Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The English Manor Part 2: The Free and the Unfree Peasants

In Part 1 of The English Manor, I gave a broad generalization of the average manor components. In Part 2, I’m going to do my best to differentiate between the classes of manorial population: the free and the unfree. This is harder than it sounds! One of the reasons this subject is so complicated is that by no means was the manor system consistent across the country. The Custom of the Manor varied from lord to lord and from region to region. So anything we learn must be taken as a broad generalization. One thing we can safely assume is that the work load and financial burdens of the unfree peasant greatly outweighed those of his free companions.

The working year was divided into two parts: Michaelmas (Sept 29) to August, where the Peasant would have to work 2-3 days a week (Week-work), then August to Michaelmas, where he had to work 3-5 days per week. Most of the labor fell on the unfree. During the harvest the peasant was required to give several extra days as his “boon” or “gift”, bringing all of his family to help. This was in addition to tending his own crops. Even the free peasant was required to give some boon-work on these crucial days, and the lord compensated them occasionally by offering meals and drink to the whole manor population.

The free and unfree status had little to do with how much land the peasant was holding. Sometimes the unfree held more land than the freeman; sometimes the freeman did paid work for the unfree. But the division between them was felt very strongly. Here is the manor population as best as I could define it:

STEWARD (or Seneschal) The Steward was at the head of the lord’s officials. He was a man of rank and often was in charge of more than one manor. He was the voice of the lord and presided over the Manor Courts. He would stay in the great house, usually in the absence of the lord. The Steward gave orders to the Bailiff.

FREEMAN (Socage Tenants) The freeman had to pay a yearly rent for his lands, but his obligations were not as onerous as the bondsman. At the top of this class you would have a Bailiff (usually brought in from the outside), who supervised the activities on the whole manor. Then you will see for the most part—but not always—a Hayward (or messor, to manage the sowing and gathering of the crops), a Meadsman (to look after the meadows), a Wood-Reeve, and the Beadle (or constable, policeman of the village).

The Virgaters, the “aristocracy” of the peasant class held 30+ acres of “full land” in the common fields. At harvest, they were obliged to act as overseers—riding about with white wands of office—provide carts and horses for carrying services, and provide their own plow. A lesser class of freemen held “fardels” or “furlongs” of 10 to 15 acres in the common fields. At harvest, they were allowed to combine their resources and put together a team of two or three (or more).

Some freeman may only have held two or three acres, which probably wasn’t enough to support him. These smaller tenants may only have been able to bring their agricultural tools to task—in other words, live by their hands—but since their holdings were much smaller, so was their obligation. It is not at all uncommon for a poor freeman to hire out his services to an unfree villein who had more land than he could manage by himself.

Villeins, top level of bondsman, had a heavier farming work-load than the cottars, for the villeins shared in the common fields. Typical size of a villein’s holding would be around 30 acres. A villein had the right to the hay crop and the lot meadows. The Reeve (official representative of the villeins and usually elected every year) almost always came from the villein ranks. He was in charge of the day-to-day activities. Although he was paid a small wage, his responsibilities were onerous and no one really wanted the job.

Cottars, Crofters and “pytel-holders” held only one to five acres, or sometimes only the bare croft (garden) around their house. These small tenants did not share in the common fields, so their work load was lighter; they usually farmed a few strips in the arable fields. From time to time they were called upon to do a day’s work at the lord’s will: spreading dung, driving pigs to market, helping to repair walls and thatches, odd-jobs. Their duties were so light that they often could commute their work for money payments to the lord; that left them free to provide alternative labor for a wage to support themselves. From this class could come smiths, carpenters, weavers, masons, etc. The cottars were often drafted to be used on the manor as ploughmen, swineherds, carters, shepherds, etc.; sometimes they even resided on the Home-farm, given a wage and food allowance.

Slaves were the smallest population on the manor, and usually lived in the outbuildings connected to the manor hall. They were not permitted to own any land and were obliged to do whatever the lord commanded. Although slave trade was officially abolished in England after 1102, we keep finding mention of them in the occasional document. Frankly, I couldn’t find any substantial information about slavery in Medieval England, so I’m pretty much at a loss.

In part 3, I will be more specific as to the obligations of the bondsmen, who were the largest class on the manor. From H.S. Bennett, I gathered that a serf had every reason to want to gain his freedom. Once I saw what he was up against, I couldn’t really blame him.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

The English Manor Part 1: The Land

I discovered this amazing map in Montague Fordham’s book, “A Short History of English Rural Life from the Anglo-Saxon Invasion to the Present Time” published in 1916. (It’s amazing what you will find on I’ve recently come to the conclusion that any study of the Middle Ages is incomplete without getting your hands around the concept of the English Manor—and I will be the first to admit that my knowledge is sparse! I’m not writing this article as an expert—merely as a student of history.

I was introduced to the complexity of this subject when I recently read the book “Life on the English Manor” written by H.S. Bennett and first published in 1937. This was a very difficult volume to plow through (so to speak), and I don’t think I did it justice. Having finished the book with great relief I immediately shoved it back onto my shelf, but I’ve been fretting over it ever since! So here I am again, and I am going to attempt to pull out the major points so I can get things straight in my own mind, supplemented by what I’ve learned from Fordham (of the map). After all, I’m currently researching the Peasant Rebellion in 1381, and guess what led up to it? It’s only 30 years away from the Black Death, and the peasants were still struggling against the impositions from their betters, trying to keep them from taking advantage of their improved situation. But for the most part, these articles will concern manors before 1350.

The smaller manors contained about 20-30 acres, though others included many villages; the Bishop of Winchester’s Manor of East Meon in Hampshire was 24,000 acres. But this is the exception. Apparently the average manor contained one village and was separated from the next manor by a broad stretch of woods or wasteland. Sometimes two manors split the same village in two. All manors contained a Home Farm (or Demesne), where you would find the hall and barns belonging to the lord; outside of this you would find a mill, a church, the priest’s house, then the village houses, and of course the fields. The lord would probably stay there a month or two during the year; the rest of the time, the bailiff or seneschal would reside at the hall.

To look at this map, we see that the arable common fields were divided into sections called furlongs, shots, or dells. Each furlong was subdivided into little strips, or selions, which were separated by unploughed ridges called baulks. These strips were usually 1/2 to an acre of land, belonging to the peasants (sometimes the lord held some strips as well). A peasant often held more than one strip but they were not contiguous; an example is shown by the black colored-in holdings all belonging to Jack Straw. He must go to the end of his strip and walk on the headlands—more unploughed baulks perpendicular to the furroughs—to get to his other strips of land; the headlands were also where he turned his plough. Presumably the planting was a communal activity, though nothing is really known for sure. Apparently the reason a peasant’s holdings were scattered was the continual division between relatives and children. Bennett gave us an example from the Norfolk manor of Martham: “the 68 tenants of Domesday time had increased by 1291 to 107—a not unnatural growth—but, quite unexpectedly, subdivision had progressed so enormously that the land formerly held by the 68 had been split up into no less than 935 holdings in some 2000 separate strips.” Keeping track must have been a challenge.

If a peasant was lucky, he was permitted to rent, on a yearly basis, a few-acre patch of uncultivated “waste” land, usually on the border of the forest. This was called his “assart”, and he could plant on it what he pleased; it was often a godsend if the man had extra mouths to feed. The wastes satisfied other needs as well; they were used for grazing, and if wooded they provided fuel and wood for farm implements and repairs. Commonly, the peasant was allowed to take wood off the ground or “by hook or by crook”—whatever he could knock off a standing tree.

As best as I can determine, the wastes and the common area around the village is where the animals grazed while the crops were growing. The Lammas Land, or Meadows as they were called, were held in common, guarded, fenced around the outside, and planted between Christmas and Lammas (Aug. 1). When the crop was harvested, the Lammas Land was thrown open for grazing to the community.

I will be following up with more on the English Manor as I sort it out. The most important thing I learned is that there was no consistency from region to region or even from manor to manor. As Bennett put it, if a village was divided up between two manors, “it was possible for two men to be living in the same village, and each holding the same amount of land; but, because they served different lords, they might find themselves very unevenly burdened with services and rents.” So, of necessity, anything we learn about the Manor can only be seen as representational of the medieval peasant’s life.