manorial system

views updated May 11 2018

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