The Manor in Theory

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The Manor in Theory

The manor was, according to Norman law and theory, a complete geographical and economic unit; it coincided with the village. All the inhabitants of the village were tenants of the manor, holding their land by some kind of rent, tribute or service paid to the lord. The lord lived on the produce of the manor, just as his tenants did; money being scarce and little used, communications bad, and labour difficult to hire, he could not, as his successor generally does to-day, live by purchasing what he wanted out of. his rent-roll. He held for himself a share of the land of the village, the demesne, and the tenants' first obligation was to keep this properly cultivated. The majority of them, the villeins, were responsible for so many days' work on the demesne each week - it might be as many as five - also for other duties, called boonworks, at times of special stress like harvest. (This was not quite so hard on the villein as it sounds, for he was not bound to go himself; he could send a relative or a hired labourer.)

Besides claiming labour dues, the lord could lallage, that is, tax, his villeins as much as he pleased. The villein was tied to the land; if he wanted to leave or to sell his holding he had to get the lord's permission and pay a tax called chevage. On the villein's death, the lord took his best beast as a heriot, or succession duty, and a tax called merchet was payable on the marriage of the villein's daughter. The villein had no rights against his lord and could not sue him in the King's court.

In addition to the villeins there were a certain number of free tenants. They were exempt from week-work, though they too were obliged to lend a hand at harvest and seed-time; and they were free from arbitrary tallage and the payment of heriot, merchet and chevage. They were not bound to the soil, and could sell their holdings when they liked. There were also the cotagers, holding only a small strip of land usually surrounding their houses. Nominally they were villeins, but they were spared the heavy burden of week-work. They were thus free to earn their living as hired labourers for their richer neighbours. This class of almost landless labourers, working for wages, was to grow more and more in size and importance as time went on; but it plays only a small part in the Norman conception of the manor.

The control of the manor was vested in the lord's court; or court baron, presided over by his stewards. Here it was that the register was kept of land bought and sold, here that justice was done in neighbours' quarrels. Here, too, the custom of the manor was preserved and enforced. The court kept record of the way in which things were customarily done in that particular manor, what rights and privileges the lord and tenant were wont to enjoy, what works ought to be done, what fines were due on specific occasions, and so on. We shall see later how both lord and tenant came to be bound by the custom of the manor, and how important it was.

This system was brought over by the Normans, lust as the village structure had been brought over by the previous invaders. But there was an important difference between the Normans and their predecessors. The latter had been settlers, the former, first and foremost, military conquerors. Their triumph was from a military and political point of view more complete than that of any previous invaders, but the task of altering existing social arrangements was a formidable one. The Saxons and the Danes had brought their own customs with them, and after settling on the land had gradually adapted them to their new environment - the more easily perhaps as those customs were vague and not clearly formulated. The Normans, on the other hand, were a small body of men, all of the ruling class, trying to impose their cut-and-dried version of feudalism on a resentful population whose habits varied from place to place and whose geographical conditions were often widely different from those of Normandy, or of the other parts of Europe from which William's army of adventurers was drawn. Even given the fact that the Normans had all the military power in their hands, that they were completely ruthless in using it, and that under Edward the Confessor they had been able to spy out the ground pretty thoroughly, it was bound to be a long time before they could bring the whole of England into more than a verbal conformity with their system.

NextDegree In Feudalism


The manor was part and parcel of feudalism, and we must have some idea of what feudalism meant if the manor is to be understood. It emerged gradually during the confused centuries following the break-up of the Western Roman Empire, and served to support the ruling and fighting class of Christendom. It can be described as a pyramidal society, with the King at the top, the common people at the bottom, and a hierarchy of lesser lords in between; each rank bound to those above or below it by mutual rights and duties. The King was ultimate and absolute lord of his realm ; no distinction was drawn in those... see: Feudalism

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