Video: The Manor Improved

I think that manorial living doesn’t get enough credit for raising the standard of living in Europe. We tend to focus on the Renaissance as the real economic miracle, and then the Industrial Revolution. But as I hope this video shows, it was the alliance between noble women and interested Church leaders that slowly, ever-so-slowly, raised standards of living by adding new skills and new industries to the manorial system. It certainly wasn’t perfect, and the serfs who lived under this system lived hard lives. Yet by 1200 AD, the average serf was still better off than his ancestors 400 years before.

The static image from this video is available here.

4 comments

  1. Was there only the June hay harvest, or did they plant a second crop?

    You mention that the lady was often the only literate person in the village. Were the lords not literate? What was the incentive to teach the women to read? Was it a status symbol, or did it serve a need for running the manor? What made it a better use of the teacher’s and students’ time to learn to read than to work? What kept the clergy from seeing it as reducing their monopoly on literacy? Enquiring minds want to know!

    • This video is a generalization. Every village had its own pattern and its own methodology, based on fuel and food resources, quality of soil, and more.

      The thing that gets to me is about how very sustainable it all is. The animals rotate through the big fields to improve soil quality over a three-year cycle, but there’s also the long-term cycle of improvement as well. The sheep and chickens and cattle rotate around the fields in different patterns, mixing and re-mixing the different nutrients in the manure. The householders’ gardens get extra-special composting for the more nutrient-rich foods of the Medieval household – peas and beans. Some of the fields are given over to flax for linen, and the some of the land is for sheep, for winter clothing.

      I included the Lady because my kids often read history without women. There aren’t enough women in the history books these days, and it’s a real problem. Creating an alliance between a pious, literate woman in this video, and the local priest, is a way of showing that women made a real difference without necessarily making it into the official histories.

    • Also, reading is partly a status symbol for women, but it’s also practical. The lord and his suzerain can now exchange relatively secret communications without the priests getting involved. The woman has access to a greater range of practical information, like herbals and apothecary data.

      Medieval contracts show that there was a growing need for at least a few literate people in every village by the 13th century, though. It’s hard to run a major agricultural business — which is what a medieval manor was — without having access to record-keeping or technical data over years and decades. Some medieval people are trained to store this sort of information in their memories, but most villages have at least a token few who know how to read and write, at least the vernacular if not Latin.

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