In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Peasants

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Textbooks
  • Journals
  • Bibliographies
  • Primary Sources
  • Historiography
  • EARLY MIDDLE AGES (c. 400–1000)

Medieval Studies Peasants
Philip Slavin
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 December 2010
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0068


Medieval peasantry has been a subject of much scholarly work since the mid-19th century. To a large extent, the pre–World War I scholarship was characterized by two main trends: (1) a “romantic” nationalist approach, reflecting the wider cultural and political tendencies of the period; (2) a careful, sometimes quasi-philological reliance on primary texts, deposited at various archives. As a rule, the students of medieval peasantry avoided scholarly and ideological debates. The interwar period was a crucial phase in the formation of medieval rural history. It was during this period that some of the most influential scholars emerged, whose impact can be felt in the scholarship of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. These included Eileen Power (b. 1889–d. 1940), Marc Bloch (b. 1886–d. 1944), and Evgeny Kosminsky (b. 1886–d. 1959). The postwar period witnessed the development of four main schools of peasant studies. First, the Annales school, shaped by Fernand Braudel (b. 1902–d. 1985), which pioneered in the fields of the environmental milieu and the mentalité of medieval peasants. To some extent, the Annales school was the precursor of the contemporary multidisciplinary approach. The main stronghold of the Annales was France. Second, there was the “neo-Malthusian” approach, which was adopted in the United Kingdom by Michael Postan (b. 1898–d. 1981) and in France by George Duby (b. 1919–d. 1996). The neo-Malthusians emphasized the relation between demography and economic growth. Third, the Marxist approach, stressing the importance of class conflict and socioeconomic inequality within the “feudal” society, has developed under the influence of several important left-wing historians, the most influential of whom was Rodney Hilton (b. 1916–d. 2002). The Marxists tended to emphasize the theoretical, rather than the practical, side of the subject. Finally, and to some extent as a response to the Marxist school, the so-called Toronto school of revisionists emerged, led by J. Ambrose Raftis (b. 1922–d. 2008). Raftis and his students of the University of Toronto advocated the strengths within the peasant society, such as “peasant individualism,” relative harmony between various classes, and the rustic involvement in a wider economic life. The Toronto school paid considerable attention to painstaking analysis of archival materials, rather than theory or nontextual (material) evidence. The four schools have had a lasting impact on the contemporary scholarship dealing with rural life and peasant society in preindustrial Europe. In the early 21st century, however, new trends and directions seem to be under way. This new scholarship is strongly interdisciplinary in its approach, using all available evidence, from the written word to DNA sequences on skeletal and animal skin remains. Particular attention is paid to the biological and ecological context in which medieval peasants lived.

General Overviews

Although there are a fair number of authoritative overviews on medieval peasantry, such as Fossier 1988 and Genicot 1990, a more up-to-date introductory companion, covering the scholarship of recent decades remains, to a large degree, a disederatum. Most overviews still tend to be “national,” such as the Agrarian History of England and Wales (Finberg 1972, Hallam 1989, Miller 1991), or Histoire de la France rurale (Duby and Wallon 1975–1976).

  • Duby, Georges, and Armand Wallon, eds. Histoire de la France rurale. 4 vols. Paris: Seuil, 1975–1976.

    The most comprehensive overview of the history of French peasantry. Volumes 1 and 2 cover the “ancien régime” period.

  • Finberg, H. R. P., ed. Agrarian History of England and Wales. Vol. 1, Part 2, A.D. 43–1042. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1972.

    The first volume of a monumental series on the rural history of England and Wales, covering Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages.

  • Fossier, Robert. Peasant Life in the Medieval West. Translated by Juliet Vale. New York: Blackwell, 1988.

    A general account of peasant societies in the High and Late Middle Ages, with a strong emphasis on France.

  • Genicot, Léopold. Rural Communities in the Medieval West. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990.

    Provides a wide chronological and geographic perspective.

  • Hallam, H. E., ed. Agrarian History of England and Wales. Vol. 2, 1042–1350. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

    The second volume of the series, covering the pre–Black Death period.

  • Miller, Edward, ed. Agrarian History of England and Wales. Vol. 3, 1350–1500. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

    The third volume of the series, surveying developments at the close of the Middle Ages.

  • Postan, M. M., ed. The Cambridge Economic History of Europe. Vol. 1, The Agrarian Life of the Middle Ages. 2d ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1966.

    Somewhat outdated, but still a very useful introductory guide to the peasant society, organized by countries and aspects.

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