Villain

means simply one attached to a villa or farm. In feudal times the lord was the great landowner, and under him were a host of tenants called villains. The highest class of villains were called regardant, and were annexed to the manor; then came the Coliberti or Bures, who were privileged vassals; then the Bordari or cottagers (Saxon, bord, a cottage), who rendered certain menial offices to their lord for rent; then the Cosects, Cottarii, and Cotmanni, who paid partly in produce and partly in menial service; and, lastly, the villains in gross, who were annexed to the person of the lord, and might be sold or transferred as chattels. The notion of wickedness and worthlessness associated with the word is simply the effect of aristocratic pride and exclusiveness- not, as Christian says in his Notes on Blackstone, “a proof of the horror in which our forefathers held all service to feudal lords.” The French vilain seems to connect the word with vile, but it is probable that vile is the Latin vilis vile (of no value), and that the noun villein, except by way of pun. (See Cheater.)

“I am no villain [base-born]; I am the youngest son of Sir Rowland de Boys; he was my father, and he is thrice a villain [rascal] that says such a father begot villains [bastards].” —Shakespeare: As You Like It, i. 1.

Source: Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, E. Cobham Brewer, 1894
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