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.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.