1.4 The Middle Ages: The Manor

The most common fief was a land holding called a manor (see below).  During the Middle Ages nine families worked on a manor producing food to feed themselves and provide food for a tenth family to do something else, i.e. Blacksmith, cobbler, carpenter, etc.

manorA typical manor was organized around a central great house or castle.  The castle was surrounded on all sides by fields, cottages, pastures, and woodlands.  Manors were typically self-sufficient.  As there was no real need to travel great distances, serfs tended to stay on a manor for their entire life.  They lived, worked, and died in the very same community that they were born into.

Surpluses of a few goods like wool, wheat, or livestock, were traded with other manors for items that were in shortage.  As the Middle Ages continued and the markets of towns grew, manors became more specialized, e.g. Landlords discovered it was more profitable to focus on producing one or two products rather than everything.  I.e. Some manors specialized in producing only cheese, pigs, wine, grain, or vegetables.

The lord of the manor (landlord) occupied the manor house or castle along with his family, servants, and retainers.  Retainers were usually knights and professional soldiers on hand to provide defense and be ready to fulfill any of their lord's feudal (military) obligations.
The majority of people on any given manor were of course serfs (see right).   Serfs spent up to half of their week working the lord’s lands in return for protection.  Each serf family owned several rows in each of the manor’s fields from which it obtained a living.  Serfs were not slaves but they were not free either.  They could not marry, change jobs, or leave the manor without the lord’s permission.  But, unlike a slave, a serf had some rights: his position was hereditary and passed down in his family.  His land could not be taken from him so long as he fulfilled his feudal obligations.