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 The nature of manorialism
The feudal system was the means whereby protection was obtained for society; the manor was the agency that provided the necessary food for society's members. Feudalism and the manorial system evolved independently, but they were intimately connected.

The term MANORIAL SYSTEM refers to the economic and social system that centered on the manors, the great estates whose origins go back to the Roman
latifundia with their coloni workers.

In Gaul, in particular, these estates survived the Germanic invasions.

During the early Middle Ages they were held either by the descendants of their Roman owners or by Frankish kings, nobles, and the Church.

The medieval serf was the direct descendant of the Roman colonus who worked the land, paid rent in kind, and could not leave the estate without the owner's permission.

The MANOR varied in size from one locality to another.

A SMALL one might contain only about a DOZEN HOUSEHOLDS.

Since the allotment to each family averaged about THIRTY ACRES, the small manors probably included about 350 ACRES of tillable land.

This did not include the meadows, woods, wasteland, and the lord's demesne land.

A LARGE manor might contain FIFTY FAMILIES and a total area of 5000 ACRES.

The center of the manor was the VILLAGE:

The thatched cottages of the PEASANTS were grouped together along one street Around each cottage was a space large enough for a vegetable patch, chicken yard, haystack, and stable.

An important feature of the landscape was the VILLAGE CHURCH, together with the priest's house and the burial ground.

The LORD'S DWELLING might be a castle or a more modest manor house.

Every manor contained two types of land, arable and nonarable.

Part of the arable land, called the DEMESNE, was reserved for the lord and was cultivated for him by his serfs.

From 1/3 to 2/5 of the arable land was given over to the lord's demesne.

The demesne might be either sharply set off from the tenures of the villagers or distributed among the lands of the tenants

The remainder of the arable land was held by the VILLAGERS. It was allocated to them under the OPEN-FIELD SYSTEM, whereby the fields were subdivided into strips.

The NONARABLE LAND, consisting of meadow, wood, and wasteland, was used in common by the villagers and the lord.

The strips, each containing about an acre, were separated by narrow paths of uncultivated turf. 

The serfs holding was not all in one plot, for all soil throughout the manor was not equally fertile, and a serious attempt was made to give each of the villagers land of the same quality.

 Each tenant was really a SHAREHOLDER IN THE VILLAGE COMMUNITY, not only in the open fields but also in the meadow, pasture, wood, and wastelands.

His rights in these common lands were determined by the number of acres he held in the open fields.

The WOODED LAND was valuable as a place to graze pigs, the most common animal on the manor. Again the tenant was limited in the number of pigs that he might turn loose there.

The tenant could also gather dead wood in the forest, but cutting down green wood was prohibited unless authorized by the lord.

It is misleading to generalize too sweepingly about agricultural methods, because differences in locality, fertility of soil, crop production, and other differences resulted in a variety of farming methods. But if we study farming as practiced in northwestern Europe, we can discover some common:

The implements which the peasants used were extremely crude.

The PLOW was a cumbersome instrument with heavy wheels, often requiring as many as eight oxen to pull it. (By the twelfth century plow horses were common.)

There were also CRUDE HARROWS, SICKLES, BEETLES for breaking up clods, and FLAILS for threshing.

Inadequate methods of farming soon exhausted the soil.  It has been estimated that the average yield per acre was only six to eight bushels of wheat, A FOURTH OF THE MODERN YIELD).

In classical times farmers had learned that soil planted continually with one crop rapidly deteriorated.  To counteract this, they employed a TWO-FIELD SYSTEM, whereby half of the arable land was planted while the other half lay fallow to recover its fertility.

Medieval farmers learned that WHEAT OR RYE could be planted in the autumn as well as in the spring.

As a result, by the ninth century they were dividing the land into THREE FIELDS, with one planted in the fall, another in the spring, and the third left lying fallow.

This system not only kept more land in production but also required less plowing at any given time.

Though the lord might live on one of his manors, each manor was administered by certain officials.

The STEWARD was the general overseer who supervised the business of all his lord's manors and presided over the manorial court.

It was the BAILIFF'S duty to supervise the cultivation of the lord's demesne, collect rents, dues, and fines, and inspect the work done by the peasants.

The REEVE was the "foreman" of the villagers, chosen by them and representing their interests.

 In status and function the various social classes that made up the manor community differed not only from locality to locality but from period to period. However, they can be roughly divided into three major categories:



They possessed PERSONAL FREEDOM and were not subject to the same demands as the semifree people.

The freeman did not have to work in the lord's fields himself but could send substitutes.

He paid rent for his holding and, if he wanted to leave, could locate a new tenant for the land, provided the transfer took place in open court and the new man was acceptable to the lord.

Aside from these privileges, however, the freeman was little different from the semifree man. His strips in the open field adjoined those of the servile worker, and he lived in a cottage in the same village


The SERFS, were BOUND TO THE MANOR and could not leave without the lord's consent

Serfdom was a HEREDITARY STATUS; the children of a serf were attached to the soil as their parents were.

The lord of the manor was bound by the force of custom to respect certain rights of his serfs.

So long as they paid their dues and services, serfs COULD NOT BE EVICTED from their hereditary holdings.

Although a serf could not appear in court against his lord or a freeman, he COULD APPEAL TO THE MANOR COURT against any of his fellows.

 Whereas the peasants found their economic, political, legal, and social life in the manor, to the lord the manor was essentially a source of income from three obligations imposed on the peasantry:


The most important service was WEEK-WORK

The peasant had to donate two or three days' work each week to the lord.

The week-work included such jobs as repairing roads or bridges or carting manure to the fields.

Because the lord's demesne had always to be plowed first, sowed first, and reaped first, the peasant also had to perform EXTRA BOON-WORK at these times.


Various dues or payments - usually in produce, in money if it was available -- were made to the lord., including the TAILLE (or tallage), a tax on whatever property a peasant managed to accumulate, was the most common  It was levied on all peasants one or more times a year.

Another burdensome tax was imposed when a peasant died; before a son could inherit his father's cottage and strips, the lord claimed the best beast or movable possession as INHERITANCE TAX.


In addition to services and dues, the lord profited from certain monopolies.

He operated the only grain mill, oven for baking bread, and wine and cider press on  the manor, and he collected a toll each time these services were needed.


On the manors of the Middle Ages the margin between starvation and survival was narrow, and the LIFE OF THE PEASANT WAS NOT EASY.

Famines were common;.

Warfare and wolves were a constant threat.

Grasshoppers, locusts, caterpillars, and rats repeatedly destroyed the crops.

Men and women alike had to toil long hours in the fields.

 The difficulties of the peasant's life were reflected in his home, a COTTAGE with mud walls, clay floor, and thatched roof.

The fire burned on A FLAT HEARTHSTONE in the middle of the floor; and unless the peasant was rich enough to afford a chimney, the smoke escaped through a hole in the roof.

The WINDOWS had no glass and were stuffed with straw in the winter.

FURNISHINGS were meager, consisting usually of a table, a kneading trough for dough, a cupboard, and a bed, often either a heap of straw or a box filled with Straw, which served the entire family.

PIGS AND CHICKENS wandered about the cottage continually, while the stable was frequently under the same roof, next to the family quarters.

 The peasant, despite his hard, monotonous life, was not without a few pleasures.

Wrestling was exceedingly popular; as were cock-fighting, a crude type of football, and fighting with quarterstaves, in which both the contestants stood an excellent chance of getting their heads bashed in.

Around the porch of the parish church the peasants often congregated to dance and sing. 

The Church preached in vain against "ballads and dancing and evil and wanton  songs and such-like lures of the Devil."

The peasants refused to give up these amusements, a small enough compensation  for the constant exploitation they suffered.

Medieval serfs also possessed a large degree of economic security, and in this respect they were perhaps better off than the factory workers of the early nineteenth century.


How is manorialism related to feudalism?

Despite the unequal distribution of wealth on a manor, the system of manorialism lasted for for almost 1000 years. How do you account for this?

Describe the daily life of a peasant living on a manor in western Europe in the year 1000.



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Last modified: October 31, 1999