Manorial Life


The Manor: What does the diagram of the manor below reveal about life on the manor from a serf's (peasant) perspective as well as the lord's.






The Manor: What were the four parts of the manor? Their purpose?  What determined the value of the manor? Why did this system of agriculture last for almost one thousand years?


Manors usually had four parts to them: arable land, meadow land, waste land, and the village. Each part had a specific purpose and none could be dispensed with if the manor was to survive.


The arable land was utilized by the three-field rotation system which prevailed in most of Europe. This meant that one third of the arable land always remained fallow in order not to exhaust the soil. There was plowing the year round, except when the ground was frozen or at harvest time. This made maximum use of the most important tool the serfs had, the moldboard plow.


The value of manor was determined for the most part by the number of plows and teams of oxen it possessed. Each individual peasant strip was about one acre in size. It took about one day to plow a single strip. Crops and peasant field assignment were scattered in 3 fields throughout the manor. Plowing and planting was fixed by custom. There was also uniform cropping. Thus no innovation was possible. It kept things the way they were for almost one thousand years.


Meadow land was as important as arable land. It was necessary to feed the draught animals. The idea of sowing and harvesting hay to feed the animals had not yet occurred to them. There was thus a chronic shortage of winter fodder. This meant that there was a constant danger of losing the cattle and sheep. It was never successfully overcome.


The waste land was used for summer pasture for animals of the whole manor, watched by children or lowly attendants. So-called wasteland also provided wood for fuel and building materials for peasant huts. In addition it provided an important part of the food supply: nuts, berries, honey, rabbits. So, it should be obvious that the manors were relatively small clearings among large stretches of forest and wastelands. The vast expanse of the fertile European plain was never fully exploited and helps to account for the backwardness of medieval economic life.


Most of central and northern Europe was blanketed with a vast forest of tall trees or unhealthy swamps.


The village itself was usually located in the center of the arable land, somewhere near the most convenient water supply: rivers, natural lakes or drained swamps. Although it should be remembered that there was precious little draining of swamps until well into modern times. The cottages where the serfs lived were made of mud brick reinforced with straw and had earthen floors and thatched roof. Usually they consisted of single rooms not very large in floor space or height.


There were usually small adjoining gardens where some vegetables and fruits were grown. Little time and ground was wasted on flowers or decorative shrubs. Chickens, dogs, and ducks maintained a precarious existence in the streets.


Social classes within the Manor


·         How was society organized into a hierarchy? The peasant classes? Role of the Church?


An aristocratic class rose in Europe in 8th, 9th and 10th centuries which drew economic support from manors by preempting rents and services from peasants. There were only lords and peasant. Social status was defined by obligations to the lord of the manor. The lord had a right to the products from some part of the land. There was the so-called lord's close and there were certain strips of the best arable land set aside for the lord. This was called the lord's demesne or farm run by the lord's bailiff. The lord also got dues from the serfs: sheafs of grain and other dues in kind. These dues varied from manor to manor, but they were fixed by custom. Everything was fixed by custom. The lord got the best animal when the head of the family died, for instance. He collected fees from the serfs for using his still, wine press, bake oven and other utilities. Fines were assessed by the manor court for various infractions of custom and rules.


Thus the peasant class of medieval Europe can be classified into three groups: free men, serfs (villeins), and cotters. Free men had certain fixed dues which they had to pay or deliver. Serfs had the same dues, but also had to provide labor services for the lord on his land. Cotters were essentially squatters with no rights to arable land whatsoever. They worked for some sort of wage in kind.


The church played an important role in all this. The peasants had to pay tithes or harvest products to the church in order to maintain it. These tithes (1/10th of total income) were collected by the parish priest or the lord's agent.


The conditions of peasant life were extremely bleak. Poverty and hardship, famine and disease, stalked their daily existence. In times of war they suffered additional troubles, such as requisitions of food and animals, and worse yet, forced labor. But the lord needed them. So the lord helped the serfs by providing grain for planting and clearance of land for additional strips. Sometimes the lords helped to introduce improvement of agricultural methods, but that was fairly rare. The lord did protect the serfs from thieves and marauding bands. Both lord and peasant benefit from this system, but vastly different ways.





Everyday Life for the Poor

Excerpts from the English poem, Piers Plowman, written by a London priest, William Langland in 1362.



Based on the poetry what is life really like for much of the European population during the Medieval period?



Rural Poverty

"I have no penny," quoth Piers, "pullets {chickenfeed} for to buy,

Neither geese nor young pigs, but two green cheeses,


A few curds and cream and an oaten cake,

And two loaves of beans and bran baked for my children.


And yet I say, by my soul I have no salt bacon,

Nor any eggs, by Christ, collops {a small slice of meat} for to make.

But I have parsley and leeks, and many cabbage plants,


And also a cow and a calf, and a cart mare too

To draw afield the dung while the drought lasts.

And by these means we must make do until Lammas tide.


And by then, I hope, to have harvest in my croft,

And then may I dress your dinner, as dearly I wish."


All the poor people then fetched their peascods,

Beans and baked apples they brought in their laps,

Chibolles {greens} and chevrils and many ripe cherries,


And proffered Piers this present wherewith to please Hunger.

Then poor folk for fear fed Hunger eagerly

With green leeks and peas to poison Hunger they thought. .


Until, when it neared harvest new corn came to market.

Then folks became fain and fed Hunger with the best,

With good ale, as Glutton taught, and made Hungerto sleep.


Then would Waster not work but wandered about,

Nor no beggar eat bread that had beans within


But craved the best of white bread, or at least of clean white.

And no halfpenny ale in no wise would he drink

But the best and the brownest for sale in the borough.


Laborers that have no land to live on but their

hands Deign not to dine today on worts a night old.

No penny ale may please them, and no piece on bacon, -


Unless it be fresh flesh or fish fried or baked,

And that hot or hotter against chilling of their maw.



And if he be not dearly hired, then will he,chide,  

And wail the time that he became a workman.




The Peasant's Cottage

Three things there are that make a man by their strength

To flee his own house, as Holy Writ {law} shows.


The one is a wicked wife who will not be corrected,

Her husband flees from her, for fear of her tongue.

And if his house be unroofed and rain falls on his bed,


He seeks and he seeks until he sleeps dry.

And when smoke and smoldering smite in his sight,


It does him worse than his wife or wet to sleep.

For smoke and smoldering smite in his eyes,

Until he is blear-eyed of blind, and hoarse in the throat,


Coughing and cursing that Christ gives them sorrow,

Who should bring better wood, or blow till it burns


The Peasant's Cares

The most needy are our neighbors, if we notice right well,


As prisoners in pits and poor folk in cottages,

Charged with their children, and chief lords rent,

What by spinning they save, they spend it in house-hire,


Both in milk and in meal to make a mess of porridge.

To cheer up their children who chafe for their food,

And they themselves suffer surely much hunger

And woe in the winter, with waking at nights

And rising to rock an oft restless cradle,

Both to card and to comb, to clout and to wash,

To rub and to reel year, rushes to peel,


So ‘tis pity to proclaim or in poetry to show

The woe of these women who work in such cottages;

And of many other men who much woe suffer,

Cripples with hunger and with thirst, they keep up appearances,


And are abashed for to beg, and will not be blazoned

What they need from their neighbors, at noon and at evensong.


This I know full well, for the world has taught me,

How churls are afflicted who have many children,

And have no coin but their craft to clothe and to keep them,

And fill many to feed and few pence to do it.

With bread and penny-ale that is less than a pittance,


Cold flesh and cold fish, instead of roast venison;

And on Fridays and feast days a farthing’s worth of mussels


Would be a feast for such folk, or else a few cockles,

‘Twere a charity to help those that bear such charges,

And comfort such cottagers, the cripples and blind.