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From the Ground Up – Manorialism Pt 2 – The Manor


Manorialism is fascinating in how different it is from how we live. One of those things that stick so largely out to us is the Manor House, what it was used for, how it was staffed, and how it was the focus of noble life. Today, I’m going to focus on the Manor house and its master. 

Master of the House

We’ve taken a look at feudalisms layers and its structure, and we’ve briefly looked at the inhabitants of the manorial fief, but today we are going to take a look at the focal point of the fiefdom, where the most important players in society, politics and war lived, ate, and very often died. 

The Manor house is the nucleus of the manor, though it is not often at the physical center, Instead, it is where the administrator of the fief would reside. Many Lords had multiple fiefs and could only be in one physical location at a time. They would often delegate their responsibilities to a steward, who would then further delegate the duties of running the manor house itself to a balif or sheriff.  

Get that? Its a bit complicated, and were going to pull in a bit from last week as well. 

Here is the current hierarchy as we have it on a manor and the fief. 

  • Lord – This person is the one who holds the fief in the name of the monarch of the realm, for whatever reason, be it service, familial ties or any other possibility. 
    • Steward – This person is the one who runs the fief while the Lord is absent. They would essentially have the power and authority of the lord without the title and sometimes without the noble blood. 
      • Bailiff – This person would be held accountable to the Steward and would be responsible for running the manor house proper on a day to day basis. They would organize and hold to account all the individuals staying at the manor and with who’s work it was possible to run. 
        • Manor Household – Responsible for different assigned and delegated tasks in the manor, held accountable by the bailiff. Cooks, Cobblers, Barristers and Barbers would all be here. 
      • The Freeman Farmer – This person would rent out large portions of land from the Lord, and thefore the Steward. They would then be responsible for paying that rent and ensuring that the land produced enough to make a bit more money to keep himself well tended and often fairly rich. 
        • The Freeman Laborer – This person would be often work the land of a Freeman Farmer and reap the reward of his hard labor. This was after, of course, both the Lord and the Farmer took their share. He could then keep or sell the surplus for a bit of extra money, and would often be able to live fairly well. 
      • The Serf Farmer/Villein  – This person was beholden to the lord, and worked the land as he was dictated to via the feudal system. After the lord of the manor got his due, the rest was serfs to keep, trade or sell as he desired. 

As I said, its complicated. There are a number of other steps that I left out, but these are the ones that encompass the most people in the system. Remember that most people at this time are part of the rural system, and just a small percentage is part of the urban class. 

The Manor Inabitants

When we talk about the lords cut of the produce of the fief, we often think only in the terms of his family and his direct retainers needing to be supported, but there are so many more people that need his support and depend on the output of the land than just that family. 

A “typical” Manor house would have the following. 

  • Lord – As we talked about, they would not be there all the time, but he was still due his share. 
  • Steward – The Lord-in-function, they would need to be fed, clothed, and housed
  • Bailiff – Running the manor in its day to day function. 
  • The Men at Arms, Knights and Guards – Sworn to the Lord and beholden to his Steward, these warriors were expected to defend the manor, castle or fort they were sword to, and must live there to do it. 
  • Gardeners – The Gardens at a Manor house were functional, and expected to be able to produce some food for a short period of time if under siege
  • I could go on delineating, but suffice it to say: Cooks, Cobblers, Armorer, Weaponsmith, Blacksmith, Carpenters, Engineers, Librarian, Master of the Horse, Master of the Hounds, Huntmaster, Miller, Spinsters, Brewmaster, Priests, and all the attendants needed to assist each one, and all their families; and no little birth control. That isn’t even an exhaustive list! I’m sure I missed more than a few. 

What matters is that I get across that it was like a small city all in its own, all dedicated to serving and protecting the lord of the manor in every way possible. Each of these, and their families, lived inside of the manor. 

At night, everyone would retire to the great hall, where there would be a meal, and then everyone would sleep. The lord would retire to his private chambers with his family, and would there take his rest. The steward and bailiff would each also have their own rooms. It was uncommon for anyone to have their own space to sleep, but they would have their workplace where everything they owned was kept. 

While the manor house was clearly where all of the activity centered around in a fief, it was not completely self sufficient. Markets were not something that was simply allowed to exist anywhere one wanted, but instead had to be granted by the monarch. This was rarely profitable to be granted to a manor house or castle, and instead were often granted to towns and cities, spaced such that there would be little overlap or competition between them. Often, the bailiff would send emissaries down to the market with the coin to purchase the goods that the land didn’t produce itself, requiring more people to take care of. 

The Manor Itself

Finally, the Manor itself was often a majestic piece of architecture, dominated by the great hall where the lord would receive court. Here he would pass judgement, as was his right, on any conflicts that were brought to him by his vassals and serfs. It was one of the privileges of being a serf, if it could be said that way, to get your disputes adjudicated.

The building itself was often made of strong stone, and built to last against the elements. It shared a strong design with the castle, with high walls, thin windows, drawbridges, and moats and ditches. They weren’t often going to survive a protracted siege, but they would be able to hold out for a few days until reinforcements arrived. They were never meant to withstand any serious assault, but more to deter robbers, thieves, and bandits who were always about in the country as well as raiders like the vikings who could appear at any time. 

Well, that wraps it up for the Fief and the Manor House, till next time!