Manorialism Research Paper

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In basic terms preferred by most historians in the twenty-first century, manorialism defines one variant of the lord–peasant relationships that have existed throughout world history and is restricted to use in a medieval European time and place. It most commonly refers to the legal subjection of unfree peasants or serfs who were tied to the land they farmed, and who owed labor services to the lord.

Manorialism is the organization of rural economic production and socio-political relationships that characterized large parts of medieval western and central Europe from perhaps as early as the seventh century through the fifteenth century, with important aspects of the organization surviving until the French Revolution. The term comes from the division of rural land into manors, local legal jurisdictions subject to a lord (seigneur in French), whence the roughly equivalent term seigneurialism. The lord exercised legal and economic rights over the labor and produce of the peasant population living within the boundaries of his manor. Whether manorialism existed in other parts of the world—as a phenomenon, an ideal type, or a stage of development—is a vexing question in the writing of world history and complicates any assessment of manorialism in world history.

Characteristics of Manorialism

The basis of manorialism was the legal relationship of lord to peasant, which came in two basic forms. The first form, the one most closely associated with the word, was the legal subjection of unfree peasants or serfs who were tied to the land they farmed and owed labor services to the lord. The second form, free peasants who rented from the lord, however, regularly constituted at least a portion of the population of most manors.

These two types of people were associated with three types of land that made up manors. First, demesne land was the part of the manor controlled directly by the lord. Its produce supported him and his dependents, either directly or indirectly through sale on the market. Second, dependent holdings obligated the holder to provide some combination of labor services on the demesne, a portion of the output of the holdings themselves, or a cash payment in lieu of either to the lord, the specific obligation varying according to the custom of the holding. Third, free peasant holdings owed monetary rent but no labor services or other dues, although the holder was still subject to the legal jurisdiction of the lord of the manor. Not every manor had all three types of land—some lords dispensed with any demesne holding, leasing all the land out to tenants, for example—nor was the fit between types of people and types of land always perfect. Peasants who were free in their person might hold dependent land and thus owe labor services, whereas serfs could also lease land that did not owe labor services. Manorial land types may also be divided by the use to which they were put, which might cross boundaries of individual holdings. Farming of grain and legumes occupied the bulk of most manors, but small plots were devoted to vegetable gardens, and fields lying fallow could support animals (usually pigs), which could also be grazed on forest land where the lord hunted game and on more extensive pasturage.

In addition to the income that the lord derived from the demesne and from rents, he charged for the use of large capital investments such as mills, bakeries, wine presses, and fish ponds, for the right to feed pigs in the woods, and seigneurial dues. These dues included the payment that peasant tenants owed the lord each time a holding changed hands by death (and in some cases by sale) and, above all, the income derived from the lord’s court. Peasants had legal rights but paid to bring cases to court and often paid fines.

The somewhat artificial nature of manorial boundaries, corresponding to legal jurisdictions and not to the human geography of the countryside, may be seen in the fact that one manor might encompass several villages or parts of villages, whereas a village might be split between two (or even more) manors. Nor did manorial boundaries match local parish boundaries. Variation is, in fact, the constant in manorial organization because the proportions of free and unfree land, demesne, and free and unfree peasants and therefore of modes of economic exploitation differed from place to place and in the same place through time. Although the “typical” manor is thought of as belonging to a lay lord living in a manor house or even a castle, many manors were held directly by the king of the country and administered by a royal overseer (and indeed many lay lords, holding many scattered manors, employed professional managers as well), and a large number of manors were held by institutions, especially the Church. Church manors might be held by a collective such as a monastery or by an individual such as a bishop. Manorial management also reacted differently to wider economic changes. The rise of a more monetary economy during the eleventh and twelfth centuries usually stimulated a shift to rents and money payments but sometimes had the opposite effect: in much of central and eastern Europe, labor services became more burdensome over time as lords shifted demesne production to cash crops for sale in western Europe, a trend that extended well into the early modern period. Any generalizations about manorialism must therefore come highly qualified.

Origins and History of Manorialism

Manorial organization arose from the conditions of insecurity and decentralization of power that beset the Western Roman Empire from the fourth century on. In such conditions, small free farmers became more likely to commend themselves and their land to a powerful local landowner who pledged to protect his commended farmers in exchange for a portion of the produce and labor. In a period of declining population such arrangements suited the powerful as well because they were able to lock in a secure labor supply for their estates and to consolidate the landholdings in particular areas. As the economy of Western Europe contracted further between the fifth and ninth centuries, manorial organization also offered at least the ideal of local self-sufficiency, although few manors were ever completely self-sufficient, trading when possible for scarce necessities such as salt and metal.

The recovery of the European economy that began during the tenth century brought transformations to manorial organization. More money, increased trade, and the penetration of markets into the countryside tied most manors more and more into a hierarchical network of exchange that extended throughout Western Europe and beyond. Reactions to the challenges and opportunities presented by the new economy varied but tended in the long run in western Europe to reduce serfdom and labor services in favor of a free class of peasant renters, although this reduction was balanced by the increasing burdens of serfdom in central and eastern Europe noted earlier; indeed, the changes in the two regions were linked by the market economy connecting them. The extent of the influence of market relations in western Europe by 1348 is demonstrated by the effect of the Black Death that hit that year: the resulting labor shortages led not to decreased peasant freedoms (as one would expect in a traditional society politically dominated by a coherent elite and as in fact did happen in places such as Egypt at the same time and had happened in Rome during the fourth century, as we’ve seen), but rather to higher wages and increased peasant freedoms. Serfdom effectively ended in England after the Black Death, and its burdens generally declined elsewhere on the continent without ending entirely. A monetized market in land and labor increasingly replaced manorial organization everywhere in strictly economic terms.

Manorialism survived the Middle Ages in the weakened form of seigneurial rights and dues. What survived of manorialism, in other words, was not the economic core but the legal structure of privilege and political income that originally had facilitated the economic function but now lived a life of its own. This legal structure and related noble tax privileges were attacked by during the Enlightenment (a philosophic movement of the eighteenth century marked by a rejection of traditional social, religious, and political ideas and an emphasis on rationalism) by French philosophes under the misleading name “feudalism” and thus eliminated by the French Revolution. This Enlightenment blending of manorialism with feudalism was then compounded during the nineteenth century by the German political philosopher Karl Marx, who extended this conflation of the terms in analyzing the postclassical, preindustrial economy of Europe (and the rest of the world)—the economy of the period between the fall of Rome and the beginnings of the rise of merchant capitalism and the bourgeoisie in the sixteenth century—as the “feudal mode of production.” Unless one is using the (highly problematic) Marxist category, however, manorialism is not the same as feudalism, if the latter term has any coherent meaning. The difference may be summed up succinctly: the legal and economic relationship between free lords and mostly unfree peasants is manorialism; the legal and political relationship between free lords and free vassals is feudalism. The usually posited relationship between the two organizations is that manorialism is the economic organization that supported the political system of feudalism and that the two together constituted “feudal society.” In general, manorialism has been less damaged as a useful term by this blending than feudalism and remains a current analytic category in medieval European history.

Manorialism beyond Europe?

For world historians, however, the question remains: how useful is the term beyond the confines of medieval Europe? Undeniably some form of legal and economic relationship always tied peasants to elite classes in preindustrial societies. But do any such ties constitute manorialism? Or does a form need to share certain characteristics with the European phenomenon in order to qualify? Is a “feudal” political structure one of the characteristics necessary to produce manorialism? The philosophical and methodological problems that such questions raise are both difficult and central to the process of studying world history.

The classic case of the extension of manorialism to a non-European society is in the history of Kamakura Japan (1180–1333), and it is tied intimately to notions of Japanese feudalism. In this case the political relationships among members of the Japanese warrior class rested on an economic base of shoen, or rural estates that generated income that was allotted to warriors, presumably as an analogue to the assignment of manors to European warriors for their support. But on close inspection manorialism and the shoen system share few similarities (nor was Kamakura Japan definably “feudal”), so use of the term creates more confusion than it sheds analytic light. Not only is the same true of other cases where manorialism has sometimes been claimed to exist, as, for instance, in Byzantium, czarist Russia, and some places in India, but also the entire intellectual approach to “finding” manorialism outside of Europe is suspect at its foundations. Of all the varied ways in which the extraction of surplus wealth from a subject peasant class by a political elite has been organized, why privilege a medieval European system in comparative analysis? The answer more often than not (for both manorialism and even more for feudalism) is simply that the European case has been studied first and most carefully and that sometimes on that basis the European case has been taken as paradigmatic (a typical example) for the world as a whole (this is the case with Marxist analysis of preindustrial economic organization globally and explains the importance of “feudalism” and its supposed mode of production to the historiography). Either one answer or the other, and especially both answers combined, are Eurocentric in the worst possible example of that historiographical disease. Taking Europe first tends to lead to “shoehorning”— fitting non-European cases into the European pattern for the sake of maintaining a comparison; taking Europe as paradigmatic is simply untenable philosophically.

The majority of working world historians, therefore, would prefer to treat manorialism in a restricted way as simply one variant of lord–peasant relations in the scope of world history and restrict use of the term to its medieval European time and place. In this way manorialism provides valuable data for comparative studies and generalizations about lord–peasant relations but provides neither a model nor a framework for such studies.


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