How peasants made the rural landscape

Peasant house built with crucks (large timbers extending from the ground to the apex of the roof) at Wick near Pershore, Worcestershire. A number of houses of this type in the Midlands have been dated to the period 1380-1510. They were normally built by artisans (especially carpenters) employed by peasants. Image: Stephen Price

by Christopher Dyer
This article appears in Rural History Today Issue 45 (July 2023).

Peasants were not rich or powerful, but they had a capacity, often when operating together in a community, to make decisions and change the world around them. The peasant contribution to the medieval countryside has emerged gradually in the thinking of historians and archaeologists.

Now is the time to recognize fully the importance of the small-scale cultivators who accounted for most of the rural population. They were involved in a variety of activities, in managing their own households and village communities, in developing farming methods, and in marketing rural produce. The population of towns originated as rural migrants. As jurors, peasants helped to operate the manorial courts that governed their villages, and as parishioners they ran the worldly affairs of their church or local chapel. Although they were mostly unable to write, others compiled documents on their behalf, and we gain much evidence about them from records produced by their social superiors, such as court rolls. They appear in sermons and poems, and unwritten evidence comes from archaeology, architecture, and art.

Shaping the scene

The aristocracy were often responsible for creating new landscapes. Medieval castles were surrounded by scenic pleasure grounds, such as parks, fish ponds, and gardens. Monasteries and secular lords controlled water by damming valleys, digging channels, and draining wetlands. Monks, and especially Cistercians, are often credited with reclamation and colonisation projects.

Many modifications of the natural world, however, were the work of peasants. They were responsible for cleaning ditches and maintaining flood defences in fens and marshes. They also instigated projects on their own initiative, like John Smith, a peasant of Tanworh-in-Arden (in Warwickshire) who dammed a stream to make a fishpond, later called Smythespool, in about 1332. Lords are known to have cleared woodland for agriculture in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, but many acres in royal forests or on ‘wastes’ belonging to lords of manors were brought into cultivation, or enclosed for pasture, by peasants, not necessarily with encouragement or permission. The king usually accepted the result if a fine was paid, and lords insisted on payments of rent.

Medieval peasants removed the trees and vegetation to make small irregular fields connected by crooked lanes leading to a spread of scattered houses which can still survive in woodland landscapes. A peasant showing enterprise was William the Cooper, who is recorded in 1270 as clearing (with others) a piece of wood in Blickley in the royal forest of Feckenham (in Worcestershire), enclosing it with a ditch and hedge, and planting it with oats in the first year and wheat in the second. The king’s forest officials fined him a shilling, and the local lord required him to pay an annual rent of two shillings, but he could afford to pay because of the value of the wheat crop. He was not entirely dependent on his land, as his name reveals that his craft was to use the wood available nearby to make barrels, for which there was a ready market in the nearby town of Droitwich.

Conflict and control

Enclosing wood or waste and turning it into a cornfield caused conflict within peasant society, because encroachment on common pasture threatened the livelihood of those with animals to feed. Matters might come to a head with crowds gathering to tear down fences and hedges and reclaim the land for pasture. Such outbursts were characteristic of communities in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries now on the southern edge of the Birmingham conurbation at places such as Yardley, King’s Norton, and Solihull. Some peasants ‘improved’ the land with more intensive farming, while their neighbours in effect formed a conservation movement, protecting grassland, scrub, and woodland. William the Cooper belonged to both camps, as he needed the corn he grew, but his craft depended on an abundance of trees.

In the areas where woods were few, and open fields stretched out for miles, the compact villages sometimes were set out in regular plans, with rows of houses ranged along both sides of a street, and rectangular gardens and closes behind them, resembling part of a modern housing estate. Neatly arranged open fields, with groups of equal sized strips, stretched out from the village, with boundaries often at right angles to the street. Such settlements are commonly seen as a sign of the control of living space by lords. Such planning by a superior authority is very rarely recorded, and just as the villagers as communities took charge of the fields, so they were capable of organising villages in an orderly fashion. They sometimes took over the end of strips in the open field to form the framework for a settlement. In the Cotswolds they might adapt the grid of boundaries left behind by an abandoned Romano-British field system. They made choices based on local circumstances, and had a direct interest in their own settlement, whereas many lords were remote absentees.

There was a crooked lane

Modern observers, and those driving along country lanes, are often puzzled by the twists and turns followed by the road. These crooked lanes were not the product of irrational minds, nor were our ancestors always drunk, as G.K. Chesterton’s poem ‘The Rolling English Road’ suggests. The many small fields carved out of woods, or which were defining new enclosures, were deliberately defined in oval shapes or with curved boundaries because the peasants who were doing the work appreciated that such shapes needed a shorter length of hedge or fence. The roads which gave access to the new fields, or which were taking traffic on longer journeys through the enclosed landscape, had to observe the bends in the boundaries.

Towards the end of the Middle Ages, lords were often associated with the enclosure of cultivated land and the removal of settlements, as they saw profit in pastoral farming on a large scale. This was a notable feature of south-east Warwickshire where graziers and gentry lords, like the Spencers and Catesbys, made fortunes by specialising in sheep and cattle. Nor were peasants always the hapless victims of these changes, as they could mount a spirited resistance to enclosure. On the other hand, individuals might be enclosing land, at least on a small scale, and keeping more livestock. Other peasants abandoned their houses in villages because they wished to move elsewhere, and their neighbours were willing to take over vacant land, so that some villages were seriously weakened by the loss of inhabitants before the lord, or his farmer, embarked on a policy of depopulation. Kings, lords, and the church played a part in the forming and dismantling of landscapes, but the influence of the peasants, though implemented quietly, could be decisive.

Christopher Dyer’s new book, Peasants Making History: Living in an English Region, 1200–1540, is published by Oxford University Press. It has been awarded (jointly with Jane Rowling’s Environments of Identity) the British Agricultural History Society’s Joan Thirsk prize for 2022. For a 30% discount on Peasants Making History use promo code AAFLYG6 at