5th Edition,  D&D,  DMXP,  RPG,  World Building

From the Ground Up – Manorialism Pt 1 – The Basics


We’ve started into the world and lives surrounding the inhabitants of the world. I’ve gone into a bit of detail before on how the feudal system works, and how its people live, but here I want to go a bit more detail about the central hub of feudalism, Manorialism and the Manor. 

Manoralism and Feudalism are deeply and strongly interconnected, so much so that the world that they both exist in likely be without them both. Often, it seems, that we apply the larger and grander ideas about economy, loyalty, citizenship and other anachronistic concepts into our games with feudalism, and many times it can create hilarious and enjoyable situations, but it also will make us question the wisdom of the people of the day when they didn’t even think in the same ways that we did. 


Unpacking manorialism can be a bit of a chore, so lets start at its basic foundations – The Manor. The name clearly posits the manor as the focal point of the Manorial system, as its functional foundation. The manor has two different aspects that we have to tackle separately, as they didn’t really exist in the middle ages.

First, the Manor is the land that the lord lived on, and often has a castle or villa on it that is the main abode of that lord. Some wealthy and powerful lords will have many manors. Contrasting that is the land that the manor controls, sometimes also referred to as the manor, but which is more technically the Fief. Hence the term fiefdom. Interestingly, almost every town, city and village are separate from larger fiefs and manors, and have either their own charters or Lords. 

The manor is the building and close surroundings, and the fief is the totality of the land that the manor controls, excluding cities and towns that are often at the boundaries. Manoralism focuses on the manor for political, economic and social structure, as it is both the seat of power for a lord and the destination for the majority of the goods of a fiefs production. 

Open Fields

The Fiefs production is something that we all learn in a basic sense in elementary and middle schools. A number of fields, likely three but sometimes two, which are managed in rotation. One will be planted in spring, one planted in fall, and one left fallow in order to replenish the nutrients. The next year, this would rotate, with the fallow land being planted, one of the fields switching crops, and the other laying fallow. Of  those planted and fallow fields we are told little, however, but this is where things get interesting. Each of the fields in the system, Fallow, Spring and Fall, are subdivided into smaller lanes called furrows. These furrows were one Furlong in length, because a furlong was the distance a team of oxen could plow without resting. It turns out, its a really handy distance, as turning the team was difficult and simply plowing in a straight line until the ox tired out was a pretty solid method of measuring. 

These furrows were then worked by the farmers and serfs of the Fief. Some furrows were designated as Manorial land, some of them were designated as ecclesiastical land, and the rest were given completely over to the farmers. These same farmers would work different furrows across the fief in order to minimize risk. A standard farmer would have land in all three fields, and land of all three types, so that his work supported himself, the church and his lord, all at once. These scattered furrows could also be of different quality soils, creating a vibrant mixture of land that each farmer held in tenant.

Even among the farmers, though, there were lords and peasants. Some of the farmers held much greater areas of land than others, and sometimes a person would have no land at all. These farmers would hire other people with unproductive land, insufficient land or no land at all, and they would sub-divide their land again. as much of 22% of the population of a fief held the majority of the land, and the rest of the population would either hold to little to survive on, or none at all. 

The Village and Utilities

The Village of a medieval fief is the place where everyone lived, gathered and held communal events. It was also the location of a number of services that the Lord of the Manor provided, though there were a few that were almost always located up at the manor proper. 

We like to think that many of the people in the middle ages worked and existed differently than we do, but there are some universal truths. One of them, it turns out, is the workday commute. The Village may be where the peasants lived, but they often worked and rented land far from their wooden, ramshackle homes. They would have to get up early, as many of us do, and travel to the fields, almost always on foot, where they would then work. they would till, weed, harvest and tend the plants, tithing to the church and the manor lord as appropriate, and keeping what little remained. Towards the end of every long, painful day they would make their way back home. 

Those homes were often small, terribly constructed, and in need of near constant repair. They would have a small, fenced in area to keep a garden and some livestock. They were almost always made of wood, which made them miserable fire hazards and a real worry to most people forced to live inside one of them. Larger houses would be reserved for tenants with larger parcels of land, who would command more power and respect, and needed enough land to house their horses, oxen and plows that were rented out to lesser off peasants to use in their fields. 

Finally, there were the utilities owned buy the lord of the manor. These were often necessary structures and services that only the Lord of the Manor could support with his completely independent wealth. Well, the wealth derived from him having lordship over the land. These services often included the mills for both grain and cloth, the local millpond, the forests and waste areas which were used to pasture animals, hunt game, gather lumber, and forage pigs, as well as the blacksmith. All of these were usable with a fee, often made by selling your goods and services to the lord. It was a vicious cycle.

Join us next time as we take a look inside a manor and what that would look like. We’ll likely be taking a hard look at manorialism over the next couple weeks because its so fascinating. I will bring it all back to fantasy, I promise!  

Until next time!