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

February 14, 2017 by Mercedes Rochelle | Filed under General Topics.

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.



5 Responses to “The English Manor Part 2: The Free and the Unfree Peasants”

  1. April Munday says:

    It’s complicated, isn’t it? As soon as I think I understand how manors worked, I read something to contradict something I read a couple of months ago.

    I didn’t realise that slavery still went on after the Conquest. Presumably it didn’t continue very long.

  2. Karen Austin says:

    I’ll have to read this book. I’m also surprised that there were still slaves in the early 1400’s. My ancestor was manumitted by the Bishop of Bath and Wells “our slave, a bondman of our manor of Kyngesbury, from all the yoke of serfdom. Dated in our house at London 2nd March A.D. 1403.” So the names ‘slave’, ‘bondsman’, and ‘serfdom’ were all used. It makes it even more confusing.

    • Wow. That’s unfortunate, isn’t it? This whole thing is as clear as mud! I wonder if the word slave was used indiscriminately in the middle ages, though the book I referenced clearly made a distinction.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Connect with Facebook