted, demanding an end to serfdom. In response, the noble chronicler Jean Froissart called the peasants evil. According to Froissart, the peasants nearly wiped out the country. "Never was a country in such jeopardy as was [England]," Froissart lamented, "and all through the too great comfort of the commonality." Peasants had it too good, Froissart claimed, which made them jealous of their betters.

The nobleman also likened the Peasants' Revolt to a "pestilence." The word choice points to Froissart's fear of the peasants. Only a generation earlier, the Black Death truly did devastate England, but by the late 14th century, Froissart saw peasants as another pestilence.

The Peasants' Revolt was quickly suppressed after King Richard II went back on his promise to free the peasants. Noblemen quickly executed the revolt's leaders. England's nobility reacted swiftly to peasants demanding more rights than farm beasts, underscoring the precarious relationship between the two social classes.
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What were the English peasants' grievances? According to John Ball, the peasants resented the nobles living finely off their labor: 

They are clothed in velvets and rich stuffs, ornamented with ermine and other furs, while we are forced to wear poor cloth. They have wines, spices, and fine bread, when we have only rye and the refuse of the straw; and if we drink, it must be water. They have handsome seats and manors, when we must brave the wind and rain in our labours in the field; but it is from our labour they have wherewith to support their pomp.

This language terrified knights, as they lived off the peasants' labor.

In addition to fearing the peasants, knights mocked them relentlessly. In one story, a group of knights found a beautiful field, perfect for jousting, only to have their plans disrupted by peasants using the field as a toilet. Other noble stories described peasants as beast-like, cowardly, and deformed. 

 

Peasants And Clerics Agreed That Knights Were Out Of Control

Medieval Europeans wrote about the three orders of society: those who pray, those who fight, and those who work. In the 11th century, Gerard of Cambrai explained, "From the beginning, mankind has been divided into three parts, among men of prayer, farmers, and men of war."
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Knights and clerics were often grouped together as men who used their minds rather than their hands. But the clerics agreed with the peasants on a fundamental problem in society: The knights were out of control. In fact, the clergy created the code of chivalry to limit the cruelty of knights. As a result, the chivalric code ordered knights to protect the weak and poor - during an era when most knights were exploiting peasants.

Europe's knights were incredibly ruinous. They burned villages, slayed peasants, and wiped out crops. According to medievalist Norman Cohn, their onslaught even helped inspire the First Crusade. When Pope Urban II called for a crusade in 1095, Cohn explains, he was hoping to give "the largely unemployed and over-aggressive nobility of France something to do, get them out of Europe and stop them devastating the... land."

On their way to the Holy Land, the Crusaders slayed thousands of Jewish people, turning their rage against non-Christians. That was also one of the pope's goals: Stop knights from slaying Christians and send them off to end the lives of other people.

 

The Code Of Chivalry Was Supposed To Improve Relations Between Knights And Peasants

Ironically, the code of chivalry that gives knights a good reputation today was actually created to stem their mayhem. Courtier Olivier de la Marche said that knighting men would ennoble them because they would become part of the "profession of arms," which required valorous service to their prince. William Caxton advised King Richard III to hold "jousts of peace" multiple times a year, which would "cause gentlemen to resort to the ancient customs of chivalry." By promoting valor and giving knights an outlet for their aggression, jousting encouraged better behavior. 
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Instead of simply slaying everyone, armed nobles were supposed to follow a code of honor designed to protect the vulnerable. Yet even during the height of chivalry, knights continued to oppress and slay peasants. As John Ball said, "It is from our labour [nobles] have wherewith to support their pomp." While the English Peasants' Revolt failed, sweeping changes would end serfdom across most of Europe and decrease the power of the knights. The era of chivalry ended - and the peasants were happy to see it go.