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Manorialism or Signeurialism describes the organisation of rural economy and society in medieval western and parts of central Europe characterised by the vesting of legal and economic power in a lord supported economically from his own direct landholding and from the obligatory contributions (in labour, produce or money) of a legally subject part of the peasant population under his jusridiction.

The word derives from the division of the countryside into local jusrisdictions known as manors or seigneuries, each subject to a lord (French seigneur), usually holding his position in return for undertakings offered to a higher lord (see Feudalism), and a manor court governed by public law and local custom.

Manors each consisted of up to three classes of land:

  1. demesne, the part controlled immediately by the lord and exploited directly for the benefit of his household and dependants;
  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.

Villein holdings were held nominally by arrangement of lord and tenant, but tenure became in practice almost universally hereditary, with a payment being made to the lord on the 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 not uncommon, and labour on the demesne might be commuted into an additional money payment, as happened increasingly from the 13th century.

Variation among manors

Like feudalism, which together with manorialism forms the legal and organisational framework of what is often termed feudal society, manorial structures must not be imagined as a uniform phenomenon universal among societies exhibiting such characteristics. Areas of incomplete or non-existent manorialisation persisted into the later Middle Ages, while 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 in general 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 the 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 acreage 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

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