Medieval Economy Home

Money and Trading

Feudalism and Manorialism

Medieval Professions




Feudalism and Manorialism



What is Maniorialism?

system of social ralations between seigneurs or lords and their dependent farm laborers, or serfs, in the middle ages (5th to 15th century.)

Manorialism, otherwise known as the Manorial System, is the political, economic, and social system by which peasants of medieval Europe were made dependent on their land and on their lord derived from the word ‘manor.’ Its basic unit was the manor, a self-sufficient stationary estate, or fief that was under the control of a lord who enjoyed a variety of rights over it and the peasants attached to it by means of serfom. The manorial system was the most convenient device for organizing the estates of the aristocracy and the clergy in the European Middle Ages, and it made feudalism possible, the system that granted the upper-class clergy and nobles power. Under other names the manorial system was found not only in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and England, where it is known as Seignorialism, but also in varying degrees, in the Byzantine Empire, Russia, Japan, and elsewhere. The manorial system's importance as an institution varied in different parts of Europe at different times. In western Europe it was flourishing by the 8th century and had begun to decline by the 13th century, while in eastern Europe, it achieved its greatest strength after the 15th century.

Manorialism had its origins in the late Roman Empire, when large landowners had to consolidate their hold over both their lands and the labourers who workerd them. This was a necessity in the midst of the civil disorders, enfeebled governments, and barbarian invasions that wracked Europe in the 5th and 6th centuries AD. In such conditions, small farmers and landless labourers exchanged their land or their freedom and pledged their services in exchange for the portection of powerful landowners who had the military strength to defend them. In this manner, the poor, defenseless, landless, and weak were ensured permanent access to plots of land which they could work in return for the rendering of economic services to the lord who held that land, allowing a sort of bartering of one service for another. This arrangement developed into the manorial system, which in turn supported the feudal aristocracy of kings, lords, and vassals.

The typical western European manner in the 13th century consistsedpartly of the cottages, huts, and barns and gardens of its peasants or serfs, which were usually clustered together to form a small village. Ther might also be a church, a mill, and a wine or oil press in the village. Close by was the fortified dwelling, or manor house, of the lord, which might be inhabited by him or merely by his steward if the lord happened to hold more than one manor. The village was surrounded by the arable land that was divided into three large fields that were farmed in rotation, with one allowed to lie fallow each year. There were also usually meadows for supplying hay, pastures for livestock, pools for steaming fish, and forests and wastelands for wood gathering and foraging.

The manorial system was also an important feature of the social structure of the Middle Ages. It resulted in the division of plant cultivation practices ubti what we now recognize as horticulture (gardens close to the manor house and enclosed for protection, containing fruits, vegetables, and herbs), agronomy (the cultivation of grains and forages in open fieldsfather away from the manor house), and forestry (the wild lands that contained game and forests and were not managed to any extent).

Manorialism is simply the way of describing the system that allowed stability in these dark times, generally known as the Middle Ages. Although based on the word manor, the castle and fief were two very important features of this system. A manor is generally generally more comfort oriented than a castle, and the word ‘manor’ often is used to refer to large luxury homes that are not made for protection or defense. However, the lord and owner of a castle, that is constructed almost completely as a stronghold for use in war, insured that the lord of the castle would have many serfs under his rule. The extensive protection (not to mention menacing appearance) would flock many peasants and serfs eager to become citizen to the most powerful lord. In case of attack, the lord of the castle would allow his loyal serfs to retreat to his stronghold(s), in exchange for their previous services, from a nearby town where they earn a living in order to pay taxes to the lord. The Manorial System provided stability in those ancient and dark times where the only safety was behind the thick impenetrable walls of a mighty manor, or even more effective, castle.

[Back To Top]


What is feudalism?

A hierarchical system in which a lord or king gives a gift or land (known in Latin as a feudum) to a vassal, i.e. a knight, in exchange for protection.

Medieval Europe characterizes what we think of as feudalism, but many of the inner workings, such as who owns what and why, go unnoticed. Originally, feudums were just military items and goods, such as armor, weaponry, and horses. By A.D. 1000, feudums evolved into pieces of land known as fiefs. Since feudal Europe relied heavily on its agriculture, wealth was derived from land. Land, therefore, became a means of improving one's status. That meant that a fief was not only a gift bestowed to a vassal by his lord, but it was a way to turn a vassal into a member of the upper class, as became prevalent over time. In the marriage of nobles, a dowry of land was given to the husband, so that he would receive land from his family as well as from his wife's family. Fiefs were granted to a vassal only for the lifetime of that vassal. However, it became the norm for a son to inherit the title of his father. In fact, this became so common that the practice of primogeniture, of the bequeathing of land and duties to the eldest son of a family became established.

The decline of feudalism can be marked by the crusades. After the Crusades, a demand was put on the production of goods, and a money system was introduced. Many peasants that worked the fiefs of nobles moved to the cities and towns in order to seek out a better future. This left the vassals of smaller fiefs unable to compensate the remaining peasants on the land for their work. As a result, vassals had to return to fighting as a knight in the service of nobles in exchange for the fees that the nobles would give. Even this was difficult due to the advent of money, since it was much easier to hire someone to organize an army than to hire a knight, whose services were required for only 40 days out of the year. Also, land was becoming scarce, so money became a natural substitute. With the remaining vassals, lords found it more effective to pay a vassal an annual fee. Vassals than had loyalties to more than one lord in order to receive more money, and confusion among loyalties occurred. However, feudalism was on its down and would soon be replaced by the money system.

[Back To Top]

Medieval Village Home

[ Medieval Economy Home | Money/Trading | Feudalism/Manorialism | Medieval Professions | Commodities | Bibliography | Links ]
Page co-authored by Nathan Beckman and Elango Cheran.

Last revised on 12/8/1998.