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 Manorial System


Text below from: The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition; Copyright © 2001 Columbia University Press (

Manorial system

The manorial or seignorial system was an economic and social system of medieval Europe under which peasants’ land tenure and production were regulated, and local justice and taxation were administered. The system was intimately related to feudalism but was not itself feudal, since it had no connection with the military and political concept of the fief. The fundamental characteristic of the manorial system was economic--the peasants held land from the lord (Fr. seigneur) of an estate in return for fixed dues in kind, money, and services. The manorial system prevailed in France, England, Germany, Spain, and Italy and far into Eastern Europe. A similar method of landholding by the peasants has existed in countries outside Europe, notably Japan and India.

Structure and Functions

The manorial system was essentially a local institution, and general statements concerning it are subject to exceptions. In its simple form it consisted of the division of the land into self-sufficient estates, each presided over by the lord of the manor and tilled by residents of the local village that usually accompanied each manorial estate. The lord, who might be the king, an ecclesiastical lord, a baron, or any lesser noble, owed military protection to the peasants. The land remained in the lord’s holding and was loaned to the person who cultivated it in return for services and dues. The lord, however, did not have the right to withdraw the property or to increase the dues, and the rights of cultivation were in general heritable among the peasants. The peasants ordinarily were of two classes, the free and the unfree, but there was wide diversity in the status of the villein and serf, and the distinction became blurred. The terms free and servile came to be attached to the land rather than to the man, and a holding could be servile or free regardless of the status of the holder.

On the typical domain was the manor house of the lord. Some of the land he retained for his own use (the demesne). The domain was divided into arable, meadow (the commons), woodland, and waste. The arable was held by the peasants, and each holding was under its own fixed conditions; usually the holdings were by strips, and a single man might hold widely separated lands. The three-field system of agriculture generally prevailed, with one field devoted to winter crops, another to summer crops, and a third lying fallow each year. The meadow was generally held in common. The woodlands and fishponds usually belonged to the lord, and he had to be recompensed for the right to hunt animals, catch fish, and cut wood. In times of poor harvest the lord was to use his coin and credit to prevent starvation.

Small local industry was also a function of the manorial system, and dues owed the estate could include such items as cloth, building materials, and ironware. The payments made by serf and villein varied with the locality. There were usually fixed dues paid at certain times of the year. In addition to dues for the use of the lands and the use of the lord’s mill and oven, there were personal work dues. There were also obligations to supply the lord with services--food, lodging, and the like--when he came to the manor. In addition there were dues for the rights of justice.

The manor was an administrative and political unit. There were manorial courts, and the lord or his agent presided over the administration of justice. The manor was also the unit for the raising of taxes and for public improvements. Thus the tenants were obliged to repair roads and bridges, maintain the castles, and take care of the military contributions. The manor was almost always under the charge the lord’s agent, who might be assisted by provosts or bailiffs. The manor was looked upon as a permanent organization, and even when part of it was transferred to others by the lord, it remained a single manor. Thus one manor might have several direct lords. It did not necessarily coincide with a single estate; it might be larger or it might be only part of an estate.


Feudalism was the form of political and social organization typical of Western Europe from the dissolution of Charlemagne’s empire to the rise of the absolute monarchies. The term feudalism is derived from the Latin feodum, for fief, and ultimately from a Germanic word meaning cow, generalized to denote valuable movable property. Although analogous social systems have appeared in other civilizations, the feudalism of Europe in the Middle Ages remains the common model of feudal society.

Characteristics of European Feudalism

The evolution of highly diverse forms, customs, and institutions makes it almost impossible to accurately depict feudalism as a whole, but certain components of the system may be regarded as characteristic: strict division into social classes, i.e., nobility, clergy, peasantry, and, in the later Middle Ages, burgesses; private jurisdiction based on local custom; and the landholding system dependent upon the fief or fee. Feudalism was based on contracts made among nobles, and although it was intricately connected with the manorial system, it must be considered as distinct from it. Although some men held their land in alod, without obligation to any person, they were exceptions to the rule in the Middle Ages.

In an ideal feudal society (a legal fiction, most nearly realized in the Crusaders’ Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem), the ownership of all land was vested in the king. Beneath him was a hierarchy of nobles, the most important nobles holding land directly from the king, and the lesser from them, down to the seigneur who held a single manor. The political economy of the system was local and agricultural, and at its base was the manorial system. Under the manorial system the peasants, laborers, or serfs, held the land they worked from the seigneur, who granted them use of the land and his protection in return for personal services (especially on the demesne, the land he retained for his own use) and for dues (especially payment in kind).

The Fief

The feudal method of holding land was by fief; the grantor of the fief was the suzerain, or overlord, and the recipient was the vassal. The fief was formally acquired following the ceremony of homage, in which the vassal, kneeling before the overlord, put his hands in those of the lord and declared himself his man, and the overlord bound himself by kissing the vassal and raising him to his feet. The vassal then swore an oath of fealty, vowing to be faithful to the overlord and to perform the acts and services due him. This formal procedure served to cement the personal relationship between lord and vassal; after the ceremony the lord invested the vassal with the fief, usually by giving him some symbol of the transferred land. Honors or rights, as well as land, could be granted as fiefs. Gradually the system of subinfeudation evolved, by which the vassal might in his turn become an overlord, granting part of his fief to one who then became vassal to him. Thus very complex relationships, based on fiefs, developed among the nobles, and the personal ties between overlords and vassals were weakened. Originally the fief had to be renewed on the death of either party. With the advent of hereditary succession and primogeniture, renewal of the fief by the heir of the deceased became customary, and little by little the fief became hereditary.

Military Service

The feudal system rested on the unsettled conditions of the times and thus on the need of the lord for armed warriors and the need of the vassal for protection. The nobility was essentially a military class, with the knight as the typical warrior. Since equipping mounted fighters was expensive, the lord could not create his armed force without the obligation of the vassal to supply a stipulated number of armed men, a number that varied from the service of the vassal himself to the service of hundreds in private armies. The gradations of nobility were, therefore, based on both military service and landholding. At the bottom of the social scale was the squire, originally the servant of the knight. Above the knight were classes that varied in different countries--counts, dukes, earls, barons, and other nobles. The vassal owed, in addition to military service, other dues and services that varied with local custom and tended to become fixed. The obligation of the overlord in the feudal contract was always the protection of the vassal.