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In a detail of Brueghel's "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: the 16th century was a good time for European peasants

A peasant, from 15th century French pasant meaning one from the pays, the countryside or region, (from Latin pagus, country district) is an agricultural worker with roots in the countryside in which he dwells, either working for others or, more specifically, owning or renting and working by his own labour a small plot of ground, in England a "cottager". Peasants exist in a world before the modern division of labor: a peasant must be a jack-of-all trades, handy at everything. Peasants depend on the cultivation of their land; without stockpiles of provision they thrive or starve according to the most recent harvest (illustration, above right). Peasants live to agricultural time; the "world-time", in Fernand Braudel's term, of politics and economics does not directly affect the peasant. Peasants typically make up the majority of the agricultural labour force in a pre-industrial society.

Though a word of not very strict application, once a market economy has taken universal root, it is now frequently used of the traditionalist rural population in countries where the land is chiefly held by smallholders, peasant proprietors.

In the great majority of pre-industrial societies, peasants constitute the bulk of the population, the authentic "silent majority". A rural peasant population differs enormously in its values and economic behavior from an urban worker population. Peasants tend to be more conservative than urbanites, and are often very loyal to inherited power structures that define their rights and privileges and protect them from interlopers, despite their generally low status within them.

Peasant societies generally have very well developed social support networks. Especially in harder climates, members of the community who have a poor harvest or suffer some form of hardship will be taken care of by the rest of the community. Loyalties and vengeance both run very deep. Peasant communities are extremely tight, and are often difficult to access or understand by outsiders.

Peasant societies can often have very stratified social hierarchies within them.

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Sedentary Occupations of the Peasauts.--Fac-simile from an Engraving on Wood, attributed to Holbein, in the "Cosmographie" of Munster (Basle, 1552, folio).

In a barter economy, peasants characteristically have a different attitude to work than peasants— or towndwellers— in a money economy would. Most of them are content to live at a subsistence level and will not expend unnecessary labour raising their standard of living. Traditionally many non-peasants have viewed this as laziness. However, it does make sense from their perspective, since there would rarely be any point in producing more than could be consumed.

Fernand Braudel devoted the first volume of his major work, Civilization and Capitalism 15th–18th Century to the largely silent and invisible world that existed below the market economy, in The Structures of Everyday Life.

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Costume of a Vilain or Peasant, Fifteenth Century, from a 15th-century miniature of the "Danse Macabre," Bibliothque National, Paris, Ms 7310

Since the literate classes who left the most record tended to dismiss the peasants as figures of coarse appetite and rustic comedy, "peasant" may have a pejorative rather than descriptive connotation in historical memory. However, it was not always that way; peasants were once viewed as pious and seen with respect and pride. Life was hard for peasants, but before technology and a money economy created a chasm between rich and poor, life was hard for everyone. Society was theorized as organized in three "estates": those who work, those who pray and those who fight. Those who theorized did so for those whose recent ancestors did little but fight, ecclesiastics and nobles who increasingly lived more private lives. A new consciousness of inalienable rights and new, unjust impositions from above contributed to the popular (or peasant) uprisings of the 14th century, the breakdown of the feudal system and the rise of modernity. Once a money economy had intruded on the old agricultural order, the peasant was slowly transformed into the laborer for wages, or he might hold a precarious position as an independent smallholder, one of the "yeomen" of sentimental history.

In some countries in central and eastern Europe where a barter economy obtained in self-sufficient societies, reintroduced serfdom continued up to the 19th century in places, and in some third world countries the term is still broadly applicable today.

Peasant Sayings

Related Topics


  • Braudel, Fernand, The Structures of Everyday Life vol I of Civilization and Capitalism
  • Ladurie, Emmanuel Le Roy, Montaillou : The Promised Land of Error
  • Mollat, Michael, The Poor in the Middle Ages, 1986.




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