Post-classical history

Country Life in the Middle Ages

THE people of the Middle Ages would have thought it exceedingly strange for one man to ask another the price of a piece of land, pay for it, and then call it his own. As a general thing, they obtained land in quite a different fashion. The theory was that the king owned the whole country. But he could not cultivate it all, or even defend it with his single sword. Therefore he gave the use of large districts to his chief men. Each man, when he received a share, knelt before the king with uncovered head, laid his hands in those of his sovereign, and vowed to be his man and to serve him faithfully. Then the king kissed his vassal, or liegeman, and gave him a bit of turf and a twig to indicate that he was to hold the land and what grew upon it. Often when land was granted to a man, he was required to make a small payment of money or produce. This was not rent, but merely an acknowledgment that the property was not his, but his lord's. It was sometimes nothing more than a measure of grain, or a fish or two from some river flowing through the land. In 1492, a piece of land in Newcastle-on-Tyne, was granted on condition that a red rose be paid every midsummer day, if it should be called for.

The service that the king wanted for his grants was almost always service in war. When there was need of fighting, he had a right to call out his vassal to fight for him. But every vassal divided his land into portions and gave it to people who were his vassals and had vowed to be faithful to him. Therefore when the king needed men he called out his vassals, the great nobles. They called out their vassals, and these vassals called out those who were under them; and all had to go forth to do battle. This was the feudal system. It was a sort of endless chain, except that it did finally come to an end in the manor, or village. Exactly how it arose is still a subject of great dispute.



The early manor usually consisted of one house of fair size, perhaps even a castle, and, gathered around it, a number of little cottages. These were thatched with straw and had generally only one room. The large house was the abode of the lord of the manor, and the little houses were the homes of his tenants. Some of these were called "free" tenants, and they generally paid in money for the use of the land and the protection of their lord. The others were called serfs, or villeins, from the word vill, meaning village. They paid some rent in money or in fowls or produce, and they also had to spend a goodly share of their time, sometimes as much as half of it, working on the land which the lord reserved for himself. The lord of a manor always had a list of the tenants, called an "extent," which stated what each one was bound to pay and what work he must do. For instance, on one manor a man who had a cottage and an acre of land had to pay at the feast of Saint Michael threepence, 3 and at Christmas a cock and a hen worth threepence. Another, who had only a little piece of land, had to bring to his lord one goose, worth twopence, every year. The labour varied greatly in kind and in amount. One man, among other sorts of work, had to provide "a cart and three animals of his own," and carry wood from the forest to the manor house two days every summer. This was worth ninepence, but his lord was to give him three meals worth twopence, halfpenny each. Twice every summer he was to carry half a load of grain; but his meals in this case were not to be so extravagant, for they were to be worth only twopence each.



The arable land of the manor was divided into three or more great fields. One field was planted with wheat or rye, another with oats or peas or barley, and the third field lay fallow for a season. The next year the arrangement was changed about, and thus every field had its rotation of crops and its year of rest. These lands were divided among the tenants in what seems now a strange fashion. They were marked off into strips, usually forty rods long and four rods wide, and instead of a tenant's having a field to himself, he had a certain number of strips. Moreover, these were not together, but were scattered, one or two in a place. Even the lord's land was generally scattered in the same way.

The villeins were not allowed to leave the manor; and if it passed into the hands of another owner, they went with it as the oxen or the houses did. And even if a man wished to run away, where could he go? The whole country was divided into manors. Each one had its own tenants, and there was seldom room for any new ones. There was no work by which one could earn his bread. For a long while there was only one way by which a boy could escape from the manor life, and that was by becoming a priest. If he wished to be a priest, and showed that he had the ability, his lord had to let him go free.



Farm work was exceedingly hard in those days, for the implements were rude and clumsy. The ploughs, for instance, were made of wood and were so heavy that eight oxen were needed to draw them. The manor life could not have been very agreeable, but it had one great advantage, it was safe, for the lord was bound to protect his tenants, and in those days of strife and disorder it was a great thing to have protection. Indeed, it often happened that, for the sake of being protected a free man would go of his own accord to some powerful noble and offer to become his vassal.

Between the eleventh and the thirteenth centuries, many knights went on crusades, or warlike expeditions to try to rescue the Holy Land from the Mohammedans. These knights required large sums of money, and they allowed many of their tenants to pay their rent in money instead of work. Sometimes they would even let them have a piece of land. This made the villeins feel a little more independent; but until after the battles of Crécy and Poitiers it did not occur to them that they were well able to protect themselves with their own weapons. They had supposed that to be an efficient soldier it was necessary to have a horse and armour, and to be trained as a knight; but these two battles were won by men who had no armour and no swords, but only their bows and arrows.

Two or three years after the battle of Crécy, a terrible disease known as the Black Death swept over the land. So many villeins died that now a man could find plenty of work at good wages wherever he chose to go. Moreover, if he did not wish to work on a manor, he could live in a city if he chose, for fine wool weaving had been introduced from Flanders and he could easily earn his living as a weaver.

Thus, little by little the old way of living on manors was given up, and the feudal system gradually disappeared. In a few places in Europe, however, the ground is still cultivated in great fields wherein each person holds one or more strips; and in the little town of Manheim, in Pennsylvania, there is some land that is held by a sort of feudal tenure. It was given by a wealthy baron a century and a half ago as a site for a church, and the rental was to be, as in the case of the land in Newcastle, "one red rose, payable in June, when the same shall be lawfully demanded." Twice the baron asked for the rose, and then the old custom was forgotten until it was revived a few years ago. Now one day in every June is set apart for the payment of the rose to some descendant of the baron. There is always a pleasant little celebration. Then, after the music and the addresses in the church, the people present all walk past the chancel, each one laying down a red rose as he passes. The roses are afterward gathered up and carried to the sick folk in some hospital.

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