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A peasant is an agricultural worker who generally owns or rents only a small plot of ground. The word is derived from 15th century French païsant meaning one from the pays, or countryside, ultimately from the Latin pagus, or outlying administrative district (when the Roman Empire became Christian, these outlying districts were the last to Christianise, and this gave rise to "pagan" as a religious term).[1] The term peasant today is sometimes used in a pejorative sense for impoverished farmers.

Peasants typically make up the majority of the agricultural labour force in a Pre-industrial society, dependent on the cultivation of their land: without stockpiles of provisions they thrive or starve according to the most recent harvest. The majority of the people in the Middle Ages were peasants. 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 (as a proportion of the total world population).

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. It is sometimes used by people who consider themselves of higher class as slang to refer pejoratively to those of poorer education who come from a lower income background.

In many pre-industrial societies, peasants comprised the bulk of the population. Peasant societies often had well developed social support networks. Especially in harder climates, members of the community who had a poor harvest or suffered other hardships were taken care of by the rest of the community. Peasants usually only had one set of clothing, two at most. Also, a peasant usually owed their lord 20% of their earnings. They also owed the priest or bishop 10% of their ownings. Of course, knights could, and would usually demand tributes for keeping them alive. Overall, the peasant usually retained only 10-20% of their total work and earnings.

Peasant societies can often have very stratified social hierarchies within them. Rural people often have very different values and economic behavior from urbanites, and tend 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 into three "estates": those who work, those who pray, and those who fight.[2]


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