Medieval Society

Before the Norman Conquest, laws, boundaries and land ownership were pretty well defined under the Saxons. South of the Humber, England was divided into shires and further divided into sections of land called hundreds. Both Bishop’s Stortford and Thorley were recorded as lying in the Braughing Hundred.

The term ‘hundred’ had been established long before it first appeared in the laws of King Edmund (939–946) and was, primarily, a unit of measure used by local government to assess the liability of the shire for taxation purposes and military draft. The Normans later split the land into counties (a French term), but shire continued in popular use and remains to this day – as in Hertfordshire. The term ‘hundred’ remained in use until the 19th century.

The Hundred was further divided into 100 hides, one hide generally measuring 120 acres, but this could vary from district to district as the acre was no exact measurement. Hides were then divided into boroughs, intermediate boroughs, manors and parishes.

In 1086, twenty years after the Conquest, King William wanted to know exactly what his new realm consisted of, basically for taxation purposes, and commissioned the Domesday Book. It was a survey of England, known to contemporaries as The Survey of England. Domesday quite simply means: ‘When men face the record from which there is no appeal.’

This is the entry in the Victoria County History for Hertfordshire describing what Maurice, Bishop of London, held at the time of Domesday Book.

In Brachings (Braughing) Hundred, the same bishop holds Storteford. It is assessed at 6 hides. There is land for 10 ploughs. In the demesne are 4 1/2 hides, and on it are 2 ploughs and there could be a third. There are six villeins with 8 bordars have four ploughs between them and there could be three more. A priest, two knights and 12 cottars are there, and two mills worth 30 shillings. Meadow is there sufficient for 1 plough team and woodland to feed 300 swine. Its total value is and was 8 pounds. T.R.E. 10 pounds. This manor Edith the Fair held, and it is part of the fee which Bishop William bought.’
(T.R.E. refers to the time of King Edward the Confessor when the land was valued at 10 pounds)

In England, virtually all towns and villages that exist today have their roots in Saxon ownership of land, termed as manors. But manors were not native to England. The origins of Manorialism stem from 5th and 6th century Europe and the final years of the Roman Empire.

Civil disorder, weak governments and barbarian invasions forced powerful landowners to consolidate their hold over their land, as well as those who worked for them. Farmers, labourers and the poor, willingly exchanged their freedom and pledged their services in return for the protection the landowner offered. It was an arrangement that would later support the feudal system – a social system of rights and duties based solely on land tenure and personal relationships with overlords.

The feudal system was brought to this country in 1066 by the Normans, and though they purchased many manors from the Saxons legitimately, a far greater number were forcibly taken and granted by King William to knights and Norman nobility (Thorley is a good example of this). The King was lord of the entire realm with numerous levels of lords below him, and below them, the occupying tenants and peasantry known as free and unfree.

In feudal society, free tenants came in two categories. First: tenure in chivalry. This was a grant of land, known as a fief (meaning property or service charge), made to a lord or a knight making him beholding to a higher lord (the overlord of the manor or the king), either by grand sergeanty or knight service. Sergeanty involved performing an honourable or personal service, while knight service generally entailed military duties.

The land granted, usually with unfree tenants attached to it, varied in size from large estates to just a few acres, but generally a fief needed between 15–30 peasant families to maintain the manor household. By the middle of the 12th century, knight services and sergeanty were commuted to payment instead, known as scutage. The other type of free tenure was the spiritual tenure of the Church, its only obligation being to pray for the souls of the grantor (lord) and his heirs.

The predominant form of tenure was villeinage, otherwise known as socage or unfree, which was basically a modified form of servitude. Villeins (serfs or bondsmen) each held a hut or small dwelling, a fixed acreage and a share of meadowland. Below villeins were cottars, whose duty to the lord was more menial and who were allowed to farm no more than five acres.

Unlike free tenants a villein’s services to the lord was obligatory and always predetermined. He paid rent for his holding, along with his labour and an amount of produce from his land – usually one tenth – known as tithes. He paid dearly in labour, being expected not only to plough and farm his own land but also the lord’s land – the demesne. He had to do all that was required of him until his allotted number of day’s labour each year had been fulfilled.

A villein held his land entirely at the will of the lord and could be ejected at any time. He, however, could not quit the manor without the lord’s permission and, if he did, the lord could reclaim him. A villein was deprived, by law, of the right to own property although there were some limitations as to his treatment by the lord, protected as he was by the custom of the manor as interpreted by the manor courts. Tenure in villienage became known as copyhold, meaning cultivation of his land was termed as an occupation at the pleasure of the lord.

A typical manor (like Thorley Manor) was made up of cottages, peasants’ huts and barns, all of which combined to form a small village. Close by would usually be a church and perhaps a mill, but dominating all of this would be the lord’s manor house inhabited by him or his steward if he owned more than one manor.

The village would have been surrounded by arable land, with three or more fields farmed in yearly rotation and meadows used for the supply of hay and for pasture. Most would include forest or woodland for livestock and possibly a fishery. The lord of the manor would hold a sizable part of this land as his demesne, the remainder inhabited and farmed by free and unfree tenants under his control.

The manor house itself was generally an informal mix of timber or stone buildings consisting of the hall, chapel, kitchen and farm buildings, and most were encircled by a defensive stockade, ditch or moat. In the 12th century the hall was the major element of the house usually placed, defensively, at first floor level. Later it was planned at ground floor level with the lord’s private living accommodation at one end and service rooms at the other. The hall was used for social gatherings and entertainment but, most importantly, it was generally where the yearly or half yearly Courts Leet (Landowners court) was held.

The business of the manor court was divided into criminal, manorial and civil proceedings, the outcome for those who appeared before it dependent on what franchises the lord enjoyed in his position. Of a criminal nature, mostly petty offences were attended to by this court, with more serious crimes coming under the realm of a higher lord or the King. In Bishop’s Stortford’s case it was the Bishop of London. Trials of a criminal nature also included offences against the manor, such as poor ploughing or theft of wood from the lord’s forest.

Business matters included the choice of manorial officers, and the court had minor powers to implement regulations for the running of the manor. It also dealt with suits as to land within the manor, questions of inheritance and, occasionally, civil suits unconnected to the manor. Its main task, however, was recording the surrenders and admittances of villein tenants.

The reintroduction of a money economy in Europe and the growth of towns and cities in the 11th and 12th centuries, created a large market for the lords’ agricultural produce. It was this revival of commerce that eventually saw the decline of the large manorial systems. The system did, however, still survive in a localised economy where peasant farming was dominant.

The new prosperity of the lords also meant the end of the feudal system and the eventual freedom of peasants. It had become apparent that free workers, who paid rent or were paid wages, farmed far more efficiently and produced more profits for the landowner. With these changes in attitude, his tenure became occupation by right and he was then a free man who paid rent in lieu of service. Not until 1926 did all copyhold land became freehold land, although the lords of manors retained mineral and sporting rights.

With their increased wealth towards the end of the Middle Ages, lords desired to live in more commodious accommodation and many 16th century manor houses evolved into elaborate country houses. Tudor and Elizabethan mansions are a perfect example of the change to a more formal era (See Hadham Hall). These were usually built on the quadrangle plan and the manorial hall soon became of less importance, eventually diminishing in size until it became nothing more than the entrance to the house. This is why when we open our front doors, we enter the hall.