England during the reigns of Edward I, Edward II, and Edward III presents to modern readers the epitome of medieval life and feudalism. Feudalism in the 14th century is perhaps one of the most intricate systems of societal, political, and economic life that has ever been experienced in Western Culture. When one thinks of the medieval age in Europe, one usually thinks about valiant knights, lords, and ladies. However, such romantic imaginations would be poor representations of what medieval life was really about. “Most [people] (more than nine out of ten) were peasants who eked out hard livings from the land” (1). Bennett’s A Medieval Life traces the lifestyle and history of a single English peasant, Cecilia Penifader, as she lived out her life in the 14th century. Bennett’s narrative and facts are deduced from actual feudal records found in Cecilia’s town, Brigstock. As Bennett carefully states, there are no actual journals or other such documents which emanate from Cecilia’s hand. She was illiterate as were most peasants therefore Bennett’s record is from an economic and social view, not a personal diary. Cecilia was involved in the economic system known as manorialism. Manorialism, as defined by Bennett, is an “economic system whereby peasants supported the landowning elite” (3). It is with regard to this system of life and economics that we consider three questions. How did the life of Cecilia Penifader typify the life of a medieval peasant? How was Cecilia unique? How did Cecilia cope with life in the Brigstock manor?
Cecilia Penifader followed the typical life of a medieval peasant in many ways. Cecilia’s home life was quite similar to most of the peasants around her; although her family was slightly better off than most. Growing up, her home offered the basic necessities for eking a living. There was a hearth for warmth and cooking, shelter from the elements, and a place to eat and sleep (18). As a female peasant in the manorial system, her life was marked by service to the lord through farm labor (though women did not do as much physical labor for the lord as the male peasants did) and produce (vegetables and livestock) paid in rent. Though Cecilia’s wares and foodstuffs were given to the lord as tax or rent payments, Cecilia typified the life of a female peasant by staying close to the home in working in the farmyard. While the men worked the fields by plowing, weeding, breaking clods, sowing seed, etc, Cecilia and the womenfolk busily worked in the farmyard. As her mother did before her, Cecilia would have baked bread, brewed ale for the family’s consumption as well as to sell, milked cows and made dairy products, tended chickens, kept bees, mended clothes, and worked the family garden which kept them supplied with food stuffs for their daily meals (19). These foodstuffs were not only grown for the family but the surplus would have been sold in the market (19). As did all peasants, Cecilia lived in an “economy of makeshifts” (21). This meant that Cecilia and her fellow peasants had to juggle as many jobs as they could and do it by whatever means possible (21). Not only did she work in the farmyard or help in the fields when “week-work” was required, but she also foraged in the woods for nuts, berries, and firewood ( 25, 33). Additionally, Cecilia participated in religious life as best as a peasant could and attended Sunday Mass and other holy days (45). Cecilia’s ordinary chores and daily life were quite typical of any 14th century peasant woman.
However, there were some key differences between Cecilia Penifader and other peasants. Bennett states in the introduction that given her family’s unique name and manorial records, Cecilia Penifader was well-off, at least in comparison to other peasants (1). “As a result, Cecilia grew up in a better-built cottage and with a better diet than many of her poorer neighbors” (1). She also had a much more successful family since she had three brothers and four sisters (1). Cecilia was also unique because she never married and held her lands under her single ownership. Although she never enjoyed the freedoms of literacy or a voice in the courts, Cecilia’s status seems striking since she had property, hired others out for services, and was in other ways almost like a modern free woman. Moreover, as an adult, Cecilia acquired much land in the manor and therefore became a person “with a new standing in the community” (87). “As a tenant of Brigstock manor, she was thereafter expected to attend every meeting of the manorial court and to cooperate in her use of the common fields and pastures” (87). Cecilia’s possession of land and amount of property counted her among the freer peasants and therefore much better off than her neighbors. Bennett states that she was “[n]either a freewoman or serf, she tolerated a few servile obligations but also enjoyed other exceptional privileges” (35). Thus Cecilia Penifader was unique among the peasantry at Brigstock manor.
Life as a medieval peasant was definitely not a bed of roses. Peasant’s work, especially manifested in the week-work and other rents and dues paid to the lord, was quite difficult and when coupled with famine or plague, life was unbearable. Cecilia’s sisters Emma and Alice did not come one harvest time for boon work and were therefore cited in the court (36). Historians are not quite sure exactly why they missed work but there are a few good guesses. They could have had missed boon work as a mere accident or they could have skipped it deliberately as many peasants in the 14th century did. Many peasants sought to outright resist against the manor but whether Cecilia did remains to be seen. In Brigstock, seigniorial demands were less intense so Cecilia and her peers coped with it. As a child, Cecilia had been taught by the clergy that in the world there were three orders or classes of people and the order of these classes were ordained by God. Therefore they shouldn’t be tampered with (38). Peasants understood that the lords and knights, who might exploit them every now and then, were really just and honorable men who protected them from bandits and invaders. They also upheld and enforced the law of the land. Cecilia was taught to honor them since every role had a part to play “and if each part did its part well, salvation, security, and support were assured (39). Such was the manner of Cecilia’s coping with the society around her.
Cecilia Penifader’s life on Brigstock manor is indeed an interesting case study though, as Bennett is careful to note, it is not a norm for all peasants. Not all her neighbors had a nicer home, a good portion of land, and a better diet. Peasants succumbed to horrible conditions of disease and famine and not all reached adulthood. Nonetheless, Cecilia’s life, found in manorial records, presents to modern eyes a pretty good picture of what medieval peasant life was like.