In this History Spot post, I am going to take a look at the lower end of the feudal system. The end that you and I would most likely have been a part of.
The medieval manor
This was the manor, a system which came originally it is believed, from the rural villa system of the late Roman Empire (which you can catch glimpses of in the brilliant Falco novels).
What was a manor?
The medieval manor was an important economic and social unit, not just in England but all over Europe.
It consisted of an area of largely self supporting land, held by a Lord, who lived (mostly) in the manor house, with his servants. The other inhabitants were the serfs or villeins who worked the land, undertook various other jobs, and who were largely under his control.
The types of land in a manor
The manor land mostly consisted of the following:
1. The demesne, which was the part directly controlled by the lord and which was used for the benefit of his household and dependents
2. Dependent (serf or villein) holdings – here the peasant households had an obligation to supply the lord with specified labour services or provide the lord with part of the produce (or sometimes cash in lieu), subject to the custom attached to the holding; and
3. Free peasant land – this did not carry any obligation to provide the lord with produce or services but was still subject to the manorial courts and custom, plus they had to pay a rent
Variation in manors
The proportions of each of 1 – 3 above varied from manor to manor, as did the size of manors and indeed the person who controlled them (under the feudal system no-one really ‘owned’ any land, other than the King).
Many manors were held by the Barons (or their tenants), but others were held directly by the King as we have seen, and a very substantial proportion (about a quarter it is believed) were held by the Church and monasteries (as is described in some of the Caefiel books).
As well as the feudal services or rent due to him, the lord also had a number of other sources of income:
- Payment for the use of the mill, bakery or wine press
- Payment for the right to hunt or to let pigs feed in his woodland
- Income from the manorial courts (villeins had legal rights and recourse to the courts but had to pay for this privilege, as now), and
- One-off payments made to the lord when a new tenant took over a holding (e.g. after a villeins death)
Farming and the map
The manorial economy was closely linked to the open field ‘strip’ farming system, where villeins held strips in huge fields which were worked in rotation.
You can see an example of a fictitious manor by clicking the map above, which will take you to a much larger version (you may have to click again), where you can see the details (note it will open in a new tab or window).
The manorial court controlled much of the activities of the manor, which was in the early days like a little feudal state in miniature, with its own customs and legislation.
However in time they became subject to the overall control of the Kings Courts and the power of the lord lessened somewhat.
Generally though the manor system was a very stable economy, and lasted for a long time. Indeed in Germany, some lasted right up until the second world war.
Next time I am going to be looking at the Doomsday book.
Note: you will find a list of all the History Spot posts >> here.