"There were free and unfree peasants. Free peasants could leave the manor as they wished. Unfree peasants had to buy their way out of the manor by paying their lord."
Peasants typically make up the majority of the agricultural labour force in a Pre-industrial society, depending on the cultivation of their land: without stockpiles of provisions they thrive or starve according to the most recent harvest. 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.
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.
In the great majority of pre-industrial societies, peasants constitute the bulk of the population. Peasant societies generally have very well developed social support networks. Especially in harder climates, members of the community who have a poor harvest or suffer some form of hardship will be taken care of by the rest of the community.
Peasant societies can often have very stratified social hierarchies within them as well. A rural peasant population differs enormously in its values and economic behavior from urbanites and tends 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 in three “estates”: those who work, those who pray, and those who fight.
In the wake of this disruption to the established hierarchy, later centuries saw the invention of the original printing presses, 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. These factory workers with their low skill and large numbers quickly came to occupy the same socio-economic stratum as the original medieval peasants.
This was especially pronounced 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 the West had made enormous strides they had not, responding by forcing the largely illiterate peasant populations under their control to embark upon a Westernization and industrialization campaign.
Peter the Great initiated a half-successful attempt to force more than 500 years' worth of social change in the space of a few generations. Modernization of agriculture in Eastern Europe and Russia was not achieved until after the October Revolution.