I have been dismayed to see (what I see as) gross mischaracterizations of serfdom on this site; usually conflating it with slavery, and often even with the particularly abhorrent version of slavery practiced in the American South before 1865. I am looking to build a canonical question that can be used as a reference for "classical high Middle Ages Western European serfdom" going forward.

Why England only?

  1. England was remade following the conquest, deliberately, in a rather uniform fashion. This results in less regional discrepancy (I believe) compared to other possible choices.

  2. The Doomsday Book provides an unparalleled reference for the time period in question.

  3. England is the origin of the Common Law traditions that characterize Western democracies

Definitions (for the purpose of this question):

  • 11th century: 1066 (the conquest) to 1180 (Henry II's rework of legal system)
  • England: that portion of the British Isles conquered by William I at Hastings in 1066, even though consolidation of such conquest may have occurred in the following years.
  • common folk: The slaves (if any), serfs, villeins, yeoman, freemen and clergy (and others?) who were not in possession (or a direct family member thereof) of any of a knight's fee, a peerage (barony or higher), bishopric, or abbey.


I will up-vote all answers that I see as not possessing a gross mis-statement. I will (eventually) accept the best overall answer, and possibly award a modest bounty to supplementary answers of particular quality or coverage. I would prefer that this NOT become community wiki, so that contributors can be rewarded for their research efforts with rep.

1 Answer 1


First, I'll try to answer the question "Who were the common folk in the 11th century".

We are fortunate in England to have William I's great survey, Domesday Book, completed in 1086. Coverage is not uniform across the country, and some parts of England were not recorded by the Domesday survey at all, nevertheless it provides us with unparalleled insights into the population of England in the late 11th century.

It is important to recognise that the basic unit of land-holding in Norman England was the manor. The Domesday survey was carried out based on initial returns compiled by lords about their manors. The lord of any given manor might be a baron, a bishop, an Abbot, representing a religious house, or even the king himself. The Lord of the Manor would then lease land to sub-tenants who would normally also be members of the nobility. Below them we find the 'peasant tenantry' (a term which remained in general use in parts of the UK right up until the 19th century).

The Social Order

We can learn a great deal about the rights and responsibilities of the common people from the results of the Domesday Survey. However, the details of those rights and responsibilities might well vary, according to the manor in question.

Most of the information in this section has been extracted from the page of the same name on the UK National Archives website.

The peasant tenantry can be broadly subdivided into two main groups:

  • Free peasants: freemen & sokemen. They formed about 12% of the population recorded in the Domesday Book.
  • Unfree peasants: villans, bordars and cottars. According to the UK National Archives website, These groups made up about 72% of the population recorded in Domesday. The Lord of the Manor could move them between estates as he wished, and also had the power to approve or prevent marriages.

Slaves: comprised roughly 10% of the population recorded in the Domesday Book. This group had no property rights, and are not included in the peasant tenantry. They could be bought and sold at will by their lords.

Free peasants

The distinction between freemen and sokemen is subtle, and the usage may actually have varied in different parts of the country. In addition, regional differences in how the information was recorded in Domesday Book means that our understanding of those terms may be less than perfect. However, with that caveat, the UK National Archives offers the following definitions for the terms 'freemen' and 'sokemen' as used in the Domesday Book:


  • "A man who was free and might hold land but who owed some services to his lord".

These services might be military (Knight-service), religious (frankalmoin) or some personal/official service (serjeanty tenure).


  • "Freeman who nevertheless had to attend their lord’s court".

Sokemen held land in socage. It's worth noting that all free peasants in Hertfordshire were described in the Domesday Book as Sokemen. It may be that there were no freemen in Hertfordshire in 1085/86, or simply that the terms were being used differently there

Unfree peasants

Villans were both the wealthiest, and the most numerous of the unfree peasants. They made up about 40% of the population recorded in Domesday, and often held fairly substantial portions of land (up to 40 acres is recorded in some instances). They were 'unfree' in the sense that their tenancy required that they worked the land belonging to the Lord of the Manor for (generally) 2 or 3 days each week.

Bordars and cottars were less-free than villans, and owed a much greater service to the Lord of the Manor. They also generally owned much less land (perhaps only an acre or two, in many cases even less). Given the service they owed to their lord, this might have been as much as they were actually able to work!

It is worth noting that:

In most Domesday manors the more specialised workers, such as millers and swineherds, are included in the totals of villans, bordars and cottars, constituting in total about 72 per cent of the recorded population.

However, this example from the Domesday Survey of Wiltshire suggests that blacksmiths were counted separately and not included in those totals.

Rights and Responsibilities

The specific rights and responsibilities of common folk at the time of the Domesday Book actually varied according to the customs of different manors. The laws of each manor were contained in a document called a custumal (many of which survive to this day), and were enforced in manorial courts.

Manorial courts were the lowest-level courts in medieval England. Their jurisdiction was usually limited to those who lived on the manorial lands and demesnes of a single manor, although the curia ducis might extend over several manors owned by a single lord.

The manorial courts enforced the feudal services owed by the tenants to the Lord of the Manor. As mentioned above, these services might be military, religious or simply working the Lord of the Manor's lands. In addition, these courts could levy taxes which might be paid in the form of money, goods (meat, grain, fish etc.), or additional services.

One form of tax recorded at this period was Chevage, which was an annual poll-tax levied by the lord of a manor on villans who were allowed to live out of the manor. Interestingly, we know that, according to the Laws of the Conqueror, if a villan who had fled his lord was able to maintain a quiet residence for a year and a day on the demesne lands of the king (which included several towns and cities at that time) he would be able to claim his freedom.

  • Nice answer. I'm curious about how blacksmiths fit into this. Are they also included as specialised workers in the totals of villans, bordars and cottars (even though they have little to do with farming)? Commented Jan 28, 2018 at 0:16
  • I'd say not. Look at this example from Wiltshire Commented Jan 28, 2018 at 0:26
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    @LarsBosteen: Except in the larger towns, I suspect blacksmithing was a part-time occupation. Commented Jan 28, 2018 at 1:28
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    @PieterGeerkens I don't know tbh. I've certainly never seen any evidence that age was a factor in distinguishing medieval tenancies. In fact, the evidence that I have seen is that tenancies tended to be inherited within families (on payment of a fee at the manorial court). Commented Jan 28, 2018 at 1:36
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    @PieterGeerkens That seems likely. It's just a shame that we don't have the records in most cases to figure out the detail of what was actually happening in practice. Commented Jan 28, 2018 at 1:47

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