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Understanding Your Western European Ancestors:
Daily Life: Peasant Homesteads

The article below describes Western European peasant homesteads. It first appeared in History Magazine, May 2004. I added the graphics later.

Inside a quaint-looking, thatched-roof, cross-beamed home, the first morning light shines in the bedroom window. The husband and wife yawn and roll out of their straw bed. They get dressed quietly, since their children are sleeping just a few feet away on makeshift beds, set up on the floor or on benches. After the children wake up, the beds will be moved out of the way. The wife makes her way towards the kitchen to begin preparing breakfast, passing through the large, center hallway on her way. As she steps into the hall, she is greeted by the odor of animals that have slept in the home also. A maidservant, refreshed from her night’s sleep in the hayloft, meets her in the kitchen.

This could be the scene inside many peasant homes in nineteenth century Western Europe. Obviously, for these peasants, the concept of home was much different than ours today. Instead of being composed solely of one building with several rooms making up the family’s living quarters, peasant homes were, perhaps, more accurately described as homesteads, made up of a series of connected or unconnected rooms or buildings designed with a variety of purposes in mind.

Certainly, living accommodations varied from place to place, reflecting differences in culture, resources, and lifestyles. Even within the same town, differences in homesteads were abundant. However, many shared certain general characteristics. Peasant homesteads of the nineteenth century were mostly concerned with practicality. Little attention was paid to privacy or sanitation, and concepts of space were much different than today. Homesteads were designed to fulfill two main functions: providing shelter for the family and providing workspace for them to accomplish their economic tasks, which in general were farming and caring for livestock.

Set-up and Design

Peasant homesteads were usually passed down in families from one generation to another. The way in which this was done varied from place to place and through time. For example, in Sweden, in earlier times, it was the custom to divide the land between all children. After several generations of this, much of the land became divided into plots that were not economically viable as farmland anymore, with some people inheriting plots of land only one square foot by one square foot. Similar problems existed in other areas too. In response, laws were passed preventing land transactions of parcels below a certain size, and massive land reorganization movements eventually restructured many of the farms and villages.

In some areas, land typically went to the oldest male. Siblings were compensated in other ways, or sometimes inherited part of the title to the farm which the oldest male had to pay off when he was able. Daughters could hope to marry someone with land, while younger sons who did not inherit land could try to purchase land of their own, learn a trade, or become a day-laborer on another farm. Sometimes laws were passed mandating that the children be left equal inheritances, while in other places one child inherited much more than the others. Some laws even specified reasons a child could be left out of an inheritance.

Many peasants lived in villages, with homes found in fairly close proximity to one another, and farmland located some distance away. Sometimes traveling to and from the farmland could use a significant amount of time. Partly to combat this, in some areas homes began to built on the farmland. Although access to land was easier, the social benefits of living in a village were eroded.

Homesteads were generally laid out by function. Instead of having rooms that belonged to certain family members, rooms were divided based on tasks that were performed there. This functional layout resulted in some unexpected arrangements, at least by modern standards, as humans, animals, and farm equipment could be located in rooms of the home, right next to each other.

Although each region had unique layouts, some aspects were similar. A common layout found in northern Germany, among other places, consisted of a large, central hall surrounded by other rooms with doors opening into this main hall. These rooms included sleeping quarters for the family, grandparents, and servants, a kitchen, a pantry, a workroom, animal stalls, and storage areas. Hay was often stored inside the house, in a loft located between the inside ceiling and outside roof. Often a baking oven was found outside the home. Many people also had a vegetable garden nearby.

In Sweden, the buildings of the peasant homestead were often arranged in a square, with an open courtyard in the middle. Rooms commonly included a multi-purpose room (which served as a bedroom at night), a kitchen, storage rooms, barns, animal stalls, several threshing floors, space for equipment repair, and servant quarters, among others. The front gate opened to the village street. Large piles of manure that would later be transplanted to the fields and used as fertilizer were stacked on either side of the gate. Most families had a small vegetable garden nearby as well as a few fruit trees.

Building materials for homes varied from region to region. In earlier times, wood was the most widely used material. Due partly to an increase in the price of wood, nineteenth century homes were more likely to be made from brick or stone, although wood and combinations of several materials were still common. In the Alps areas, houses were often built from timber and stone. In other places, mud walls, supported by wooden beams, were the norm. In cold areas, walls were thick, providing extra insulation against the cold. Even the thickest walls though, provided temperature modifications of only a few degrees. In Lower Brittany in France, floors were made of mud. When it came time to replace the mud, families held large social gatherings where people danced into the night and stomped down the floor.

A common characteristic of peasant homes in many regions was thatched roofs. Despite their popularity, thatched roofs proved to be a fire hazard, since the material was highly flammable. In villages where homes were located close to one another, fire spread rapidly from one roof to another, sometimes demolishing all the buildings in a matter of hours. In Neubrandenburg, Germany, a law outlawing thatched roofs was passed after parts of the town had burnt to the ground seventy-five different times. Unfortunately, the law was never enforced and the people found it impractical and expensive to replace all the roofs with a different material.

Under One Roof: Household Occupants and Sleeping Accommodations

Although in Eastern Europe, it was common for grandparents, cousins, aunts, and uncles to all live together, this was much less common in Western Europe.Here, nuclear families, composed of parents and their children, were the norm, although families did sometimes share their living space with grandparents, servants, and even animals.

A husband, wife, and several children formed the core of most households. Single-parent households were rare. Although early death of a spouse was common, people remarried quickly. Because of this, in addition to the couple’s own children, children from previous marriages often lived in the household. Although women continued having children about every two years throughout their childbearing years, late marriages and high infant death rates kept family size down. For peasants, a large family was useful. Children were important to the economic functioning of the household, and were expected to perform tasks on the farm and around the house from a very young age. Babies were often cared for by older siblings.

Family members often shared small, cramped living quarters, with little or no private space. However, the size of homes in the nineteenth century was greater than it had been earlier, and continued to expand throughout the century. In many homes, the peasant farmer, his wife, and their children all shared one room. Even still, this room rarely functioned exclusively as a bedroom. Instead, the room doubled as a living room during the day.

Beds were valuable possessions, and most homes had fewer beds than people. Children sometimes shared large beds with their parents. Other times, children’s beds were makeshift and temporary, consisting of a straw mattress laid on top of a bench. In the morning, the mattress was simply stored elsewhere. In some areas, a special single bed was set up away from the others, near a source of heat or embedded in the wall, to provide more warmth. During the winter, the male head of household was given this superior sleeping place.

Throughout Northern and Central Europe, the peasant farmer was usually bound to provide living arrangements for his parents. The peasant farmer often inherited the homestead and farm from his parents upon their retirement, with the condition that he provide for them as long as they lived. In a few areas, this included arranging a separate dwelling in the village. Usually though, a room in the home was set-aside for his parents.

Depending on the ages of the peasant’s children and upon the family’s economic well-being, male farm hands and female maidservants could be living at the home. These servants were usually in their late teens or early twenties and came from nearby households. Many peasants, even those who weren’t particularly wealthy, employed at least one of each, especially during peak work times. Usually, families employed more servants while their children were young. As the children grew and could provide more help, they gradually replaced some or all of the labor provided by outside people. Peasants who were more well-off and owned more farmland, both needed more outside help and could afford it more easily. They sometimes employed four to five farmhands and an equal number of maidservants.

Although some peasant households had separate rooms for the male farmhands and female maidservants to sleep, many did not. Sometimes the male and female servants slept together in the hayloft. In Norway, they often slept in sheds. People concerned about the moral well-being of these young people complained that the result was many illegitimate children. In other places, servants slept in the stable with animals, benefiting from the extra warmth the animals provided. The close proximity also made watching over the animals more convenient, especially during calving season.

In addition to family members and servants, the family’s livestock often took up a significant amount of space in the home. In one area in Switzerland, animals had to pass through rooms in the house designed for use by the family in order to get to the stable. In other areas, makeshift partitions divided the space for the animals from the rest of the house. Very often animal stalls were located inside or near the home, sometimes next door to where the family slept. Although by the nineteenth century, the concept of pets was growing in popularity among the upper and middle class city population, among the rural population, animals were seen almost exclusively as contributors to the family’s economic well-being. Of course, this view among parents didn’t prevent children from getting attached to certain animals.

As the century progressed, changes occurred in many homes. For one thing, it became more common for the peasant farmer and his wife to have a bedroom separate from their children. Also, particularly in Spain, Italy, and France, efforts at educating the common people about sanitation resulted in more partitions and less shared space of humans and animals.

Space for Household Tasks

The other rooms or buildings in the homestead were set aside to fulfill certain tasks. Food preparation, storage and eating space often occupied several rooms. Throughout much of the century, a hearth in the center of the kitchen was used for cooking. By the 1870s, many peasant homesteads had acquired a stove. Pots, pans, cauldrons, and other supplies needed to prepare meals were also kept in the kitchen. In Sweden and to some extent in other Scandinavian countries, a still used to make homemade alcohol from wheat or potatoes occupied a sizable portion of the kitchen. Food was usually stored in a pantry located next to the kitchen. A separate food storage room might also be part of the homestead, which could contain flour and other grain bins, as well as salting bins for mutton and pork.

In some small homesteads, meals were also served in the kitchen. In other places, eating took place in the same room as sleeping, after the beds were moved to the side. By the middle of the 1800s, meals were served on a table surrounded by chairs. Before this, people had sometimes sat on benches around the hearth. With the use of tables, sharing a common bowl decreased in frequency, as each person had their own setting around the kitchen table. Throughout the century though, women continued taking their meals standing in order to be available to serve food to the men.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, kitchens were more frequently located in separate buildings, not connected to the rest of the home. This was done because of the higher risk of fire in the kitchen. The traditional kitchen also began to be divided into two rooms. One contained the stove and other supplies needed for cooking. The other room contained materials and space for cheese making, butter churning, or other food preparation.

In addition to eating and sleeping, the homestead was also a place where much of the family’s work was done. The family was an economic unit, and their homestead was their place of business. Because family and work were so intertwined, sometimes rooms devoted to work tasks were intermingled with bedrooms and kitchens. In other cases, work was done in separate buildings erected nearby. These work buildings or rooms could include rooms for threshing, a room for animal feed, and an area for blacksmithing, equipment repair, or other work tasks. In fact, the great majority of space in a peasant homestead was not living space for the family, but space to perform their work tasks.

Comforts of Home

Perhaps the greatest difference between nineteenth century homesteads and those from earlier periods was the increase in basic comforts. However, despite some significant improvements, progress in some areas remained slow.

A shift in how homes were heated constituted a fundamental change in living conditions. In earlier times, an open fire located in the middle of the main room provided heat for the entire home. Although slits in the ceiling allowed the release of some smoke, much remained inside. By the nineteenth century, fireplaces built into the wall, usually in the corner of a room, were becoming common. Besides clearing the air of smoke, fireplaces also greatly reduced the risk of house fires. In wealthy homes, fireplaces were located in several rooms, allowing heat to reach areas that had remained frigid with the use of the single open fire.

The amount of furniture found in homesteads was also drastically higher in the nineteenth century than in earlier times. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, every home had chairs (a century earlier, only three-quarters of homes had even one chair). Tables did not become a part of every home until around 1850. Besides beds, the only other commonly found furniture were chest of drawers and wardrobes, both for storage of clothes, and benches. Consumer goods also increased. While even basic items such as glasses, tablecloths, and forks were rare in 1700, by the mid 1800s, they were standard.

Other comforts did not reach homes until after the close of nineteenth century. One obvious room missing from peasant homesteads described above was a bathroom. Bathrooms were introduced into homes around the end of the nineteenth century, but still took many years to become standard. Instead, people relied on outhouses (in the cities and some other areas, chamber pots that were emptied outside on the street were common). Flush toilets only reached the wealthiest homes in the cities during the first decade of the twentieth century. Running water was also not a part of life for nineteenth century peasants. The frequency of washing both clothes and people increased throughout the century, but was still incredibly low by today’s standards. Clothes were washed outside, but usually only after being worn for a week or two. Baths, which generally occurred less than weekly, most often took place in portable washbasins filled with water from outside that had been heated. A century before this, in some areas children sometimes did not change their clothing or take a bath throughout the entire winter season.

The Difference of Social Class

Even in the nineteenth century, not all homes were created equal. Their size, comfort, and quality varied greatly according to the family’s needs, resources, and location. The greatest differences, however, existed between the homes of peasants and day laborers. The layouts described above mainly applied to the land-owning class of people, who were at the top of the social scale among the common people. Below them was a large class of people, sometimes called day laborers, who owned no land or farm of their own. Instead, they made their living working for other peasants on a day-to-day basis. Most of these people lived in poverty and survived at the subsistence level.

The homes of the day laborers differed in many ways from the landed peasant homesteads. These differences were partly due to the distinct function of their homes and partly due to a lack of resources. Because they owned little land or livestock, there was seldom a need for threshing rooms, barns, or animal stalls. Many of the day laborers kept only a couple of animals, which they used to provide food for their family. There was no need for servant quarters. Few homes had space for grandparents. Older people of the day-laborer class seldom “retired.” Instead, they worked as long as possible, and then were either taken in by children or became paupers, dependent on the parish for support.

Living space for family members of the day laborer’s household was crowded. Sometimes, more than one family shared a dwelling. An observer in France recorded that two families sometimes slept on hay laid out on the floor in opposite corners of one house. A German priest wrote of the deplorable living conditions of the day laborers in his jurisdiction. Sometimes, he recorded, an entire family slept in the loft of a peasant family’s home. Due to the lack of space and other financial restraints, children of day laborers left home as soon as possible to work for other people or to marry.

Because day laborers moved frequently looking for work, their homes were often only temporary residences, as opposed to peasant homesteads that could be passed down in families for generations. Because of this, homes of day laborers were not as well cared for or built. Descriptions indicate that they were often small, shabby, and unsteady. Homes for day laborers were also commonly located at the periphery of the village or on the less desirable land.

Artisans and citizens of towns also experienced different living conditions. In most parts of Europe at the beginning of the nineteenth century, people in these circumstances were a small minority. However, as the century progressed, more people moved to the cities and towns and experienced a much different home atmosphere than they had known as peasants in the countryside.

Figure 1: German Homestead

Figure 2: Swedish Homestead