What is Manorialism?

The Lord of the Manor collected taxes and labour from the serfs who lived on his land.
The Lord of the Manor collected taxes and labour from the serfs who lived on his land.

Manor, in the medieval times, referred to the large chunk of land owned by an individual. The land resulted in certain political rights in the society. At the time, political rights were based on land-ownership and land-ownership could only be granted by a king. Consequently, only the wealthy people could own land and their political rights were based on the type of land that they owned. To stay rich and powerful in those days, one had to mind their manors. Hence, manorialism was the overall structure of holding and maintaining manors. Other words used instead of manorialism were the manorial system, seignorialism, or seignorial system.

Structure of the Manorial System

Manorialism became feasible by the relationship between the landowners and the people who worked on the land, called peasants. The landowners had the legal right to own land and estate. They enjoyed three significant benefits. The first benefit was their ability to possess the land. Secondly, they earned themselves the title of “Lord of the Manor” which was a noble title. With this title, the landlords had the privilege of attending the royal court. Thirdly, the owners of the land had a right over their land and so had a right to collect their taxes.

Most of the peasants, also called serfs, did not own any land. They stayed on the manors held by the landlords. As such, they became subjects of the lords. The serfs had a duty to compensate the lords for living on their land. The standard payment method was labor.The serfs would till the land belonging to the lords and ensure they had a good harvest. However, the other payment that the lords received from the serfs was direct tax or actual money. But they were eager for the labor services more than the different modes of payment.

​Common Features of Manors

There were three classes of manors, namely demesne, dependent, and free peasant land. The demesne was the portion of land under the direct control of the lords. The use of the land was for the benefit of his dependents and household. The serfs occupied the portion of the land reserved for dependents. In turn, they had an obligation to provide labor services to the landlord. The lord would specify tasks for which he required labor as compensation for allowing the peasant to live on his land. The occupants of the free peasant land did not have a duty to serve the lord. They owned the land based on a lease agreement which outlined the terms of payment. However, the free peasants were still subject to the manorial jurisdiction.

Variations in Manorial Structures

Not all manors were divided into three portions. Some manors only had demesnes. On the other hand, some manors were made of either serf lands only or demesne only. In a case where the manors were relatively small, the tended demesne occupied a large portion of the land. The arrangement allowed the landlords to have an abundant supply of obligatory labor. Geographically, most manors did not occupy a single village. Instead, they consisted of a portion of two or more villages. Consequently, those who lived very far away from the lord’s estate preferred to replace their labor obligations by cash payments. There was also a variation in the experiences that the serfs had. For some, the lords preserved some of the peasant freedoms. An example is that some of them did not require labor services in some duties like livestock husbandry which was less demanding. As a result, the low eastern England had a large free peasantry which was a legacy of the Scandinavian settlement. On the contrary, some upland areas in Europe had the most oppressive manorial systems.

The End of Manorialism

The manorial system came to a halt with the spread of the money economy. Money economy stimulated the replacement of mandatory labor supply by monetary payments. However, in 1170, the landlords had to resort back to leasing land for labor services due to inflation. Inflation resulted in the decline in the value of money. Ultimately, manorialism ended as money became the primary form of payment in the latter years.


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