demesne

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demesne was a legal term to describe land and property worked for the direct benefit of the owner. During the Middle Ages the importance of such holdings varied: at times it was more valuable for owners to work the land themselves, whilst at others it was more profitable to rent the land to tenants. When demand for agricultural produce was high and profits good, demesnes expanded. For example, during the 13th cent., when a growing population made ever-increasing demands for agricultural produce, many landlords reserved the best land for themselves. In areas such as the Somerset levels, Pevensey marshes by the coasts of Kent and east Sussex, and the Fens in East Anglia, landowners undertook schemes to drain wet lands to increase the available fertile arable, since good yields and the low costs of working the land justified the capital investment in digging ditches and erecting flood defences. When the costs of production rose, as after the repeated visits of plague during the 14th cent., many magnates leased demesnes to tenants for cash rent, keeping the demesne next to residences to meet the immediate needs of the household.

Ian John Ernest Keil

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de·mesne / diˈmān/ • n. hist. 1. land attached to a manor and retained for the owner's own use. ∎  the lands of an estate. ∎ archaic a region or domain. 2. hist. Law possession of real property in one's own right. PHRASES: held in demesne (of an estate) occupied by the owner, not by tenants.