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Lecture 22

European Agrarian Society: Manorialism

One of the greatest achievements of the early Middle Ages was the emergence of the single-family farm as the basic unit of production. Villa owners, that is, former Roman patricians, were forced to settle their slaves on their own estates. The wreckage of the Roman Empire and with it, the decline of any form of centralized government, demanded such a development. This development often called manorialism or serfdom, marks the beginning of the European peasantry, a class or order of laborers who did not really disappear until quite recently. Before we turn our attention to serfdom or manorialism, it is necessary to highlight a few technological achievements of the period, roughly 500-1000.

By the 6th century a series of new farm implements began to make their appearance. The first development was the heavy plow which was needed to turn over the hard soil of northern Europe. The older "scratch" plow had crisscrossed the field with only slight penetration and required light, well-drained soils. The heavy plow or "moldboard" cut deep into the soil and turned it so that it formed a ridge, thus providing a natural drainage system. It also allowed the deep planting of seeds. The heavy plow, by eliminating the need for cross-plowing, also had the effect of changing the shape of fields in northern Europe from squarish to long and narrow. The old square shape of fields was inappropriate to the new plow -- to use it effectively all the lands of a village had to be reorganized into vast, fenceless open fields plowed in long narrow strips. This invited cooperation.

The only drawback as that it required an increased amount of animal power to draw it across the soil. So, a second innovation attempted to overcome this drawback: the introduction of teams of oxen. This became possible through the adoption of two pieces of technology known to the Romans: the rigid horse collar and the tandem harness. The rigid collar and tandem harness allowed teams to pull with equal strength and greater efficiency. And this invited cooperation as well for how many peasants can be said to have owned eight oxen, the number requisite to pull the heavy plow? If they wished to use this new piece of technology they would have to pool their teams. Added to this was the fact that each peasant might "own" and harvest fifty or sixty small strips scattered widely over the entire arable land of the village. The result was the growth of a powerful village council of peasants to settle disputes and to decide how the total collection of small strips ought to be managed. This was the essence of the manorial system as it operated in northern Europe.

Northern European farmers also began to experiment with the three-field system of crop rotation. Under the older, two-field system, the arable land was divided in half. One field was planted in the fall with winter wheat while the other field remained fallow. Under the three-field system, the same land would be divided into thirds. One field would be planted in the fall with winter wheat or rye and harvested in early summer. In late spring a second field planted with oats, barley, legumes or lentils , which were harvested in late summer. The third field would remain fallow. Such a system improved the arability of the soil since the tendency to overuse was greatly diminished. The importance of this cannot be overlooked. Without additional plowing, it would be possible for the land to yield more food. The increased amount of vegetable protein made available meant that European peasants might enjoy an improved level of nutrition. Lastly, the diversification into other crops such as oats, meant that horses could be fed properly. And the horse would eventually replace oxen as the preferred method of animal power.

These innovations in agricultural techniques -- medieval microchips, if you will -- were by no means the only ones to make their appearance during the early Middle Ages. Iron became increasingly utilized to make agricultural implements since it was more durable than wood. New farm implements were either discovered or refined such as the toothed harrow. There was also a startling incidence of windmills. All this meant greater food production and with much greater efficiency. These developments took place, gradually and regionally, on the medieval manor. The manor was the fundamental unit of economic, political and social organization. It was, furthermore, the only life the medieval serf or peasant ever knew. The manor was a tightly disciplined community of peasants organized collectively under the authority of a lord. Manors were usually divided into two parts: the demense defined the lord's land and was worked by the serf and then there were the small farms of the serfs themselves. There were also extensive common lands (held by men in common by the grace of God) used by the serfs for grazing, gleaning, hunting and fishing. The typical medieval manor also contained various workshops which manufactured clothes, shoes, tools and weapons. There were bakeries, wine presses and grist mills.

A lord controlled at least one manorial village and great lords might control hundreds. A small manor estate might contain a dozen families while larger estates might include fifty or sixty. The manorial village was never completely self-sufficient because salt, millstones or perhaps metalware were not available and had to be obtained from outside sources. However, the medieval manor did serve as a balanced economic setting. Peasants grew their grain and raised cattle, sheep, hogs and goats. There were blacksmiths, carpenters and stonemasons who built and repaired dwellings. The village priest cared for the souls of the inhabitants and it was up to the lord to defend the manor estate from outside attack.

When a manor was attacked by a rival lord, the peasants usually found protection inside the walls of their lord's house. By the 12th century, the lord's home had become in many cases, a well-fortified castle. Peasants generally lived, worked and died within the lord's estate and were buried in the village churchyard. The world of the medieval peasant was clearly the world and experience of the manor estate.

There was a complex set of personal relationships which defined the obligations between serf and lord. In return for security and the right to cultivate fields and to pass their holdings on to their sons, the serf had many obligations to their lord. As a result, the personal freedom of the serf was restricted in a number of ways. Bound to the land, they could not leave the manor without the lord's consent. Before a serf could marry, he had to gain the consent of the lord as well as pay a small fee. A lord could select a wife for his serf and force him to marry her. A serf who refused was ordered to pay a fine. In addition to working their own land, the serfs also had to work the land of their lords. The lord's land had to be harvested by the serfs before they could harvest their own land. Other services exacted by the lord included digging ditches, gathering firewood, building and repairing fences, and repairing roads and bridges. In general, more than half of a serf's workweek was devoted to rendering services to the lord. The serf also paid a variety of dues to the lord: the annual capitation or head tax (literally, a tax on existence), the taille (a tax on the serf's property), and the heriot (an inheritance tax). Lastly, medieval serfs paid a number of banalities which were taxes paid to use the lord's mills, ovens and presses.

The serf's existence was certainly a harsh one. The manor offered protection to the serfs, something desperately needed in this time of uncertainty. The manor also promoted group cooperation. How else could fifty serfs use a handful of oxen to plow their fields? They had to learn to work collectively for the collective good of the village community. The serf knew his place in medieval society and readily accepted it. So too did the medieval nobility and clergy. The medieval manor therefore sustained the three orders of medieval society: those who pray, those who fight, and those who work.

Literacy may have reached its lowest level on the manor estate but at least the serf was protected and secure.

Manorialism and feudalism presupposed a stable social order in which every individual knew their place. People believed that society functioned smoothly when individuals accepted their status and performed their proper roles. Consequently, a person's rights, duties, and relationship to the law depended on his or her ranking in the social order. To change position was to upset the delicate balance. No one, serfs included, should be deprived of the traditional rights associated with his or her rank in the medieval matrix. This arrangement was justified by the clergy:

God himself has willed that among men, some must be lords and some serfs, in such a fashion that the lords venerate and love God, and that the serfs love and venerate their lord following the word of the Apostle; serfs obey your temporal lords with fear and trembling; lords treat your serfs according to justice and equity.

In the high Middle Ages, the revival of an urban economy, the humanization of Christianity, the growth of universities and the emergence of centralized governments would undermine feudal and manorial relationships. Although the relationship of dependence remained, feudal institutions gradually disappeared.

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copyright 2000 Steven Kreis
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