What Is Manorialism? - Definition & System

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  • 0:03 Medieval Manors
  • 1:04 Definition of Manorialism
  • 2:32 Variations of Manorialism
  • 3:53 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In the medieval world, everything revolved around owning land. In this lesson, we'll talk about the economic system of manorialism and see what this meant for medieval life.

Medieval Manors

'Manners maketh man.' Have you ever heard this quote about the importance of etiquette? It was true centuries ago, and to some, it may even be true today. But 'manners' weren't the only important thing in medieval society. The saying could just as easily have been 'manors maketh man.' In medieval times, manors were the foundation of many societies.

A manor, in the medieval sense, was a large chunk of land that a person legally owned and that granted certain political rights as a result. It's important for us to remember off the bat that political rights in this time were completely tied to land-ownership, and land-ownership was granted by a king or noble. So in other words, only the wealthy and noble could own land, and the type of land they owned defined their political power. Land was everything, so the secret to staying rich and powerful, as any medieval lord could tell you, was to mind your 'manor.'

Definition of Manorialism

Okay, so how did the manor system work? We call the overall structuring of medieval society around owning manors manorialism. Strictly speaking, this was a political and economic system defined by the relationship between landowner and land workers.

So what does that mean? Well, let's start at the top of the system. The person who legally owned the manor, the legal right to the land and estate, was generally granted three benefits. First was, obviously, the actual manor itself. Second was a title of the Lord of the Manor. This was a noble title that came with certain rights, like the right to attend royal court. Finally, the lord was given the rights over that land, meaning the right to collect their own taxes.

That brings us to the other group of people affected by this system: the landless peasants, or serfs. Serfs couldn't own land, so they lived on the land owned by the lord. This made them the subjects of the lord, meaning they owed him some form of compensation for living on his land. The most common way to pay this debt was through their labor. The serfs worked the manor and the agricultural land for the lord, and he reaped the profits of this labor. The wealth of medieval lords wasn't based on their own work, but on the labor of their subjects. In some cases, serfs were also directly taxed and expected to pay the lord in actual money, but generally the lord was more interested in their labor itself.

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