For safety and for defense, people in the Middle Ages formed small communities around a central lord or master. Most people lived on a manor, which consisted of the castle, the church, the village, and the surrounding farmland. These manors were isolated, with occasional visits from peddlers, pilgrims on their way to the Crusades, or soldiers from other fiefdoms.
In this “feudal” system, the king owned all of the land in his kingdom. He kept a large portion of the land for his own use, and a great deal of land was also held by the Church. What happened to the rest of the land? The king awarded land grants or “fiefs” to his most important nobles, his barons, and his bishops, in return for their contribution of soldiers for the king’s armies.
The nobles divided their land among the lesser nobility, who became their servants or “vassals.” Many of these vassals became so powerful that the kings had difficulty controlling them. By 1100, certain barons had castles and courts that rivalled the king’s; they could be serious threats if they were not pleased in their dealings with the crown.
In 1215, the English barons formed an alliance that forced King John to sign the Magna Carta. While it gave no rights to ordinary people, the Magna Carta did limit the king’s powers of taxation and require trials before punishment. It was the first time that an English monarch came under the control of the law.
At the lowest echelon of society were the peasants, also called “serfs” or “villeins.” In exchange for living and working on his land, known as the “demesne,” the lord offered his peasants protection.
Many peasants remained free, but most became serfs. A serf was bound to the land. He could not leave without buying his freedom, which was a rare occurrence. Life for a serf was not much better than the life of a slave. The only difference was that a serf could not be sold to another manor.
As rent, Serfs would often work the land and produced the goods that the lord and his manor needed three or four days a weeks. This exchange was not without hardship for the serfs. They were heavily taxed and were required to relinquish much of what they harvested. The peasants did not even “belong to” themselves, according to medieval law. The lords, in close association with the church, assumed the roles of judges in carrying out the laws of the manor.