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The romance of the manor house is unmatched by other noble architecture in that it’s purpose was not primarily defensive, but to be self-sufficent, a luxury estate of a nobleman.

A manor house is a country house that formed the administrative centre of a manor, which is the lowest unit of territorial organization in the feudal system in Europe.   A manor house was the dwelling of the feudal lord.

Built with a central great hall as the primary room for public and domestic life of the manor, legal trials or sessions of “manor court” were held in the great hall of the manor house.  In France such courts were often held at the manor, but outside the building in the courtyard or “court of honor”.

A lord might posses a number of manors, each of which would have a manor house and each manor house would have been occupied only on the occasional visit. Sometimes a steward or seneschal was appointed by the lord to oversee and manage his different manorial properties. The day-to-day administration was delegated to a bailiff, or reeve.

The term “Manor House” would later be applied to country houses that belonged to landed gentry families, even if they were never administrative centers, especially for minor late medieval fortified country houses often built for show more than defense.

Although not typically built with strong fortifications such as castles, many manor houses were partly fortified enclosed within walls or ditches that often included farm buildings as well.

These farmhouses provided food for the manor’s household such as eggs, milk, food crops, meat and feed for the horses.  In warmer climates they also provided grapes for wine making.  Most had fish ponds, which if a natural pond did not exist then one would be built.

Mostly arranged for defense against robbers and thieves, manor houses were sometimes surrounded by a moat with a drawbridge, gatehouses and watchtowers, but not generally with a keep, large tower or curtain walls to withstand a long siege.

By the beginning of the 16th century, manor houses as well as small castles began to acquire the character and amenities of a residence of country gentlemen. This late 16th century transformation produced many of the smaller Renaissance châteaux of France and the numerous country mansions of the Elizabethan and Jacobean styles in England.

In France, there was an upper hall reserved for the “seigneur” or lord where he received his high-ranking guests. This upper hall was often accessible by an external spiral staircase. It was commonly “open” up to the roof trusses, as in English homes.

This larger and more finely decorated hall was usually located above the ground-floor hall. The seigneur’s and his family’s private chambers were located off this upper hall. They invariably had their own fireplace (with finely decorated chimney-pieces) and typically at least one latrine.

Manorialism was the principle law of a rural economy that originated in the villa system of the Late Roman Empire.  According to the Church it was a system of government authorized by God. 

Abbots and Bishops were feudal lords who controlled a third of Christian Europe and differed little from a feudal estate, except that the community consisted of monks who served God in chant and spent much of their time in reading and writing.

Manorialism was the vesting of legal and economic power in a lord, supported economically from his own direct landholding and from the obligatory contributions of a legal subject from the peasant population under his jurisdiction. These obligations could be payable in several ways: labor, in kind payments or as time went on money.

Manors were slowly replaced by a money-based market economy, new forms of agrarian contracts and the most vivid feature of their landscape: the open field system. 

Outlasting feudalism primarily as an economic organization, it could maintain a warrior or capitalist landlord to yield produce for the marketplace, or yield rent.

The last feudal dues in France were abolished after the French Revolution and in parts of eastern Germany the Rittergut manors of Junkers remained until World War II.

The term is most often used with reference to medieval Western Europe.  With a declining birthrate and population, labor was the key factor of production.

Successive administrations tried to stabilize the imperial system by freezing the social structure into place: sons were to succeed their fathers in their trade, councilors were forbidden to resign, and cultivators of land were not to move from the demesne they were attached to.

As Germanic kingdoms succeeded Roman authority in the West in the fifth century, Roman landlords were often simply replaced by Gothic or Germanic ones, with little change to the underlying situation.

In the generic plan of a medieval manor from Shepherd’s Historical Atlas, the strips of individually-worked land in the open field system are immediately apparent. 

In this plan, the manor house is set slightly apart from the village as the village grew up around the forecourt of the manor, which was formerly walled, while the manor lands stretched away.

As concerns for privacy increased in the 18th century, manor houses were often located further from the village.

When a grand new house was required the site of the existing manor house at the edge of its village was abandoned for a new one, isolated in its own park, with the village out of view.

Manors each consisted of up to three classes of land:

  • Demesne, the part directly controlled by the lord and used for the benefit of his household and dependents;
  • Dependent (serf or villein) holdings carrying the obligation that the peasant household supply the lord with specified labor services, part of its output  or cash in lieu or;
  • Free peasant land, without such obligation but otherwise subject to manorial jurisdiction owing rent fixed at the time of the lease.

Additional sources of income for the lord included charges for use of his mill, bakery or winepress, or the right to hunt or let pigs feed in his woodland, as well as court revenues and single payments on each change of tenant.

On the flip side, manorial administration involved significant expenses and was a reason why smaller manors tended to rely less on villein tenure.

Not all manors contained all three kinds of land: demesne accounted for roughly a third of the arable area, and villein holdings more; but some manors consisted solely of demesne, others solely of peasant holdings.

The proportion of tenure could vary greatly, with predominately wage labor for agricultural work on the demesne.

Nor were manors held necessarily by lords rendering military service to their superior.  About 17% of England in 1086 belonged directly to the king with a quarter were held by bishops and monasteries.

Over centuries, manors have evolved into not only a symbol of wealth and power, but of certain cache of status.

A desire to express the owners need to be linked not only to the history of the manor, but to the agrarian traditions and legacy of the land itself.