Manorialism vs. Feudalism

Instructor: Cassie Beyer

Cassie holds a master's degree in history and has spent five years teaching history and the humanities from ancient times to the Renaissance.

The concepts of manorialism and feudalism heavily influenced medieval culture. One governed relationships among the nobles, while the other managed the economy of the manors that resulted from an exchange of land for military service.

Manorialism and Feudalism in the Middle Ages

Manorialism and feudalism were two frameworks on which European medieval culture was built. Manorialism was an economic structure which described how pieces of land were managed. It primarily concerned the common people of the time, the peasants, as they were the ones providing the labor on the land.

Feudalism was a social structure rooted in an exchange of land for military service. It was directed by the aristocracy, who were the landowners of the time. Land is the common element in both systems. Feudalism dictated how nobles gained it, while manorialism mapped out how that land was maintained by peasants.


In the Middle Ages, combat was the central way a man proved his greatness. Lords were considered to be great warriors and they had many other warriors supporting them. A lord gained warriors by granting land (or plunder, as was sometimes the case in the early Middle Ages) to those willing to fight on his behalf. These warriors became known as vassals, and they could gain their own vassals by granting some of their land to still more warriors. Thus, a person could be both a lord and a vassal. Lords commonly had many vassals, and vassals could have more than one lord, leading to a complex system of loyalties.

These arrangements eventually became hereditary. The son of a vassal had the right and the responsibility to enter into the same relationship with the lord as his father had done. Meanwhile, the son of the lord could expect vassals (and their descendants) to continue being loyal to him after the death of his father.

Eventually, vassals no longer had to perform military service themselves. Instead, they might hire more common soldiers to fight in their stead, or they might provide payment so the lord could purchase soldiers himself.

Land became the primary source of wealth in the Middle Ages. It provided the necessities of life as well as materials that could be sold for profit. One could not live the life of a nobleman without land. Indeed, one could not even fulfill his military duties without considerable income to pay for the expensive weaponry of a skilled warrior.


The land granted by a lord was called a fief , also known as a manor. The vassal could do as he pleased with this land. Most often it was kept in farmland, but it could also include such things as forests (which provided valuable timber) and mineral deposits that could be mined.

A portion of the land was set aside as the demesne (pronounced like 'domain'). This land was used to directly benefit the lord of the manor. The rest of the lands were divided among the local peasants. They worked this land as if it was their own, but in return they had to also work the demesne land for their lord. Thus, the lord got the resources he needed for his livelihood and lifestyle, while landless peasants received access to enough land in order to support themselves.

Many of these peasants were serfs, meaning they were not free. While they were not slaves per se, they did not have the right to leave the lord's employment or even leave the area temporarily without permission.

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