Medieval historians have long been finding new groups to study and new questions to ask the sources. The days when the rise of the nation-state was the principal focus of the field are long gone. In the last generation or two first women and gender and then, more recently, saints have become significant topics of study in their own right. Yet, in both cases, it was once assumed that we could not obtain what was considered useful information on these people, and that they were at any rate marginal and without influence, making no real impact either in medieval society or in the written sources. Here I would like to propose French peasants as the next frontier for medieval historians, the next group that needs to be recognized for their role in shaping events rather than overlooked as passive, silent victims.
It may perhaps be surprising to suggest peasants as a relatively unstudied group. After all, late medieval English manorial records and parish records are full of people one might call peasants, people with little social status, living in the countryside rather than in towns, engaged full-time in agriculture, often in service to someone far more powerful. Archaeology has revealed much about village structure and the diets of medieval people, of whom peasants were the vast majority. Ninth-century polyptyques are full of peasants, or at least full of lists of people with notations of what they owed their lords, and scholars have spent a great deal of effort working out the meanings of terms used to characterize peasants in the polyptyques, such as hospes, collibertus, ingenuus or famulus. For high medieval France – my own focus here – a whole generation of medievalists has been absorbed by the question of whether there was a ‘feudal revolution’ affecting the peasantry in the eleventh century.
Yet peasants themselves have rarely been the focus of scholarly analysis. When they do appear in the scholarship it is usually not as actors. Rather they are treated as marginal, as medieval women once were, passive creatures with little say in their own lives.