Manorialism was an essential element of feudal society. It was the
organizing principle of rural economy that originated in the Roman
villa system of the Late Roman Empire, and was widely practiced in
medieval western and parts of central Europe. It was slowly replaced
by the advent of a money-based market economy and new forms of
Manorialism was characterised by the vesting of legal and economic
power in a Lord of the Manor, supported economically from his own
direct landholding in a manor (sometimes called a fief), and from the
obligatory contributions of a legally subject part of the peasant
population under the jurisdiction of himself and his manorial court.
These obligations could be payable in several ways, in labor (the
French term corvée is conventionally applied), in kind, or, on rare
occasions, in coin.
In examining the origins of the monastic cloister,
Walter Horn found
that "as a manorial entity the
Carolingian monastery ... differed
little from the fabric of a feudal estate, save that the corporate
community of men for whose sustenance this organization was maintained
consisted of monks who served God in chant and spent much of their
time in reading and writing."
Manorialism died slowly and piecemeal, along with its most vivid
feature in the landscape, the open field system. It outlasted serfdom
as it outlasted feudalism: "primarily an economic organization, it
could maintain a warrior, but it could equally well maintain a
capitalist landlord. It could be self-sufficient, yield produce for
the market, or it could yield a money rent." The last feudal dues
France were abolished at the French Revolution. In parts of eastern
Germany, the Rittergut manors of Junkers remained until World War
II. In Quebec, the last feudal rents were paid in 1970 under the
modified provisions of the Seigniorial Dues Abolition Act of 1935.
1 Historical and geographical distribution
3 Common features
4 Variation among manors
5 See also
7 External links
Historical and geographical distribution
The great hall at Penshurst Place, Kent, built in the mid 14th
century. The hall was of central importance to every manor, being the
place where the lord and his family ate, received guests, and
conferred with dependents.
The term is most often used with reference to medieval Western Europe.
Antecedents of the system can be traced to the rural economy of the
Roman Empire (Dominate). With a declining birthrate and
population, labor was the key factor of production. Successive
administrations tried to stabilise the imperial economy by freezing
the social structure into place: sons were to succeed their fathers in
their trade, councilors were forbidden to resign, and coloni, the
cultivators of land, were not to move from the land they were attached
to. The workers of the land were on their way to becoming serfs.
Several factors conspired to merge the status of former slaves and
former free farmers into a dependent class of such coloni: it was
possible to be described as servus et colonus, "both slave and
colonus". Laws of
Constantine I around 325 both reinforced the
semi-servile status of the coloni and limited their rights to sue in
the courts; the
Codex Theodosianus promulgated under Theodosius II
extended these restrictions. The legal status of adscripti, "bound to
the soil", contrasted with barbarian foederati, who were permitted
to settle within the imperial boundaries, remaining subject to their
own traditional law.
As the Germanic kingdoms succeeded Roman authority in the West in the
fifth century, Roman landlords were often simply replaced by Germanic
ones, with little change to the underlying situation or displacement
The process of rural self-sufficiency was given an abrupt boost in the
eighth century, when normal trade in the
Mediterranean Sea was
disrupted. The thesis put forward by Henri Pirenne, while disputed
widely, supposes that the
Arab conquests forced the medieval economy
into even greater ruralization and gave rise to the classic feudal
pattern of varying degrees of servile peasantry underpinning a
hierarchy of localised power centers.
The word derives from traditional inherited divisions of the
countryside, reassigned as local jurisdictions known as manors or
seigneuries; each manor being subject to a lord (French seigneur),
usually holding his position in return for undertakings offered to a
higher lord (see Feudalism). The lord held a manorial court, governed
by public law and local custom. Not all territorial seigneurs were
secular; bishops and abbots also held lands that entailed similar
By extension, the word manor is sometimes used in England to mean any
home area or territory in which authority is held, often in a police
or criminal context.
In the generic plan of a medieval manor from Shepherd's Historical
Atlas, the strips of individually worked land in the open field
system are immediately apparent. In this plan, the manor house is set
slightly apart from the village, but equally often the village grew up
around the forecourt of the manor, formerly walled, while the manor
lands stretched away outside, as still may be seen at Petworth House.
As concerns for privacy[dubious – discuss] increased in the 18th
century, manor houses were often located a farther
distance from the village. For example, when a grand new house was
required by the new owner of Harlaxton Manor, Lincolnshire, in the
1830s, the site of the existing manor house at the edge of its village
was abandoned for a new one, isolated in its park, with the village
out of view.
In an agrarian society, the conditions of land tenure underlie all
social or economic factors. There were two legal systems of
pre-manorial landholding. One, the most common, was the system of
holding land "allodially" in full outright ownership. The other was a
use of precaria or benefices, in which land was held conditionally
(the root of the English word "precarious").
To these two systems, the
Carolingian monarchs added a third, the
aprisio, which linked manorialism with feudalism. The aprisio made its
first appearance in Charlemagne's province of
Septimania in the south
of France, when
Charlemagne had to settle the Visigothic refugees, who
had fled with his retreating forces, after the failure of his Zaragoza
expedition of 778. He solved this problem by allotting "desert" tracts
of uncultivated land belonging to the royal fisc under direct control
of the emperor. These holdings aprisio entailed specific conditions.
The earliest specific aprisio grant that has been identified was at
Narbonne (see Lewis, links). In former Roman
settlements, a system of villas, dating from Late Antiquity, was
inherited by the medieval world.
Generic map of a medieval manor.
The mustard-colored areas are part of the demesne, the hatched areas
part of the glebe.
William R. Shepherd, Historical Atlas, 1923
Manors each consisted of up to three classes of land:
Demesne, the part directly controlled by the lord and used for the
benefit of his household and dependents;
Dependent (serf or villein) holdings carrying the obligation that the
peasant household supply the lord with specified labour services or a
part of its output (or cash in lieu thereof), subject to the custom
attached to the holding; and
Free peasant land, without such obligation but otherwise subject to
manorial jurisdiction and custom, and owing money rent fixed at the
time of the lease.
Additional sources of income for the lord included charges for use of
his mill, bakery or wine-press, or for the right to hunt or to let
pigs feed in his woodland, as well as court revenues and single
payments on each change of tenant. On the other side of the account,
manorial administration involved significant expenses, perhaps a
reason why smaller manors tended to rely less on villein
Dependent holdings were held nominally by arrangement of lord and
tenant, but tenure became in practice almost universally hereditary,
with a payment made to the lord on each succession of another member
of the family.
Villein land could not be abandoned, at least until
demographic and economic circumstances made flight a viable
proposition; nor could they be passed to a third party without the
lord's permission, and the customary payment.
Although not free, villeins were by no means in the same position as
slaves: they enjoyed legal rights, subject to local custom, and had
recourse to the law subject to court charges, which were an additional
source of manorial income. Sub-letting of villein holdings was common,
and labour on the demesne might be commuted into an additional money
payment, as happened increasingly from the 13th century.
This description of a manor house at Chingford, Essex in England was
recorded in a document for the Chapter of
St Paul's Cathedral
St Paul's Cathedral when it
was granted to Robert Le Moyne in 1265:
He received also a sufficient and handsome hall well ceiled with oak.
On the western side is a worthy bed, on the ground, a stone chimney, a
wardrobe and a certain other small chamber; at the eastern end is a
pantry and a buttery. Between the hall and the chapel is a sideroom.
There is a decent chapel covered with tiles, a portable altar, and a
small cross. In the hall are four tables on trestles. There are
likewise a good kitchen covered with tiles, with a furnace and ovens,
one large, the other small, for cakes, two tables, and alongside the
kitchen a small house for baking. Also a new granary covered with oak
shingles, and a building in which the dairy is contained, though it is
divided. Likewise a chamber suited for clergymen and a necessary
chamber. Also a hen-house. These are within the inner gate. Likewise
outside of that gate are an old house for the servants, a good table,
long and divided, and to the east of the principal building, beyond
the smaller stable, a solar for the use of the servants. Also a
building in which is contained a bed, also two barns, one for wheat
and one for oats. These buildings are enclosed with a moat, a wall,
and a hedge. Also beyond the middle gate is a good barn, and a stable
of cows, and another for oxen, these old and ruinous. Also beyond the
outer gate is a pigstye.
Variation among manors
Like feudalism which, together with manorialism, formed the legal and
organizational framework of feudal society, manorial structures were
not uniform or coordinated. In the later Middle Ages, areas of
incomplete or non-existent manorialization persisted while the
manorial economy underwent substantial development with changing
Not all manors contained all three classes of land. Typically, demesne
accounted for roughly a third of the arable area, and villein holdings
rather more; but some manors consisted solely of demesne, others
solely of peasant holdings. The proportion of unfree and free tenures
could likewise vary greatly, with more or less reliance on wage labour
for agricultural work on the demesne.
The proportion of the cultivated area in demesne tended to be greater
in smaller manors, while the share of villein land was greater in
large manors, providing the lord of the latter with a larger supply of
obligatory labour for demesne work. The proportion of free tenements
was generally less variable, but tended to be somewhat greater on the
Manors varied similarly in their geographical arrangement: most did
not coincide with a single village, but rather consisted of parts of
two or more villages, most of the latter containing also parts of at
least one other manor. This situation sometimes led to replacement by
cash payments or their equivalents in kind of the demesne labour
obligations of those peasants living furthest from the lord's estate.
As with peasant plots, the demesne was not a single territorial unit,
but consisted rather of a central house with neighbouring land and
estate buildings, plus strips dispersed through the manor alongside
free and villein ones: in addition, the lord might lease free
tenements belonging to neighbouring manors, as well as holding other
manors some distance away to provide a greater range of produce.
Nor were manors held necessarily by lay lords rendering military
service (or again, cash in lieu) to their superior: a substantial
share (estimated by value at 17% in England in 1086) belonged directly
to the king, and a greater proportion (rather more than a quarter)
were held by bishoprics and monasteries.
Ecclesiastical manors tended
to be larger, with a significantly greater villein area than
neighbouring lay manors.
The effect of circumstances on manorial economy is complex and at
times contradictory: upland conditions tended to preserve peasant
freedoms (livestock husbandry in particular being less
labour-intensive and therefore less demanding of villein services); on
the other hand, some upland areas of Europe showed some of the most
oppressive manorial conditions, while lowland eastern England is
credited with an exceptionally large free peasantry, in part a legacy
of Scandinavian settlement.
Similarly, the spread of money economy stimulated the replacement of
labour services by money payments, but the growth of the money supply
and resulting inflation after 1170 initially led nobles to take back
leased estates and to re-impose labour dues as the value of fixed cash
payments declined in real terms.
Middle Ages portal
United Kingdom portal
Lord of the Manor
Baltic nobility (Estonia/Latvia)
Heerlijkheid (Dutch manorialism)
Junker (Prussian manorialism)
Patroon (17th century New Netherland)
Seigneurial system of New France
Seigneurial system of New France in 17th century Canada
Shōen (Japanese Manorialism)
Property Law in Colonial New York
^ "Feudal Society", in its modern sense was coined in Marc Bloch's
1939–40 books of the same name. Bloch (Feudal Society tr. L.A.
Masnyon, 1965, vol. II p. 442) emphasised the distinction between
economic manorialism which preceded feudalism and survived it, and
political and social feudalism, or seigneurialism.
^ Peter Sarris, "The Origins of the Manorial Economy: New Insights
from Late Antiquity", The English Historical Review 119 (April
^ Horn, "On the Origins of the Medieval Cloister" Gesta 12.1/2
(1973:13–52), quote p. 41.
^ Andrew Jones, "The Rise and Fall of the Manorial System: A Critical
Comment" The Journal of Economic History 32.4 (December
1972:938–944) p. 938; a comment on D. North and R. Thomas, "The rise
and fall of the manorial system: a theoretical model", The Journal of
Economic History 31 (December 1971:777–803).
^ Hartwin Spenkuch, "Herrenhaus und Rittergut: Die Erste Kammer des
Landtags und der preußische Adel von 1854 bis 1918 aus
sozialgeschichtlicher Sicht" Geschichte und Gesellschaft, 25.3
(July – September 1999):375–403).
^ Donald J. Herreld, (2016) An Economic History of the World Since
1400. The Great Courses. P. 20.
^ C.R. Whittaker, "Circe's pigs: from slavery to serfdom in the later
Roman world", Slavery and Abolition 8 (1987:87–122.
^ Averil Cameron, The Mediterranean World in Late Antiquity AD
^ Cameron 1993:86 instances
Codex Justinianus XI. 48.21.1; 50,2.3;
^ Payne, Stewart (2007-08-03). "Terror raids on homes of uranium
ex-employee". The Daily Telegraph. London. Retrieved 2010-05-12.
^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2009-02-08. Retrieved
^ "Plan of Medieval
Manor by William R. Shepherd". Lib.utexas.edu.
Retrieved 23 December 2017.
^ Shepherd, William R. "Historical Atlas". Perry-Castaneda Map
Collection – UT Library Online.
^ From J.H. Robinson, trans., University of Pennsylvania Translations
and Reprints (1897) in Middle Ages, Volume I: pp. 283–284.
Bloch, Marc (1989-11-16). Feudal Society: Vol 1: The Growth and Ties
of Dependence (2 ed.). Routledge. ISBN 0-415-03916-9.
Bloch, Marc (1989-11-16). Feudal Society: Vol 2: Social Classes and
Political Organisation (2 ed.). Routledge.
Boissonnade, Prosper; Eileen Power; Lynn White (1964). Life and work
in medieval Europe : the evolution of medieval economy from the
fifth to the fifteenth century. Harper torchbook, 1141. New York, NY:
Harper & Row.
Pirenne, Henri (1937). Economic and Social History of Medieval Europe.
Harcourt Brace & Company. ISBN 0-15-627533-3.
The Register of Feudal Lords and Barons of The United Kingdom of Great
Britain and Northern Ireland
Archibald R. Lewis, The Development of Southern French and Catalan
Estonian Manors Portal – the English version gives the overview
of 438 best preserved historical manors in Estonia
Medieval manors and their records Specific to the British Isles.