The medieval countryside
The countryside of England would have looked very different from what we see today. Thick forest would have covered a lot of it containing dangerous wild animals such as wolves and boars. In clearings throughout the forest would have been the villages known as manors. In each manor the largest buildings would have been the church and the manor house. Life in the manor was fairly stable unlike the turbulent conditions of the King and Earls of the country who always seemed to be at war with each other or other countries
The manor could be described as the land owned by the lord and lived in by dependent farmers. The farmers who lived on the lord's land were allowed to do so in return for work they did. The majority of work being farming.
The Domesday book gives us an excellent record of numbers of people and amounts of land in England in 1085. William the Conqueror organised the book's creation to find out how much his new domains in England were worth and how much they could produce. This was useful information for raising taxes. It took several years to collate and involved many inspectors travelling around the country to gather the information.
Each entry in the book gives the name of the manor and the owner. It also includes the number of hides, number of ploughs, villeins, cottars, freemen and mills etc. A hide was roughly an area of land of about 120 acres but this could vary quite a bit. Another name for a hide is a caracute. To get an idea of the size of a hide, a modern football pitch is about 2 acres in size. Each hide was sub-divided into 'hundreds'. A 'hundred' being the amount of land required to support a hundred homes. These were then divided again into manors.
A community in medieval times consisted of a manor. This was usually arranged along a single street with the houses on each side. Behind the houses were fields, pasture and meadows that belonged to the manor. The manor was commonly situated by a stream used as a source of water and a source of power to drive a watermill. Woods provided a habitat for pigs and for hunting. The largest buildings in the manor were the church and manor house where the lord lived. Both the church and manor house were set back from the main street.
The ordinary people lived in wooden huts and later stone houses. The houses were small and had thatched rooves. As well as a home for a family the house could also be used as a shelter for animals and poultry. A cellar or pit was used to store grain. Although the people all worked togther in the fields they did not have the same status.
Most of the people who lived in the manor were known as the villeins. Villeins did not own their own land but were allocated land where they could grow their own food. The Villeins' main purpose was to work on the manor's farm two or three days a week. Ploughing was a common job and to do this they had to provide one or more oxen. Villeins also had to give their time for transporting food to markets or to the other manors that the lord owned. Villeins had to provide horses and carts and if they did not own these they needed to carry the goods themselves. At harvest time villeins had to provide extra services to ensure the food was gathered in. Whatever the villeins produced from their land went to feed themselves and to be sold at markets. They were also carpenters and blacksmiths and could become wealthy having servants of their own.
Villeins did not own their land and if the lord was not pleased with their conduct the family could be ejected from it. The villein did not have many rights under the law.
Cottars were one of the poorest groups in the community. They may have had a small amount of land but did not have enough to support themselves. Their food and lodgings were earned by doing work for others. Cottars only worked for the lord of the manor one day a week. The rest of the time they worked for the villeins.
The manor also had servants. Servants were used in the manor house by the lord and had the lowest status of all the people in the community. They had no means to support themselves and would have been provided food and lodgings for their work.
Some inhabitants of the manor were freemen or sokemen who owned their own land. Freemen were able to sell their land and move to another manor. Or they could transfer the land they owned to the protection of another lord. They may have done this if their current lord was putting too much demand on their services. Although Sokemen owned the land they lived on they were not allowed to sell it.
Watermills and windmills would have been a common sight in medieval villages and were used to grind the corn. The mills were owned by the Lord of the manor. Villeins were allowed to take their own corn to the mill for grinding but had to give some corn in payment for the service. Windmills were built on rotating bases so that they could be turned into the wind.
Dovecotes were buildings used to house and rear pigeons. In medieval times young pigeon meat was eaten as a delicacy. The pigeons were also kept for their eggs and their feathers. Most dovecotes are circular in shape and could hold several hundred birds. The buildings were designed to keep out rodents which could eat the eggs. The dovecotes may not have been popular with the villeins as the birds would eat their corn.
Ten percent (a tenth) of what the villages produced was given to the church. The produce was stored in a barn called a tithe barn. The church would use some of this food to distribute to the poor and to feed the sick.
The main purpose of the manor was to grow food for the survival of the people who lived in it. In medieval times most people did not live in towns. They lived on the land and grew their own food. Although the lord owned all of the land in the manor he kept part of it for himself to grow food for himself and his family. This land was called the demense. The land was farmed by the tenants of the manor. Any food left over would have gone to other manors owned by the lord or to be sold at markets. The manor house was built on the dememse and was the heart of the community.
It is thought that medieval people following a system now known as the 'open-field' system. Surrounding every village was an area of land set aside for growing crops. This land could be divided into either two or three roughly equal areas. Where two areas were used, one was used for crops and the other lay fallow, meaning it was left without any seeds being sown so that the soil could recover for the next year's crop. Where three areas were available, one was left fallow while the other two were used for crops that needed harvesting at different times of the year. Each area of land was divided up into strips which were shared out amongst the inhabitants of the village. Villagers would spend several days a week tending to their own strips and spend the other days tending to the strips owned by the Lord of the Manor.
Wheat was the main crop that medieval people grew. The grain it produced was not only used for making bread but was also used in the production of ale, the most common drink consumed in medieval times. In many places water was not safe to drink and ale was a good substitute. The amount of wheat a medieval village produced was much less than an equal area of land would produce in modern times. Hay was also grown as the oxen and horses used to pull the ploughs also needed feeding.
Important people in the manor
The lord of the manor was the most important person but there were officials who were given high status roles. Three of these officials were the seneschal, the bailiff and the reeve. Without these officials the manor could not function. The role of the seneschal was to administer the affairs of all of the manors that the lord owned. He ensured that the lord was being treated correctly and the amounts of produce each manor was giving to the lord was correct and that none was being stolen. Although the seneschal had an important role he could not punish wrongdoers without the lord's permission. The seneschal could not be in every manor at one time so he had to delegate some of the day-to-day responsibilites. Looking after the day-to-day matters was the bailiff.
Each manor had a bailiff and a reeve. The bailiff ensured the required jobs of the manor were being done. He checked the ploughers did their work correctly and their animals were well cared for. He made sure the crops were sown at the right time and that surplus food was taken to market. The role of the reeve was to supervise the workers and take responsibility when things went wrong. The reeve was elected by the villeins of the manor and defend their rights.
Each manor would have had skilled craftsmen; carpenters, wheelwrights and blacksmiths. The hayward had to make sure the animals in the village did not stray too far or start eating the crops.
Generally Self Sufficient
Generally the manor was self sufficient, meaning it could grow enough food and supply all the needs for the people within it. Any luxuries would have been bought at the larger fairs located in nearby towns or from travelling traders. For more information on markets and fairs, see the Markets and Fairs page.
Some manors specialised in certain products. A mining community would have concentrated on producing iron ore, for example, and may not have been able to grow all the food they needed so they would have traded their iron for the supplies they were short of. If the manor was too isolated problems arose when the weather was bad throughout the year. If the crops failed it was likely to cause a famine. There does not appear to have been a way of storing surplus food from good years to be used in bad years.
The people ate a simple diet during the medieval period, mostly vegetables and oatmeal. Cabbage, onions, beans and leeks were common, and were eaten when they were in season. Storage of food was limited as medieval people had few options to store food without it going off. The most common meat in the medieval village was pork as pigs were easy to keep. They tended to look after themselves, foraging for roots and acorns in the woods. The pig carcass not only provided meat, it also provided fat that could be used for candles and it's blood could be used in cooking. Little was wasted. Fish in the diet was also common and to provide a fresh supply many manors had a fish pond constructed. Some simple dairy products would have been available if the manor had cattle or sheep. A bakery would supply freshly baked bread.
Salt was a highly prized ingredient in cooking during the medieval period. It had to be imported into the village from salt marshes in other parts of the country were it was produced and could be costly. Salt was important for the storage of meat to prevent it rotting.
Large amounts of forest were cut down in medieval times as wood was required for fuel, building castles, churches, homes and ships. The reduction of woodland became so great that conservation methods were required. Coppicing was a method they used to preserve the trees while still taking what they needed from them. The idea behind coppicing is to cut back young trees so that many smaller offshoots are produced. These offshoots were then harvested every few years. With the reduction in wood other fuels were needed. One of these was coal.
In medieval times coal was mined and used in the production of iron. Most of the coal was mined in open-cast mines where the coal seams were easily found above or just below the surface of the land. When the easily mined coal began to run out people turned to seacoal. The name seacoal is thought to have been used because the coal was found washed up on beaches but this seems unlikely. Lead iron ore and tin were also mined in medieval times.