The Working Woman’s Garb: The Medieval Peasant Dress
Peasants are otherwise known as commoners for a good reason. They’re common. At historic and fantasy reenactments and LARP events, a peasant outfit is a fantastic choice. Also, these dresses are by far the most versatile dresses out there, as you can pair it with different accessories and layers to make it suit any outfit, even that of a noblewoman with enough imagination.
The medieval peasant dress is made with a heavy cotton fabric, which is sturdy and has a rustic look that suits the historic setting perfectly. This dress is available in both brown and beige, so it can either be the primary part of a simple look, or it can be used as a base for some more elaborate styles.
In fact, while this peasant dress would work wonderfully on its own, there’s absolutely nothing stopping you from wearing it underneath an overdress or apron. You might want to do this to personalise your look, or if you’re wearing the dress on a cold day and want an extra layer of protection.
The dress itself is ankle length and sleeveless, with a V-shaped neckline. The dress is fairly close-fitting until the skirt, which is rather voluminous and pleated. The torso of the dress features an adjustable front lacing bodice that can be fastened in a couple of ways to improve the fit.
First, there are the obvious laces at the front of the bodice, which sits atop another layer of material. Once this part of the peasant dress is adjusted to your preference, you can also use the matching ribbon at the back of the bodice to tighten the waist.
The flexibility of the medieval peasant dress makes for a comfortable and stylish garment, which would be ideal for all kinds of LARP events. Sure, the noblewomen might have their silks and jewels, but the kingdom itself stands on the shoulders of the common peasant. Don’t let anyone forget that.
Peasants in the Middle Ages: The Highs and Lows of Common Life
As a whole, history seems to focus on the lives of the rich and powerful. We know their names and can even trace whole families back hundreds of years, while the peasants that made up the bulk of the population disappear into obscurity.
But now, we can recognise that the common medieval peasant was an integral part of society, and that their lives mattered. We can look at how these people lived and died, and we can even look at some commoners who managed to become famous despite their humble backgrounds.
The Everyday Life and Death of the Common Peasant
For much of the middle ages, Medieval Europe tended to operate under a feudal system. This, in its simplest form, meant that the land was portioned up among different nobles, each of whom governed a whole lot of peasants. It’s estimated that up to 85% of people in Medieval Europe were these rural peasants.
This land was worked by the peasants, who mostly worked as farmers. Under feudalism, many of these peasants would have been serfs, who were little more than slaves. Serfs were considered the property of the governing Lord and completely relied on them for the barest essentials.
Serfdom was basically a form of indentured servitude. You could be born a serf, or you could become a serf. Basically, if someone were desperate, they could approach their lord and sell their family to them, in return for shelter and food. The serf would have to work the land as their lord wishes, and still pay a measure of rent.
They couldn’t leave the land without their lord’s permission and often were married according to his will. However, serfs could own property and could even work their own rented lands for profit. This was how they paid their rent, along with the time they spent working their lord’s fields.
Unlike slaves, serfs were attached to the land that they worked. This meant that they couldn’t be sold individually to another Lord, although they might be able to be bought along with a land purchase. True slaves were very rare in Medieval Europe, having mostly been replaced by the serfdom system.
Some peasants were freemen, which meant that they didn’t actually owe much to their lord other than the rent for their homes and farms. They could work the land as they wished and enjoyed a relative amount of freedom, as their title suggests. During the height of serfdom in the 11th century, only about 10% of English peasants were freemen.
However, when the Black Plague ravaged Medieval Europe, the peasant life changed considerably. Because so many had died, workers became a valuable commodity. This gave your average peasant a measure of leverage, which led to their quality of life improving. Eventually, the feudal system itself came to an end.
Medieval Peasant Women: It’s a Hard Knock Life
Medieval peasants had a relatively difficult life. They worked hard, even if much of their farming work was seasonal, and many of them had few rights. Everything that they owned, they had to struggle for. If that weren’t enough, the lord of the land would take a portion of their meagre funds to line their coffers.
Unfortunately, medieval peasant women had an even worse deal. They often had a similar workload to the men, working alongside them in the fields. Women also had some jobs that they specialised in, such as brewing beer and manufacturing textiles.
While some medieval women could attain a measure of authority, your average peasant woman would have pretty much no say in her own life. Her childhood would be dictated by her father, her marriage would be dictated by her lord, then the rest of her life would be dictated by her husband.
Medieval women would be expected to bear lots of healthy children, which was dangerous for all levels of society. Often, they would be married off as teenagers, which led to even more chances of complications. For peasant women, things were even worse.
Childbirth carries risks today, but even minor issues were major in medieval times. A large part of the lower life expectancy during medieval times would have been the high rate of death for both mother and baby during this process.
True, medieval peasant men did occasionally have to brave battle in the event of conscription. But pregnancy was a much more common, and possibly even more deadly battle.
Transcending Their Station: Famous Medieval Peasants
As we’ve said, history shines a light on nobles and their lives. However, despite their status, some medieval peasants did rise to a level of prominence. Some of these peasants became nobles in their own right, while others came to a less than noble end.
There are more examples than we can list, but here are a couple:
- Jeanne d’Arc, otherwise known as Joan of Arc. Arguably the most prestigious peasant in medieval history would be the young French peasant girl known as Joan of Arc by the English, and Jeanne d’Arc by her native people.
Jeanne was a freeman’s daughter, so had a relatively decent status for a peasant. However, she was illiterate and likely destined for a life as some random peasant’s life. At least, until she started having visions of the Saints as a young teenager.
Despite her status as a commoner’s daughter, Jeanne rose to meteoric heights of fame, making a strong impression on both the king and his soldiers. She commonly wore armor and rallied the French forces against the English. Her family were ennobled by the King in thanks for her actions and service. However, things soon went pear-shaped.
Jeanne d’Arc was eventually captured by the English. The French were less than pleased, but they couldn’t save her from the charges of heresy and cross-dressing. The prosecutors twisted the charges in an attempt to force an execution.
Although many of these charges were unjust (the cross-dressing was actually explained as being for her own protection, which was seen as a justifiable reason even in medieval times), Jeanne d’Arc was burnt at the stake. She was only 19.
Since then, Jeanne d’Arc has remained an enormously famous figure, both historically and religiously. She is considered a saint, as she was arguably martyred. Even her own executioner believed her to be holy, fearing that he was damned because of his actions.
- Wat Tyler. Wat Tyler was your average English Peasant who lived in the mid-14th century. Little is known about his early life, as he didn’t quite manage the same level of fame as Jeanne d’Arc.
In 1381, a poll tax was introduced which meant that every adult was forced to pay an extra 4 pence. This triggered a long awaited Peasants Revolt, which had been bubbling under the surface for a while.
Wat Tyler emerged as one of the leaders of the revolt by June 1381, leading a group of rebels as part of a coordinated attack on London. This attack was brutal and successful enough that the King met with the rebels and offered concessions and full pardons to those involved in the rebellion.
Wat, however, wasn’t satisfied by these promises. He met with the king once more, which is where things went wrong. While the meeting started out well, Wat and one of the King’s servants got into a scuffle, which led to Wat being injured.
Rather than being treated for his wounds, Wat Tyler was publicly beheaded. The rebellion was shattered, and the king’s promises were revoked, including those of a pardon. That was the end of the peasant’s revolt.
You may have noticed a common theme here. These peasants rose to fame, then were executed. It’s a dangerous business, being famous. But this didn’t always happen. In Bulgaria, a peasant farmer called Ivaylo led a peasant uprising so successful that he ended up as king. Mercenary companies were often made up of commoners but were renowned for their skill.
The technical specifications of the medieval peasant dress are as follows:
- Material: Heavy cotton fabric with cotton cord lacing.
- Colours: Brown or beige.
- Care Instructions: Machine wash with similar colours at a mild temperature. Tumble dry on low heat. Iron using a medium heat level as needed.
The medieval peasant dress is available in sizes ranging from Small the X-Large. The following measurements are approximate:
- Small: 53.5 inches or 135.9 cm length, 35.4 inches or 89.9 cm chest, 28.3 inches or 71.9 cm waist (untied), 66.9 inches or 169.9 cm bottom width.
- Medium: 55.1 inches or 140 cm length, 39.4 inches or 100 cm chest, 32.3 inches or 82 cm waist (untied), 74.8 inches or 190 cm bottom width.
- Large: 56.3 inches or 143 cm length, 43.3 inches or 110 cm chest, 36.2 inches or 91.9 cm waist (untied), 82.7 inches or 210.1 cm bottom width.
- X-Large: 57.9 inches or 147.1 cm length, 48 inches or 121.9 cm chest, 44.1 inches or 112 cm waist (untied), 90.6 inches or 230.1 cm bottom width.