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THE MANORIAL SYSTEM
 
 


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Landlord and peasant: 9th - 15th century

Life on a manor is the medieval version of a relationship which occurs, between landlord and peasant, in any society where a leisured class depends directly on agriculture carried out by others. Such landlords may be patricians living in their Roman villas (seen by many historians as the original version of the European manor) or feudal knights ensconced in castles and fortified manor houses (a development dating from Carolingian times).

Records suggest that the work of between fifteen and thirty peasant families is required to support one knight's family (and correspondingly more for a baron holding court in a castle). The relationship between the knight and his peasants is the manorial system.
 









The knight has force on his side. Even in normal circumstances he may be able to terrify his peasants into subjection. In unruly times - characteristic of much of the Middle Ages - his armour becomes even more significant. The peasants need his protection from marauding enemies. They are less likely than usual to assert themselves.

On the other hand a cooperative labour force is more productive than a resentful one, so the lord of the manor may be inclined to use his natural advantages with moderation. And occasionally, when labour is in short supply - as after the Black Death in the 14th century - the peasants themselves acquire a measure of economic strength.
 







The resulting balance of power varies greatly in different places and times. There is an important distinction between free peasants (theoretically able to leave a manor at will, though economically often unable to do so) and serfs. Serfs are the descendants either of slaves who have been given a measure of freedom, or of free peasants who have accepted legal restrictions in return for the lord's protection.

Serfs are slaves only in the one crucial sense of being tied to their lord's land. That distinction comes to seem a quibble where serfdom continues into modern times (as in Russia in the 19th century), outlasting the abolition of true slavery.
 







The system of labour and of rent which develops on a medieval manor is also immensely variable. It is further complicated by the fact that part of any manor (the demesne) is farmed by the lord on his own account, using peasant labour, and part is cultivated by the peasants for their subsistence - paying the lord some form of rent, whether in natural produce, days and weeks of their own labour, or money.

Gradually, as in any long-established social system, the lords devise more and more dues to supplement their revenue. These may be direct taxes (such as 'heriot', the lord's right to the best beast every time the head of a peasant family dies) or fees for the functions of the manorial court.
 






The manorial court: 9th - 15th century

The court is the judicial basis of the manorial system. In the decentralized and unruly regions of medieval Europe, some measure of control is achieved by giving lords legal powers over the peasants on their manors.

A large estate will consist of many manors, acquired not only by feudal grant but also by marriage, purchase and even outright seizure. The lord or his representatives move from one manor to another, holding court and consuming the produce gathered since their last visit. The court dispenses justice for crimes committed on the manor, hears civil disputes between tenants, and collects rents, fines and fees.
 









Fees are claimed by the lord of the manor on a wide range of events in the life of the community. They may be required for the issue of a legal document, for the buying and selling of property and even - most notoriously - for permission to marry.

These rights over the community last long after the economic basis of the manor has crumbled. They are the final residue of feudalism, and the most resented. Beaumarchais' radical comedy The Marriage of Figaro (staged just four years before the French Revolution) hinges on the question of whether the count will give permission for the wedding - or will attempt to revive a less authentic seigneurial right to the bride's virginity.
 







This supposed right, known as the jus primae noctis (right of the first night) or droit du seigneur (right of the lord), gives an intriguing glimpse of the nature of the manorial system at the time when feudalism is declining into decay and corruption.

There is no evidence that any lord ever claimed this outrageous prerogative, but there are several cases of people in the late Middle Ages paying money to avoid the exercise of the jus primae noctis. It is an unusually imaginative example of the feudal system of rights and privileges, with their inherent potential for abuse.
 






Farming the manor: 9th - 18th century

The Frankish empire under Charlemagne is the source of feudalism and the manorial system. It also introduces a related revolution in agriculture.

Rotation of crops to conserve the soil has been a standard part of agricultural practice since the Neolithic Revolution. The classic method is the simple two-field system. Of every two fields, one is planted each year (in Europe with wheat, barley or oats). The other is allowed to lie fallow, grazed by the cattle and fertilized by their manure.
 









The Franks introduce a major improvement, extending the rotation to three fields. One field is now planted in the autumn with winter wheat or rye. One field is planted in the spring with oats, barley or vegetables such as peas and beans. The third field is left fallow.

The new arrangement requires summer rain for the crop planted in the spring, so it is suitable only in the cooler regions of Europe. It seems to have been introduced, perhaps in the late 8th century, between the Loire and the Rhine.
 







The advantages are considerable. The most obvious is an increase of one third in the crop (previously 50% of the land was producing each year, now the figure is 66%). The work of preparing and harvesting the fields is more efficiently spread out through the year. The ripening of crops in two seasons rather than one reduces the risk of famine from freak weather.

And there is a benefit, in terms of health and variety, in the addition of vegetables to a previously all-grain diet.
 






Strip-farming and enclosure: 9th - 20th century

The fields of a medieval manor are open spaces divided, almost imperceptibly, into long narrow strips. Only the fields being grazed by cattle are fenced. The others are open and are identifiable as separate fields only by the crops which they bear. The unusual detail is that the single crop in each field is separately farmed - in individual strips - by peasant families of the local village.

Some of the strips may also belong to the local lord, farmed for him by the peasants under their feudal obligations. But more often the lord's land is in a self-contained demesne around the manor.
 









Strip-farming is central to the life of a medieval rural community. It involves an intrinsic element of fairness, for each peasant's strips are widely spread over the entire manor; every family will have the benefit of good land in some areas, while accepting a poor yield elsewhere.

The strips also enforce an element of practical village democracy. The system only works if everyone sows the same crop on their strip of each open field. What to sow and when to harvest it are communal decisions. The field cannot be fenced, or the cattle let into it, until each peasant has reaped his own harvest.
 







Ploughing too is a communal affair. The heavy wheeled plough needed for northern soils is expensive, as are horses to pull it. So a team of horses and plough works successive strips of an open field for different peasants. The long narrow shape of the strips reflects the difficulty of turning the team at each end.

In addition to the open fields, each village or manor has common land where peasants have a right to graze cattle, collect wood, cut turf and perhaps catch fish.
 







From about the 13th century there are pressures on this agricultural system for two different reasons. One is the wish to rationalize the use of the land by changing each peasant's rights from scattered strips to a unified plot surrounding a family cottage. There is considerable resistance to this, because it eliminates the old safeguard by which good and poor land was evenly shared out.

The other motive is the greed of lords of the manor, who regularly attempt to enclose the common land and incorporate it in their own demesne.
 







Enclosure of common land causes particular unrest, not only for the loss of an ancient right but because the poorest peasants (those who lack a share in the open-field system) rely on these pastures and woods for subsistence.

The issue becomes a crisis at different times in different parts of Europe, in some places even in the 20th century. But the trend is everywhere the same - transforming the open fields of the Middle Ages into the fenced, hedged or walled fields of the individual farms which are characteristic of today's landscape.
 






Landlord, tenant and labourer: from the 13th century

The gradual move towards enclosure brings with it a change in the employment system in European agriculture. The feudal relationship of lord and peasant (with payments to the lord made in the form of labour, sometimes commuted for money) gives way to a system of landlord, tenant and labourer which is entirely based on money. The tenant pays money to the landlord for the use of his land; the landlord pays money to the labourer for his work.

In broad terms the free peasants, who have owned a share of the land in the open-field system, become the tenants. The serfs become the labourers.
 









The new system probably begins during the prosperous 13th century. With the growth in national and international trade, the subsistence farming of the feudal manor is unable to meet the demands of the market. England is one of the first regions to make the change, owing to its prosperous trade with Flanders in wool (by its nature sheep-farming is ill-suited to the open-field system). In the 14th century a different pressure continues the process; shortage of labour after the Black Death leads to an increased use of wages to pay for work done in the fields.

The change gradually introduces the system of land tenure and labour which has prevailed in most of Europe ever since.
 






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