Medieval Peasant life in Milton Abbas – house and home

Of course there are no surviving medieval peasant houses in Milton Abbas, the same could be said of any settlement in England, they have long since decayed or been replaced. However in some locations parts have been incorporated into other structures, this is particularly true of ‘hall’ houses which dendrochronology shows the larger timbers to date to the 13th or 14th centuries. We do not know if any of these hall houses were ever built in Milton Abbas, but as it was a market town at this time it seems likely that better off trades people or innkeepers did live in them. However we are not considering these hall houses, but those of peasants which were mostly constructed by the families themselves without skilled artisans, and using entirely local materials. We do have a list of tenants and their status from 1317, as well as a list of those peasants who were tax payers in 1327 and 1332, so we have some idea of the number of people living here and their wealth, that is,  before the Black Death of 1348 changed everything. As in all periods of human existence, the early 14th century was a time of changes. The population of England had expanded and the large rural population had moved from a subsistence economy to one of agricultural surpluses bringing wealth to peasants and lords. House building was no exception and domestic houses were becoming more comfortable, though we do not know how many and what strata of peasants this applied to in Milton Abbas.(1) The only stone buildings in Milton Abbas would be the abbey buildings, notably the church and cloisters. At this time archaeology has shown that it was unlikely that domestic buildings would have kept animals, that tradition had passed. Nevertheless, animals did live in close proximity, certainly pigs and chickens within the fenced curtilage of each peasant house.

It must be remembered that everyone in the family except infants contributed to the family income in some way, not just subsistence but for trade. Women and young girls would certainly be spinning hemp or wool, sewing, weaving and clothes making, as well as dairying, cheese making and brewing ale. The boys would be helping and learning with their fathers about ploughing, sowing, hurdle making, wood cutting, and so on. Many occupations would be done in the home, or in some cases a small building on the ‘messuage’.or curtilage. So the home was a multipurpose entity for eating, sleeping, rest and work. It is hard to imagine what life was really like then from our modern perspective. The preparation and consumption of food was of course vital to the function of the household and took up considerable space within. Quern stones have been excavated showing that not all tenants took their grain to the mill of the Lord of the Manor as they may have been obliged to, food items needed to be stored such as salted and smoked meat and fish, fruit, peas, beans and other vegetables, grain, and wooden boxes were used to keep rodents from spoiling it. The storage area was likely one of the other bays to house living quarters, although it may have been in a separate building outside. Brewing, dairying and sheepskin processing would also be in one such bay. Brewing required a lead tank, and cheese making required many shallow pans. The peasant family home must have been quite a cramped place, especially if the children had grown to adolescence and were still at home, as most of them would have been until they could acquire land on their own. Hence it is likely that there were outbuildings in the curtilage for storage and keeping animals. Ovens were unusual indoors and it seems likely that a communal bakehouse was used. Some manors insisted that bread was baked in the manor’s bakehouse – for a fee of course. Meat was usually boiled in a cauldron with vegetables and not baked using a spit. Most tableware was wooden. but nevertheless archaeology reveals large quantities of ceramic sherds which are the remains of broken pots and residue analysis reveals their use for dairying and cooking over the hearth.(2)

These peasant houses are very little discussed outside archaeology, for example Margaret Wood’s 448 page book ‘The English Medieval House’ has just one short paragraph on them.(3) All such studies concentrate on the development of the higher status hall houses.

From archaeological excavations elsewhere, from wills and inventories and manor court records it is clear that these peasant homes were single storied, and had no luxury goods, just the necessities of clothing, bedding, a bench to sit on, an open hearth in the middle of one room, a cauldron to cook in, and mostly wooden eating and drinking vessels, although pottery jugs were becoming more common and fanciful. Milton Abbas was a market town, and a very important and large one for Dorset, so had access to all the latest materials. However, at the time we are considering, the early 14th century, chimneys were not yet invented, and hearth hoods on a side wall were just being introduced. With open hearth cooking came the problem of respiratory disease

So what were the peasant houses like? Very few medieval buildings have been excavated in Dorset, but fortunately one of Milton Abbey’s estates, at Holworth, near Owermoigne, was reported in the Proceedings of the Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society in 1960.

The former settlement at Holworth is an example of a Deserted Medieval Village (DMV) of which many hundreds are listed in England, and more are being found today using LiDAR. Studies of such villages by archaeology have provided almost all our knowledge of peasant houses. There is a research group devoted to their study now known as the Medieval Settlement Research Group.(4)

The Historic England list entry has this to say about Holworth:

“The medieval settlement at Holworth survives as a series of well preserved earthworks and associated deposits. The site is notable for the quality of earthwork survival and the diversity of the forms represented. The settlement is known from partial excavation to contain archaeological and environmental evidence which relates to the construction, use and development of the settlement as well as its associated economy.(5)

The excavation of Holworth by Rahtz (5) was the first and possibly still the only medieval village to be excavated in Dorset. A recent excavation by Clare Randall on a medieval manor was reported in 2020.(7) Land at Holworth was granted to Milton Abbey by King Athelstan in 934 and is mentioned in Domesday Book with six hides, tithes and the wreck of the sea.(8) Miraculously, we know the names of the tenants and their customary services and rents due to the Abbot of Milton written down on the Feast of St Michael in the eleventh year of the reign of King Edward II, 1317.(9)

At Holworth there are seven tofts and crofts visible as earth works and these are so uniform and well defined that the site is one of the best defined DMVs in southern England, compared with the famous and intensively studied Wharram Percy on the Yorkshire Wolds. The earliest settlement at Holworth was dated by pottery as 13th century but predated the excavated croft (house) and roadway which were dated to the 13th to 15th centuries by the pottery sherds found in context (about 14 000 of them, 90% unglazed). One of the developments after the Norman conquest was the use of foundations which extended the life of timber buildings considerably, in contrast earlier medieval buildings had upright timbers sunk into the ground (earthfast) or into a sill beam which itself was sunk into the ground. Such houses had a life span of twenty to seventy years. One building fully excavated at Holworth was 20m long and 5m wide externally, divided into three rooms. This is absolutely typical of peasant houses of two or three bays each roughly 5m by 5m limited by the size of the available timber. Flint or pebble free-draining foundations are essential to cob walled houses. Considerable attention was paid to drainage at Holworth being on clayey soil and many ditches were excavated. At the back of the houses were fenced plots of land approximately 35m wide and 90m long, thus 0.3 hectare (¾ acre), which are believed to have been used for pasture, again as it is wet clay soil. In an extensive survey of curtilage plot sizes they ranged from 900 to 4500m2.(2) containing the house, barn, garden, orchard, pig sty, chicken coop.(2)

If you wish to see a building like this there is a reconstructed example at the Weald and Downland Living Museum, (10) based on the archaeological excavations at Hangleton, Sussex 1952 – 1954. It is possible that Milton Abbas peasant cottages had flint walls since flint is a locally available resource, although it is more likely that at Milton Abbas the walls would have been timber framed with cob infill, or just chalk cob. Cob made from chalk and straw is a common local material being used  for walls in local buildings 350 years later and still surviving in the Street, Milton Abbas. Houses may have been of cruck construction, although mostly in midland England, there are 251 surviving examples in Dorset recorded by the Archaeological Data Services website(11) and indeed several still surviving in the next village in Hilton although none in Milton Abbas.

Roofs would almost certainly have been thatch on local small diameter unsawn coppiced timber or branches from larger trees. The flint walls used in the Hangleton reconstruction would have required lime mortar, and unlike cob, this costs money to make – it requires a lot of firewood and a specialised lime kiln. No carpentry skills are required to build these peasant houses, indeed carpentry joints such as mortice and tenon are a later development and marvellous examples are still to be seen in the roofs of Mitlon Abbot’s Hall c1498 and St John the Baptist church Bere Regis c.1485. One of the artefacts found during the Holworth excavation was an iron key showing that peasants locked their doors. Windows were barred and shuttered and certainly would not contain any glass, doors and their frames would be made of wood, no cut stone would have been used in peasant houses. There were improvements in timber and carpentry skills e.g. joints, at this time and many carpenters are listed in the later 1381 poll tax. However, good square-cut timber from mature tall trees cost money to cut and transport and the carpenters had to be paid. With increasing income peasants would have wished very much to show off their wealth and status. Dyer (1) estimates that in a good agricultural year a peasant family with a virgate of land might have an excess of income over expenditure of the order of £1, that is 240 silver pennies in the coinage of the time, he also estimates from surviving court rolls of the time that a timber framed two bay house would cost a minimum of £1 and up to £10, depending on local costs and amount of timber. Peasants were able to borrow money in this cash economy of the early 14th century, and would do so for house building.(2)

We do not know if the two weekly markets at Milton Abbas had permanent or temporary market stalls. In the former case the Abbot would have charged rent, or if the latter, his income would be from the market tolls. Most towns would have had a butcher, baker, inn-keeper, ale producer, leather worker, and a draper, at the very least,as permanent premises. Other trade could be conducted using temporary stalls, such as cheese, bread, pots, pans, crockery which could be easily transported by cart or pack horse.


  1. Making a Living in the Middle Ages, Christopher Dyer, Yale UP, 2002
  2. Peasants Making History: Living In an English Region 1200-1540, Christopher Dyer, OUP, 2022, p131
  3. The English Medieval House, Margaret Wood, Phoenix, 1965, p215 
  4. accessed 12 Apr 2023
  5. accessed 12 Apr 2023
  6. P A Rahtz, Holworth, Medieval Village Excavation 1958, Procs DNHAS, 81, 1960, p127 – 147
  7. Anciently a Manor: Excavation of a medieval site at Lower Putton Lane, Chickerell, Dorset, Clare Randall, DNHAS Monograph Series 24, 2020
  8. Victoria County History of Dorset, Vol 3, p79. Exon Domesday entry: “The abbot has 1 manor which is called Holverda. This (manor) paid geld for 5 hides on the day when King Edward was alive and dead. Five ploughs can plough these. Of these the abbot has in demesne 3 hides and 2 ploughs and the villeins 2 hides and 2 ploughs. There the abbot has 4 villeins and 5 coscets and 4 serfs and 1 packhorse and 4 cows and 224 sheep and 3 acres of meadow and 5 furlongs of pasture in length and the same in width and it is worth 60s. and 1 sester of honey a year.”
  9. British Library Additional Manuscript 40886, folio 15v
  10. accessed 12 Apr 2023
  11. accessed 12 Apr 2023

Copyright Bryan Phillips May 2023