Gateway to the Classics: The World's Story: England by Eva March Tappan
The World's Story: England by  Eva March Tappan

Country Life in the Days of the Plantagenets

DURING the greater part of the Middle Ages, most of the land was held by "feudal tenure," that is, on condition of service. Everybody needed service of some sort. A king might own vast areas of land; but unless the nobles would fight for him, he could not keep it from his enemies. The nobles might hold wide estates, but they were worthless unless men could be found to cultivate them. As for the "common people," their first and foremost need was protection. So it was that the feudal system grew up. The king would agree to grant land to a noble provided the noble would become his "vassal." To do this, the noble was obliged to go to the king's court and kneel before him. The king then held the clasped hands of the noble in his own and asked, "Do you wish to become my man?" The noble replied, "I do." The king then kissed him in token of confidence and acceptance, and the noble took a solemn oath on the Gospels or relics of the saints to be faithful. This ceremony was called "doing homage." It bound the king to aid and protect the noble and not to interfere with his control of the land in his hands. It bound the noble to be faithful to the king and to fight for him when fighting was necessary, and to provide at his own expense a fixed number of followers. For the king to demand money and for the noble to pay it would have seemed to both of them somewhat humiliating; but to follow his king in battle and to be loyal to him was quite in accordance with the taste and training of the noble. Even in later times, as the demand for a military force increased, the king did not venture to suggest paying wages to knights to fight for him. Instead of that, "money-fiefs" were invented; that is, a fixed sum was paid to vassals yearly on condition of their performing military service. This was practically the same thing as hiring soldiers, but calling the arrangement a fief, the name given to a grant of land, saved the pride of the knights, and gave the king his soldiers.

The military service required of a vassal was generally limited to forty days in a year. If more was needed, the king must pay all expenses. If the military service was to be rendered in a foreign country, the noble was free to come home at the end of forty days. He must also help the king by his advice, and must submit in any lawsuit of his own to the decision of the king and his fellow vassals, and he must provide entertainment for the king when on a journey. On three occasions he was expected to assist the king with money, but this was never called payment or rent for land, it was always spoken of as "aid." These occasions were: I. When the king's eldest son was made a knight; 2. When the king's eldest daughter was married; 3. When the king had been taken prisoner by some foreign power and it was necessary to ransom him. In theory, the king had a right to take back the grant of land; but unless a vassal was unfaithful, it was seldom to his advantage to do so. If one vassal was wronged by another, he might appeal to their king; but it was in most cases a long way to the royal court, it was dangerous to leave one's castle exposed to an enemy, and it was more simple and direct for the two nobles to fight it out. If a vassal died, it was generally for the gain of both parties that his eldest son should take the father's place as vassal. The lord imposed a tax, however, called "heriot," usually the "best beast" of the dead man. The son, too, was required to pay a tax, or "relief," on taking possession of the land in his father's stead. The accepted belief was that every fief should supply to the king the service of a man. If the vassal's son was a child at his father's death, the king brought him up; but to make good the loss of a fighting man, he kept the income of the fief until the boy was old enough to perform a knight's service. If the vassal left only a widow or a daughter, she must pay a fine to the king if she did not wish to marry. If she was willing to marry, the king had the right to select her husband. This was to prevent her from choosing a man who might perhaps be an enemy to the king.

This was the "feudal system," or rather it was the beginning of it. It is quite probable that in many countries at some time in their history, land has been held by this method. Of course it was not decided upon and the land divided in a moment in any country, but the custom grew up gradually. The system was in reality a perfect network of lords and vassals, for not only were the nobles vassals of the king, but they themselves had vassals, and those vassals had others who paid homage to them. Indeed, a man might do homage to a number of men for separate pieces of land. In that case, however, he owed military service to but one of them, and this one was known as his "liege lord." The vassal was not looked upon as in any degree inferior to the lords. A king might rule one country, and yet pay homage to the ruler of another for his fief in that land. When William the Norman conquered England, he took possession of the country much as if it had been his own big farm. He allowed those who yielded to him to retain their land on payment of large fees. The rest of it he divided among his followers as fiefs. But William was Duke of Normandy, and therefore he himself paid homage to the French king for his Norman land. This descended from one English ruler to another; but when John came to the throne, the French king, Philip II, declared that he was a disobedient and unfaithful vassal, and took it away by capturing the Chateau Gaillard and his other strongholds.

There were several ways in which smaller amounts of land came into the hands of the nobles. The Church held large areas; but the clergy were forbidden to wield the sword, therefore parts of their holdings were sometimes let to knights on condition of their providing the required number of soldiers. Again, this was a time of fighting and bloodshed, of danger and violence, and many a man who owned a bit of freehold could not protect it. In that case he would often "commend" himself to some powerful man; that is, he would promise to be faithful to him and be his loyal vassal. He now had a strong arm to defend him, and he was sure of food and clothes. The result of all this was that by the thirteenth century it might almost be said, "No land without a lord."

But manors were of small value unless they were cultivated. In these days, if a man owns a large farm, he hires laborers to work on it; but in the Middle Ages the cultivation of the land was managed in quite a different fashion. Nothing has been said as yet of the "common folk," the many thousand people who were neither clergy nor nobles. They were the ones who did the work of the manors. They were of various ranks. A few were' slaves, and were looked upon as having no more rights than a horse or a cow. Above these were the villeins. They could not be sold like slaves, but if a manor passed from one lord to another, they went with it. Each villein held a definite amount of land, and was required to pay for its use partly in money or in produce and partly in labor. The villeins were divided into several classes, each having some special rights or some exemption from undesirable duties which was of great value to them. Above these were the free tenants. They paid for the use of their land, sometimes in service and sometimes entirely in money.

The buildings on a manor were the manor house, in which either the lord or his agent lived; the tiny cottages of the tenants; a church; a windmill; and the various barns and other outbuildings needed. The manor house stood a little apart from the others. It was usually of stone, but its character depended in great degree upon the location. In England, for instance, the important houses near the Scottish border were built strong enough to serve as forts; and, indeed, most of the larger houses in the more level parts of the country were surrounded by moats and had various means of defense. In the simpler houses there was a hall, and adjoining it a kitchen. On the other side of the hall and up a flight of stairs was the "solar." This was the bedroom and parlor of the lord and his wife. The rest of the household and their guests slept in the hall or in the stables or in any other place where they would be under a roof, even one thatched with reeds from the pond. As time passed, houses were built with more rooms, often enough to inclose a courtyard on three sides, while the fourth was shut in by a wall. Around the whole structure was a moat with a drawbridge. The windows were small, there were turrets and other places from which arrows might be shot in safety; in short, these manor houses were in many respects almost as well fortified as real castles. The cottages were ranged along the one street of the manor, miserable little one-room sheds of clay, the roofs thatched with straw stubble and having neither windows nor chimneys.

The land of the manor was cultivated in three large fields. Usually one produced wheat or barley and one oats, while the third lay fallow. The second year the field that had lain fallow was planted, and another field had a time of rest. This was an extravagant manner of farming, for one third of the land was always idle, but men had not fully learned how to enrich the soil, and therefore they were forced to allow it to rest. Each tenant had a larger or smaller share in these fields; but the land was divided in a peculiar fashion. It was marked off into long, narrow strips, generally about forty rods long and four rods wide, separated from one another by strips of unploughed turf called "balks." The holdings of the different tenants were scattered over the manor, and much time must have been wasted in going from one to another. A man who held thirty acres, or a virgate, might have to care for land in thirty or more different places. Even the land which the lord of the manor reserved for himself was scattered in the same way. The use of clover and the grasses which can be cultivated in dry places and stored away for winter was not known, therefore the meadow land of the manor was of great value. There was always a common pasture in which sheep and cattle might range; and there was a woodland, wherein the tenants' pigs might find food for themselves.

The tenants were obliged to grind their grain in the lord's mill, bake their bread in his oven, press their grapes in his winepress, and of course pay a good price for the privileges. They must pay for letting their pigs run in the forest, for cutting wood, and often for catching fish, and for the use of their lord's weights and measures. They paid him a share of what they raised, and they paid one tenth of their income to the Church besides fees at every birth, baptism, marriage, and death. Even what was left of their produce they were forbidden to sell until the produce of their lord's land had been sold. This land, or the "demesne," they were obliged to cultivate, each villein doing an amount of work in proportion to the area which he held. The lists of the men and the work required of each were called "extents." An extent usually stated, first, the size of the manor and how it was divided, how many acres of arable land, pasture, meadow, and woodland it contained, and how often the manor court was accustomed to meet. Then came the list of the tenants, what rent they paid, and what work was required of them. On one of the English manors, for instance, there were seven free tenants. One of them was the son of a knight. He held eighteen acres and paid for his land thirty-six pence a year. Apparently these free tenants were not obliged to do any work on the demesne. Some of the villein tenants, however, had to do so many kinds of work that it is a wonder how they knew when it was finished. One poor man had to work for his land three days a week for eleven months of the year, save for a week at Christmas, Easter, and Whitsuntide, and find his own food. He must weed, help plough and mow, carry in hay, reap, and haul grain. It was carefully stated just when the lord would provide food for him and how much and what kind. When this man and the other villeins were mowing, they were allowed three bushels of wheat, one ram worth eighteen pence, one jar of butter, and one cheese "nest to the best from the dairy of the lord," and salt and oatmeal for their porridge, and all the morning milk. They had also several definite perquisites while they were doing this work; for instance, at the close of each day every man might have as much green grass as he could carry on the point of his scythe; and when the hay was in, he might have a cartful. At harvest-time, each worker might have three handfuls for every load of grain that he brought in. Besides the weekly work during the greater part of the year, there were also "boon-works" in time of ploughing, planting, and harvest. For these, the tenant must leave his own land, often when it needed him most, and give his time to that of his lord. In short, more than one half of the time of the average villein had to be given to the lord of the manor. Just how some of the dues were paid is a little confusing. One tenant, for instance, was bound to pay the lord every Christmas "one hen and a half, the hen being of the price of one and one half pence." Several women held land on the same terms as the men. The extent also stated the value of the rents, the hens given to the lord, the use of the mill, the right to fish, and all the service performed by the tenants; and it told where the pillory and ducking-stool stood. In this case, there was more than one reason to avoid these instruments of punishment, for they were placed next to the lord's pigsty.

Legal questions often arose on a manor, land was transferred from one person to another, fines were to be imposed, crimes were to be punished, and to decide these matters a court was held regularly. This was convenient for the tenants, but it can hardly have been invariably just, for the lord or his agent was the judge, and he generally had a personal interest in the case. Moreover, the various fines and fees went straight into his own purse, and that must have made it a temptation to inflict as heavy ones as would be borne. In theory, there could be an appeal to the king; but the king was usually a long way off, travel was not safe, and in any case the word of a villein would count little when opposed to the word of a noble.

A manor did not run itself. It had three chief officials besides its lord. First, there was the reeve. He was one of the tenants, and his business was to carry on the cultivation of the lord's land. Then there was the bailiff, who took charge of the whole manor, saw that the work was done and the produce sold. But a noble often held a number of manors, and so a steward was also required, who went from one manor to another to examine the accounts of each, hold court, and take general charge of the estates. So it was that the reeve watched the tenants, the bailiff watched the reeve, the steward watched the bailiff; and finally an accountant, sometimes a relative of the lord, watched the steward and collected the money from the different manors. Over them all was the lord himself. He and his family and servants went from one manor to another, partly to use up what they could of produce on the spot, and partly, it is whispered, because so little attention was paid to cleanliness that it was the part of comfort as well as wisdom to allow a house to "sweeten" after it had been occupied for some weeks.

A manor required far less from the outside world than any village or city in these days. Food, with the exception of salt and the delicacies brought for the use of the lord, grew on the land. Hemp and wool were raised, spun into yarn, woven, and made into clothes on the spot. Sandals could be made by any one, and rough shoes could be put together by the shoemaker of the manor. There was also a carpenter, who could easily put up the wattled huts of the tenants. If anything more elaborate was to be undertaken, like the building of a church, builders were sent for from away. The blacksmith mended the tools and farming implements and often made them. Clumsy, inconvenient things they were. The scythes were short and straight, and the sickles small and heavy. The great wooden ploughs were so big and cumbersome that even with eight oxen to pull them they cut into the ground only a little way, and a second ploughing was usually necessary. Enriching the land and draining the soil were rarely practiced during the earlier part of the Middle Ages. Crops at best were small, often not more than one third of what the same amount of land would produce to-day. Frequently they failed altogether, because so little was known of agriculture; and even when there was a year of plenty, it was hardly safe to sell the surplus, for it might all be needed during the following year. The tenant had a hard life, but he was sure of as much protection as his lord could give, of a place to stay in, and of an opportunity to raise something to eat. He had no freedom, but in the times when freedom means danger, one does not grieve so sorely over the loss of liberty. William Lang-land, who wrote "Piers Plowman," tells how constantly the women worked. They must spin and card and comb wool, he says, trying to earn enough to pay the rent and the cost of milk and meal to feed their little ones; they must mend and wash and reel, and peel rushes, so that it is a sad story to read the sufferings of the women who live in cottages.

But as the years passed, the times changed. The tenants took little interest in the forced cultivation of their lord's land, and with all the watching it seldom brought in as much income as it might, certainly not so much as the lords desired; for many luxuries were now imported, people were interested in building, and they developed a taste for living comfortably. These changes had been caused in great degree by the crusades or military expeditions to rescue the Holy Land from the Saracens; but, whatever was the cause, the nobles wanted money.

The villeins, on the other hand, wanted to get rid of forced labor. Buying a release from disagreeable duties was quite in fashion. Even nobles often bought themselves free from entertaining the king. In many cases the peasants were permitted to buy a release from the services that they especially disliked. In some instances, where the lord was in pressing need of money, he insisted upon a tenant's buying his freedom. If a lord had a good supply of workmen, a tenant was sometimes allowed to leave the manor on condition of paying a tax. The Church was the friend of the tenant. It taught that to free a serf was a deed pleasing to God; and if the son of the poorest serf showed intellectual ability and aptitude for the priesthood, it demanded his release. It is thought that William Langland was a villein and became free on entering the Church. A tenant could sometimes escape to some city and find friends who would conceal him; and in England there was a law that if a man could succeed in remaining hidden for a year and a day, he was forever free. Many of these runaways knew some trade by which they could support themselves. There were tanners, carpenters, saddlers, shoemakers, blacksmiths, and tailors among them. Early in the fourteenth century the weaving of fine woolens was introduced into England; and at this trade especially a man could earn a good support.

Little by little, then, the villeins were discovering that the lords needed them quite as much as they needed the lords. If a lord did not treat his laborers well, he would be likely to lose some of them. As time passed, more and more of the tenants paid rent instead of giving service; and the lords could not always get as much service as they needed. More and more men became free to go from one manor to another as hired laborers. Villeinage would probably have slowly disappeared in any case, but in the fourteenth century the system received two great shocks. One was the fact that when England fought France at the battle of Crécy, the day was won for the English, not by knights in steel armor, but by yeomen with their bows and arrows. The other was the terrible Black Death, a pestilence which swept over Europe. It is thought to have destroyed nearly one third as many people as there are in the United States. Then the lords or their heirs were in difficulties. They received a heriot on the death of a villein and the usual relief from his heir; but so many had died that few manors had men enough left to do the necessary work. The success at Crecy had shown the common folk that they were able to protect themselves; and now that laborers were few, they began to see that they were an important part of the population. In England occurred an uprising known as the "Peasants' Revolt." The chief demand of these peasants was to be free from villeinage; and although the revolters were severely punished, villeinage rapidly disappeared. France, too, had learned a lesson from her defeats at Crecy and elsewhere, for she had found that her knights in all their armor could not protect their country. People began to question, "If knights cannot even guard their own land, what is the use of knighthood?" and both knighthood and the manor system gradually disappeared. But although the system has vanished, it still influences the law; for instance, the belief of the Middle Ages was that the land of a country belonged to the king and was granted by him to his vassals for life; and to-day if a man in England dies intestate and without heirs, his land goes to the king; in America it goes to the state. So it is that the people of the twentieth century are affected by the beliefs and customs of the people who lived on manors many hundred years ago.

by Eva March Tappan

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