A question that fascinates me is that of how much your average medieval peasant farmer actually understood of the world. Actually, it is probably more accurate to say that what fascinates me is how difficult it is to know the answer to that, or even to understand the bounds of the question itself.
In a post from a while back Tom was arguing that medieval people were predominantly ignorant. He was pointing out that many of them seemed to believe things that were palpably not true and genuinely crazy - like mice being born from the soil itself, or geese growing on trees. It's important to be charitable, of course: it is pretty unfair to say that somebody is "ignorant" about things they couldn't possibly know (like, say, the theory of evolution). But Tom was definitely on to something. For instance, I have recently been reading a book called Meadowland: The Private Life of an English Field. In it, as an aside, the author mentions that people in the Middle Ages actually seemed to think that swallows went to live under the sea when they migrated. More than that: they thought it was possible to go fishing for swallows with a net in wintertime. Also, the people in his local area, until fairly recently, used to build fires in the homes using elder twigs, wood and bark - which causes cyanide to metabolise in the body and was responsible for them basically slowly killing themselves.
Which is very odd, because this very book is written by a farmer and portrays a very compelling vision of how intimate a connection a farmer (read: peasant) has with the land he farms. He knows every yard of it, and everything about it - how could he not? He works on it every day, and does very little else. How could you and all your relatives go their whole lives working on a farm every day without realising that animals breed by mating with each other just like humans? Would none of you ever have come across the nest of a mouse? Or watched a goose lay eggs?
And this vision of the ignorant and bewildered peasant is matched pound-for-pound by the image of the peasant as possessing an encyclopedic knowledge of his (albeit small) world. Take a passage from Evelyn's Sylva, or A Discourse on Forest Trees, which I came across today for other reasons - it goes on for ages about all the different things an elm tree can be used for and all its characteristics: how it can be used for chopping blocks, for mills, for ship planks below the water line, for providing relief to cattle in its leaves, for healing wounds and cuts or consolidating fractures, etc. etc. If people in ye olde days could know so much about elm trees, why did they have such odd ideas about mice, swallows and geese? More to the point, if they knew so much about elm trees, why were they slowly poisoning themselves with elders? In Guns, Germs and Steel Jarred Diamond describes how hunter gatherers in New Guinea know in precise detail the effects of all of the plants in their area of forest - what's safe to eat and what isn't; what's the tastiest; when fruits ripen, etc. That chimes with plenty of other things I've read and seen. What's the difference between a hunter gatherer in the jungle and a peasant farmer?
It is extremely difficult to put yourself into the shoes of somebody who, in all likelihood, never strayed farther than a day or so from his home in his entire life and never went to school. Everything you would know would be gleaned from the accumulated wisdom of the people around you, from hearsay and conjecture, and from personal practical experience. The question remains: how much would you actually know - and would you think that swallows went to live under the sea in winter?