Nasty, brutish and short: rethinking the lives of medieval peasants

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Peasants are often depicted as helpless victims of exploitative lords, backward technology and their own stubborn boorishness. From the mud-covered peasants of Monty Python to the half-starved, disease-ridden labourers of the popular and media imaginations, peasant life is always depicted as difficult and precarious. Many point to the peasant economy and its emphasis on providing for subsistence instead of market-oriented production. This is thought to lock the peasant in 'timeless' agricultural practices, rendering them incapable of improving their own lot or contributing to economic growth. Others see the peasant as the victim of class oppression, incapable of voicing his or her grievances and resorting only to primitive and ineffective forms of resistance. Underlying these ideas is a notion of peasant 'mentalities': like the landscape in which they worked, peasant psychology changed only at geological speed.

Over recent years much work has been done to revise this understanding, centering on the peasants themselves. There is no doubt that the living standards of medieval peasants were very low by comparison with those in wealthy countries today. Yet they were not unchanging. Written evidence, along with that provided by archaeology, has revealed the variations in diet, clothing and housing from one region or period to the next. Subsistence agriculture has also proved to be a problematic concept. Few cultivators in any period of history have been able to insulate themselves entirely from dependence on markets. If peasants were motivated to feed their own families, they were also bound to find cash to pay rents and taxes. Peasant political activity has also received much attention and forms of protest revealed to be surprisingly sophisticated. It was not unknown for peasants to produce extracts from ancient written records in order to argue with their lords.

This course will explore the lives and outlooks of peasants in the middle ages. Using changing historiography as the basis for discussion, we shall confront our own attitudes to poor country dwellers. We shall also spend time examining some of the evidence for peasant living standards and political activity. How should the historian reconstruct the lives of the majority when almost all the surviving source material comes from a small literate minority?

This course is part of the University of Cambridge Medieval Studies Summer School.

To apply for this course, please enrol on the Medieval Studies Summer School and select the courses you wish to study.

For more information about other Summer School programmes please visit:
www.ice.cam.ac.uk/intsummer/programmes.

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Unless otherwise stated, teaching and assessment for ICE courses is in English. Students for whom English is not their first language should refer to the Competence in the English Language Policy for further guidance.

Printable versions of our brochures are available to download from the Summer Schools brochure download page.

This course is part of the University of Cambridge Medieval Studies Summer School.

To apply for this course, please enrol on the Medieval Studies Summer School and select the courses you wish to study.

For more information about other Summer School programmes please visit:
www.ice.cam.ac.uk/intsummer/programmes.

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University of Cambridge
International Programmes
Institute of Continuing Education
Madingley Hall
Madingley
Cambridgeshire
United Kingdom
CB23 8AQ

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+44 (0) 1223 760850

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Course details

Start date

1 August 2010

End date

7 August 2010

Course code

SSOKa2

Duration

1 week

Venue

International Summer Schools
Sidgwick Site
Sidgwick Avenue
Cambridge
United Kingdom

Teaching sessions

Meetings: 5

Course director