If someone asked you how Medieval society was organised, you’d probably tell them it was a feudal system. And you wouldn’t be wrong. At its heart, feudalism was a system of relationships where people exchanged labour or service (especially military service) in return for land. This was the stuff that the nobles were mostly preoccupied with.
But how did this system work for the common people? In a connected, but separate, system known as manorialism.
When we think of the middle ages, we tend to imagine knights and nobles living in castles, but this was a rarity. Castles were first and foremost military structures: many were built across England in the years after the Norman conquest to control the newly-subdued population, but as time went on and the risk of revolt fell away, castles tended only to be upgraded or expanded either by nobles with lots of money and a desire to show off, or in border territories or at strategically important sites, such as beside well-used roads or river crossings.
Most nobles lived in manors, which were, simply, a large property attached to some farmland, as well as other buildings – homes, mills, bakeries, granaries, etc.
In England, all land in the kingdom was owned by the monarch. Others held their land as tenants – even the most powerful lords were technically tenants, and their land could be seized if they were seen as not upholding the demands of the feudal contract.
Land was usually distributed by manor. This is how estates were recorded in Domesday Book (not by village, as some people assume, though many manors were also villages.)
So how did this affect the lives of the common people?
For the most part, their existence revolved around the manor. The lord or his steward decided much about their lives, including disputes of the law.
In the manor, the lord hosted the manorial court, which was the smallest denomination of the medieval court system. Presided over by the lord or his steward, they were usually held every three weeks, though some lapsed from that. Minor and everyday matters were decided at the manorial court, such as disputes over property, inheritance between peasants, who owned what field and where their patch ended, and so on. It was also the place where matters of debt, trespass or broken agreements between individuals were settled. As you can imagine, a lot of this was simply one person’s word against another.
That’s where we got the jury system. To begin with, a jury was a committee of twelve local people within the manorial estate who were assumed to have common knowledge of the matters discussed. When a plaintiff or defendant made their case, the jury would be asked simple yes or no answers to corroborate the evidence they gave. This sometimes meant that it didn’t matter who was right, necessarily, just who had the most friends and connections in the manor.
In most cases, it was the jury itself who decided the outcome of a trial – and the potential punishments – though the lord or steward might intervene where they felt their interests might be at stake. But in the vast majority of cases, matters were either settled out of court or “according to the custom of the manor,” ie, according to how such cases had been settled in the past.
The manorial court also handled the transfer of property between peasants, and it elected the local bailiffs, individuals who executed the decisions of the court.
So, the manorial court dealt with matters relating to the peasants under a particular lord’s jurisdiction. On a similar level were the hundred courts, each of which covered a particular hundred, a type of land division in medieval England. They handled cases of petty crime within the hundred, and organised the tithing system, which separated people into groups of 10-15 households. Each member of a tithing was expected to keep the peace amongst the others, and the whole tithing could be fined a huge sum if they concealed a crime commited by one of its members.
Sometimes the lines blurred between these two courts, especially when a local lord owned all the land in a particular hundred, or had a lot of influence in the local area. Many hundred courts ended up in private hands.
The main difference between the two was that, twice a year, the county sheriff would come to the local hundred court (his “tourn”) and deal with more serious crimes in the name of the king himself, who was expected to handle matters of serious crimes. This was where matters of murder, grievous assault, and rape were heard.
There were other courts, all the way up to the Court of King’s Bench, which in the early medieval period followed the king as he travelled around the country and dealt with serious cases – but the average peasant had very little to do with them.