This was a difficult post for me as this is not an easy or benign topic.... While the concepts I will discuss can be seen in simple terms, they are in many ways complex and unique from other situations. Imagine trying to describe a social system such as capitalism in simple terms and you might realize some of the difficulty that a historian faces in these situations... and I will not pretend to be a true historian, simply a loyal fan as it were. In this post, I will attempt to discuss the differences between Manorialism and Feudalism (for there are differences) and what the different aspects of being a serf or being a Lord would be as well as some of the challenges that Europe faced during this time. Enjoy... :)
There are a few differences between the manorial system and feudalism. Manorialism is a system of forced agricultural labor and the human relationships are between the aristocrats and their forced laborers- the peasants. The economy is based on agriculture and little to no cash money is used. The manor, a landed estate which was privately owned, was in the center of the manorial land with the land that was given to the serfs surrounding it. This system gave some stability to the peasants and the aristocracy together. Feudalism was more of a political structure and gave rules to the relationships between the aristocracy. It was a system that worked with the power distribution between the nobles and was a system that basically made checks and balances between the 'equals' of the nobility. Whereas, manorialism really was a part of a system that gave rules for relationships that were 'unequal' – that of lord and serf... or CEO and janitor to use a common metaphor. And that system was feudalism.
The manorial system was actually an important part of feudalism, which was the system of living that was used to control and govern almost all peoples in Europe at one time. Manorialism was the basic principle that organized the rural economies in feudal Europe. In a form of 'trickle down' politics, a lord of a manor was given certain legal power over those who worked on his manor. He would benefit from the forced agricultural labor of the peasants who worked his land and he had some legal obligations towards those same peasants such as protection of them and the land. If you were a lord, in many ways you got a pretty sweet deal and it was in this way a lord would continue to develop wealth and more power from exploiting the obligatory free labor of the peasants. There really wasn't anywhere for the peasants to go... as there were simply too many of them.
The obligations or duties required of a serf were very different from the obligations of his liege lord. Serfs, of which the majority of peasants were, were bound to the soil or land of a Lord. They were required to stay on, live on, and work the land with very little say about it. If the noble sold the land or gave it to someone else, the serf went with the land- in that essence, a serf was truly property. (The only ability that a serf had to legally leave the land was if he was able to get permission from his 'lord'.) One benefit that a serf did have was that he could pass on his 'land' to his children... however, that didn't change that fact that the land and his children were owned by the Lord of the Manor. A serf was required to work the land and pay rent for it to the lord (which was usually paid in agricultural products.) A serf also had to pay dues to the manor if they wanted to cut wood, use the common bakery or mill, etc... Other work that the Lord of the Manor could require from a serf was misc labor services in the manorial land (the land the lord kept for his use) for a certain number of days- fix fences, roofs, etc... The usual number of required days was three a week. The Lords were the authority and the lawmakers of the manor. They were the judges over disputes, the disciplinarian of crimes, and the Lord was expected to above all protect his serfs from harm... such as marauding vikings or other groups. The Lord would also be obligated to try and fix damage due to natural disasters such as fire or flood and to protect the Catholic church in his lands as well.
Another aspect or social 'level' of Feudalism is the vassal. A vassal was an individual with a slightly different 'job' than a serf. A vassal was 'given' land by a lord in exchange for an oath of loyalty and the obligation to give the lord military support and protection. A vassal could 'give' his land to his heirs if they were old enough, but the vow would need to be renewed to the Lord at that time... the vow would have to be remade with each person and was not 'inherited'. Once the vow was made, a vassal was obliged to give military service, give advice and counsel to the lord about military or manor matters, to give aid if the lord incurred unusual expenses such as military campaigns and of course, to provide hospitality to the lord if he was to come for a visit- they were to be treated as royalty! In exchange, the feudal lord would give the vassal (most times) land that the vassal could use to make income and even have his own serfs. Vassals would also be required to provide military soldiers to the lord if their holdings were big enough. A vassal tended to be a lesser noble, but still not of the peasant class...
This system and social structure was fairly stable for a long period of time. Those in power kept it and the peasants would (like most of us) try to find a way to be successful in a limiting and oppressive environment. It was only with several natural disasters that this system would have its first severe challenge. One of those challenges was in the year of 1315 and is quite notable as the beginning of a deadly famine in northern Europe. Europe at this time was a mostly agricultural economy and so any kind of food shortage would have large ramifications for the population. This famine was devastating enough that the combined northern states of Europe would take several years to fully recover. There are several factors that helped contribute to the devastation that this famine had. One factor was weather itself... the spring of 1315 was mostly bad weather (rain and cool temperatures which didn't allow for a good beginning growth in the crops. This in turn led to almost universal crop failures all across the northern European continent – and as the economy and eating was based upon these crops, this was a very scary thing indeed. Peasants already found that the majority of what they were able to grow had to be given in taxes to the church or to the lord of the manor. If they didn't grow enough to have extra... they would have nothing to eat or even to save as seed to grow the next year. A crop failure during this time would have had devastating effects. Add to that the fact that the population at this time was at an historical high... so there were many more people percentage-wise to feed with the same land and techniques of growing then there had been in the past. This meant that even with a small shortage of food, some people would necessarily go hungry. By 1316, all the peasants would have found themselves hungry with no food reserves and this in turn would force them to resort to desperate means- whether it was crime, poaching, killing of needed animals, etc.... some even resorted to cannibalism and some members of 'elderly' populations would starve themselves to leave more food for the younger people. Other factors that contributed to these problem were that many kings during this time didn't really have an effective way of dealing with any major crisis affecting the country they governed. The Catholic church would also take some of the blame for the famines as prayers and other 'interventions' were not successful. So this famine would help erode the power and unquestioned authority of both kings and popes because neither group could or did deal effectively with the crisis.
So how did these natural disasters affect manorialism? The large scale deaths that came with the famines and almost continuous wars had taken their toll on the poor and those who were simply trying to survive through the never ending crises. During these times, many kings had started to really collect and cement an absolute power that had only been seen a few times in the past during large empires. This absolute power took away from the power of the 'lords' or nobles and gave the kings the might to control their domains and their land... whereas in feudalism, a knight might feel a lot more loyalty to the lord he knew than the distant king. The growth of towns as a different and successful economic policy also gave alternatives to the rural economy. But the disasters had also killed ALOT of people... so labor was no longer overabundant. Instead, those who gave labor now had more options (in theory). Yes, a peasant was legally obligated to stay on the land for the lord that he worked for, but if you could escape to a town and get work there you could eventually get your freedom. You could escape and go work for another lord who would pay you better wages than your current lord because the noble was desperate for labor. Trade had developed and you could make your living from more than just tilling the ground for someone else. Also, as the population began to grow again people began to move out of the manorial lands to other close land and these peasants would not be considered serfs. Money and trade would change how you could get paid for your labor. So, as the peasants started to make changes, towns and trade grew and change happened economically around the country. Also, as the 'Kings' became true absolute monarchs, manorialism was undermined and slowly defeated.
Feudalism itself was undermined and defeated in a few steps- most of the same steps that destroyed manorialism as the manor system was an essential element of this system. Feudalism itself is a system that helped to establish stability in oaths of loyalty and honor to other nobles or kings. By ending many of the wars between the noble class, it was better for the countries themselves as well as the peasants who tended to take the brunt of noble 'ambition'. The rise of towns, free men and the return of money to the economy eroded the strong, unyielding relationships that were so important in feudalism. Lords no longer had full control over all the economy on their lands and cities, etc... they might not have any control over at all. A moneyed economy allowed nobles to train and hire armies so that not only were the armies more effective, but they were not taking from the people who were growing food and had no wish to fight. The rise of education during the High Middle Ages as well as the previous disasters also eroded some of the need for feudalism by changing the mindset of ordinary people which influenced people to start to question tradition, hierarchy and the Catholic church. In essence, feudalism as a system was too rigid and unyielding to be able to survive and adapt to the subtle changes in the society that it was trying to control.
Whew! Again, this was a very short and simplistic way of looking at this subject... What are your thoughts?