It is possible to see why, despite all the poverty and the hardships and dependence, the agricultural society of the early Middle Ages – and of the later Middles Ages too in many regions – should have been relatively unreceptive to the militant eschatology of the unprivileged. To an extent which can hardly be exaggerated peasant life was shaped and sustained by custom and communal routine. In the wide northern plains peasants were commonly grouped together in villages; and there the inhabitants of a village followed an agricultural routine which had been developed by the village as a collectivity. Their strips of land lay closely interwoven in the open fields, and in ploughing, sowing an reaping they must often have worked as a team. Each peasant has the right to use the ‘common’ to a prescribed extent and all the livestock grazed there together. Social relationships within the village were regulated by norms which, though they varied from village to village, had the sanction of tradition and were always regarded as inviolable. And this was true not only of relationships between villagers themselves but of the relationship between each villager and his lord. In the course of long struggles between conflicting interests each manor had developed its own laws which, once established by usage, prescribed the rights and obligations of each individual. To this ‘custom of the manor’ the lord himself was subject; and the peasants were commonly most vigilant in ensuring that he did in fact abide by it. Peasants could be vary resolute in defending their traditional rights and even on occasion in extending them. They could afford to be resolute, for the population was sparse and labour much in demand; this gave them an advantage which to some extent offset the concentration of landed property and of armed force in the hands of their lords. As a result the manorial regime was by no means a system of uncontrolled exploitation of labour. If custom bound the peasants to render dues and services, it also fixed the amounts. And to most peasants it gave at least that basic security which springs from the hereditary and guaranteed tenancy of a piece of land.
The position of the peasant in the old agricultural society was much strengthened, too, by the fact that – just like the noble – he passed his life firmly embedded in a group of kindred. The large family to which the peasant belonged consisted of blood-relatives by male and female descent and their spouses, all of them bound together by their ties with the head of the group – the father (or, failing him, mother) of the senior branch of the family. Often this kinship-group was officially recognised as the tenant of the peasant holding, which remained vested in it so long as the group survived, Such a family, sharing the same ‘pot, fire and loaf’, working the same unpartitioned fields, rooted in the same piece of earth for generations, was a social unit of great cohesiveness – even though it might itself be riven at times by bitter internal quarrels. And there is no doubt that the individual peasant gained much from belonging to such a group. Whatever his need, and even if he no longer lived with the family, he could always claim succour from his kinsfolk and be certain of receiving it. If the ties of blood bound they also supported every individual.
The network of social relationships into which a peasant was born was so strong and was taken so much for granted that it precluded any very radical disorientation. So long as that network remained intact peasants enjoyed not only a certain material security but also – which is even more relevant – a certain sense of security, a basic assurance which neither constant poverty nor occasional peril could destroy. Moreover such hardships were themselves taken for granted, as part of a state of affairs which seemed to have prevailed from all eternity. Horizons were narrow, and this was as true of social and economic as of geographical horizons. It was not simply that contact with the wide world beyond the manor boundaries was slight – the very thought of any fundamental transformation of society was scarcely conceivable. In an economy which was uniformly primitive, where nobody was very rich, there was nothing to arouse new wants; certainly nothing which could stimulate men to grandiose phantasies of wealth and power.
Norman Cohn, ‘The Pursuit of the Millenium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages’ (1957/2004, p55-56).