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Mixed Media Portrait Sculpture of 18th century French peasants by artist George S. Stuart, in the permanent collection of the Museum of Ventura County, Ventura, California, USA.
Mixed Media Portrait Sculpture of 18th century French peasants by artist George S. Stuart, in the permanent collection of the Museum of Ventura County, Ventura, California, USA.

A peasant is an agricultural worker who generally works land owned or rented by/from a noble, but is classified socioeconomically above a squire with regards to the era. The peasant was bound to the land and could not move or change their occupation unless they became a yeoman (free person), which generally happened by buying their freedom. The peasant also generally had to give most of their crops to the noble.



The word is derived from 15th century French pa sant meaning one from the pays, or countryside, ultimately from the Latin pagus, or outlying administrative district.[1]

Position in the Hierachy

The Land of Cockaigne]] (1567), a soft-boiled egg has little feet to rush to the luxuriating peasant who catches drops of honey on his tongue, while roast pigs roam wild: in fact, the average European in the 16th century faced hunger and harsh winters

Peasants typically make up the majority of the agricultural labour-force in a pre-industrial society, dependent on the civilization of their land: without stockpiles of provisions they thrive or starve according to the most recent harvest. The majority of the people in the Middle Ages were peasants. (Pre-industrial societies have diminished with the advent of industrialization.)

Though "peasant" is a word of loose application, once a market economy has taken root the term peasant proprietors is frequently used to describe the traditional rural population in countries where smallholders farm much of the land. It is sometimes used by people who consider themselves of higher class, more precisely the second and first Estate - these were the Nobility and the Clergy and right at the top was the monarch. As slang to refer pejoratively to those of poorer education who come from a lower income background.

Social Networks

In many pre-industrial societies, peasants composed the bulk of the population. Peasant societies often had well developed social support networks. Especially in harder climates, members of the community who had a poor harvest or suffered other hardships were taken care of by the rest of the community. Peasants usually only had one set of clothing, two at most. Taxes were high, as a peasant usually owed the lord 20% of their product, with another 10% due to the Church. Peasant societies can often have very stratified social hierarchies within them. Rural people often have very different values and economic behavior from urbanites, and tend to be more conservative. Peasants are often very loyal to inherited power structures that define their rights and privileges and protect them from interlopers, despite their low status within those power structures. The economic condition of peasantry made them particularly vulnerable to misfortunes, the loss of pig or goat, or much worse, an oxen, could spell calamity for the family. Hygiene was generally poor as it was little understood, in some instances bathing was regarded as an unhealthy and unecessary practice.

Towns needed a larger water supply. Water could be brought into a town using a series of ditches; lead pipes could also be used. Water in a town would come out of conduit which was similar to a modern day fountain. Bathing was a rarity even for the rich. A rich person might have a bath just several times a year but to make life easier, several people might use the water before it was got rid of. It was said that a peasant could expect to be fully bathed just twice in their life; once, when they were born and when they had died. Face and hand washing was more common but knowledge of hygiene was non-existent. No-one knew that germs could be spread by dirty hands. London had a number of public baths near the River Thames. These were called "stews". Several people at one time would bath in them. However, as people had to take off what clothes they wore, the stews also attracted thieves who would steal what they could when the victims were vulnerable. Regardless of how water was acquired, there was a very real potential that it could be contaminated as toilet waste was continuously thrown into rivers which would make its way into a water source somewhere. Families would have cooked and slept in the same room. Children would have slept in a loft if the house was large enough. Public education was non existent, and those of the peasant class suffered a high infant-mortality rate. As soon as was possible, children joined their parents working on the land. They could not do any major physical work but they could clear stones off the land which might damage farming tools and they could be used to chase birds away during the time when seeds were sown. Peasant children could only look forward to a life of great hardship.

Medieval European peasants

The relative position of peasants in Western Europe improved greatly and the Black Death unsettled the demography of medieval Europe.

In the wake of this disruption to the established order, later centuries saw the invention of the printing press, the development of widespread literacy and the enormous social and intellectual changes of the Enlightenment.

This evolution of ideas in an environment of relatively widespread literacy laid the groundwork for the Industrial Revolution, which enabled mechanically- and chemically-augmented agricultural production while simultaneously increasing the demand for factory workers in cities. Urban factory-workers, with their low skill and large numbers, quickly came to occupy the socio-economic stratum formerly the preserve of the medieval peasants.

This process happened in an especially pronounced and truncated way in Eastern Europe. Lacking any catalysts for change in the 14th century, Eastern European peasants largely continued upon the original medieval path until the 18th and 19th centuries. Serfdom was abolished in Russia in 1863, allowing the buying and selling of lands traditionally held by peasants, and allowing the landless ex-peasants to move to the cities.[2]

Early modern Germany

In Germany, peasants continued to center their lives in the village well into the 19th century. They belonged to a corporate body and helped to manage the community resources and to monitor community life.[3] In the East they had the status of serfs bound permanently to parcels of land.

In most of Germany, farming was handled by tenant farmers who paid rents and obligatory services to the landlord - typically a nobleman.[4] Peasant leaders supervised the fields and ditches and grazing rights, maintained public order and morals, and supported a village court which handled minor offenses. Inside the family the patriarch made all the decisions, and tried to arrange advantageous marriages for his children. Much of the villages' communal life centered around church services and holy days. In Prussia, the peasants drew lots to choose conscripts required by the army. The noblemen handled external relationships and politics for the villages under their control, and were not typically involved in daily activities or decisions.[5]

19th century France

In his seminal book Peasants Into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France, 1880 1914 (1976), historian Eugen Weber traced the modernization of French villages and argued that rural France went from backward and isolated to modern and possessing a sense of French nationhood during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.[6] He emphasized the roles of railroads, republican schools, and universal military conscription. He based his findings on school records, migration patterns, military-service documents and economic trends. Weber argued that until 1900 or so a sense of French nationhood was weak in the provinces. Weber then looked at how the policies of the Third Republic created a sense of French nationality in rural areas.[7] The book was widely praised, but some[8] argued that a sense of Frenchness existed in the provinces before 1870.


Since it was the literate classes who left the most records, and these tended to dismiss peasants as figures of coarse appetite and rustic comedy, the term "peasant" may have a pejorative rather than descriptive connotation in historical memory. Society was theorized as being organized into three "estates": those who work, those who pray, and those who fight.[9] The importance of peasants was emphasized by the Annales School of French historians. Its leader Fernand Braudel devoted the first volume–called The Structures of Everyday Life–of his major work, Civilization and Capitalism 15th–18th Century to the largely silent and invisible world that existed below the market economy.

Other research in the field of peasant studies was promoted by Florian Znaniecki and Fei Xiaotong, and in the post-1945 studies of the "great tradition" and the "little tradition" in the work of Robert Redfield. In the 1960s, anthropologists and historians began to rethink the role of peasant revolt in world history and in their own disciplines. Peasant revolution was seen as a Third World response to capitalism and imperialism.[10]

The anthropologist Eric Wolf, for instance, drew on the work of earlier scholars in the Marxist tradition such as Daniel Thorner, who saw the rural population as a key element in the transition from feudalism to capitalism. Wolf and a group of scholars criticized both Marx and the field of modernization theorists for treating peasants as lacking the ability to take action.[11] James C. Scott's field observations in Malaysia convinced him that villagers were active participants in their local politics even though they were forced to use indirect methods. Many of these activist scholars looked back to the Peasant movement in India and to the theories of the revolution in China led by Mao Zedong starting in the 1920s. The anthropologist Myron Cohen, however, asked why the rural population in China were called "peasants" rather than "farmers", a distinction he called political rather than scientific.[12] One important outlet for their scholarly work and theory was the Journal of Peasant Studies.

See also

"Peasants in a Tavern" by Adriaen van Ostade (c. 1635), at the Alte Pinakothek, Munich

Other terms for "peasant"

Notes and references


  • Bix, Herbert P. Peasant Protest in Japan, 1590-1884 (1986)
  • Cohen, Myron. "Cultural and Political Inventions in Modern China: The Case of the Chinese 'Peasant'", Daedalus 122.2 (Spring 1993): 151-170.
  • Evans, Richard J., and W. R. Lee, eds. The German Peasantry: Conflict and Community from the Eighteenth to the Twentieth Centuries (1986)
  • Hobsbawm, E. J. "Peasants and politics," Journal of Peasant Studies, Volume 1, Issue 1 October 1973 , pages 3 22 - article discusses the definition of "peasant" as used in social sciences
  • Macey, David A. J. Government and Peasant in Russia, 1861-1906; The Pre-History of the Stolypin Reforms (1987).
  • Wolf, Eric R. Peasants (Prentice-Hall, 1966).
  • Wolf, Eric R. Peasant Wars of the Twentieth Century (Harper & Row, 1969).


  • Akram-Lodhi, A. Haroon, and Cristobal Kay, eds. Peasants and Globalization: Political Economy, Rural Transformation and the Agrarian Question (2009)
  • Barkin, David. "Who Are The Peasants?" Latin American Research Review, 2004, Vol. 39 Issue 3, pp 270 281
  • Brass, Tom. Peasants, Populism and Postmodernism (2000)
  • Brass, Tom, ed. New Farmers' Movements in India (1995)
  • Brass, Tom, ed. Latin American Peasants (2003)
  • Scott, James C. The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia (2008)

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