1920s >> 1924 >> no-234-february-1924

The manorial system

How often do we hear discussion stifled by that familiar remark from the lips of some defender of things as they are, that “Capitalism has always been and must therefore always be.” Even if the first part of thè statement were true, the second part, the conclusion, would still need proving. Because cows through all the ages since they were first domesticated had been milked by hand, that did it in not prevent inventors from trying (finally with success) to make a machine to do the same work. But it is not true that capitalism has always been, and if only the workers were even slightly familiar with the way in which capitalism lias grown up, and with the forms of organisation which preceded it, how much easier our task would be.

You will all of you have heard of the “Lord of the Manor”; nowadays, a country gentleman who sits on the Bench of Magistrates, draws rent from his landed estates, and is generally an ornament of county society, even if not a very useful person. There was, however, a time when the Manor, was a vital part of the life of the country, and I will try to give a brief outline of the system that then existed, in the hope that it may make some readers interested in the history of their own class and its predecessors.

The Manorial system is the name given to the agricultural organisation of society which was general in Western Europe in the Middle Ages; that is, between the breakup of the Roman Empire and, say, the fifteenth century. Whether it arose in England as a direct result of Roman rule over the original inhabitants, and was continued through the replacement of the Romans by the Anglo-Saxon invaders, or whether it developed out of the free villages which the latter introduced from the Continent, it is difficult to decide. It can be said, anyway, that its hold over Western Europe was evidence that it was admirably suited to the needs and conditions of the age, and it was certainly far advanced in this country at the time of the Norman invasion in the year 1066.

To outline the system one may conveniently consider the Manor, which was its unit, but it must be remembered that not only did manorial customs vary greatly with the locality, but also the continual process of change was by no means uniform. Some parts of Europe, and even of this country, developed much faster than others.

The basis of the system was the tenure of land. In the eleventh century there were about 1,400 direct tenants of the king, who as Manorial Lords had to give him military and other services. Then these chief tenants had 8,000 sub-tenants, who had to give similar service and allegiance to them. Each of these sub-tenants might hold one or two manors, while the chief tenants would have a large number. Within each manor were various groups of inferior tenants who received military and judicial protection, and gave their lord in return some payments in kind—that is, goods—and also gave him some of their labour free of payment.

A typical manor would consist of perhaps 20 or 30 small dwellings grouped together, and standing somewhat apart the much bigger house occupied by the Lord of the Manor. There would also be a church, and if there was a stream, a mill standing over it. Round this village would be several hundred acres of ploughland in two, three, or four large fields—three being the usual number. Outside this would lie the pasture land, and beyond the pasture there would be a great stretch of waste and woodland.

This little centre of production would be almost self-supporting and independent of the outside world. In it could be produced all the food and clothing needed, except for one or two articles like salt for meat preserving, mill-stones, and a small quantity of iron for swords and ploughshares.

Under the lord were the following classes:—The “villeins,” who were the most numerous, and had holdings of about 30 acres; the “cottars,” somewhat less numerous, who had up to 5 acres ; a small class of “freemen” or “socmen” ; and a still smaller class of slaves. All of these, except sometimes the freemen, were tied to the manor where they were born, and were not permitted to leave it; at first, however, they did not want to do so, because there was nowhere for them to go. The land of these various classes was not in a compact holding, as it would be in our day, but was scattered all over the three big fields in acre or half-acre strips. No man would have two strips together, and they were re-distributed each year so that each man would have a chance of getting his fair share of good and bad land.

The Lord of the Manor protected his tenants or “serfs” against attacks from outside, and they gave him labour service, and the freemen, who gave him military service as well. The freemen used to do what was called “boonwork” for him; that is, work at special seasons like haytime and harvest. The villeins had to do boonwork, and would also have to work three or four days each week on the lord’s land instead of on their own ; and the cottars would give perhaps one day a week. The cottars, having little land of their own, would work for some kind of payment. All this work was done under the supervision of the bailiff, and the land of the Lord of the Manor—the “Demesne” land—would often, but not always, be scattered about in strips like the rest.

It used to be complained by the lord or his bailiff that although the serfs worked hard on their own land, when they were ploughing the demesne land they would stop at the end of each furrow to pray and sing hymns. You can imagine your employer having a fit if you did this in his workshop, or on his farm, but in those days people were much more pious than they are now.

The work on the arable land, both ploughing and reaping, was done by the villagers working in common; they would all help each other, instead of each doing his own little plots. In those days this was a very economical way of getting the work done, and it prevented any of the land from being cultivated less carefully than the rest. Of course, it also had the disadvantage that it prevented one man from introducing any new ideas, and later on, when men began to learn better ways of farming, this became a serious matter.

The villagers had the right to graze their oxen and swine on the waste and woodland, and after harvest on the stubble land as well. There are, many places in this country, especially in the Southern Counties; where the villagers still have the right to graze cattle and cut bracken on the manorial lands; but most of these rights have long since been stolen.

The methods of cultivation were rigidly fixed by tradition, so that each year one field would contain wheat or rye for bread, one would contain barley, oats, beans, or peas, and the third would lie fallow, waiting for the soil to recover from the exhaustion of previous crops.
It will be noticed that no money passed between the lord and his serfs, and there was no buying and selling. Even the king’s taxes and the Pope’s tithes were paid in wool or other produce?​​

This organisation was at the height of its development during the thirteenth century, and signs of decay began to appear in the early years of the fourteenth century, just as capitalism has long shown signs of decay in our own day. The main forces which disintegrated the Manorial system were the appearance of money and its general use in place of the old labour services, and changes in agricultural methods which led eventually to the setting up of farms on which the farmer and his labourers do the work as he thinks fit, quite independently of the other villagers. Men began to work individually instead of in common.

By the middle of the thirteenth century it was already customary for the bailiff to sell some of the produce outside the manor, and with the money so obtained to hire day labourers to work alongside the “villeins,” who still gave their services according to the old arrangements. Gradually both lords and serfs became familiar with the use of money, and they got into the habit of reckoning the services as worth so much money even where no money was paid over. Neither of these changes I have mentioned could become important until there was a reliable coinage, and until there was someone who wanted agricultural produce and was able to pay for it.

The market was provided by the towns which had been growing up during the centuries. They were formed round monasteries and garrison towns, and at places where foreigners came to buy English wool and sell their fine cloths, and they were recruited by runaway serfs who found that there was a demand for blacksmiths, cloth-workers, and other handicraftsmen. At first these towns were only like big villages, and grew their own food, but when they got too large they had to get what they wanted from further afield. As these towns became more important and their craftsmen and merchants more powerful, they required a stable coinage in order to carry on their business. The kings at that time were in need of money, too, so that they could carry on their foreign wars, and they eventually took steps to provide the necessary coinage.

The Lords of the Manors also wanted money to buy luxuries from abroad, and to equip themselves for the wars of the Crusades, and to get this they began the practice of accepting money from the serfs in place of labour service. To this the villeins readily agreed, because they had always resented being called away from their own work at the busy seasons of the year just when they could least afford to be away. The valuation of services in money had probably become fairly general in the first half of the thirteenth century, although it cannot be said that all the serfs had established any right to demand this.

It was a growing practice, too, for the lord to let the demesne land to his bailiff for a money rent, which was something quite unknown before, and he then might draw revenue, but be freed from all trouble and responsibility himself. And, owing to the more settled state of the country and the increasing power of the king, it was no longer necessary for the Lord of the Manor to provide military protection, and the Manorial courts were deprived of their old power.​

The fact of having rent-paying tenants in charge of the demesne lands naturally led these men to try to improve their methods of cultivation and bring in big profits. Nothing like this could have been attempted under the old order of things.

These various changes were going on with increasing speed when an outstanding event occurred which drastically hastened them. This was the plague called the Black Death, which happened in the year 1348. Nearly half of the population was swept away, and this completely upset the existing relations between lords and serfs. The shortage of labour naturally made itself felt in an increase of money wages for those workers who had firmly established the custom of money payments, in spite of severe and repeated legislation to prevent them from getting any more than had been paid before 1348. Equally naturally, those who were still bound to give their services were much dissatisfied when they saw how much free men were able to demand. On the other hand, the lords were impoverished by the loss by death of so many of those on whose labour their wealth had depended, and at the same time they found that they had to pay more for their hired men. There had alwavs, of course, been some discontent, but now it broke out in open insurrections. The greatest of these, the Peasant Revolt of 1381, was of importance, although it did not seem to have been fully successful at the time. The Manorial Lords looked in another direction to save themselves. They turned their lands into sheep farms, instead of ploughing them, as had been the rule.

The growth of the wool trade with Flanders cloth merchants helped them materially. First, it made sheep-farming very profitable ; and as sheep require large areas and only a small amount of labour to tend them, the Lords used every conceivable means to rid the Manors of their small tenants, who had been serfs and had bought the right to work their holdings without giving labour service in return. They also found means to become possessed of the huge wastes and commons which, of course, did not really belong to them. Secondly, a class of wealthy merchants had sprung up who were willing to pay large rents for farm lands which they wanted to cultivate on a basis very much like that with which we are familiar to-day.

Thus many strips were amalgamated to make compact farms, and these again were grouped into still larger ones.

The result of all this was that by the reign of Queen Elizabeth about the middle of the fifteenth century there were no longer any serfs in England, although the rest of Europe was much more backward. In Russia serfdom was not abolished until 1861.

Instead of the Manors on the old basis, there were now a number of individually cultivated farms run for profit and a large number of small farms owned or rented by the free descendants of the serfs, but still cultivated in the ancient manner by the whole of the villagers working together and dividing their holdings up into scrips. It was, however, now the rule for money rent to be paid for all these farms, whether big or small, except where they had been bought outright as had often been done.

Those who had been turned off the land drifted amid intense suffering into the towns to take part in the industries which were everywhere growing up, They became in the main independent craftsmen, and it was not till long after that anything arose similar to our modern factory-system, where one capitalist employs hundreds or even thousands of “hands.”

In the same way there were not yet in the country a very large number of labourers without any land, compelled to work all the year round for someone else, and entirely dependent on their wages for their upkeep.

These further changes did not come till the eighteenth century, and must be described in another article.


(Socialist Standard, February 1924)

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