Villeins in the Middle Ages
Written by Tim Nash
History - Middle Ages
Villeins in the middle ages were originally in the same class as feudal serfs. Initially the villein was legally and theoretically, a freeman but this was just in his interaction with his fellow serfs but not with the king. The manor, a Middle Ages village, was made up of various categories of laborers who included the villein, the serf and the peasants. Indeed some freemen exchanged produce and rent for the land they received from the lord.
As time went on, the difference between the serf and villein, begin to blur and eventually became nonexistent. Both serf and villein offered their manual labor in the lord’s homestead and in his land, also known as the demense. Under the system of medieval feudalism, the lords and the nobility held various rights over Villein in the middle ages.
The most outstanding of these rights was the right of jurisdiction; this allowed the lords to oversee the villein in almost all aspects of his life while he lived within the lord’s manor. The other right included the right to hunt game freely; the Villein were not allowed to hunt game and were only given limited access to the forests.
By the time the Doomsday Book was written by King William I to tabulate the number of existent peasants, the Villein were the most numerous in England’s population. By the early 14th century, the social status of the villein had deteriorated into one that compared to a slave. However, the Black Death that caused massive economic and social devastation also killed many peasants.
There was a great demand for people to work in the lord’s manor and this proved the perfect opportunity for the Villein to claim more rights such as an increase in their pay. Thus, running up to the tail end of the 14th century the status of the Villein and other peasants began to improve as they could bargain with the lords for better conditions.
In the wake of the 15th century, the system of villeinage was rapidly being replaced by that of free labor and tenure, in England. However, in other place in Europe the system continued into the later stages of the 16th century.
The villein worked in the lord’s demense, also paid him some taxes, and rent in exchange for the possession but not ownership of a piece of land. The villein’s children would inherit the land for continued use and their condition as Villein would be inherited. The dues that the villein paid to the lord were typically in the form of labor but also as agricultural produce and taxation.
The Villein in the middle ages worked for about 3 days in a week at the lord’s demense. He was bound to work for one lord and could not move to another manor unless he ran away; if he ran away he risked losing his livelihood and personal protection as well as that of his family. The manor was tied to the soil and would be sold to the next person who purchased the manor.
Life Of The villein
Documents, such as Pierce the Plowman’s Crede and pictures by Luttrell Plaster show that the life of the middle ages villein was indeed very difficult. The villein engaged in extensive labor most of his days. He was busier in the planting and harvest seasons and when he was not working in the lord’s demense he was toiling his own piece of land.
The produce that he harvested from his own land would be for home use and the rest would be sold to obtain money for paying taxes and rent. The villein was obliged to use the lord’s resources including the mill, for which he would pay for. Although the lord generally imposed heavy taxes on the Villein, he was apprehensive of losing them by demanding too much from them.
In addition to holding arable land, the Villein also had limited access to the non-arable lands. These included the forests and the meadows where they would fetch firewood from and graze their cattle. However, he was prohibited from hunting for game, as this was the domain of the lords and nobility.
The average villein had very little in the way of personal possession. They lived in small shacks dotted around the village. Their homes had just the basics including wooden utensil, sitting benches and floor mattresses made from straw. They lived close to one another for protection and most Villein hardly ventured out to other villages throughout their lifetime.
The villein was not only a farmer who worked in the fields; some were also craftsmen. The artisans were typically trained in a certain skill such as metalwork, woodwork or leatherwork by their parents or they would learn from another skilled craftsperson. They would sell the items that they built and were much needed not just within the village but in the towns where they would offer repair services.
The craftspeople were also Villein and as such, stayed within the manor and paid their dues as well. They would mostly pay rent for staying on the land; the proceeds that they acquired from their artwork catered for household needs as well as taxes and rent to the lord.
Religion was an important aspect of the villein’s life and he took it extremely seriously. The Church permeated almost every part of the Villein’ lives including birth, marriage and death. The Villein looked up to the church for solace in times of hardship such as famine, disease and death. The poorer Villein also looked up to the church for assistance in meeting their basic needs including food, clothing and shelter.
Although the Church had stringent laws, Villein in the middle ages were keen to adhere to these laws. The Villein also offered their services to the church in terms of labor, tithes and offerings. They were dedicated to observing religious holidays and rites including Sabbath, baptism, mass and Holy Communion. The Church was also a source of education and some Villein sent their children to the Church school where they were taught Latin, philosophy, rhetoric, mathematics and religion.