Online Encyclopedia


Online Encyclopedia
Originally appearing in Volume V28, Page 84 of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.
Spread the word: it!
VILLENAGE (VILLAINAGE, VILLANAGE, VILLEINAGE), a medieval term (from villa, villanus), pointing to serfdom, a condition of men intermediate between freedom and slavery. It occurs in France as well as in England, and was certainly imported into English speech through the medium of Norman French. The earliest instances of its use are to be found in the Latin and French versions of English documents in the xxth and 12th centuries (cf. Domesday Book; Liebermann, Glossary to the Gesetze der Angelsachsen, s.v. villanus, vilain). The history of the word and of the condition is especially instructive in English usage. The materials for the formation of the villein class were already in existence in the Anglo-Saxon period. On the one hand, the Saxon ceorls (twihyndemen), although considered as including the typical freemen in the earlier laws (IEthelberht, Hlothhere and Edric, Ine), gradually became differentiated through the action of political and economic causes, and many of them had to recognize the patronage of magnates or to seek livelihood as tenants on the estates of the latter. These ceorls, sitting on gafol-land, were, though personally free, considered as a lower order of men, and lapsed gradually into more or less oppressive subjection in respect of the great landowners. It is characteristic in this connexion that the West Saxon laws do not make any distinction between ceorls and laets or half-freemen as the Kentish laws had done: this means that the half-free people were, if not Welshmen, reckoned as ,members of the ceorl class. Another remarkable indication of the decay of the ceorl's estate is afforded by the fact that in the treaties with the Danes the twihynde ceorls are equated with the Danish leysings or freedmen. It does not mean, of course, that their condition was practically the same, but in any case the fact testifies to the gulf which had come to separate the two principal subdivisions of the free class—the ceorl and the thane. The Latin version of the Rectitudines Singularum Personarum, a document compiled probably in the 11th century, not long before the Conquest, renders geneat (a peasant tenant of a superior kind performing lighter services than the gebur, as he was burdened with heavy week-work) by villanus; but the gebur came to be also considered as a villanus according to Anglo-Norman terminology. The group designated as geburs in Anglo-Saxon charters, though distinguished from mere slaves (lheow baerde-burbaerde, Kemble, Cod. Dipl. 1079), undoubtedly included many freedmen who in point of services and economic subjection were not very much above the slaves. Both ceorls and geburs disappear as separate classes, and it is clear that the greater part of them must have passed into the rank of villeins. In the terminology of the Domesday Inquest we find the villeins as the most numerous element of the English population. Out of about 240,000 households enumerated in Domes-day ioo,000 are marked as belonging to villeins. They are rustics performing, as a rule, work services for their lords. But not all the inhabitants of the villages were designated by that name. Villeins are opposed to socmen and freemen on one hand, to bordarii, cottagers and slaves on the other. The distinction in regard to the first two of these groups was evidently derived from their greater freedom, although the difference is only one in degree and not in kind. In fact, the villein is assumed to be a person free by birth, but holding land of which he cannot dispose freely. The distinction as against bordarii and cottagers is based on the size of the holding: the villeins are holders of regular shares in the village—that is, of thevirgates, bovates or half-hides which constitute the principal subdivisions in the fields and contribute to form the ploughteams—whereas the bordarii hold smaller plots of some 5 acres, more or less, and cotkarii are connected with mere cottages and crofts. Thus the terminology of Domesday takes note of two kinds of differences in the status of rustics: a legal one in connexion with the right to dispose of property in land, and an economic one reflecting the opposition between the holders of shares in the fields and the holders of auxiliary tenements. The feature of personal serfdom is also noticeable, but it provides a basis only for the comparatively small group of servi, of whom only about 25,000 are enumerated in Domesday Book. The contrast between this exceptionally situated class and the rest of the population shows that personal slavery was rapidly disappearing in England about the time of the Conquest. It is also to be noticed that the Domesday Survey constantly mentions the terra villanorum as opposed to the demesne in the estates or manors of the time, and that the land of the rustics is taxed separately for the geld, so that the distinction between the property of the lord and that of the peasant dependent on him is clearly marked and by no means devoid of practical importance. The Domesday Survey puts before us the state of things in England as it was at the very beginning of the Norman and at the close of the Saxon period. The development of feudal society, of centralizing kingship and ultimately. of a system of common law, brought about great changes which all hinge on the fundamental fact that the kings, while increasing the power of the state in other respects, surrendered it completely as regards the relations between the peasants and their lords. The protection of the assizes was tendered in civil matters to free tenants and refused to villeins. The royal courts refused to entertain suits of villeins against their lords, although there was a good deal of vacillation before this position was definitely taken up. Bracton still speaks in his treatise of the possibility for the courts to interfere against intolerable cruelty on the part of the lord involving the destruction of the villein's waynage, that is, of his ploughteam, and in the Notebook of Bracton there are a couple of cases which prove that 13th-century judges occasionally allowed themselves to entertain actions by persons holding in villenage against their lords. Gradually, however, the exception of villenage became firmly settled. As the historical and practical position was developing on these lines the lawyers who fashioned English common law in the 12th and 13th centuries did not hesitate to apply to it the teaching of Roman law on slavery. Bracton fits his definition of villenage into the Romanesque scheme of Azo's Summa of the Institutes, and the judges of the royal courts made sweeping inferences from this general position. To begin with, the relation between the villein and his lord was regarded as a personal and not a praedial one. Everyone born of villein stock belonged to his master and was bound to undertake any service which might be imposed on him by the master's or the steward's command. The distinction between villeins in gross and villeins regardant, of which much is made by modern writers, was suggested by modes of pleading and does not make its appearance in the Year-Books before the 15th century. Secondly, all independent proprietary rights were denied to the villein as against his lord, and the legal rule " quicquid servo acquiritur domino acquiritur " was extended to villeins. The fact that a great number of these serfs had been enjoying protection as free ceorls in former ages made itself felt, however, in three directions. (I) In criminal matters the villein was treated by the King's Court irrespectively of any consideration as to his debased condition. More especially the police association, organized for the keeping of the peace and the presentation of criminals—the frankpledge groups were formed of all " worthy of were and wite," villeins as well as freemen. (2) Politically the villeins were not eliminated from the body of citizens: they had to pay taxes, to serve in great emergencies in the militia, to serve on inquests, &c., and although there was a tendency to place them on a lower footing in all these respects yet the fact of their being lesser members of the commonwealth did not remove the fundamental qualification of citizenship. (3) Even in civil matters villeins were deemed free as regards third persons. They could sue and be sued in their own name, and although they were able to call in their lords as defendants when proceeded against, there was nothing in law to prevent them from appearing in their own right. The state even afforded them protection against extreme cruelty on the part of their. masters in respect of life and limb, but in laying down this rule English lawyers were able to follow the precedents set by late Roman jurisprudence, especially by measures of Hadrian, Antonine and Constantine the Great. There was one exception to this harsh treatment of villeins, namely, the rustic tenantry in manors of ancient demesne, that is, in estates which had belonged to the crown before the Conquest, had a standing-ground even against their lords as regards the tenure of their plots and the fixity of their services. Technically this right was limited to the inhabitants of manors entered in the Domesday Survey as terra regis of Edward the Confessor. On the other hand the doctrine became effective if the manors in question had been granted by later kings to subjects, because-if they remained in the hand of the king the only remedy against ejectment and exaction lay in petitioning for redress without any definite right to the latter. If, however, the two conditions mentioned were forthcoming, villeins, or, as they were technically called, villein socmen of ancient demesne manors, could resist any attempt of their lords to encroach on their rights by depriving them of their holdings or increasing the amount of their customary services. Their remedy was to apply for a little writ of right in the first case and for a writ of monstraverunt in the second. These writs entitled them to appear as plaintiffs against the lord in his own manorial court and, eventually, to have the question at issue examined by way of appeal, on a writ of error, or by reservation on some legal points in the upper courts of the king. A number of cases arising from these privileges of the men of ancient demesne are published in the Notebook of Bracton and in the Abbreviatio placitorum. This exceptional procedure does not simply go back to the rule that persons who had been tenants of the king ought not to have their condition altered for the worse in con-sequence of a royal grant. If this were the only doctrine applicable in the case there would be no reason why similar protection should be denied to all those who held under grantees of manors escheated after the Conquest. A material point for the application of the privilege consists in the fact that ancient demesne has to be proved from the time before the Conquest, and this shows clearly that the theory was partly derived from the recognition of tenant right in villeins of the Anglo-Saxon period who, as we have said above, were mostly ceorls, that is, freeborn men. In view of the great difference in the legal position of the free man and of the villein in feudal common law, it became very important to define the exact nature of the conditions on which the status of a villein depended. The legal theory as to these conditions was somewhat complex, because it had to take account of certain practical considerations and of a rather abrupt transition from a previous state of things based on different premises. Of course, persons born from villein parents in lawful wedlock were villeins, but as to the condition of illegitimate children there was a good deal of hesitation. There was a tendency to apply the rule that a bastard follows the mother, especially in the case of a servile mother. In the case of mixed marriages, the condition of the child is determined by the free or villein condition of the tenement in which it was born. This notion of the influence of the tenement is well adapted to feudal notions and makes itself felt again in the case of the pursuit of a fugitive villein. He can be seized without further formalities if he is caught in his " nest," that is, in his native place. If not, the lord can follow him in fresh pursuit for four days; once these days past, the fugitive is maintained provisionally in possession of his liberty, and the lord has to bring an action de nativo habendo and has to assume the burden of proof. So much as to the proof of villenage by birth or previous condition. But there were numbers of cases when the discussion as to servile status turned not on these formal points but on an examination of the services performed by the person claimed as a villein or challenged as holding in villenage. In both cases the courts had often recourse to proof derived not from direct testimony but from indirect indications as to the kind of services that had been performed by the supposed villein. Certain services, especially the payment of merchetthe fine for marrying a daughter—were considered to be the badge of serfdom. Another service, the performance of which established a presumption as to villenage, was compulsory service as a reeve. The courts also tried to draw a distinction from the amount and regularity of agricultural services to which a tenant was subjected. Bracton speaks of the contrast between the irregular services of a serf, " who could not know in the evening what he would have to do in the morning," and services agreed upon and definite in their amount. The customary arrangements of the work of villeins, however, render this contrast rather fictitious. The obligations of down-right villeins became to that degree settled and regular that one of the ordinary designations of the class was custumarii. Therefore in most cases there were no arbitrary exactions to go by, except perhaps one or the other tallage imposed at the will of the lord. The original distinction seems to have been made not between arbitrary and agreed but between occasional services and regular agricultural week-work. While the occasional services, even when agricultural, in no way established a presumption of villenage, and many socmen, freemen and holders by serjeanty submitted to them, agricultural week-work was primarily considered as a trait of villenage and must have played an important part in the process of classification of early Norman society. The villein was in this sense emphatically the man holding " by the fork and the flail." This point brings us to consider the matter-of-fact conditions of the villeins during the feudal period, especially in the 12th, 13th and 14th centuries. As is shown by the Hundred Rolls, the Domesday of St Paul, the Surveys of St Peter, Glouc., Glastonbury Abbey, Ramsey Abbey and countless other records of the same kind, the customary conditions of villenage did not tally by any means with the identification between villenage and slavery suggested by the jurists. It is true that in nomenclature the word " servi " is not infrequently used (e.g. in the Hundred Rolls) where villani might have been mentioned, and the feminine nief (nativa) appears as the regular parallel of villanus, but in the descriptions of usages and services we find that the power of the lord loses its discretionary character and is in every respect moderated by custom. As personal dependents of the lord native villeins were liable to he sold, and we find actual sales recorded: Glastonbury Abbey e.g. sells a certain Philipp Hardyng for 20 shillings. But such transfers of human chattels occur seldom, and there is nothing during the English feudal period corresponding to the brisk trade in men characteristic of the ancient world. Merchet was regarded, as has been stated already, as a badge of serfdom in so far as it was said to imply a " buying of one's own blood " (servos de sanguine suo emando). The explanation is even more characteristic than the custom itself, because fines on marriage may be levied and were actually levied from people of different condition, from the free as well as from the serf. Still the tendency to treat mere/set as a distinctive feature of serfdom has to be noted, and we find that the custom spread for this very reason in consequence of the encroachments of powerful lords: in the Hundred Rolls it is applied indiscriminately to the whole rustic population of certain hundreds in a way which can hardly be explained unless by artificial extension. Heriot, the surrender of the best horse or ox, is also considered as the common incident of villein tenure, although, of course, its very name proves its intimate connexion with the outfit of soldiers (here-geatu). Economically the institution of villenage was bound ap with the manorial organization—that is, with the fact that the country was divided into a number of districts in which central home farms were cultivated by the help of work supplied by villein households. The most important of villein services is the week-work per-formed by the peasantry. Every virgater or holder of a bovate has to send a labourer to do work on the lord's farm for some days in the week. Three days is indeed the most common standard for service of this kind, though four or even five occur sometimes; as well as two. It must be borne in mind in the case of heavy charges, such as four or five days' week-work, that only one labourer from the whole holding is meant, while generally there were several men living on every holding—otherwise the service of five days would be impossible to perform. In the course of these three days, or whatever the number was, many requirements of the demesne had to be met. The principal of these was ploughing the fields belonging to the lord, and for such ploughing the peasant had not only to appear personally as a labourer, but to bring his oxen and plough, or rather to join with his oxen and plough in the work imposed on the village: the heavy, costly plough with a team of eight oxen had to be made up by several peasants contributing their beasts and implements towards its composition. In the same way the villagers had to go through the work of harrowing with their harrows, and of removing the harvest in their vans and carts. Carriage duties in carts and on horseback were also apportioned according to the time they took as a part of the week-work. Then came innumerable varieties of manual work for the erection and keeping up of hedges, the preservation of dykes, canals and ditches, the threshing and garnering of corn, the tending and shearing of sheep and so forth. All this hand-work was reckoned according to customary standards as day-work and week-work. But besides all these services into which the regular week-work of the peasantry was differentiated, stood some additional duties. The ploughing for the lord, for instance, was not only imposed in the shape of a certain number of days in the week, but took sometimes the shape of a certain number of acres which the village had to plough and to sow for the lord irrespectively of the time employed on it. This was sometimes termed gafolearth. Exceedingly burdensome services were required in the seasons when farming processes are, as it were, at their height—in the seasons of mowing and reaping, when every day is of special value and the working power of the farm hands is strained to the utmost. At that time it was the custom to call up the whole able-bodied population of the manor, with the exception of the housewives for two, three or more days of mowing and reaping on the lord's fields; to these boon-works the peasantry was asked or invited by special summons, and their value was so far appreciated that the villagers were usually treated ha meals in cases where they were again and again called off from their own fields to the demesne. The liberality of the lord actually went so far, in exceptionally hard straits, that some ale was served to the labourers to keep them in good humour. In the 14th century this social arrangement, based primarily on natural economy and on the feudal disruption of society, began to give way. The gradual spread of intercourse rendered unnecessary the natural husbandry of former times' which sought to produce a complete set of goods in every separate locality. Instead of acting as a little world by itself for the raising of corn, the breeding of cattle, the gathering of wool, the weaving of linen and common cloths, the fabrication of necessary implements of all kinds, the local group began to buy some of these goods and to sell some others, renouncing isolation and making its destiny dependent on commercial intercourse. Instead of requiring from its population all kinds of work and reducing its ordinary occupations to a hard-and-fast routine meeting in a slow and unskilled manner all possible contingencies, the local group began to move, to call in workmen from abroad for tasks of a special nature, and to send its own workmen to look out for profitable employment in other places. Instead of managing the land by the constant repetition of the sameprocesses, by a customary immobility of tenure and service, by communalistic restrictions on private enterprise and will, local society began to try improvements, to escape from the bounds of champion farming. Instead of producing and collecting goods for immediate consumption, local society came more and more into the habit of exchanging corn, cattle, cloth, for money, and of laying money by as a means of getting all sorts of exchangeable goods, when required. In a word, the time of commercial, contractual, cash intercourse was coming fast. What was exceptional and subsidiary in feudal times came to obtain general recognition in the course of the 14th and 15th centuries, and, for this very reason, assumed a very different aspect. A similar transformation took place in regard to government. The local monarchy of the manorial lords was fast giving way to a central power which maintained its laws, the circuits of its judges, the fiscal claims of its exchequer, the police interference of its civil officers all through the country, and, by prevailing over the franchises of manorial lords, gave shape to a vast dominion of legal equality and legal protection, in which the forces of commercial exchange, of contract, of social intercourse, found a ready and welcome sphere of action. In truth both processes, the economic and the political one, worked so much together that it is hardly possible to say which influenced the other more, which was the cause and which the effect. Government grew strong because it could draw on a society which was going ahead in enterprise and well-being; social intercourse progressed because it could depend on a strong government to safeguard it. If we now turn to the actual stages by which this momentous passage from the manorial to the commercial arrangement was achieved, we have to notice first of all a rapid development of contractual relations. We know that in feudal law there ran a standing contrast between tenure by custom—villein tenure—and tenure by contract—free tenure. While the manorial system was in full force this contrast led to a classification of holdings and affected the whole position of people on the land. Still, even at that time it might happen that a freeholder owned some land in villenage by the side of his free tenement, and that a villein held some land freely by agreement with his lord or with a third person. But these cases, though by no means infrequent, were still. exceptional. As a rule people used land as holdings, and those were rigidly classified as villein or free tenements. The interesting point to be noticed is that, without any formal break, leasing land for life and for term of years is seen to be rapidly spreading from the end of the 13th century, and numberless small tenancies are created in the 14th century which break up the disposition of the holdings. From the close of the 13th century downwards countless transactions on the basis of leases for terms of years occur between the peasants themselves, any ,suit-ably kept set of 14th-century court rolls containing entries in which such and such a villein is said to appear in the halimote and to surrender for the use of another person named a piece of land belonging to the holding. The number of years and the conditions of payment are specified. Thus; behind the screen of the normal shares a number of small tenancies arise which run their economic concerns independently from the cumbersome arrangements of tenure and service; and, needless to adds. all these tenancies are burdened with money rents. Another series of momentous changes took place in the arrangement of services. Even the manorial system admitted the buying off for money of particular dues in kind and of specific performance of work. A villein might be allowed to bring a penny instead of bringing a chicken or to pay a rent instead of appearing with his oxen three times a week on the lord's fields. Such rents were called mal or mail in contrast with the gafol, ancient rents which had been imposed rodes pendently, apart from any buying off of customary services. There were even whole bodies of peasants called Molmen, because they had bought off work from the lord by settling with hills on the basis of money rents. As time went on these practices of commutation became more and more frequent. There were, for both sides, many advantages in arranging their mutual relations on this basis. The lord, mstead of clumsy work, got clear money, a much-coveted means of satisfying needs and wishes of any kind—instead of cumbrous performances which did not come always at the proper moment, were carried out in a half-hearted manner, yielded no immediate results, and did not admit of convenient rearrangement. The peasant got rid of a hateful drudgery which not only took up his time and means in an unprofitable manner, but placed him under the rough control and the arbitrary discipline of stewards or reeves and gave occasion to all sorts of fines and extortions. With the growth of intercourse and security money became more frequent and the number of such transactions increased in proportion. But it must be kept in mind that the con-version of services into rents went on very gradually, as a series of private agreements, and that it would be very wrong to suppose, as some scholars have done, that it had led to a general commutation by the middle or even the end of the 14th century. The 14th century was marked by violent fluctuations in the demand and supply of labour, and particularly the tremendous loss in population occasioned in the middle of this century by the Black Death called forth a most serious crisis. No wonder that many lords clung very tenaciously to customary services, and ecclesiastical institutions seem to have been especially backward in going over to the system of money rents. There is evidence to show, for instance, that the manors of the abbey of Ramsey were managed on the system of enforced labour right down to the middle of the 15th century, and, of course, survivals of these customs in the shape of scattered services lived on much longer. A second drawback from the point of view of the landlords was called forth by the fact that commutation for fixed rents gradually lessened the value of the exactions to which they were entitled. Money not only became less scarce but it became cheaper, so that the couple of pence for which a day of manual work was bought off in the beginning of the 13th century did not fetch more than half of their former value at its end. As quit rents were customary and not rack rents, the successors of those who had redeemed their services were gaining the whole surplus in the value of goods and labour as against money, while the successors of those who had commuted their right to claim services for certain sums in money lost all the corresponding difference. These inevitable consequences came to be perceived in course of time and occasioned a backward tendency towards services in kind which could not prevail against the general movement from natural economy to money dealings, but was strong enough to produce social friction and grave disturbances. The economic crisis of the 14th century has its complement in the legal crisis of the 5th. At that time the courts of law begin to do away with the denial of protection to villeins which, as we have seen, constituted the legal basis of villenage. This is effected by the recognition of copyhold tenure (see COPYHOLD). It is a fact of first-rate magnitude that in the 15th century customary relations on one hand, the power of government on the other, ripened, as it were, to that extent that the judges of the king began to take cognizance of the relations of the peasants to their lords. The first cases which occur in this sense are still treated not as a matter of common law, but as a manifestation of equity. As doubtful questions of trust, of wardship, of testamentary succession, they were taken up not in the strict course of justice, but as matters in which redress was sorely needed and had to be brought by the exceptional power of the court of chancery. But this interference of 15th-century chancellors paved the way towards one of the greatest revolutions in the law; without formally enfranchising villeins and villein tenure they created a legal basis for it in the law of the realm: in the formula of copyhold—tenement held at the will of the lord and by the custom of the manor—the first part lost its significance and the second prevailed, in down-right contrast with former times when, on the contrary, the second part had no legal value and the first expressed the viewof the courts. One may almost be tempted to say that these obscure decisions rendered unnecessary in England the work achieved with such a flourish of trumpets in France by the emancipating decree of the 4th of August 1789. The personal condition of villenage did not, however, disappear at once with the rise of copyhold. It lingered through the 16th century and appears exceptionally even in the 17th. Deeds of emancipation and payments for personal enfranchisement are often noticed at that very time. But these are only survivals of an arrangement which has been destroyed in its essence by a complete change of economic and political conditions.

Additional information and Comments

There are no comments yet for this article.
» Add information or comments to this article.
Please link directly to this article:
Highlight the code below, right click and select "copy." Paste it into a website, email, or other HTML document.