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  1. A political, economic and social system in medieval and early modern Europe; originally a form of serfdom but later a looser system in which land was administered via the local manor.

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Extensive Definition

This article is about the medieval system. "Manors" redirects here.
For the 17th century system in Canada, see Seigneurial system of New France.
For the railway station in Newcastle upon Tyne, England, see Manors railway station.
Manorialism or Seigneurialism was the organizing principle of rural economy and society widely practiced in medieval western and parts of central Europe;was characterised by the vesting of legal and economic power in a lord supported economically from his own direct landholding and from the obligatory contributions of a legally subject part of the peasant population under his jurisdiction. These obligations could be payable in labor (the French term corvée is conventionally applied), produce ("in kind") or, rarely, money. In the Eastern parts of Prussia, the Rittergut manors of Junkers remained until World War II.


The word derives from traditional inherited divisions of the countryside reassigned as local jurisdictions known as manors or seigneuries; each manor being subject to a lord (French seigneur), usually holding his position in return for undertakings offered to a higher lord (see Feudalism). The lord held a manor court governed by public law and local custom. Not all territorial seigneurs were secular; bishops and abbots held lands that entailed similar obligations.
In the generic plan of a medieval manor from Shepherd's Historical Atlas (illustration, right) the strips of individually-worked land in the open field system are immediately apparent. In this plan the manor house is set slightly apart from the village but equally often the village grew up around the forecourt of the manor, formerly walled, while the manor lands stretched away outside, as still may be seen at Petworth House. As concerns for privacy increased in the 18th century, manor houses were often located a farther distance from the village. When a grand new house was required by the new owner of Harlaxton Manor, Lincolnshire, in the 1830s, the site of the existing manor house at the edge of its village was abandoned for a new one, isolated in its park, with the village out of view.
In an agrarian society, the conditions of land tenure underlie all social or economic factors. There were two legal systems of pre-manorial landholding. One, the most common, was the system of holding land "allodially" in full outright ownership. The other was a use of precaria or benefices in which land was held conditionally, (giving us our word "precarious"). To these two systems the Carolingian monarchs added a third, the aprisio, which linked manorialism with feudalism. The aprisio made its first appearance in Charlemagne's province of Septimania in the south of France, when Charlemagne had to settle the Visigothic refugees who had fled with his retreating forces after the failure of his Saragossa expedition of 778. He solved this problem by allotting "desert" tracts of uncultivated land belonging to the royal fisc under direct control of the emperor. These holdings aprisio entailed specific conditions. The earliest specific aprisio grant that has been identified was at Fontjoncouse, near Narbonne (see Lewis, links).In former Roman settlements, a system of villas dating from Late Antiquity was inherited by the medieval.

Common features

Manors each consisted of up to three classes of land:
  1. Demesne, the part directly controlled by the lord and used for the benefit of his household and dependents;
  2. Dependent (serf or villein) holdings carrying the obligation that the peasant household supply the lord with specified labour services or a part of its output (or cash in lieu thereof), subject to the custom attached to the holding; and
  3. Free peasant land, without such obligation but otherwise subject to manorial jurisdiction and custom, and owing money rent fixed at the time of the lease.
Additional sources of income from the lord included charges for use of his mill, bakery or wine-press, or for the right to hunt or to let pigs feed in his woodland, as well as court revenues and single payments on each change of tenant. On the other side of the account, manorial administration involved significant expenses, perhaps a reason why smaller manors tended to rely less on villein tenure.
Dependent holdings were held nominally by arrangement of lord and tenant, but tenure became in practice almost universally hereditary, with a payment made to the lord on each succession of another member of the family. Villein land could not be abandoned, at least until demographic and economic circumstances made flight a viable proposition; nor could they be passed to a third party without the lord's permission, and the customary payment.
Though not free, villeins were by no means in the same position as slaves: they enjoyed legal rights, subject to local custom, and had recourse to the law, subject to court charges which were an additional source of manorial income. Sub-letting of villein holdings was common, and labour on the demesne might be commuted into an additional money payment, as happened increasingly from the 13th century.
This description of a manor house at Chingford, Essex in England was recorded in a document for the Chapter of St Paul's Cathedral when it was granted to Robert Le Moyne in 1265:
He received also a sufficient and handsome hall well ceiled with oak. On the western side is a worthy bed, on the ground, a stone chimney, a wardrobe and a certain other small chamber; at the eastern end is a pantry and a buttery. Between the hall and the chapel is a sideroom. There is a decent chapel covered with tiles, a portable altar, and a small cross. In the hall are four tables on trestles. There are likewise a good kitchen covered with tiles, with a furnace and ovens, one large, the other small, for cakes, two tables, and alongside the kitchen a small house for baking. Also a new granary covered with oak shingles, and a building in which the dairy is contained, though it is divided. Likewise a chamber suited for clergymen and a necessary chamber. Also a hen-house. These are within the inner gate. Likewise outside of that gate are an old house for the servants, a good table, long and divided, and to the east of the principal building, beyond the smaller stable, a solar for the use of the servants. Also a building in which is contained a bed, also two barns, one for wheat and one for oats. These buildings are enclosed with a moat, a wall, and a hedge. Also beyond the middle gate is a good barn, and a stable of cows, and another for oxen, these old and ruinous. Also beyond the outer gate is a pigstye.
From J.H. Robinson, trans., University of Pennsylvania Translations and Reprints (1897) in Middle Ages, Volume I: pp283–284.

Variation among manors

Like feudalism which, together with manorialism, forms the legal and organisational framework of what is often termed feudal society, manorial structures were not uniform among societies exhibiting such characteristics. In the later Middle Ages, areas of incomplete or non-existent manorialisation persisted while the manorial economy underwent substantial development with changing economic conditions.
Not all manors contained all three kinds of land: as an average, demesne accounted for roughly a third of the arable area and villein holdings rather more; but some manors consisted solely of demesne, others solely of peasant holdings. The proportion of unfree and free tenures could likewise vary greatly, necessitating greater or lesser reliance on wage labour for the performance of agricultural work on the demesne.
The proportion of the cultivated area in demesne tended to be greater in smaller manors, while the share of villein land was greater in large manors, providing the lord of the latter with a larger potential supply of obligatory labour for demesne work. The proportion of free tenements was generally less variable, but tended to be somewhat greater on the smaller manors.
Manors varied similarly in their geographical arrangement: most did not coincide with a single village, but rather consisted of parts of two or more villages, most of the latter containing also parts of at least one other manor. This situation sometimes led to replacement by cash payments of the demesne labour obligations of those peasants living furthest from the lord's estate.
As was the case with peasant plots, the demesne was not a single territorial unit, but consisted rather of a central house with neighbouring land and estate buildings, plus strips dispersed through the manor alongside free and villein ones: in addition, the lord might lease free tenements belonging to neighbouring manors, as well as holding other manors some distance away to provide a greater range of produce.
Nor were manors held necessarily by lay lords rendering military service (or again, cash in lieu) to their superior: a substantial share (estimated by value at 17% in England in 1086) belonged directly to the king, and a greater proportion (rather more than a quarter) were held by bishoprics and monasteries. Ecclesiastical manors tended to be larger, with a significantly greater villein area than neighbouring lay manors.
The effect of circumstances on manorial economy is complex and at times contradictory: upland conditions have been seen as tending to preserve peasant freedoms (livestock husbandry in particular being less labour-intensive and therefore less demanding of villein services); on the other hand, some such areas of Europe have been said to show some of the most oppressive manorial conditions, while lowland eastern England is credited with an exceptionally large free peasantry, in part a legacy of Scandinavian settlement.
Similarly, the spread of money economy is often seen as having stimulated the replacement of labour services by money payments, but the growth of the money supply and resulting inflation after 1170 initially led nobles to take back leased estates and to re-impose labour dues as the value of fixed cash payments declined in real terms.

Historical development and geographical distribution

The term is most often used with reference to medieval Western Europe. Antecedents of the system can be traced to the rural economy of the later Roman Empire. With a declining birthrate and population, labor was the key factor of production. Successive administrations tried to stabilise the imperial economy by freezing the social structure into place: sons were to succeed their fathers in their trade.
Councillors were forbidden to resign, and coloni, the cultivators of land, were not to move from the demesne they were attached to. They were on their way to becoming serfs. Several factors conspired to merge the status of former slaves and former free farmers into a dependent class of such coloni. Laws of Constantine I around 325 reinforced both the negative semi-servile status of the coloni and limited their rights to sue in the courts. Their numbers were augmented by barbarian foederati who were permitted to settle within the imperial boundaries.
As the Germanic kingdoms succeeded Roman authority in the West in the fifth century, Roman landlords were often simply replaced by Gothic or Germanic ones, with little change to the underlying situation. The process of rural self-sufficiency was given an abrupt boost in the eighth century, when normal trade in the Mediterranean Sea was disrupted. The thesis put forward by Henri Pirenne, disputed by many, supposes that the Arab conquests forced the medieval economy into even greater ruralisation and gave rise to the classic feudal pattern of varying degrees of servile peasantry underpinning a hierarchy of localised power centres.

See also

  • Estonian Manors Portal - the English version gives the overview of 438 best preserved historical manors in Estonia
manorialism in German: Grundherrschaft
manorialism in Spanish: Señorío
manorialism in French: Régime seigneurial
manorialism in Hebrew: מנוריאליזם
manorialism in Dutch: Heerlijkheid
manorialism in Japanese: 荘園
manorialism in Portuguese: Senhoria
manorialism in Romanian: Sistemul senioral
manorialism in Russian: Манор
manorialism in Finnish: Maaorjuus
manorialism in Swedish: Jordägande
manorialism in Chinese: 庄园
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