manorial system

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manorial system (mənôr´ēəl, măn–) or seignorial system (sēnyôr´ēəl), economic and social system of medieval Europe under which peasants' land tenure and production were regulated, and local justice and taxation were administered. The system was intimately related to feudalism but was not itself feudal, since it had no connection with the military and political concept of the fief. The fundamental characteristic of the manorial system was economic—the peasants held land from the lord (Fr. seigneur) of an estate in return for fixed dues in kind, money, and services. The manorial system prevailed in France, England, Germany, Spain, and Italy and far into Eastern Europe. A similar method of landholding by the peasants has existed in countries outside Europe, notably Japan and India.

Structure and Functions

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.


Local manorial institutions developed with the decline of central Roman power. Like feudalism, the system received great stimulus from the collapse of Carolingian rule and from the invasions by Norsemen, Arabs, and Magyars. It reached its final form at different times in various countries, but in general it flourished from the 11th to the 15th cent.

The most perplexing problem concerning the manor is the question of the origin of manorial organization. The dispute between the so-called Romanists and Germanists as to the sources of the organization has never been settled; there is not sufficient evidence. Romanists point to the process that, in the later Roman Empire, produced independent estates. Germanists focus on the likenesses of the manor to what was supposedly the ancient German system of landholding (see mark). It is now generally accepted that both German and Roman influences contributed to the development of the manorial system.

Many economic and political factors contributed to the extinction of the manorial system. The spread of trade and a money economy promised greater profit to capitalist production than to the subsistence manor; the growth of new centralized monarchies competed with the local administration of the lord. Gradual decline took place with the wide development of towns and capitalistic commerce that tended to break down the small local economic unit, the manor, and to build up larger units.

Decline was early in Italy, where Roman city institutions persisted to some extent through the Middle Ages (see commune). In Spain it was soon modified, especially by Moorish conquest, but still existed in modified form in the 20th cent. In England the dissipation of the system had been long in process before it was hastened by the inclosure of estates. In France its disappearance was consummated by the French Revolution. In Austria and Prussia it was virtually ended by the reforms of Emperor Joseph II, Karl vom und zum Stein, and Hardenberg, but in Hungary it left traces until the 20th cent. In Russia it was profoundly altered by the abolition of serfdom (1861; see Emancipation, Edict of). Everywhere it left its mark upon succeeding institutions.


See P. G. Vinogradoff, Villainage in England (1892, repr. 1968) and The Growth of the Manor (3d ed. 1920, repr. 1968); N. S. B. Gras and E. C. Gras, The Economic and Social History of an English Village (1930, repr. 1969); H. S. Bennett, Life on the English Manor (1937, repr. 1960); M. Bloch, French Rural History (tr. 1966); J. W. Thompson, Economic and Social History of the Middle Ages (2 vol., new ed. 1959) and Economic and Social History of Europe in the Later Middle Ages (new ed. 1960).

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manorial system. A term used by historians to describe the method of estate management of landowners in the Middle Ages and in Tudor and Stuart times. Landowners whose estates embraced the major part of a village or a whole cluster of small villages found it convenient to administer such property by establishing a manor. In some places where a large village was divided in ownership among several landowners, there were several manors. It seems probable that manors existed in Anglo-Saxon times but that the structure of control changed according to the needs of the landowners.

By the 13th cent. most manorial lords had established two courts, leet and baron, which met at the same place and whose proceedings followed one another. These had a senior officer of the lord or even the lord in the chair and all tenants were required to attend these meetings (known as suit of court) whether they were free or bond in status. Between them these courts dealt with all matters relating to the maintenance of boundaries, preservation of property, and changes in tenure. They regulated the pattern of agriculture, for example the rotation of crops in the common fields, and the manorial market. Enforcement of decisions rested on the officials appointed by the court. Where the lord of the manor had a demesne farm, the court appointed a reeve to supervise the farming activities, using labour services and collecting rents. Usually at Michaelmas the reeve presented an annual account to the lord or senior administrator. When demesne farming dwindled or disappeared, the reeve remained as a rent collector.

So long as villeinage (serfdom) had importance, the courts reinforced status by requiring some labour services over and above that fixed by custom and practice. Those who wished to leave the manor had to seek permission or be penalized by a fine.

Where urban communities developed within manorial boundaries, appointments of constables and other local officers such as street masters provided some of the necessary organization for town government. Their duties usually included fire precautions, and coping with dangerous structures and nuisances, such as dumping rubbish in the street. These functions continued well into the 19th cent. in some places.

Ian John Ernest Keil