As I’ve just finished reading Frances and Joseph Gies’s Life in a Medieval Village and as many fantasy novels are set in a medieval-esque environment, this week’s Monday Masterclass will give a description of the village in the Middle Ages. Specifically, the village in the 12th to 14th centuries, which is what the book focuses on. This week, I’m going to look at the lord – who was actually somewhat peripheral to the concerns of villagers.

What is a Medieval Village?

The word village comes from ‘villatic’, meaning ‘of the countryside’, which in turn comes from ‘villa’, the country house of the Roman elite, which functioned as both seasonal residence and plantation.

The medieval village was a mostly self-sufficient community centred around farming. Its inhabitants worked the land or produced goods from farmed crops. The nucleus of the village was the villagers’ homes and various communal buildings, while around it were the fields. Village populations were in the order of 300 to 600, and villages represented the bulk of a nation’s population in that era.

Some peasants lived in homesteads – single houses near a farm or other resource that the people exploited. Some lived in hamlets – small clusters of homes of often interrelated families who farmed, fished, hunted etc, but who lacked certain amenities such as a church, bakery, mill and so on. Some lived in towns – which were centres of trade and commerce, hosting markets and merchant businesses. The village was a different entity, occupying a rôle between hamlet and town.

Lord and Village

One of the defining characteristics of the medieval village was the presence (although maybe at a remove) of a lord. The lord may have been a petty knight granted land as part of his knighthood; it could have been a powerful nobleman with lands scattered across several counties; it may have been the Church – the village that is the main subject of the Gies’s book, Elton in Cambridgeshire, was under the leadership of Ramsey Abbey.

The lord may also have been a lady – widows and heiresses controlled land, as well as abbesses and prioresses. Usually, a village was subservient to a single lord, but occasionally, the land of a village might be divided amongst two or more lords. The lord was subservient to either a more powerful lord, of whom he was a tennant, or to the Crown.

The land of the whole village is referred to as the manor. This is divided into two parts: the lord’s demesne (pronounced like ‘domain’) and the villagers’ own land. Villagers could also be divided into two types: freeholders with no particular duties to the lord; and villeins (or serfs) who had a duty to work the fields that made up the demesne as well as their own land and who were required to pay fees for various events in life.

A lord with a single manor would have lived permanently in the manor house in the village. A lord with an extensive estate may never have visited all the villages he (or she) was responsible for – but every village had a manor house. This was the residence of the bailiff, the lord’s main official in a manor, and provided lodging for visiting dignitaries – the lord’s steward or seneschal, who oversaw the whole estate, for instance. Other village officials, such as the reeve – the bailiff’s assistant and highest ranking peasant – would eat meals in the manor house.

The lord was the main authority in the village, but seems to have been quite a hands-off ruler. The village was primarily an economic unit – a producer of food and drink – and the lord mostly allowed villagers to organise themselves to maximise their own output and profit – and therefore his profit.

The main, albeit not necessarily direct, interaction between villager and lord was the manorial court or hallmote, held at least twice a year. At the court, a jury of villagers and the steward would oversee much of the legal business of the village. Villagers were fined for breaking laws and customs, fees were paid for various things, bylaws were made and village officials were elected.

Fines were typically sixpence and made up the vast majority of punishments allotted (occasionally, someone might be sentenced to spend time in the stocks; serious crimes like murder were tried in royal courts). Poor villagers often had their fines waived.

Fees included chevage (payment of an animal by a villein living outside the manor), gersum (for taking possession of a tennancy), heriot (death duty of the deceased’s best animal), merchet (for a woman’s marriage – usually paid by the father; sometimes by the woman if she was a widow, or other arrangements were possible), mortuary (death duty paid to the Church of the second best animal) and tallage (annual tax on villeins).

Villeins could also pay to get out of doing week-work – farming the lord’s demesne. With the money raised, the lord would hire labourers to work his land. Or the lord may have leased his land to a rich peasant, local knight or businessman from a nearby town, who would then keep the difference between the lease fee and the profits. In a similar way, by the 12th and 13th centuries, lords going to war for their monarch was becoming old-fashioned; instead a lord’s taxes would go towards hiring an army.


As a rule, ordinary peasants would have no contact with their lord – dealing instead with the reeve or bailiff, or occasionally the steward. Because of the village’s autonomy, there seems to have been little discontent at the relationship (until increasing taxes led to the Peasant’s Rebellion in 1381 at least). Which isn’t to say villagers led an idyllic life – but, during the period in question, they weren’t miserable oppressed wretches, either.

What are your thoughts on medieval villages and lords? Comment below and share your wisdom.

Next time, I’ll look at another aspect of the medieval village.