Manor: Economic and Social Center of European Middle Ages

Definition and Significance in the Middle Ages

Château de Fontainebleau, medieval manor
Phillip Grondin/Flickr/CC BY-ND 2.0

The medieval manor, also known as vill from the Roman villa, was an agricultural estate. During the Middle Ages, at least four-fifths of the population of England had no direct connection with towns. Most people did not live on single farms as they still do today, but instead, they were associated with a manor—a social and economic powerhouse of the Middle Ages. 

A manor was usually comprised of tracts of agricultural land, a village whose inhabitants worked that land, and a manor house where the lord who owned or controlled the estate lived. Manors might also have had woods, orchards, gardens, and lakes or ponds where fish could be found. On the manor lands, usually near the village, one could often find a mill, bakery, and blacksmithy. Manors were largely self-sufficient.

Size and Composition

Manors varied greatly in size and composition, and some were not even contiguous plots of land. They generally ranged in size from 750 to 1,500 acres. There might be more than one village associated with a large manor; on the other hand, a manor could be small enough that only part of a village's inhabitants worked the estate. Peasants worked the lord's demesne (the property farmed outright by the lord) for a specified number of days a week, usually two or three.

On most manors there was also land designated to support the parish church; this was known as the glebe.

The Manor House

Originally, the manor house was an informal collection of wood or stone buildings including a chapel, kitchen, farm buildings and, of course, the hall. The hall served as the meeting place for village business and it was where the manorial court was held. As the centuries passed, manor houses became more strongly defended and took on some of the features of castles, including fortified walls, towers, and even moats.

Manors were sometimes given to knights as a way to support them as they served their king. They could also be owned outright by a nobleman or belong to the church. In the overwhelmingly agricultural economy of the Middle Ages, manors were the backbone of European life.

A Typical Manor: Borley, 1307

Historical documents of the period give us a fairly clear account of medieval manors. The most detailed is that of the "extent," which described the tenants, their holdings, rents, and services, which was compiled on testimony by a sworn jury of inhabitants. The extent was completed whenever a manor changed hands. 

A typical account of the holdings is that of the manor of Borley, which was held in the early fourteenth century by a freeman named Lewin and described by American historian E.P. Cheney in 1893. Cheney reports that in 1307, Borley manor changed hands, and documents enumerated the holdings of the 811 3/4 acre estate. That acreage included:

  • Arable lands, 702 1/4 acres
  • Meadow, 29 1/4 acres
  • Enclosed pasture, 32 acres
  • Woods, 15 acres 
  • Manor house land, 4 acres
  • Tofts (homesteads) of two acres each, 33 acres 

The possessors of the manor lands were described as demesne (or that which was farmed outright by Lewin) including a total of 361 1/4 acres; seven freeholders held a total of 148 acres; seven molmen held 33 1/2 acres, and 27 villeins or customary tenants held 254 acres. Freeholders, molmen, and villeins were Medieval classes of tenant farmers, in descending order of prosperity, but without clear-cut boundaries that changed over time. All of them paid rents to the lord in the form of a percentage of their crops or labor on the demesne.

The total annual value of the estate to the lord of the manor of Borley in 1307 was listed as 44 pounds, 8 shillings, and 5 3/4 pence. That amount was about twice what Lewin would have needed to be knighted, and in 1893 dollars was about U.S. $2,750 a year, which today equals about $75,000. 

Sources

Cheyney, E. P. "The Mediæval Manor." The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 4 (1893): 75-91. Print.

Dodwell, B. "The Free Tenantry of the Hundred Rolls." The Economic History Review 14.2 (1944): 163-71. Print.

Klingelhöfer, Eric. Manor, Vill, and Hundred: The Development of Rural Institutions in Early Medieval Hampshire. Montreal: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies

Overton, Eric. A Guide to the Medieval Manor. London: Local History Publications, 1991. Print