Mind your manors

Manor houses, lords of the manor, and the rugged but forelock-tugging yeomanry did not spring, fully formed, from the minds of Fellowes and Bronte. Manors have been a part of the European landscape for more than fifteen centuries. What we see today are the slightest shadows of a system that once formed the foundation of the economic, social, and political structures in early medieval Europe.

A manor was a self-sustaining economic unit under a single lord that produced a surplus, a surplus which could take the form of many types of economic production. The manor was the dominant social and legal structure for the vast majority of the continent’s inhabitants. And the manor was the basic unit of political authority, the tool by which the king and church expanded their income and power. The benefice was the idea, the manor the method.

At its most elemental a manor is a parcel of land over which a lord has right of usage. A manor could be contiguous land, or a series of isolated parcels. It included arable land for tilling, forests for foraging, and meadow for grazing. It could include fishing rights. The manor included all of the buildings, including residences, the manor hall, stables, outbuildings and workshops. It also included the slaves, which were property, and the semi-free peasants that were attached to the land. Manors ranged in size from a few hundred to a few thousand acres.1.Fichtenau, Living in the Tenth Century, provides as good a summary as I have found, pp. 346-350.

The early medieval age described land area in terms of economic size (although they did not explicitly think in those terms). The smallest unit of land was called a mansus, which is usually defined as the amount of land necessary for a single family to subsist.2.Latouche, Birth of Western Economy, p. 74. Other terms were also used, depending on the time and place.3.Boissonnade, Life and Work, p. 131. Beyond that were villae, or complete farms,4.Latouche, Birth of Western Economy, p.193. which became our modern village. A manor could encompass several villae and many mansi, as well as the forage land mentioned about. Finally there came the great royal estates, the fisci. These included many manors.

The development of the manor reflects the decline of Rome and the rise of the barbarian kingdoms. During the Roman empire the basis of economic life was the latifundia, huge estates that absorbed smaller property owners and were dependent on slave labor. These dissolved along with Rome, and individual landholdings became more prevalent. The church began accumulating land, both granted by the kings, and endowed by others who wished to enhance their chances at a more favorable reception when they came to be judged by their Maker.

Both kings and the church built influence by granting their own land out to followers as a benefice. A benefice was a grant of a right to use the land, but not ownership of it. In effect the beneficiary (see how that works?) had everything except outright ownership: he could work the land, reap the income, and dispense justice over the inhabitants. What he could not do was pass the land to his heirs. On his death the rights to the manor reverted to the grantor.

The beneficiary could also grant some part of his manor to his own followers. Thus a lord would grant a family the right to use some portion of the land as their own farm, along with the greater resources of the manor, and of course protection under the lord. In return the peasants were obligated to work some amount of time on the lord’s own land, which was called the demesne. Instead of work they might be required to provide some in-kind product, maybe cheese or eggs or chickens. Depending on the lord they might have had to pay a fee to use the manor’s mill. This became what Verthulst calls a “bi-partite” manor: some of the land worked by the peasants for their own use, and some worked by them on behalf of the lord, in support of the lord’s household.5.Verhulst, The Carolingian Economy, pp.33-34.

The lord’s rights extended beyond economic authority. The lord dispensed the manor’s justice to the inhabitants, in accordance with the king’s laws. The lord was expected to maintain a set of written law books for this purpose. Reports of unlawful behavior by the lord could reach the ears of the king, who would dispatch one of his missi dominici to ensure that the lord mended his ways. As an incentive to follow the king’s will the lord was bound to maintain the missi at his own expense until the missi decided that a better path was being followed.

Several classes of people resided on a manor. Slaves were property, and could be disposed of as the lord saw fit. The un-free or semi-free had legal rights, but were tied to and were forced to continue to work the land. The free could move about as they choose. We’ll talk about a person’s legal and social status in next week’s post.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Fichtenau, Living in the Tenth Century, provides as good a summary as I have found, pp. 346-350.
2. Latouche, Birth of Western Economy, p. 74.
3. Boissonnade, Life and Work, p. 131.
4. Latouche, Birth of Western Economy, p.193.
5. Verhulst, The Carolingian Economy, pp.33-34.

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