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). 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.
In the wake of this disruption to the established order, later centuries saw the invention of the printing press, the development of 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. Urban factory-workers, with their low skill and large numbers, quickly came to occupy the socio-economic stratum formerly the preserve of the medieval peasants.
This process happened in an especially pronounced and truncated way 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 though the West had made enormous strides, they had not; they responded by forcing the largely illiterate peasant populations under their control to embark upon a course of Westernization and industrialization.
The field of peasant studies as such originated in the early work of scholars such as Florian Znaniecki and Fei Xiaotong, and in the post-1945 studies of the "great tradition" and the "little tradition" in the work of Robert Redfield. In the 1960s, anthropologists and historians began to rethink the role of peasant revolt in world history and in their own disciplines. This rethinking responded in part to American involvement in the Vietnam War of 1955-1975, which critics[which?] on the political left regarded as an attempt to repress a peasant revolution. Peasant revolution was seen as a Third World response to capitalism and imperialism.
The anthropologist Eric Wolf, for instance, drew on the work of earlier scholars in the Marxist tradition such as Daniel Thorner, who saw the rural population as a key element in the transition from feudalism to capitalism. Wolf and a group of scholars[who?] criticized both Marx and the field of modernization theorists for treating peasants as lacking the ability to take action. James C. Scott's field observations in Malaysia convinced him that villagers were active participants in their local politics even though they were forced to use indirect methods. Many of these activist scholars looked back to the Peasant Movement in India and to the theories of the revolution in China led by Mao Zedong starting in the 1920s. The anthropologist Myron Cohen, however, asked why the rural population in China were called "peasants" rather than "farmers", a distinction he called political rather than scientific. One important outlet for their scholarly work and theory was the Journal of Peasant Studies.