What Is Manorialism? Definition and Examples

English manor houses and fields
A small number of homes and other buildings form sparsely populated towns throughout Swaledale, Yorkshire Dales National Park, UK.

Edwin Remsburg / Getty Images Plus

In medieval Europe, the economic system of manorialism was often practiced as a way in which landowners could legally increase their profits, while taking advantage of a peasant workforce. This system, which granted primary legal and economic power to a lord of the manor, is rooted in ancient Roman villas, and it persisted for several hundred years.

Did You Know?

  • Early medieval manors were the hub of social, political, and legal activity.
  • The lord of the manor had the final say in all matters, and his serfs or villeins were contractually obligated to provide goods and services.
  • The manorial system eventually died out as Europe moved into a money-based economy.

Manorialism Definition and Origins

In Anglo-Saxon Britain, manorialism was a rural economic system that allowed landowners to become powerful, both politically and socially. The system of manorialism can trace its roots back to the period in which England was occupied by Rome. During the late Roman period, which was the heyday of the villa, large landowners were forced to consolidate their land—and their laborers—for purposes of protection. Workers got plots of land to cultivate, and the protection of the landowner and his men at arms. The landowner himself benefited from the economic contribution of the workers.

Over time, this evolved into an economic system known as feudalism, which thrived from around the late eighth century into the 1400s. During the latter part of the feudal system, many rural economies were gradually replaced with the manor economy. In manorialism, sometimes called the seignorial system, peasants were completely under the jurisdiction of the lord of their manor. They were obligated to him economically, politically, and socially. The manor itself, a landed estate, was the center of the economy, and this allowed for the efficient organization of property for the landed aristocracy, as well as clergy.

Vellum image of farmer and son plowing
A farmer teaching his son to plough a field (vellum). Biblioteca Monasterio del Escorial, Madrid, Spain / Getty Images

Manorialism was found, under various names, in most parts of Western Europe, including France, Germany, and Spain. It took hold in England, and also as far east as the Byzantine Empire, parts of Russia, and Japan.

Manorialism vs. Feudalism

While the feudal system existed in a way that overlapped manorialism for many years in much of Europe, they are economic structures that affect two different relationships. Feudalism relates to the political and military relationship a king might have with his nobles; the aristocracy existed to protect the king as needed, and the king in turn rewarded his supporters with land and privilege.

Manorialism, on the other hand, is the system by which those aristocratic landowners related to the peasants on their holdings. The manor was an economic and judicial social unit, in which the lord, the manor court, and a number of communal systems coexisted together, benefiting everyone to some degree.

Both feudalism and manorialism were structured around social class and wealth, and were used by the upper class to control the possession of land, which was the root of the economy. Over time, as agrarian changes took place, Europe shifted to a money-based market, and the manor system eventually declined and ended.

Organization of the Manorial System

A European manor was typically organized with a large house at the center. This was where the lord of the manor and his family lived, and also the location for legal trials held in the manor court; this typically took place in the Great Hall. Often, as the manor and the landowner's holdings grew, apartments were built on to the home, so that other nobles could come and go with minimal fuss. Because the lord might own several manors, he could be absent from some of them for months at a time; in that case, he would appoint a steward or seneschal to oversee daily operations of the manor.

The Culture of the Vine
Vintage colour engraving of the Culture of the Vine, France, 16th Century. Duncan1890 / Getty Images 

Because the manor house was also the center of military strength, although it might not have been as fortified as a castle, it would often be enclosed within walls to protect the main house, the farm buildings, and the livestock. The main house was surrounded by a village, small tenant houses, strips of land for farming, and common areas that were used by the entire community.

The typical European manor consisted of three different types of land arrangements. The demesne land was used by the lord and his tenants for common purposes; roads, for instance, or communal fields would be demesne land. Dependent lands were worked by tenants, known as serfs or villeins, in a subsistence farming system specifically for the economic benefit of the lord. Often these tenancies were hereditary, so several generations of a single family could live on and work the same fields for decades. In return, the serf family was legally obligated to supply the lord with agreed-upon goods or services. Finally, free peasant land was less common, but still found in some smaller holdings; this was land cultivated and rented by peasants who were free, unlike their serf neighbors, but still fell under the jurisdiction of the manor house.

Serfs and villeins were generally not free, but they were also not slaves. They and their families were contractually obligated to the lord of the manor. According to Encyclopedia Brittanica, the villein:

...could not without leave quit the manor and could be reclaimed by process of law if he did. The strict contention of law deprived him of all right to hold property, and in many cases he was subject to certain degrading incidents... [he] paid for his holding in money, in labour, and in agrarian produce. 

Manor Courts

From legal standpoint, the manor court was at the center of the justice system, and handled cases both civil and criminal. Minor offenses such as theft, assault, and other petty accusations were handled as disputes between tenants. Offenses against the manor were considered more serious, because they disrupted the social order. A serf or villein who was accused of things like poaching or taking timber from the lord's forests without permission might be treated more severely. Large-scale criminal offenses were remanded over to the king or his representative in a larger court.

England, Cumbria, Eskdale, view over croft in landscape
A view over a crofter's home in Cumbria. Joe Cornish / Getty Images

When it came to civil cases, nearly all manor court activity was related to the land. Contracts, tenancy, dowries, and other legal disputes were the predominant business of the manor court. In many cases, the lord himself was not the person passing judgment; often the steward or seneschal took on these duties, or a jury of twelve elected men would reach a decision together.

The End of Manorialism

As Europe began to shift towards a more commerce-based market, rather than one that relied on the land as capital, the manorial system started to decline. Peasants could earn money for their goods and services, and the expanding urban population created a demand for produce and timber in the cities. Subsequently, people became more mobile, often relocated to where the work was, and were able to buy their freedom from the lord of the manor. Lords eventually found that it was to their advantage to allow free tenants to rent land and pay for the privilege; these tenants were far more productive and profitable than those who held property as serfs. By the 17th century, most areas that had previously relied on the manorial system had instead switched over to a money-based economy.

Sources

  • Bloom, Robert L. et al. "The Heirs of the Roman Empire: Byzantium, Islam, and Medieval Europe: Medieval, Political, and Economic Development: Feudalism and Manorialism." Ideas and Institutions of Western Man (Gettysburg College, 1958), 23-27. https://cupola.gettysburg.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1002&context=contemporary_sec2
  • Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Manorialism.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 5 July 2019, www.britannica.com/topic/manorialism.
  • Hickey, M. “State and Society in the High Middle Ages (1000-1300).” State and Society in the High Middle Ages, facstaff.bloomu.edu/mhickey/state_and_society_in_the_high_mi.htm.
  • “Sources of Law, 5: Early Medieval Custom.” Legal Studies Program, www.ssc.wisc.edu/~rkeyser/?page_id=634.