These complex arrangements directly involved only the governing class who fought on horseback as mounted knights and whose fiefs consisted of landed property known as manors or estates. Even if we include their dependents, the total would hardly reach 10 percent of the population of Europe. Most of the other 90 percent of the people worked the land.
In late Roman times, as we have seen, the large estate, owned by a magnate and worked by tenant farmers, had been called a latifundium. The tenant farmers, or coloni, were often descendants of small landowners who had turned over their holdings to the magnate in exchange for a guarantee of protection and a percentage of the crop. While the coloni were not slaves, they could not leave the ground they cultivated, nor could their children.
Though conditions varied widely, we are not far wrong if we think of the late Roman latifundium becoming the medieval manor and the late Roman coloni becoming the medieval serfs. The medieval manor usually produced only what was needed to feed its own population. The oldest method of cultivation was the two-field system, alternating crops and fallow so that fertility could be recovered.
Later, especially in grain-producing areas, a three-field system was devised—one field for spring planting, one for autumn planning, and the third lying fallow. Elsewhere—in the mountains, in wine-growing areas, in the “Celtic fringes” of Brittany and Wales, and in the new areas of pioneer settlement in Eastern lands—there were many variant agricultural techniques and social arrangements. Here, as so often, there was no “typical” medieval way.
On the manor, oxen had originally pulled the plow, but the invention of the horse collar and the use of horseshoes helped make it possible to substitute horses for oxen. So did the increasing use of tandem harnessing, enabling the horses to work in single file instead of side by side. A heavy-wheeled plow also made its appearance in advanced areas.
The pattern of agricultural settlement varied from region to region. Insofar as a “typical” manor existed, each of its peasant families had holdings, usually scattered long strips of land in the large open fields. In theory this gave each family a bit of the good arable land, a bit of the less good land, a bit of woodland, and so on. The strips might be separated from each other by narrow, unplowed balks, but there were no fences, walls, or hedges.
The lord of the manor had his own strips, his demesne (perhaps a quarter to a third of the land), reserved for the production of the food that he and his household needed. It was understood that the peasants had to work this demesne land for the lord, often three days a week throughout the year, except perhaps in harvest time, when the lord could command their services until his crops were safely in the barns.
When a serf died, his son made the lord a payment (heriot) to inherit his father’s right to cultivate the family strips. In exchange for permission to pasture their beasts in the lord’s meadows, the serfs might perform other duties. They often had to dig ditches or maintain roads. They paid to have their grain ground at the lord’s mill and their bread baked in his oven. They could not marry or allow their daughters to marry outside the manor without the lord’s permission and usually the payment of a fine (merchet). They and their children descended with the land to the lord’s heirs.
Undoubtedly the bulk of the hours of labor on the manor went directly into farming, mostly grain farming. But some of the manor’s inhabitants were also craftsmen, such as blacksmiths or tanners, and they, too, cultivated their own plots of land. Each manor had at least one church of its own, with its priest. If the lord was a great lord, he might have several priests, including his own chaplain for the household and a village priest for the local church.
The organization of the countryside by manors developed earliest in eastern France and in parts of Italy and Germany. Still, even at its height, it did not include some parts of these and other European countries. In the large areas where manorialism did prevail, the old Roman landlord’s economic power over his tenants had fused with the traditional Germanic village chief’s political power and with the governing rights that the lord received with his fief.
Custom prevailed in the lord’s court of justice, where he or his steward sat in judgment on the serf-tenants, enforcing the traditional rules of the village community. The deep respect for custom often tended to prevent the lord’s extorting more work from his serfs or more food than they traditionally owed him. But they had nowhere to appeal when the lord was oppressive.
By no means were all the peasants on every manor serfs, however. Some of them were freemen, called franklins in England, who virtually owned the land they worked. And between the freemen and the serfs there were probably always landless laborers who were not tied to the land as serfs, and peasants with dues so light that they were almost freemen.
The manor was not usually completely self-sufficient. Only rarely could the manorial forge have produced all the plowshares and other implements for farming and all the weapons needed for defense, the manorial quarry all the stone, its forests all the lumber needed for building, and its fields and its animals everything necessary to eat or to wear. At least the iron that went into implements had to be bought, and often such luxuries as furs or salt or occasional spices had to be bought also. The manor, then, had surpluses and deficiencies that gave it the motivation and the means for trade with outsiders.
Slavery also existed. All Germanic law codes prescribed enslavement as a penalty for many delicts (violations of laws or rights. We have evidence that slavery was relatively commonplace, especially in Spain, Italy, and the eastern Mediterranean. The church recognized that slaves had souls, so it would intervene to some extent to protect slaves; but the church was often a major slaveholder itself and generally resisted movements for emancipation.
However, slaves could be freed, thus adding to the ranks of freemen. We have no reliable figures on the numbers of slaves or the extent of slavery, though it is believed that slavery declined after the collapse of the Roman Empire and was at its low point in the ninth century.