The Peasantry

At the bottom of the country hierarchy were the "cottars", so called because they possessed nothing but the cottage in which they lived (which they rented) and perhaps an acre or two of land. If they were lucky or resourceful, they had skills, such as carpentry or weaving which they could use to supplement the minimal income they would gain from their lands. If not, they might follow the harvest, working for a pittance and enduring harsh conditions.

A step above the cottar was the tenant farmer (called a "husbandman"). He did not hold his land freely but rented it from another party, either a yeoman or one of the country gentry or aristocracy. If he was lucky, he was a copy holder, which meant he held a lease that guaranteed him tenancy of the land at the same rent for the duration of the lease -- and most leases lasted generations. A typical holding that might support a single family would be around 25 acres. In good times, the husbandman fared well by the standards of the day. He and his family usually had enough to eat, and though work was hard, there was time, now and again, for him to take a holiday and enjoy life in the manner he most enjoyed: singing, dancing and drinking.

Foremost among the husbandmen was the yeoman. The yeoman, though still a peasant, controlled through "freeholds" (a "freehold" was a perpetual lease that carried little or no rent) and possibly some leases as well, many acres of land, and probably had tenants of his own. He did not own his own land by law: the Lord of the Manor still held the title; but in actual practice, a freehold was indistinguishable from direct ownership.

The yeoman still worked the land and followed the plow, but he was clearly at the top of the village community. If the family of a yeoman applied themselves, and took pains to "engross" (enlarge and consolidate) their holdings, they could eventually find their way into the gentry. Many, however, were happy with the place God gave them, and though they might be far richer than many gentlemen, they still chose not to make that leap into gentility.