The word "peasant" is—and long has been—often used pejoratively to refer to poor or landless farmers and agricultural workers, especially in the poorer countries of the world in which the agricultural labor force makes up a large percentage of the population. The implication of the term is that the "peasant" is uneducated, ignorant, and unfamiliar with the more sophisticated mannerisms of the urban population.
The word peasantry is also commonly used in a non-pejorative sense as a collective noun for the rural population in the poor and under-developed countries of the world.
The word "peasant" is derived from the 15th century French word païsant (compare Italian paesano), meaning one from the pays, or countryside; ultimately from the Latin pagus, or outlying administrative district.
Peasants typically made up the majority of the agricultural labour force in a pre-industrial society. The majority of the people in the Middle Ages were peasants.
Though "peasant" is a word of loose application, once a market economy had taken root, the term peasant proprietors was frequently used to describe the traditional rural population in countries where smallholders farmed much of the land. More generally, the word "peasant" is sometimes used to refer pejoratively to those considered to be "lower class", perhaps defined by poorer education and/or a lower income.
The open field system of agriculture dominated most of northern Europe during medieval times and endured until the nineteenth century in many areas. Under this system, peasants lived on a manor presided over by a lord or a bishop of the church. Peasants paid rent or labor services to the lord in exchange for their right to cultivate the land. Fallowed land, pastures, forests, and wasteland were held in common. The open field system required cooperation among the peasants of the manor. It was gradually replaced by individual ownership and management of land.
The relative position of peasants in Western Europe improved greatly after the Black Death had reduced the population of medieval Europe in the mid-14th century: resulting in more land for the survivors and making labor more scarce. 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.