The Decline of Serfdom in Late Medieval England

The Decline of Serfdom in Late Medieval England: From Bondage to Freedom

Mark Bailey
Copyright Date: 2014
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 320
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7722/j.ctt3fgn5m
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    The Decline of Serfdom in Late Medieval England
    Book Description:

    Scholars from various disciplines have long debated why western Europe in general, and England in particular, led the transition from feudalism to capitalism. The decline of serfdom between c.1300 and c.1500 in England is centralto this "Transition Debate", because it transformed the lives of ordinary people and opened up the markets in land and labour. Yet, despite its historical importance, there has been no major survey or reassessment of decline of serfdom for decades. Consequently, the debate over its causes, and its legacy to early modern England, remains unresolved. This dazzling study provides an accessible and up-to-date survey of the decline of serfdom in England, applying a new methodology for establishing both its chronology and causes to thousands of court rolls from 38 manors located across the south Midlands and East Anglia. It presents a ground-breaking reassessment, challenging many of the traditional interpretations of the economy and society of late-medieval England, and, indeed, of the very nature of serfdom itself. Mark Bailey is High Master of St Paul's School, and Professor of Later Medieval History at the University of East Anglia. He has published extensively on the economic and social history of England between c.1200 and c.1500, including Medieval Suffolk (2007).

    eISBN: 978-1-78204-228-0
    Subjects: History, Economics

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-v)
  3. List of Maps
    (pp. vi-vi)
  4. List of Graphs
    (pp. vi-vi)
  5. List of Tables
    (pp. vii-x)
  6. Acknowledgements
    (pp. xi-xi)
  7. Abbreviations
    (pp. xii-xii)
  8. Part I: The Decline of Serfdom:: Questions and Approaches

    • 1 The Decline of Serfdom and its Historical Significance
      (pp. 3-15)

      The vast majority of people in medieval England were rural dwellers who eked a living as peasant smallholders, landless labourers and petty traders. In c.1300 around one half of these people were ‘servile’, ‘villeins’, or ‘unfree’. These terms were used to describe peasants who were ‘bonded in some fashion to a lord or a particular piece of land. This tie was hereditary rather than merely contractual or temporary, and it placed the serf under the jurisdiction (and sometimes the arbitrary power) of the lords.’¹ This general condition, known as serfdom, was found throughout medieval Europe. Serfdom constrained the freedom of...

    • 2 The Chronology of Decline: Villein Tenures
      (pp. 16-36)

      Between c.1160 and c.1220 the development of the common law in England established that the title to land held on free tenure could be defended in the royal courts. Land held on tenures which did not have access to the (royal) courts of common law, and whose title was therefore entirely dependent upon the gift or the will of the manorial lord, were defined as unfree (also ‘customary’ or ‘villein’).¹ The villein, who held ‘unfree’ land, did possess a legal right to pursue other actions, such as debt and trespass, in the royal courts, and, in theory, these courts had...

    • 3 The Chronology of Decline: Servile Incidents
      (pp. 37-61)

      All sections of medieval English society were liable to render various payments and services to a superior lord, which either marked key moments in the life cycle of an individual or were associated with the terms of their landholding. The nobility and gentry paid aid upon the marriage of their lord’s eldest daughter, and were liable for military service; freemen paid relief upon entry to a landholding; and all but the poorest paid mortuary (a death duty) to the church. Villeins and villein tenures were also liable for a range of incidents, dues and services, but these differed from those...

    • 4 The Causes of Decline
      (pp. 62-84)

      In c.1300 around half of all peasant land in England, and half its rural population, were servile. This proportion could not subsequently rise, because the common law presented legal obstacles to any further enserfment of freemen and free tenures. The size of the English population was slashed by around 40% during the first outbreak of the Black Death in 1348–9, and remained stagnant for the next 150 years. Its size is estimated at 2.8 million people in 1377, and slightly lower in the 1520s.¹ Thus the number of serfs fell after 1348–9, and thereafter their proportion within the...

  9. Part II: Case Studies

    • 5 Reassessing the Decline of Serfdom: Methods and Sources
      (pp. 87-103)

      Part I explored how the decline of serfdom impacted upon the economic and social history of England, and then surveyed current opinion on the chronology and causes of its decline. Part II presents the fruit of new research into this subject. Thus, at one level, this section adds more local examples to the existing stock of knowledge. Yet, at another level, it attempts to go beyond previous research to provide more precision in the chronology and causes of decline by using a different methodology to those deployed in previous studies.

      This new approach proceeds from three simple assumptions. The first...

    • 6 Walsham-le-Willows
      (pp. 104-118)

      Walsham-le-Willows (Suffolk) is situated 13 miles north east of Bury St Edmunds, and in the fourteenth century it was split into three separate manors. The main manor was medium-sized, with an arable demesne of 350 acres, just over 200 acres of free land, and a sizeable but indeterminate area of customary land.¹ It was held by a succession of lay lords from the upper ranks of the gentry, although its exact descent is obscure and for periods it was held in trust.² The other two manors were small. High Hall was held by lesser gentry until its absorption into the...

    • 7 Merton College, Oxford
      (pp. 119-134)

      Merton College, Oxford, was established in 1262 and its estates were mainly scattered across the southern Midlands.¹ Two of the three manors in this case study were conventional demesne manors, but they were situated a considerable distance from one another. Cuxham (Oxfordshire) lies six miles north east of Wallingford, and twelve miles from Merton College itself, and the manor was small but dominated by its demesne and unfree holdings: there were few free tenures. Kibworth Harcourt (Leicestershire) was a large manor, but it was detached from the main estate and situated 12 miles south east of Leicester. Merton acquired both...

    • 8 Aldham
      (pp. 135-147)

      Aldham (Suffolk) was held continuously through the later Middle Ages by the de Vere earls of Oxford.¹ It formed part of a cluster of demesne manors in north Essex and south Suffolk, close to one of the earls’ principal residences at Castle Hedingham (Essex). As a medium-sized manor, with a high proportion of villein land and held continuously by a single aristocratic family, Aldham provides a good example of the type of manor where villeinage should have been strongly and conspicuously upheld.²

      In the early fourteenth century there were more than 200 acres of customary land at Aldham, organized into...

    • 9 Tingewick and Upper Heyford
      (pp. 148-168)

      Tingewick (Buckinghamshire) is situated six miles west of Buckingham, and it was held by a middling Norman monastery – the priory of St Faith, Longueville – until 1391 when it was acquired by New College, Oxford.¹ Upper Heyford (Oxfordshire) lies eight miles west of Bicester. In the first half of the fourteenth century it was part of the estate of Robert de Lisle, first Lord Rougemont, but from mid-century it was held jointly by his sister (Alice Seymour) and her husband. The reversion of the title to the manor was sold to New College in 1380, who duly acquired it...

    • 10 The Abbot of Bury St Edmunds
      (pp. 169-197)

      The abbey of Bury St Edmunds was one of the wealthiest and most renowned Benedictine monasteries in medieval England. Its extensive estates were scattered across East Anglia, but were mainly concentrated around the abbey in west Suffolk, where it also enjoyed additional judicial powers through the Liberty of St Edmund. Its landed endowment was internally subdivided between each of the abbey’s main obedientaries, who ran their allotted manors independently. The abbey of Bury St Edmunds is often depicted as a highly conservative landlord, whose relationship with its tenants was characterized by recurrent conflict.¹ Certainly, the strong presence of villeinage on...

    • 11 The Dukes of Norfolk
      (pp. 198-239)

      The Bigod earls of Norfolk acquired extensive lands within East Anglia soon after the Norman Conquest, which by the thirteenth century were administered from their splendid baronial seat at Framlingham (Suffolk).¹ In the fourteenth century the title eventually passed to the Mowbray family, and in 1397 earl Thomas Mowbray was elevated to become the first duke of Norfolk. The last Mowbray duke, John, died in 1476, and in 1483 the title and lands were bestowed upon the Howard family.

      This case study is based upon the substantial archive relating to three manors on this estate, and also upon F.G. Davenport’s...

    • 12 Miscellaneous manors
      (pp. 240-282)

      The final chapter of Part II considers the evidence for the decline of serfdom on 23 manors distributed across Buckinghamshire, Norfolk, Oxfordshire and Suffolk, i.e. the Category B manors described in Chapter Five. This category is mainly comprised of small- and medium-sized manors held by lower-status landlords. These were the most common types of manor in medieval England, but they rarely feature in academic studies, because their archives have seldom survived. The assessment of the decline of villeinage across a sample of such ubiquitous, but under-researched, manorial forms is essential if a balanced and representative picture of the processes of...

  10. Part III: Conclusions

    • 13 The Chronology of the Decline of Serfdom
      (pp. 285-306)

      Chapter 1 sketched how historians have come to regard serfdom as central to an understanding of the economy and society of late medieval England. Its decline is also regarded as central to an understanding of how and why England became the world’s first industrial society, because this was an essential prerequisite for the development of a free market in wage labour and the creation of capitalist farming. Yet, despite the subject’s importance, the issue of exactly when serfdom disappeared during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and why, has not been re-assessed for decades.

      There were two basic elements of villeinage...

    • 14 From Bondage to Freedom: Towards a Reassessment
      (pp. 307-338)

      The Black Death posed huge economic and social challenges as it moved across Europe between 1347 and 1353, but national and regional responses to it varied. It is widely held that plague had little impact initially on English society, due to two mutually reinforcing developments in the third quarter of the fourteenth century. First, landlords are assumed to have reacted to the shortages of tenants and labourers by re-imposing serfdom through a widespread ‘seigniorial reaction’. Second, landlords also benefited from the unexpected buoyancy of grain prices and rental incomes between c.1355 and c.1375, an ‘Indian Summer’ in which life on...

  11. Appendix: List of original sources used in this study
    (pp. 339-344)
  12. Chronology
    (pp. 345-346)
  13. Bibliography
    (pp. 347-358)
  14. Index
    (pp. 359-374)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 375-375)