villein (vĭlˈən) [key] [O.Fr., = village dweller], peasant under the manorial system of medieval Western Europe. The term applies especially to serfs in England, where by the 13th cent. the entire unfree peasant population came to be called villein. The localism of medieval economy has made a general definition of villein status exceedingly difficult. The villein was a person who was attached to the manor and who performed the servile work of the lord and in some respects was considered the property of the lord. Various distinctions of villeinage, or serfdom, were sometimes made. In privileged villeinage the services to be rendered to the lord were certain and determined; in pure villeinage the services were unspecified, and the villein was, in effect, subject to the whim of the lord. The villein was theoretically distinguished from the freeholder by the services and duties he owed to the lord; these included week-work (a specified number of days' work on the lord's demesne each week throughout the year) and boon days (work required at busy periods during the seasonal year, as at plowing or harvesting time), payment on the marriage of the villein's daughter, payment of tallage on demand, and the like. In practice, however, distinctions blurred, and all land tenure on the manor tended to approach a common level. The villein in England was protected by law against all except his lord, and some guarantee against the lord's power was gradually extended by the royal courts. In the 14th cent. English villeinage began to disappear. A contributing factor in its decline was the increasing substitution of money payments for manual services; rents replaced labor dues. The Black Death of 1349 (see plague), by greatly reducing the population and thus making labor scarce, made the demands of villeins more difficult to refuse and thus hastened the decline. The growth of towns also influenced the breakdown of the older class distinctions and the building up of new.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
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