My previous blogs have talked very much about the lords and ladies of the manor, so it now seems like a good time to talk about some of the other people in the manor. I have been trying to think of an appropriate metaphor, and the famous sketch from the Frost Report in the 1960s keeps coming to mind. You know the one, with John Cleese, Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett: I look down on him, I look up at and him and down on him, etc. It is obviously about class, and although it might seem simplistic to say so, I do think our attitudes towards class do ultimately stem from our manorial past.
The lord of the manor was obviously the John Cleese character looking down on everybody else. The middle class, Ronnie Barker character in the manor would what was known as a free man or sokeman, who would later be known as a freeholder or a free tenants. He would have been able to dispose of his property as he wished without interference from the lord and was largely exempt from the restrictions imposed and services demanded by the lord from his other tenants. It does not mean that he was not entirely free, as he was still required to publicly declare his loyalty to their lord, attend the manorial courts and pay a very small amount of rent. He would usually be an important person within the local community, holding enough land to provide a relatively comfortable living for himself and his family. In later centuries he would become one of the class that became the ‘Yeomen of England’, the backbone of the country.
Now, the Ronnie Corbett character who looked up at both of them (and got a crick in his neck) was known as a villein. The word ‘villein’ ultimately derives from the Latin ‘villanus’, a man of the vill (or town), and originally a neutral term. It came, after the Norman Conquest, to indicate someone who was tied to the manor, occupying plots of land which he worked for himself and his family but subject to the demands and dictates of the lord. There were more limits on his personal rights, and he needed the permission of his lord to do certainly things, such as leave the manor or marry off his children, which he would usually have to pay for as well. Over time he would become known as a copyholder or customary tenant, with less restrictions on his personal freedoms.
The word ‘villain’ comes from the same source, and was used initially as a term of abuse to indicate uneducated people of low birth. The subtle change in its use, suggesting an element of criminality and bad character, happened many years before the time of Shakespeare and his cast of proper villains, such as Iago and Richard III.
There are actually lots of different words that correspond to ‘villein’. One such word, ‘bondsman’, which indicates someone who is bound to a superior in some way, or put another way, someone in bondage (not that kind!). James Bond the spy is, of course, a fictional character, but his creator borrowed the name from a real James Bond, an ornithologist who was an expert on the birds of the Caribbean. Although I don’t know the origins of this particular Bond, it is entirely possible that the surname indicates his ancestor’s English medieval agrarian roots. On the edges of the manorial system there were also people called bordars and cottars, who were essentially agricultural labourers, who generally had less land from which to eke out a living for themselves. Even among the villein class it was possible to look down at someone!
One thing which needs to be said is that the people of the manor did not necessarily fit into the neat stereotypes of the TV sketch. People’s individual fortunes could, and did, fluctuate, just as now. A freeholder could lose his land through bad personal management of his lands and end up with nothing, whereas a villein could work hard, build up his lands and eventually make himself free of the lord’s control. Advantage could also be taken of the lord and his steward who might not always keep themselves up to the mark with what his tenants were really up to. Major events such as wars, famine and plague epidemics, affected the lives of those in the manor, and although they hit people hard, they did create opportunties for some to make better lives. An example of this would be the Black Death of 1349-1350 almost halved the population, obviously devastating communities but providing opportunities for the survivors, as lords found that they had to be much more flexible with their tenants in the face of massive labour shortages.