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Environmental Studies
English Language and Linguistics
BA English
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Unit 1

Manorial System

Learning Outcomes

After the successful completion of this unit, the learner will be able to:

  •  familiarise with the evolution of feudalism.
  • analyse the stages of feudal and manorial system.
  • identify the factors that led to the decline of feudalism and manorialism.


The Norman Conquest resulted in great changes in the social, cultural, economic, and political systems in England. After the victory of William, the Conqueror, numerous reforms were introduced in the field of land tenure and military service with the intention of replacing the existing Saxon nobility with an imported Norman nobility. He also made abrupt changes in the upper clergy and administrative officers. The changes in the socio-political and economic spheres that happened due to the Norman Conquest resulted ultimately in the emergence of what has been called feudalism.
Encyclopaedia Britannica defines feudalism as a term “that emerged in the 17th century that has been used to describe economic, legal, political, social, and economic relationships in the European Middle Ages.” Derived from the Latin word feudum (fief, which means an estate of land), feudalism may be understood as a socio-economic system that describes the relationships between lords and vassals that involve the exchange of land for military service.
Feudalism became a way of life in medieval England and remained so for many centuries. Closely related to feudalism emerged a particular system of agricultural production and social formations in large estates, known as feudal manors. The Manorial system was part of the wider feudal order. It was an important system that determined the socio-economic, political and cultural life of that period. In this unit, we will discuss the features of the manorial system and how it is part of the system of feudalism in medieval Europe.

Feudalism, Fief, Serf, Vassals, Manor, Knights, Dukes, Peasants, Manorialism

As mentioned in the previous block, the Norman invasion had enormous economic, social and political consequences for the English. After William’s victory, England changed completely, and a new social, political and economic trend emerged, Later historians gave it the name feudalism.
2.1.1 Debates on Norman Feudalism
Medieval historians have been discussing the origins of feudalism in England and the impact of the Norman Conquest on English society. Opinions vary as to whether elements of feudalism existed in England in pre-Norman England and to what extent the conquest fundamentally transformed English society. Debates related to the question of feudal practices before the Norman conquest of Britain have been analysed by a famous historian of medieval England named Warren Hollister. Hollister has written a book, The Impact of Norman Conquest (1969), and an article titled, ‘The Norman Conquest and the Genesis of English Feudalism’ (1961). These works give us extensive bibliographical references about the ongoing debates concerning the origin of feudalism in England.
A theory about Norman feudalism was formulated in 1891 by J.H. Round, who, in his book Feudal England, claimed that “William I introduced the feudal system in England, where it had not previously existed.” Round also postulated that the Norman Conquest resulted in a cataclysmic break with the Anglo-Saxon past.
F.W. Maitland questioned the arguments of J.H. Round [Domesday Book and Beyond: Three Essays in the Early History of England,F. W. Maitland (1897)] and maintained that “a form of feudalism had existed in pre-Norman England”. But most historians in the first half of the 20th century, like F.M. Stenton, agreed with the postulations of J.H. Round. (The First Century of the English Feudalism 1066- 1166, F.M. Stenton, published in 1932.) This group of scholars are considered an “orthodox” school.
In recent decades many historians have challenged the so-called “orthodox” interpretation. They claimed that Norman feudalism had some pre-Norman or Anglo- Saxon roots. They strongly believed that the changes occurring in English society between 1050 and 1200 were caused not simply by the Norman conquest but also by more general factors that transformed much of western Europe during the same period.
Allen Brown, in his book, Origins of English Feudalism (1973), tries to establish the validity of the orthodox interpretation. Brown regards the conquest as a cataclysm that destroyed a “pre-feudal society” and created a feudal one and maintains that English feudalism had no pre-Norman origins. Brown says – “of the many characteristic features of feudal societies, only four are fundamental or essential: 1) the knight, 2) Vassalic Commendation 3) the fief, and 4) the castle. He argued that these fundamentals of feudalism were absent from pre-Norman England but present in England soon after the Norman conquest. Thus Brown concludes that “the introduction of feudalism into England by the Norman rulers moulded the English society into a feudal pattern which was to last for centuries.”
From the above discussions, it is clear that the origins of feudalism in England can only be traced back to the period from the Norman conquest. Now let us discuss the important features of Norman feudalism.
2.1.2 Features of Norman Feudalism
A consequence of William’s land policies was the development of feudalism. William made drastic changes in the existing system of land in England to suit his needs. William let the Anglo-Saxon earls of Mercia and Northumbria keep their lands because they did not fight against him at Hastings. The only condition was that they had to accept William’s authority as king and as their feudal lord. William transferred land ownership from the Anglo-Saxon nobles who didn’t support him to the Normans who came with him from Normandy. These were men he could trust and rely on. Norman feudalism was different from the Anglo-Saxon system in one important way – King William owned all the land. The system of giving land in exchange for duties had existed before the Norman Conquest, but William confiscated land from the Anglo- Saxons, which created a whole new power structure. Norman feudalism was based on royal strength.
As mentioned above, feudalism was based on contracts made among nobles. The King theoretically occupied the apex of an imaginary pyramid, and the ownership of land was vested with him. Immediately below him were his vassals, a hierarchy of nobles who held fiefs, a piece of land, directly from the king and were called tenants-in-chief. The Normans split up the English land and retained and maintained their power by building castles as power bases to control the English population. William needed a way of controlling England so that the people remained loyal to him. William considered all the land in England his own personal property and gave out fiefs to nobles who, in return, had to give military service when required.
William divided up England into very large plots of land. These were given to those noblemen who had fought bravely for him in battles, especially at Hastings. The land was not simply given to these nobles. They had to swear an ‘oath of loyalty’ to William. Then they had to collect taxes in their area for him, and they had to provide the king with soldiers if they were told to do so. The men who got these pieces of land (fiefs) were called barons, earls and dukes. Within their own area, they were the most important persons there. In terms of the feudal system, these men (barons, earls, dukes) were called tenants-in-chief. The tenants-in-chiefs further divided up their land, and these were given to trusted Norman Knights. Each knight was given a segment of land to govern. Knights had to swear an oath to the baron, duke, or earl, collect taxes and provide soldiers from their land when they were needed. These lords worked to maintain law and order in their area. The lords were required to do their jobs well, and those who failed were removed from their position. At the bottom of the ladder were the conquered English (serfs) who had to do what they were told or pay the price for their disobedience. They were treated harshly, and there was always the constant threat of Norman soldiers being used against the English people wherever they lived.
2.1.3 Manorialism
From the 9th to the 15th century, the manorial system was an important feature of the medieval society of Europe. This system came into existence in England after the radical transformations brought by William I after the Norman Conquest. The manorial system was also an important system that determined the socio-economic, political and cultural life of this period. One of the important peculiarities of this period was a social and economic system called feudalism. The basic feature of a feudal society was its agrarian character and petty production based on the peasant family. Closely related to feudalism emerged a particular system of agricultural production and social formations in large estates, known as feudal manors. The manorial system was part of the wider feudal order.
Feudalism and Manorialism are two systems that existed in medieval Europe. Both of these systems were based on land and involved the exchange of land for services. Manorialism was primarily an economic and social system which described how the land was managed. It primarily concerned the peasants who provided the labour on the land and their relationship to the lord of the manor who was required to provide them security. Feudalism, on the other hand, was a social, political and economic system based on the exchange of land for military services. It involved the relationship between the King and the feudal lords and that between the lords, the knights and ultimately, the serfs who toil on the land. Feudalism determined how the lords gained the land, while Manorialism illustrated how it was maintained by the labour of the peasants. Manorialism appeared to have predated Feudalism in medieval Europe.
Throughout most of Medieval Europe, agriculture was organised around the manorial system. The manorial system was the system that existed in Medieval England, where rural society was arranged around a manor house or castle in an estate. The manor was a self- sufficient landed estate or fief that was under the control of a lord who enjoyed a variety of rights over it and the peasants attached to it by means of serfdom. The system of manorialism continued throughout most of the Middle Ages. Within the estates, free and unfree labourers (serfs or villeins) worked the land of the landowner in return for protection and the right to work a separate piece of land for their own basic needs. The hub of the community in the manorial system was the manor or castle. It was the landlord’s private residence and place of communal gatherings for purposes of administration, legal matters and entertainment. Regulations, customs and traditions varied from one manor to another. The distinguishing aspect of the Lord of the Manor was that he was both a political leader and an employer. These two important roles of a lord in a manor were clearly characterised by Marc Bloch in his famous book Feudal Society: “The lord did not merely draw from his peasants valuable revenues and an equally valuable labour force. Not only was he rentier of the soil and beneficiary of the services; he was also a judge, often protector, and always a chief.”
A manor estate covers nearly a hundred acres. It is quite enough to meet the needs of those who lived on it. The manor estate includes a small river or streams running through it. A church, mill, barn and an area of woodlands were also part of a manor. The land of the estate was divided into two main parts. The first part was the demesne (domain) which was reserved for the exclusive use of the landowner. The demesne land was 35-40% of the total land on the estate. The second part was the land of the dependent tenants who lived and worked for their own daily needs. Around 12 acres of land are possessed by each family. The labourers on the estate farmed that land reserved for their use and the demesne.
The manor estate was almost entirely economically self-sufficient. In feudal manors, all production for the local community was performed. The manors produced their own food, raised livestock, milled their own grain for bread, spun thread to make their clothing, and produced and maintained their own farm and manufacturing implements. Consequently, there was not very much official or commercial contact with the outside world, and its community became similarly self-contained. The relations between its members were more specifically determined by the unique customs and traditions of that community, with the lord of the manor presiding at its head.
2.1.4 Serfs in a Feudal Manor
The economic system of the Middle Ages was founded on feudalism, supporting the overlords with the work of serfs using compulsory labour. Serfdom was a type of servile bondage occurring mostly among manors across Europe. A serf is a form of an unfree peasant. A serf could not move from place to place because they were essentially tied to the land of the lord they served (Judith Bennett, A Medieval Life). Serfdom was determined by birth, meaning if one’s parents were serfs, one would become a serf, and so would one’s sons and daughters. The serfs were not slaves, but they had no right to free movement and payment for their labour. The serfs worked the demesne land of their lord two or three days each week, more during busy periods like harvest time. On the other days, serfs could farm that land given to them for their own family’s needs. The personal property of a serf and his simple thatched house of mud and straw all belonged to the landowner. A serf was obliged to pay fines and customary fees to their lord, such as on the marriage of the lord’s eldest daughter etc. From morning to night, the serfs were closely watched, supervised, and ordered to do various tasks. The serfs were born on the land and lived out their lives there. If a feudal lord sold his manor to another nobleman, it included not only the land, livestock, and working tools but the serfs on the land as well.
2.1.5 Decline of Manorial system
Both feudalism and manorialism declined due to several developments in the late Middle Ages. One particular blow came from the sudden population declines caused by wars and plagues, particularly the Black Death (which peaked between 1347-1352). Another frequent risk to everyone’s livelihood was crop failures. Such crises caused a chronic shortage of labour and the abandonment of estates because there was no one to work them. The growth of large towns and cities also resulted in labourers leaving the countryside in large numbers in search of a better future, and many succeeded in getting new jobs available there, working for a new and wealthy merchant class. Another reason for the decline was the number of revolts by the peasantry against their lords. England, for instance, witnessed a peasant revolt in 1381 CE, which caused a strong blow to the manorial system.
Finally, the increase in the use of coinage in the late Middle Ages resulted in many serfs making a payment to their lord instead of labour, paying a fee to be absolved from some of the labour expected of them, or even buying their freedom. Across Europe, all of these factors weakened the traditional set-up of unfree labourers being tied to the land and working for the rich so that by the end of the 14th century, more agricultural labour was done by paid workers than unpaid serfs.


  • The origins of feudalism in England can be traced back to the period from the Norman Conquest.
  • William I introduced the feudal system in England.
  • Norman feudalism was different from the Anglo-Saxon system in one im- portant way- King William owned all the land.
  • Feudalism was based on contracts made among nobles.
  • In feudal society, the ownership of land was vested in the king.
  • The men who got the pieces of land (fief) were called barons, earls and dukes. f Feudalism and Manorialism are two systems that existed in medieval Europe. f Throughout Medieval Europe, agriculture was organised around the Mano-rial System.
  • The hub of the community in the manorial system was the manor or castle. f Serfdom was a type of servile bondage occurring mostly among manorsacross Europe.
  • England witnessed a peasant revolt in 1381 CE, which caused a strong blow to the manorial system.

Objective Type Questions

1. Name the social system formed on the basis of land ownership in medieval Europe.
2. Which system was replaced by Norman Feudalism?
3. Which conquest led to the origin of feudalism in England?
4. Who introduced the feudal system in England?
5. Which were the two systems that existed in middle Europe?
6. Mention the system under which agriculture was organised in medieval Eu- rope.
7. Identify the four stages of the feudal system.
8. Which period was the peak of the Black Death?
9. What was another word for a peasant under feudal System?
10. Who dominated the feudal system?
11. Who represented the bottom of feudal society?
12. Who held the fiefs under the feudal system?
13. What was the hub of the community in the manorial system?
14. Who were ‘villeins’ in Feudalism?
15. Which year did the peasant revolt occur in England?

Answers to Objective Type Questions

1. Feudalism
2. Anglo-Saxon system
3. Norman Conquest
4. William I
5. Feudalism and Manorialism 6. Manorial System
7. King, Vassals, Knight and Serf 8. 1347-1352
9. Serf
10. Kings and Lords
11. Vassals
12. Serfs or peasants
13. Manor or castle
14. Peasant farmers or serfs
15. 1381 CE


1. Describe the four stages of a feudal system with the help of a flow chart. Ex- plain the role of nobles under each stage.
2. Examine the features of Norman Feudalism.
3. Explain the factors that led to the decline of the manorial system.
4. Discuss the role of dukes and knights in a feudal system.


Suggested Readings

1. Brown, Reginald Allen. Origins of English Feudalism, Allen and Unwin, 1973.
2. Carter, E.H. Mears,, A History of Britain, Stacey International, 2012.
3. Amt, Emilie. (Ed.), Medieval England, 1000-1500: A Reader, University of To- ronto Press, 2000.
4. Brown, Eric. English History, A Concise Overview of the History of England from Start to End, Guy Saloniki, 2019.
5. Maitland, F.W. Domesday Book and Beyond: Three Essays in the Early History of England, Sagwan Press, 2018.
6. Trevelyan, George Macaulay. Illustrated English Social History, Pelican, 1964. 7. Warren, Hollister C. The Impact of the Norman Conquest, Wiley, 1969.
8. Round, J.H. Feudal England, Outlook Verlag, 2018.
9. Morgan, Kenneth O (Ed). The Oxford History of Britain, OUP Oxford, 2010.