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Why did some people live in villages?

The open field system, where crops were grown, demanded that people co-operated with each other. In the Middle Ages many tasks, such as clearing woodland for fields, ploughing and digging for drainage, were shared. The equipment, such as ploughs, carts or teams of oxen was also shared.

When the Saxons moved into new areas of England during the main wave of migration in the 5th century, they often put wooden palisades around their villages; these were very useful for defensive purposes and protection.

The Domesday Survey can tell us about the kinds of people who lived in rural communities in Herefordshire. Six main categories are mentioned:

  • Villeins (villagers) - 1,730 (39% of the total population)
  • Bordars (smallholders) - 1,271 
  • Serfs (slaves, bondwomen) - 739
  • Oxmen (ploughmen) - 142
  • Men - 134
  • King's men (of Archenfield) - 96

bordar was someone who owed duties to the lord. Villeins were more substantial farmers in the community. They could serve on a jury and decide the custom of the manor. They still owed services and dues to the lord but they were less tied to the lord than bordars.

The minor categories include radmen (riding men) (68), Welshmen - all west of the line of Offa's Dyke (39, but this figure does not include the Welsh in Archenfield), priests (43), smiths (25), reeves (bailiffs or stewards) (35), and so on (H.C. Darby and I.B. Terrett (eds.), The Domesday Geography of Midland England, 1954).

Here is a passage from the Domesday Survey for Wellington, listing different categories of people:

"9 villagers, 8 smallholders, a priest, a reeve, a smith and 4 riding men; between them they have 8 ploughs. 11 male and 9 female slaves". (Frank and Caroline Thorn (eds.), Domesday Book 17, Herefordshire, 29,11, Phillimore, 1983)

In the early Middle Ages the lord's lands were often worked by slaves, but slavery gradually died out in the feudal system and was replaced by unfree villeins. Later on in the Middle Ages, peasants could pay a fee to get out of working on the demesne. However, until the 14th century most people were tied to their villages and lords and could not marry or move without the lord's permission.

Manorial courts were held regularly, and the lord appointed a bailiff to be judge and overlook the proceedings. At these courts all kinds of cases were heard, mostly ones to do with the upholding of villagers' responsibilities and with minor infringements. The interests of the lord were paramount. If a villein died, the heir had to pay a heriot (a fine) to the lord in order to take over the holding. Early in the Middle Ages this was usually the best animal, later on this was replaced with a fee. When a tenant died leaving children under age, the lord was entitled to wardship and control of the child's inheritance, with a heriot when the child came of age.

The Herefordshire Record Office holds the manorial court records for the manor of Pencombe. Here is an excerpt for 1451: On the death of free tenant Richard Grafton,

"there comes to the lord for heriot: 1 red ox price 7s, 1 red steer price 2s 8d, 1 red male calf price 16d and 1 pig price 12d, which heriot remains in the keeping of Joanna his widow." (Arkwright Manorial Records, A63, Herefordshire Record Office)

Feudalism is the name given to the way in which medieval society was organised. It took the form of a pyramid: at the top was the king, below him the barons and bishops, below them the knights and abbots, and at the bottom the villagers. In the same way that the feudal structure was very rigid, the social hierarchy in the village was well developed. Villagers were very conscious of their status, guarded their position, however menial (lowly), and were knowledgeable about local custom which specified exactly what their responsibilities were and what was owing to them. The responsibilities of course outweighed the benefits by a great margin.

Most village houses were situated around a village green or along a main street, with a strip of land behind the house for the personal garden and perhaps a back lane. There would have been a network of primitive roads serving the local fields.

[Original author: Toria Forsyth-Moser, 2002]