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Serfs and manorialism

An overview of how a manor was organized in Medieval Europe. Discussion of serfs and serfdom.

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Video transcript

- [Instructor] In a previous video, we already talked about the feudal system, how you can have a king and then you might have some vassals of the king who give an oath of fealty to the king in the homage or homage ceremony, might be a duke. And you could keep going down this. Maybe you have a count, maybe you have a baron, and could keep going down this chain of nobility where one noble is pledging fealty to the king as a king's vassal, but then they are a lord of another vassal. And you keep going all the way down until you get to a plot of land where the actual work might occur. And that term is often referred to as a manor. A manor just doesn't happen at the bottom of this pyramid. A duke can have a manor and they can split up the rest of their duchy and give sections of it to form counties that could be led by counts. But what we're going to focus in this video is the manor itself, because that's where life in a medieval community actually takes place. And the work on a manor is done essentially by the lowest rung of the ladder and that is both free peasants and also by serfs. To get a sense of what a medieval manor could have looked like, here's a picture and this would've been a particularly fancy manor right over here. This is a ducal manor, so this would have been the manor of a duke, so it could be something like that right over there. And in this picture, you see the manor house which in this case is the duke's castle, in many medieval communities were the highest ranking of the nobility right beneath the king. And so we see these people actually working the field. We don't know from looking up at them, some of them might be free peasants, maybe this gentleman right over here is a free peasant. And this person right over here is a serf. The word of serf comes from the Latin for service, the same word that eventually gives us words like servant and they're someplace in between a free peasant and a slave. They are bonded to the lord of the manor. In this case it would be a duke, but you can go down this hierarchy, you could have a manor where the lord is a baron or the lord is a knight, or the lord is just someone who is very wealthy and somehow got access to a fiefdom. So the serfs are bonded to the land. They can't leave without their permission. They are allowed to cultivate certain tracts of land themselves, but they also have to work for their lord. So they might help plant crops and harvest crops in the lord's land as well and they also give a percentage of everything that they grow or everything that they do to the actual lord. And if the lord needs to go into war, they might have to be soldiers in that war. You might be wondering, well that sounds pretty bad, it sounds similar to being a slave. One of the key differences is that a serf actually can accumulate things on their own. They can actually own property. Now another term or sometimes a subcategorization of serf in the Middle Ages is the term villain. I know what you're thinking, you have heard that term before. The villain today means a bad guy. But the term originally comes from the Roman Empire when Diocletian, the famous emperor who persecuted Christians, he also, because they were having trouble getting labor in rural villas, he began to decree that certain people had to work in the villas. And so someone who was compelled to work at a villa was called a villain, and so they were bonded to the land. They were a type of serf. Now the fact that villain in English, it means someone who is bad, it gives you an idea how in a lot of languages in a lot of cultures, the notion of being captive or bonded and poor gets associated with being bad which seems very contrary to our modern view of the world. Get a top-level view of what a manor might look like. We don't know what type of manor this is in particular, but the manor house here seems a little bit more humble than this ducal manor right over here. This could be a, maybe a baron's manor house. Now the manner often had a village. This is where the serfs or the free peasants might live, keep their homes. And then you see the land that is cultivated collectively by this community, not just the actors that we've just talked about, you might also have a church or monastery on that manor right over here. And these strips of land, they might have different crops. And the output of those crops go to different people. The one common factor is the lord of the manor might get all of the crops from some of these strips, while on the other strips, they get the taxation. So they'll get a certain percentage from the crops there. But all of the work is done by the serfs and the free peasants and possibly if there some, if this is a monastery, and there's some monks at the monastery. Now one interesting thing is why you often see in these manor maps, these long strips of land, and our resident agricultural expert at Khan Academy, David Rheinstrom, says it's because the medieval plows once you got going, you didn't want to turn them around, you got some momentum. And so people liked the plant crops in these long strips so the plows could just keep going in one direction and only at the end, they just have to turn it around. So you're minimizing the number of times that you actually have to turn around to plow.