A peasant who, under the feudal system
of land tenure that prevailed in Europe in the Middle Ages, gave dues and services to a lord in exchange for land. Villeins were not slaves, and were named as freemen and freewomen in medieval documents, but they were not free. They and their land and possessions belonged to the lord of the manor. They were not free to leave the manor, and they were subject to a large number of obligations required by the lord, including work on the lord's demesne two or three days a week, additional work at harvest, and the payment of manorial dues. In many places they also had to pay for the right to brew ale, bake bread, and grind corn at the lord's mill.
At the time of the Domesday Book
(1087) the villeins were the most numerous element in the English population, providing the labour force for the manors. Their social position declined until, by the early 14th century, their personal and legal status was close to that of slaves. After the mid-14th century, as the effects of the Black Death
led to a severe labour shortage, their status improved. By the 15th century villeinage had been supplanted by a system of free tenure and labour in England, but it continued in France until 1789. Life for a medieval villein was undoutedly hard, as shown in documents such as Pierce the Plowman's Crede (c.
1394) and picture sources such as the Luttrell Psalter (1340).
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