The religious revolution which we have been describing gave fresh impulse to a revolution of even greater importance, which had for a long time been changing the whole face of the country. The manorial system, on which the social organization of every rural part of England rested, had divided the land, for the purposes of cultivation and of internal order, into a number of large estates; a part of the soil was usually retained by the owner of the manor as his demesne or home-farm, while the remainder was distributed among tenants who were bound to render service to their lord. Under the kings of aelfred's house, the number of absolute slaves, and the number of freemen, had alike diminished. The slave class, never numerous, had been reduced by the efforts of the Church, perhaps by the general convulsion of the Danish wars. But these wars had often driven the ceorl or freeman to "commend" himself to a thegn who pledged him his protection in consideration of a labour-payment. It is probable that these dependent ceorls are the "villeins" of the Norman epoch, men sunk indeed from pure freedom and bound both to soil and lord, but as yet preserving much of their older rights, retaining their land, free as against all men but their lord, and still sending representatives to hundred-moot and shire-moot. They stood therefore far above the " landless man," the man who had never possessed even under the old constitution political rights, whom the legislation of the English kings had forced to attach himself to a lord on pain of outlawry, and who served as household servant or as hired labourer, or at the best as rent-paying tenant of land which was not his own.
The Norman knight or lawyer however saw little distinction between these classes; and the tendency of legislation under the Angevins was to blend all in a single class of serfs. While the pure "theow" of absolute slave disappeared, therefore, the ceorl or villein sank lower in the social scale. But though the rural population was undoubtedly thrown more together and fused into a more homogeneous class, its actual position corresponded very imperfectly with the view of the lawyers. All indeed were dependents on a lord. The manor-house became the centre of every English village. The manor-court was held in its hall; it was here that the lord or his steward received homage, recovered fines, held the view of frank-pledge, or enrolled the villagers in their tithing. Here too, if the lord possessed criminal jurisdiction, was held his justice court, and without its doors stood his gallows. Around it lay the demesne or home-farm, and the cultivation of this rested wholly with the " villeins" of the manor. It was by them that the great barn of the lord was filled with sheaves, his sheep shorn, his grain malted, the wood hewn for his hall fire.
[Authorities. - For the condition of land and labour at this time see the "History of Prices,"'by Professor Thorold Rogers, the " Domesday Book of St. Paul's " (Camden Society) with Archdeacon Hale's valuable introduction, and Mr. Seebohm's " Essays on the Black Death " (Fortnightly Review, 1865). Among the chroniclers Knyghton and Walsingham are the fullest and most valuable. The great Labour Statutes will be found in the Parliamentary Rolls].
These services were the labour-rent by which they held their lands, and it was the nature and extent of this labour-rent which parted one class of the population from another. The "villein," in the strict sense of the word, was bound only to gather in his lord's harvest and to aid in the ploughing and sowing of autumn and Lent. The cottar, the bordar, and the labourer were bound to help in the work of the home-farm throughout the year. But these services and the time of rendering them were strictly limited by custom, not only in the case of the ceorl or villein, but in that of the originally meaner "landless man." The possession of his little homestead with the ground around it, the privilege of turning out his cattle on the waste of the manor, passed quietly and insensibly from mere indulgences that could be granted or withdrawn at a lord's caprice into rights that could be pleaded at law. The number of teams, the fines, the reliefs, the services that a lord could claim, at first mere matter of oral tradition, came to be entered on the court-roll of the manor, a copy of which became the title-deed of the villein. It was to this that he owed the name of "copy-holder" which at a later time superseded his older title.
Disputes were settled by a reference to this roll or on oral evidence of the custom at issue, but a social arrangement which was eminently characteristic of the English spirit of compromise generally secured a fair adjustment of the claims of villein and lord. It was the duty of the lord's bailiff to exact their due services from the villeins, but his coadjutor in this office, the reeve or foreman of the manor, was chosen by the tenants themselves and acted as representative of their interests and rights.
The first disturbances of the system of tenure which we have described sprang from the introduction of leases. The lord of the manor, instead of cultivating the demesne through his own bailiff, often found it more convenient and profitable to let the manor to a tenant at a given rent, payable either in money or in kind. Thus we find the manor of Sandon leased by the Chapter of St.Paul's at a very early period on a rent which comprised the payment of grain both for bread and ale, of alms to be distributed at the cathedral door, of wood to be used in its bakehouse and brewery, and of money to be spent in wages. It is to this system of leasing, or rather to the usual term for the rent it entailed (feorm, from the Latin firma), that we owe the words, "farm" and " farmer," the growing use of which marks the first step in the rural revolution which we are examining. It was a revolution which made little direct change in the manorial system, but its indirect effect in breaking the tie on which the feudal organization of the manor rested, that of the tenant's personal dependence on his lord, and in affording an opportunity by which the wealthier among the tenantry could rise to a position of apparent equality with their older masters and form a new class intermediate between the larger proprietors and the customary tenants, was of the highest importance.