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Manorial Economy

Manorial Economy


The word manoir was used in Normandy in the eleventh century to designate the residence of a lord, the point of concentration of his economic and social power, and the place where the products of his lands were collected and where his men performed the services they owed him. In 1086, when Norman clerks drew up the inventory known as the Domesday Book for William the Conqueror, they used the word manoir as the key term in their descriptions of English estates. The word became part of the vocabulary of England. The expression “manorial economy” thus signifies, for Anglo-Saxon historians, a certain mode of economic organization of men and the land that developed during the feudal period. Continental historians usually employ the term “seignorial economy.”

Earliest manifestations The first clear image of the manorial system appears from documents drawn up in the ninth century in northern France, western Germany, and Lombardy describing the landed estates of large monasteries and the way in which they were managed. The French scholar Benjamin Guerard published the oldest and most complete of these inventories, which was drawn up before 829 for the monastery of Saint-Germaindes-Pres in Paris. He made the first analysis of manorial economy at that period; the work of subsequent medievalists has added precision to his analysis.

These immense monastic estates were divided for management purposes into large units known as villae; their centers (curtis) corresponded exactly to the manoir in the Anglo-Norman vocabulary of the eleventh century. A more or less compact assemblage of cultivated and uncultivated land, covering hundreds and often thousands of hectares, was attached to the residence of the lord. This enormous landed estate was divided into two portions, each having entirely different economic functions.

The larger part, which comprised all the woods and pastures, most of the meadows and vineyards, and large tracts of arable land, formed the domain proper (terra indominicata). The master of the villa kept direct operation of this in his own hands and received all its produce.

The rest of the land was broken up into a number of operating units of much smaller size. Each of these, containing only a few hectares of plowland and sometimes a bit of meadow and vineyard, was attached to the lot where the family of the peasant lived (mansus). Each family of workers managed this farm and took what it produced, in exchange for certain obligations to the lord. This was a holding. The oldest inventories make a distinction between two types of mansi: one called free, the other servile. There were also two large legal categories among the peasant population: the freemen and the slaves. However, no perfect agreement existed between the status of the tenure and that of the peasants who operated it: some freeholdings were occupied by households of slaves and vice versa.

This division of the lord’s land into two parts, the domain and the individual holdings, was in response to operating requirements. The central problem of management was a problem of manpower. The very low level of farming technique and the wretched inefficiency of farm tools made it necessary to employ a large number of laborers to make the fields and vineyards sufficiently productive. But the rural regions of Europe were very sparsely inhabited in the ninth century and there was insufficient money in circulation to permit regular use of wage labor. On the other hand, the reduction in traffic in slaves had made it impossible, by the ninth century, to base the operation of great aristocratic domains on the employment of human chattels, as had been done in previous epochs.

A set of domestic slaves was still maintained at the lord’s residence at the center of the villa, but they were too few to farm the vast cultivated fields of the reservation at the time of major operations: haymaking, harvesting, vintage, ditching and fencing, cultivating the vineyards and, above all, plowing. Moreover, this team of domestics had to be re-formed periodically. The chief function of the holdings was to ensure periodical renewal of this group of domestics and provide it with supplementary unpaid labor services. The tenures known as servile were probably originally set up by the lord in order that some of his slaves might lead a family life on each such mansus. This separate settlement had two advantages.

The slave family had to get its food from its own holding. The lord was thus relieved of its maintenance. To be sure, this meant the loss of a part of the productive power of the family, but only a part. The tenant slaves continued to work for him without pay. The women were employed in the domestic workshops of the villa and produced pieces of cloth at home. The head of the family had to do any tasks given him during three days a week. The first function of the tenure was to provide the master with unpaid, half-time domestics.

Further, the married slaves, established by pairs in family homes, begot children and raised them until they were of an age to work. From these children the lord recruited the servants for full-time service in his house. Thus, the existence of servile tenures promoted the operation of a type of slave economy in an economic and social ambiance in which the slave markets were no longer regularly supplied.

As for the tenures known as free, whether they too had been set up by the lord on his own lands or were peasant farms that had once been independent and had been annexed to the villa in one way or another, they were generally more extensive than the servile tenures, for the peasant families holding them had a larger proportion of their time available for working their farms and usually kept work animals. The economic function of these free-holdings was a different one. To some extent they provided income, delivering a portion of their produce to the lord in the form of dues—in kind or in money. Their main contribution to the economy of the villa, however, was likewise labor. This took two forms: (1) a piece of land from the domain, assigned each year to each holding, had to be cultivated and its entire produce turned in; (2) at fixed times, for a certain number of days, the tenants, with their teams, had to be at the service of the lord and help the household servants in the work of plowing and cartage.

The system described above seems to have been fairly widespread in the ninth century in the regions between the Loire and the Rhine, and in the Po Valley. There it represented a developed form of the great aristocratic estates of the Roman era. From that time on, it seems to have spread gradually in the Germanic regions and in England. It was, in fact, perfectly adapted to a social structure in which slavery was in the process of dissolution but in which a sharp distinction was maintained in the peasant world between the free and the unfree, and in which a strong aristocracy, religious or secular, held huge tracts of land and completely dominated those who labored on the land. The economy was certainly not entirely closed (the existence of regular dues in money proves that the tenures, as well as the great estates, were normally engaged on the market), but labor productivity was low, population sparse, and the circulation of money very slow. The manorial system, whose basic nexus was the association of the holdings to the work of the domain, made possible the operation of the great grain-producing estates on which the power of the aristocracy rested.

Development under feudalism Between the tenth and thirteenth centuries, in the rural regions of western Europe, the political power of the land-holding aristocracy was strengthened and the old forms of slavery disappeared. The peasants were still divided into two legal categories: (1) the “free” peasants, subject only to the territorial lord’s powers of justice and police; and (2) the personal dependents—serfs, homines de corps, Leibeigene, villeins—hereditarily attached to a private master. The most significant changes took place in production. Great progress in rural techniques brought about a sharp improvement in the yield of human labor, and, as a result, a continual growth of population and acceleration in exchange and in the circulation of money. The manorial economy adapted to this evolution in the environment.

England. The new forms of the manorial economy appear most clearly in thirteenth-century England. An abundance of documents, well exploited by economic historians, gives us the following picture of the structure of the manor on the landed estates of the great English religious foundations.

The heart of the manor was the domain, a large unit whose production was to a great extent intended for sale, for at that time there were large markets for grain and wool. The peasant holdings ranged around the domain. Some of them were free, and their obligations consisted almost exclusively of dues. The others, which were closely associated in the work of the domain, fell into two groups. (1) Some, granted to men known as bordarii, were too small to provide full sustenance for the family that occupied them. Their holders were required to give one or more days of unpaid labor on the domain of the manor; additional days were worked for payment. (2) The tenures granted to villani, on the other hand, corresponded in size to the labor power and needs of a peasant house-hold having a plow and team. Their obligations were much heavier. There was a multiplicity of dues which transferred a large portion of the produce of the land to the seignorial house. Above all, there were various kinds of corvee, or forced labor: the tenant and his livestock were summoned to perform both definite tasks and what was called “week work”—the obligation to go to work on the domain a certain number of days each week. On some manors, during the heaviest work of harvesting and haymaking, this duty could extend to all the people living on the holding and to every working day. In addition, in the thirteenth century villani and bordarii were held to have no liberty. Accordingly, they were excluded from the jurisdiction of the public courts and subject to the private justice of the manor. They paid a number of personal taxes, by means of which the lord appropriated a part of the money they earned.

On these manors, therefore, the association for work between the domain and the individual holdings remained unbroken. On the contrary, during the thirteenth century the link seems to have become tighter: the managers of the great monastic estates, eager to increase production on the domains in order to have more to sell, were stricter in exacting the corvee and tried to extend such work. However, the corvee never was sufficient to get the work of the domain done. Part, often the major part, of the labor was done by a set of full-time servants and by workers for wages. The bordarii were regularly hired on the days they were not required to do unpaid work, and so were the poor peasants of the village, who were looking for supplementary resources. The growth of this rural proletariat in the thirteenth century favored recourse to paid labor; it kept the level of wages very low while the price of food rose, thus increasing the profits of the large estates.

It should be added that the manorial organization described in the ecclesiastical documents did not by any means characterize all seignorial lands. On most English manors the part played by statute laborers in working the domain was very slight or nonexistent; servants and wage laborers constituted the entire labor force.

The Continent. On the Continent—in France, the Low Countries, Germany, and Italy—the statute labor required from tenants diminished during the eleventh and twelfth centuries. By the thirteenth century, it had very often disappeared completely or was only two, three, or four days a year. Dues, collected in money for the most part, had taken its place. The old tenures, many of which had broken up and disintegrated, thus yielded only money income. The very large number of new holdings set up on the vast expanses of newly cultivated land had for the most part been exempted from corvees since their inception. Further, changes in the price level had in effect reduced the money dues, the most common obligation. By the thirteenth century, the obligations of the tenures had become trifling. Finally, emancipations had greatly reduced the number and cost of personal dependents.

But although the old manorial system was no longer very profitable to the aristocracy, they gained by other means. By taxes on inheritances and sales of tenures, by tithes on harvests, by tallage (taille, a periodical tapping of the capital in chattels of the peasant households), the lords took virtually all the money earned by a more numerous and more productive peasantry. Further, great investment operations—extensions of vineyards and cattle raising and, in Italy, of the coltura promiscua—introduced contracts of a new type binding the rural laborers to the lords. The latter contributed the land and the capital but kept the greater part of the profits.

However, the lords had not turned into mere passive receivers of income from the land. The almost complete disappearance of forced labor had not diminished the economic importance of the management of their domains, whose value had been considerably increased by the advances in rural production. But this large-scale seignorial farming was now based on the use of domestics and hired labor; it was furthered by the opening of the market for agricultural products and by the growth of the rural proletariat.

Final forms of the manorial economy The last parts of the framework of manorial organizations were gradually destroyed in Europe during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries by the extension of leaseholding (contracts of fermage). Under this system certain economic powers were ceded for short periods to an intermediary in exchange for payments fixed in advance. It was employed very early for the collection of certain seignorial rents. On the Continent it was employed by the greatest lords in the operation of their domains from the end of the twelfth century on. For an annual payment the lands of the domain, all the means for cultivating them, and, in particular, what was left of statute labor, were granted for some years, under certain guarantees, to a farming entrepreneur— the community of the peasants of the village, the former bailiff, a bourgeois capitalist, or even an ordinary peasant who had enough ability to take over the operation of all the great domain. Use of this procedure spread very widely during the fourteenth century and soon got to England.

At that time, the dominant tendencies in rural economy were reversed almost everywhere. Rural population was rapidly decreasing. The resultant rise in agricultural wages, coupled with the fall in grain prices, tolled the knell of the large-scale agricultural operation based on wage labor. From that time on, the extension of leaseholdings was accompanied by division of the great domains into small holdings. Leaseholds and farm contracts calling for payment in kind (metayage*) were for much smaller tracts, corresponding to the means of production of a family helped by a few domestics. At the same time, political and social disorders did away with almost all survivals of personal servitude. In eastern Germany, however, certain political conditions, producing a re-formation of serf-dom, intervened to promote the rise of large estates based on the corvee, namely, the Gutsherrschaften, the longest-lasting form of manorial economy.

Georges M. Duby

[See alsoFeudalism. Other relevant material may be found inLand tenure.]


Abel, Wilhelm 1962 Geschichte der deutschen Land-wirtschaft vom friihen Mittelalter bis zum 19. Jahrhundert. Stuttgart (Germany): Ulmer.

Block, Marc (1931) 1952–1956 Les caracteres originaux de Vhistoire rurale frangaise. New ed. 2 vols. Paris: Colin. → Volume 2, Supplement etabli d’apres les travaux de I’auteur (1931–1944), was written by Robert Dauvergne.

The Cambridge Economic History of Europe From the Decline of the Roman Empire. Volume 1: The Agrarian Life of the Middle Ages. 1941 Cambridge Univ. Press.

Duby, Georges 1962 L’economic rurale et la vie des campagnes dans I’occident medieval (France, Angle-terre, Empire, IX-XV siecles): Essai de synthese et perspectives de recherches. 2 vols. Paris: Aubier.

Slicker van Bath, Bernard H. (1960) 1963 The Agrarian History of Western Europe: A.D. 500-1850. London: Arnold. → First published in Dutch.

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