Painting by Jean Francois Millet of The Gleaners, three peasant women gleaning the remaining harvest
Painting, The Gleaners (1857), by Jean Francois Millet, showing three strong and dignified peasant women working in the field in rural France. Print Collector/Hulton Fine Art/Getty Images


A freeborn peasant who owed labor to the lord was a villein. The labor was usually two or three days a week on the lord's agricultural demesne, but it could involve other work, depending on the skills of the villein.

Though free, villeins could not move away from the manor, marry off their daughters, hunt in the lord's forests or commit their children to holy orders without the lord's consent; furthermore, they were sometimes also required to pay a fee.

Villeins owed their lords military service, which they could avoid through payment.

Unlike unfree peasants, villeins had rights to contract ownership of land and could participate in the manorial court -- although the court could not coerce a subject to punish him or force payment unless the lord ordered it.

It is difficult for the historian to discern much practical difference between villeins and unfree peasants, but the peasants themselves were very aware of the difference, which affected their standing in the community.

Examples: The villeins worked almost as hard on the lord's demesne as they did on their own lands, for Sir Knobbly was fair to them and gave them generous feasts on High Holy Days.