After studying the Feudal system in England after the French invasion in 1066, we were asked to write an empathy task as “A day in the life of a medieval villein.” Here is my piece:
I wake suddenly. It is dark as dark, but Edgar isn’t in bed. I assure myself he has gone for a walk; however I can hear the exaggerated talking and laughing from the ale house. I groan inwardly and roll over.
I wake again as Edgar forces the door open. He saunters in, swaying and grinning goofily. A faint streak of sunlight follows him inside. Time to start work. I rise and let the pigs and sheep out of their pen. There is a nip of ice in the morning air and the earthen floor is cold beneath my feet. As I tear open the bread, a shower of fine dust falls on my feet. I pick some up and examine it. Sawdust. I scowl and clench my hands into fists. I have a good mind to march right up to the miller, who is probably using my hard earned grain to make his own bread, but I remember that the children will be hungry for a good breakfast when they wake. I start to cook pottage.
Isobel and Abbott wake up and run towards me. I plaster a smile on my face and serve them a pottage of cabbage and onions. They gulp it down, talking non-stop about what they can play today. I remind them that before any games can be played, there is work in the fields to be done. They groan and run out the door before I have a chance to offer them some honey-sweetened water.
When I have cleaned the dishes from the meal, I braid my hair tightly and fasten a veil on my head. I straighten out my kirtle, which reaches my ankles and apply some lemon to my lips. Edgar is sprawled on the mattress, his tongue sticking out and drool trickling from the corner of his mouth. I go outside to fetch a bucket of icy cold water, which I tip over his head. He shouts out and sits up at once. There are dark circles under his eyes, but he seems to be back to normal. He sees the morning sun, now streaming in the open door and jumps up. I give him what is left of the pottage and some of the black bread. He spots the sawdust immediately and looks at me. As Edgar sets off for the field, I rush towards the mill.
Shelton the miller looks up as I enter, carrying a basket of the dark bread. His face is anxious, but only for an instant, then he is smiling warmly and asking me how do I do? I tell him that I want my eggs back; how could he betray me like this? He smiles slyly and produces the split stick from under his bench. The deal is done, I have my bread and he has his payment. I turn on my heel and walk out, his laughter ringing in my ears.
By the time I get out on the fields, the sun is beating down on the manor. This season, the field is further away, as last season’s field is lying fallow. I put on a straw hat to protect my face. After only minutes of sowing rye and wheat, Isobel and Abbott come sprinting up to me, Edgar striding behind them. They are all starving! We walk back to the house for a dinner of black bread and ale. While we are enjoying dinner, there is a knock at the door. I walk slowly to answer it. It is the Bailiff, Sutton. I smile politely, but inside I am filled with dread. Is he here to collect taxes, or to dish out a punishment? We barely survive as it is, let alone giving away some of our produce! What if Edgar has spread rumours again? He wouldn’t be let off so lightly as last time. Sutton clears his throat and I force myself back to reality. “Hmm hmm, I am here to pass on the message that Edgar the Villein has been heard telling rumours about the nobles from this manor. He is to be tried by ordeal in 2 days.” My jaw drops and my eyes widen. I can’t believe what I am hearing. “Whhat what happens if he is guilty?” I stammer, my heart racing. “He is to be branded on the tongue. Such nonsense is not tolerated in this town.” The Bailiff walks away, his nose in the air. Villagers make way for him. They are all crowding around our house, wanting to know why Bailiff Sutton had only visited our house. I hang my head in shame and close the door. Edgar is standing behind me, frozen stiff in shock.
When I settle onto my straw mattress later that evening, I wonder why God has brought such shame upon our family. I wonder if I will ever be able to look other villagers in the face again. I can remember when our dear friend Aelfred had his tongue branded. He and his wife Mary have never been the same.
In the morning, there is another knock on the door. I am puzzled; no one ever visits this early. I dress quickly and open the door. Outside is a very official looking man. He is wearing a long, bright leather jacket and pale stockings. I know straight away that he is the king’s official. He speaks in heavily accented, jumpy English, introducing himself as Henri and asking me my name, how many animals I own and how much grain I can produce in a week. I answer him quickly, telling him my name is Cuthberta, and that I own barely enough to survive. Little does he know, travellers from other villages have warned us of his arrival. I have been planning for weeks to tell lies about my belongings. I know that King William is going to tax us more; he wants to find out the value of his land. Henri tries to peer over my shoulder into the house, but I move to block his way. When he is finished and gone, I sigh, relieved.
It is the seventh day, day of the Sabbath. I go back inside and help dress the children in their nicest clothes. We walk together, hand in hand, to the church. The service has already started when we slip into our place. Being peasants means we do not have allocated seats in the church, and we have to stand through the whole service. After the hymns have been sung, it is time to go home. There is no work allowed today, but in the next three days we will have to work on the lord’s land.
We play games and dance to folk songs to fill in the rest of the day. Isobel and Abbott play game after game of tug-of-war and we all dance around, laughing and chanting. For our dinner, I fry chicken eggs, a special treat. The day passes in a whirl and soon it is time for supper. To everyone’s surprise I cook a tiny bit of meat! We enjoy it immensely and after supper, Isobel and Abbott lay on their mattress. Tomorrow is Edgar’s trial and though I try to keep it off my mind, I slip into a fantasy in which Edgar is found guilty. I pray to God that he is found innocent. There is a lot of hard work to be done for harvest, and we can’t afford to lose him. In the next few days, the taxes will be collected. We will have to give up our hard earned grains and animals. Finally, I pray that we have a good harvest this season, enough to keep us fit and strong and healthy so we can continue our hard work in the fields throughout the cold winter to come.
Author/editor unknown. (Copyright 2000.) Medieval Life. Publisher unknown. Available from: http://www.medieval-life.net/index.htm (29.5.11, 30.05.2011)
Author/editor unknown. (Copyright date unknown) Village Life. Publisher unknown. Available from: http://www.schoolhistory.co.uk/year7links/life/Villageworksheet.pdf (28.5.11, 29.5.11, 30.5.11, 31.5.11)
Twente, Christian and McDonald, Andrew. (Year unknown) Europe in the Middle Ages: Peasants and Nobles Available from TVT/Clickview: http://tclib01/digitalcontent/Yr 08/HUM08/Europe in the Middle Ages Peasants and Nobles.wmv (30.5.11)