The Harsh Life of the Medieval Commoner 

Medieval commoners were the backbone of medieval society. Commoners were people without significant social status, not part of the nobility, aristocracy or royal family.

These people made up the large majority of the population of medieval Britain, but what was life like for the average commoner in historic England?

For the common masses life was not one of ease and luxury. It consisted of toiling in the fields, working long hours for lords under a feudal system, and struggling to stay one step ahead of an early death from disease and starvation.

After a long day in the fields, many medieval commoners could look forward to returning home to dwellings plagued by fleas and lice. The large majority could expect not to make it past forty years of age. 

ridge and furrow
The medieval ridge and furrow of the once open field system. Image Credit: Gordon Hatton

Medieval Commoner

However, the life of a commoner wasn’t one that only consisted of hardship and mundanity. Commoners enjoyed music, festivals and storytelling.

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They fought against the upper classes and government to try and improve their living conditions. The lives, beliefs and activities of the common people became the foundation on which Britain was built. 


Life was hard for medieval commoners.

Many didn’t live past the age of forty and death during childhood was a common occurrence, so common in fact that some estimates claim that up to a third of children in the middle ages perished before reaching their fifth birthday.

Winterbourne Clenston manor
Winterbourne Clenston Manor has been in the same family for 800 years.

As many as 25% of medieval children may not have lived to see their first birthday. A further 6% would die between the ages of six and nine. Disease, starvation, war and injury posed a constant risk to all levels of medieval society, but particularly to medieval commoners.

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Plagues, such as the Black Death, had a disproportionate impact on the peasant population of the UK. Squalid and cramped conditions and few means to escape the advance of the disease across the country, led to high death rates among English commoners. 

Bound to the Land 

Many commoners in medieval Britain were farmers working the land for a lord. Under the Feudal System, the lower classes, made up significantly of commoners, had very restricted lives.

There were few avenues to improve their economic and social standing. This system lasted from the tenth to the fifteenth century. It existed on the basis of land rights filtering down through society to the peasant classes.

In order to get land to farm, many commoners, known as serfs, became essentially legally bound to the land that they farmed and the lord that the land belonged to.

Abandoned medieval village.
Crop marks are all that is left of a medieval village. You can see a very defined street in this shot.

In this set up, serfs were responsible for producing enough food and other products such as wool or flax, to sustain themselves and their family. In addition, they were responsible for working the land for wealthy landowning lords.

Read More: From Commons to Closures: The Enclosure Act’s Impact on British Landscapes

Serfs were expected to do everything from ploughing the land to harvesting crops, threshing and winnowing grain, and even cutting and collecting wood and hay for the lord. 

However, not every commoner was bound by this restrictive land agreement. There were also freemen. Freemen rented or owned their own land and often pursued entrepreneurial endeavours, practising trades or starting small businesses to support themselves.

While the life of freemen was still often a harsh existence, they did have more freedom than the average serf. 

Cold, Hard, and Hungry 

In medieval Britain, commoners could expect to endure cold winters and scorching summers. Houses were poorly insulated, dark, and overcrowded, often constructed of wattle daub applied to a wooden frame.

Alresford fulling mill
Alresford, Hampshire – looking very splendid today, it dates from the 1200s and would have been very basic, cold and over crowded. Image Credit: Chris Talbot CC BY-SA 2.0

This mixture of mud, straw and manure provided a building material that was relatively strong when it dried. Most windows did not contain glass but were simply holes in the wall, perhaps covered with shutters or sometimes just a curtain, making these houses particularly susceptible to winter chills. 

It was not uncommon for entire families to share a dwelling with just one or two rooms. Animals would also likely be brought inside at night to protect them from predators, thieves and adverse weather.

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Mattresses would be made from straw, and a lack of access to hygiene and running water meant that fleas, lice, grime, dirt and bacteria were all a part of everyday life for commoners. 

Local rivers, lakes and wells provided water for medieval families. However these were also often sites where human waste was deposited, creating a constant risk of disease. 

The Great Famine

Medieval commoners were no strangers to hunger, with various reports of periods of famine and food scarcity throughout Medieval times. The Great Famine that hit England in the 1300s is thought to have killed as many as 5% of the British population. There are accounts of people eating dogs and horses to try and survive. 

Medieval cooking hearth
The peasants hearth was basic

When there was food, a medieval diet didn’t provide a great deal of variety. Most peasants ate a diet consisting of stew made of beef and vegetables such as leek and cabbage, as well as cheese and bread.

As food sources could become unreliable if crops failed or animals died, many commoners also relied on pickled and salted foods to get through hungrier times. 

Many children didn’t have access to education and would work alongside their parents in the fields from a young age. Along with a rigid class system, this lack of education or the ability to be trained in a trade meant that it was difficult for people to escape the cycle of poverty that many commoners found themselves trapped in. 

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However, there were points of light in what could seem like a bleak existence. Villages often had a rich calendar of festivals and events that medieval commoners could enjoy.

Music and storytelling were also popular past times. Wandering entertainers would roam from town to town, bringing music and entertainment for local people. 

Taxes, Taxes and More Taxes 

Being a commoner in medieval times meant having to pay taxes. Taxes charged to commoners were at times excessive and relentless. Taxes were charged by the church, by parliament and sometimes directly by the monarch.

These taxes were often used to fund things like military campaigns, however this was not all taxes were imposed for. A medieval tax known as ‘Aid’ could be imposed by a lord for instances such as the marriage of his eldest daughter, the knighting of his son, to fund his crusade, or to pay his ransom.

Winterborne Clenston Tithe Barn, Dorset.
Winterborne Clenston Tithe Barn, Dorset, was built in the 1500s. Sadly now suffering from neglect. The barn is unique in the sense that it has a hammerbeam roof. It is thought that it came from a monastic building at Milton Abbey. This beautiful building has suffered from a partial roof collapse. Historic England stepped in with funding the erection of scaffolding as a temporary roof support.

A large percentage of the income of the royal household and upper classes came in the form of taxes. For poor commoners, taxes represented a constant struggle for those already economically disadvantaged.

Although taxes were paid in cash, there are instances when they were also paid by alternative means. There are accounts of taxes being paid in seed and grain, and even farming equipment being handed over to cover the cost.

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Giving up seed to cover tax, though, was a risky business. This could leave medieval farmers without enough seed for the next year’s planting season. However, in some cases, poor serfs were exempt from taxation as they didn’t own the land they worked.

This was the case for a tax known as ‘The geld’ which existed in the ninth and tenth century and was largely used for funding military and defence efforts. 

A Religious Existence 

Throughout medieval Britain, the influence of the church represented a core part of everyday life. Taxes, known as tithes, were paid to the church. In some cases these were as high as 10% of earnings.

Commoners also worked for free on church lands. They had to pay for baptisms, weddings and burials on holy land, all of which were seen as essential activities in medieval times. 

Salisbury cathedral
Dark and somber Salisbury cathedral

Although the Black Death and the social upheaval that followed it challenged the church’s power, it still remained an influential institution. Medieval Britain was a deeply religious place and the church was viewed to hold authority from God.

As such, the church, for most people in the country, represented and dictated how they should live everyday life and the morals by which they would lead their lives. 

Revolts and Revolutions 

Not all commoners were willing to simply accept the harsh conditions forced upon them from the upper and aristocratic classes. There are a few accounts of peasants fighting back against the restrictions imposed on them, none perhaps as famous as the Peasants’ Revolt.

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Also known as the Great Rising, this revolt happened in 1381. It resulted in the sacking of the Tower of London, mass executions, and charters being granted to rebel towns.

Rooted in economic and social issues that were impacted in part by rising taxes, the aftermath of the Black Death and war with France, the final tipping point that sparked the Peasants’ Revolt was a violent confrontation with a royal official who was trying to collect unpaid taxes.

A rare medieval packhorse bridge

This event sparked villages across England’s south east to rise up, seeking an end to serfdom. They demanded lower taxes and changes in the law courts and senior officials of King Richard II.

Once the rebels reached London, they sacked Savoy Palace, attacked gaols, murdered those associated with the royal government and set fire to buildings and law books. On the 14th of June 1381, while a fourteen year old King Richard II met with the rebels, agreeing to their demand of the end of serfdom, other rebel forces breached the Tower of London.

Once inside they killed both the Lord Chancellor and the Lord High Treasurer. Violence again broke out the next day between Richard’s forces and the rebels. A militia was gathered by the government, the agreement made between Richard and rebels was rescinded.

By November 1381, the rebellion had been quashed and many of the rebel leaders had been found and executed. 

Leaving a Mark on History 

Medieval commoners may have had hard and often short lives, but they left their mark on history. They battled disease and hunger and many lived with few rights or freedoms. However, they still managed to find light and enjoyment, enjoying songs, stories and festivals.

We may not remember the names of many commoners, but from working the land to fighting for greater rights, they became a core part of the fabric of medieval life and the way we remember historic Britain. 

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