A peasant is an agricultural worker who subsists by working a small plot of ground. The word is derived from 15th century French "païsant" meaning one from the "pays", or countryside. The term peasant today is sometimes used in a pejorative sense for impoverished farmers.

"There were free and unfree peasants. Free peasants could leave the manor as they wished. Unfree peasants had to buy their way out of the manor by paying their lord."

-Graham S.

Peasants typically make up the majority of the agricultural labour force in a Pre-industrial society, depending on the cultivation of their land: without stockpiles of provisions they thrive or starve according to the most recent harvest. Pre-industrial societies have diminished with the advent of globalization and as such there are considerably fewer peasants to be found in rural areas throughout the world.

Though "peasant" is a word of loose application, once a market economy has taken root the term "peasant proprietors" is frequently used to describe the traditional rural population in countries where the land is chiefly held by smallholders.


In the great majority of pre-industrial societies, peasants constitute the bulk of the population. 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.

Peasant societies can often have very stratified social hierarchies within them as well. A rural peasant population differs enormously in its values and economic behavior from urbanites and tends to be more conservative. Peasants are often very loyal to inherited power structures that define their rights and privileges and protect them from interlopers, despite their low status within those power structures.

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

Since it was the literate classes who left the most records, and these tended to dismiss peasants as figures of coarse appetite and rustic comedy, the term "peasant" may have a pejorative rather than descriptive connotation in historical memory. Society was theorized as being organized in three “estates”: those who work, those who pray, and those who fight. [Richard Southern: "The Making of the Middle Ages" (1952)]

In a barter economy, peasants characteristically have a different attitude to work than people in a money economy would.

Medieval European peasants

The relative position of Western European peasants was greatly improved after the Black Death unsettled medieval Europe.

In the wake of this disruption to the established hierarchy, later centuries saw the invention of the original printing presses, widespread literacy and the enormous social and intellectual changes of the Enlightenment.

This evolution of ideas in an environment of relatively widespread literacy laid the groundwork for the Industrial Revolution, which enabled mechanically and chemically augmented agricultural production while simultaneously increasing the demand for factory workers in cities. These factory workers with their low skill and large numbers quickly came to occupy the same socio-economic stratum as the original medieval peasants.

This was especially pronounced in Eastern Europe. Lacking any catalysts for change in the 14th century, Eastern European peasants largely continued upon the original medieval path until the 18th and 19th centuries. The Tsars then began to notice that the West had made enormous strides they had not, responding by forcing the largely illiterate peasant populations under their control to embark upon a Westernization and industrialization campaign.

Peter the Great initiated a half-successful attempt to force more than 500 years' worth of social change in the space of a few generations. Modernization of agriculture in Eastern Europe and Russia was not achieved until after the October Revolution.

ee also

*Petty nobility
*Folk culture
*Lower class
*Peasant revolt
*Popular revolt in late medieval Europe

Other terms for peasant

*Free tenant
*Pagesos de remença

Notes and references

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • Peasant — Peas ant, n. [OF. pa[ i]sant (the i being perh. due to confusion with the p. pr. of verbs), pa[ i]san, F. paysan, fr. OF. & F. pays country, fr. L. pagus the country. See {Pagan}.] A countryman; a rustic; especially, one of the lowest class of… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • Peasant — Peas ant, a. Rustic, rural. Spenser. [1913 Webster] …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • peasant — index ignoble Burton s Legal Thesaurus. William C. Burton. 2006 …   Law dictionary

  • peasant — early 15c., from Anglo Fr. paisant (mid 14c.), O.Fr. paisent (12c.), earlier paisenc, from pais country, region + Frankish suffix enc ing. Pais is from L.L. pagensis inhabitant of the district, from L. pagus country or rural district (see PAGAN… …   Etymology dictionary

  • peasant — [n] farmer boor, bumpkin, countryman/woman, cropper, farmhand, hayseed*, hick*, hired hand, laborer, peon, planter, provincial, rube, rustic, serf, sharecropper, villein; concepts 347,348,423 …   New thesaurus

  • peasant — ► NOUN 1) a poor smallholder or agricultural labourer of low social status. 2) informal an ignorant, rude, or unsophisticated person. DERIVATIVES peasantry noun. ORIGIN Old French paisent, from pais country …   English terms dictionary

  • peasant — [pez′ənt] n. [LME paissaunt < Anglo Fr paisant < MFr païsent < OFr < païs, country < LL pagensis, belonging to the district < pagus, district: see PAGAN] 1. any person of the class of small farmers or of farm laborers, as in… …   English World dictionary

  • peasant — peasantlike, adj. /pez euhnt/, n. 1. a member of a class of persons, as in Europe, Asia, and Latin America, who are small farmers or farm laborers of low social rank. 2. a coarse, unsophisticated, boorish, uneducated person of little financial… …   Universalium

  • peasant */ — UK [ˈpez(ə)nt] / US [ˈpezənt] noun [countable] Word forms peasant : singular peasant plural peasants 1) someone who works on another person s farm or on their own small farm. This word is used mainly about people in poor countries or people in… …   English dictionary

  • peasant —    Used as a term of abuse to a person, usually a man, to imply that he is without education or manners. The term is certainly not obsolete, as the Oxford English Dictionary states, though it is less used now than in earlier times.    The… …   A dictionary of epithets and terms of address

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