Villans – Essential Information

Villany – a category of feudal-dependent peasantry in some countries of Western Europe during the Middle Ages. In England, villans were understood as the bulk of the feudal-dependent population, performing unlimited labor duties in favor of their lord and the subordinate jurisdiction of the landlord’s court.

English villans were one of the most legally unprotected categories of the population. The design of the Villan estate in England dates back to the beginning of the 12th century, and in the 15th-16th centuries it was supplanted by the category of copy-holders who held the land under customary law. In France, Germany and Italy, free peasants were personally called villans, who incurred some land duties for providing them with a land plot by the feudal lord. Villans in these countries could quite freely alienate their land and move to other lords or cities.

Villans in England


The term “villan” (from Latin villa – manor, estate) was first mentioned in the “Book of the Last Judgment” in 1086. The Norman conquest did not lead to radical changes in the social structure and feudal duties of the peasantry. Unfamiliar with the details of the social hierarchy of the Anglo-Saxon Curls, the Norman feudal lords and royal officials tried to transfer the system of social relations established in Northern France to English soil. As a result, numerous categories of Curls, from the Geburs, who were quite dependent on their lord, to semi-free peasants, who provided only occasional assistance in working on the domain of the feudal lord, were united within one social stratum of villans. The villans also included Anglo-Saxon slaves freed by the Norman feudal lords, as well as, probably, some of the ruined free Sokmen.

In the XI century, villans were understood as ordinary peasants, villagers, who kept land plots from the lord and were in varying degrees of dependence on him. The term did not yet imply non-free status. However, it is obvious that already in the XI century, most villans were obliged to labor service to the feudal lord for the allotment provided. Their difference from the kottarii and bordarii, other categories of dependent peasants mentioned in the Book of the Last Judgment, was that the size of the villan’s allotment was typical for the local tradition of distributing communal lands among the villagers: virgata, half virgata, half a guide, or even a whole guide … Economically, 11th century villans were much better off than cottarias and bordaria.

In the XII century, the development of feudal law and feudal land tenure led to the formation of the category of villans as a single class of feudal-dependent peasantry, opposed to freeholders (free peasants). The villans included layers of Serves, Kottarii and Borderians. The main legal difference between villans and free ones was their subordination in court to the court of the feudal lord and the inability to appeal to the royal courts. Villan performed corvée duty for his lord, the right to dispose of his allotment was severely limited and depended on the will of the feudal lord.

Social status

The Villans made up the majority of the population of England after the Norman conquest. They were typical peasants, members of the village community. Villan’s status was hereditary. Villan kept from his lord a small allotment of land, usually in the amount of a virgata, for which he performed duties in favor of the feudal lord, the volume of which was not strictly limited. The villans did not pay state taxes.

The main duty of the villan in relation to his lord was labor service (corvee) on the domain of the lord. Villan worked for his master one to four days a week (usually, however, three days), as well as extra time during sowing and reaping periods or on other occasions. The general legal principle in the XII-XIII centuries. there was an uncertainty about the amount of the villan’s labor service: he had to fulfill any requirements of his lord in relation to work on the farm of the latter. The court chronicles of the 12th century contain an indicative formula: “a villain should not know today what he will be ordered to do tomorrow.” In the 13th century, the uncertainty of the size of the corvee served as a legal criterion for the recognition of a peasant by a villan.

In addition to corvee, the feudal lord could demand from his villan the payment of a large contribution in the event of his daughter’s marriage (merquet), take the best head of villan’s cattle after his death (heriot) and impose rather arbitrary fees. The villan’s quitrent obligation usually consisted of the payment of a relatively small cash or food rent. Villan was obliged to grind the grain he collected at the lord’s mill and, probably, bake bread in his oven, for which he paid a certain monetary contribution to the feudal lord. The master could even sell his villan and, in some cases, his family members. Villan was prohibited from carrying weapons.

In legal terms, the villan was subject to the jurisdiction of the manorial court of the feudal lord and could not resort to the protection of the royal courts. In addition to cases arising from land relations, the manorial court also had jurisdiction over petty criminal offenses committed by the villans. Only in the 15th century did the “courts of justice” gain the right to interfere in the legal relations of villans and feudal lords and to protect the property rights of the dependent peasantry. On the other hand, the villans took an active part in the work of the manorial court, being its jury and judges.

Formally, the villan was not a slave and had certain personal rights. The señor could not kill or maim his peasant; for beating a villan, a rather large fine was imposed. At the beginning of the 13th century, the Magna Carta established guarantees against the ruin of the peasant economy on the part of the lord, prohibiting arbitrary fines and seizures of the villa’s allotment, however, sources of that time, such as the protocols of the royal courts, say that the lords could freely take land allotments. the villans’ livestock and property, arbitrarily increase their duties. In cases of Villan’s complaints about this to the royal court, the feudal lord only needed to prove the Villan status of the plaintiff and the claim was declared annulled. Thus, the rights of the villans in the 13th century remained a purely declarative subject.
Over time, the traditional volume of peasants’ duties in each specific estate also developed, which the feudal lord could no longer increase at his discretion. This volume began to be recorded in the economic documentation of the estates (in the so-called “manorial scrolls”). Duties were calculated per virgate and did not change when the peasant economy was split up or the villan family grew. Moreover, in relation to third parties, the villan had the same rights as the free one. He could not be deprived of his allotment, which was passed inseparably by inheritance to one of the sons (sometimes in the order of ultimogenesis), provided that the proper amount of duties were carried out in favor of the lord.

The liberation of the villans from serfdom was carried out by the feudal lord issuing an appropriate letter in the presence of witnesses. For his freedom, the villan usually paid the lord a fairly large ransom. However, cases of such liberation during the high Middle Ages were extremely rare. Villan also became a free citizen if he joined the church order. A more common way of liberation was to flee to the cities: if within a year and one day the fugitive was not returned by his master, he became free, according to the famous German principle “the air of the city makes free”.

Villans living on the territory of the royal domain enjoyed special privileges: they were freed from many jobs, could leave allotments at will and were protected by the royal courts. In turn, such villans were rather arbitrarily taxed and levied in favor of the state treasury. These privileges were preserved even when the royal lands were transferred to the feudal lords. The emergence of this stratum of villans is associated with the fiscal reforms of King Henry II. Another special category of villans were personally free peasants who held their lands on serfdom. These were mainly the younger sons of free landowners and their descendants, who were forced to agree to servile duties for providing them with a land plot.

Economic Basis

The economic basis of Villan’s economy was his land plot. The standard size of a Welan’s allotment was one virgata, but there were plots ranging in size from a few acres to a guida. According to tradition, a plot of one virgata was sufficient to support the livelihoods of one peasant family, but the productivity of agriculture depended on local climatic and soil conditions, and in some regions the plots had to be combined to provide food for the villans. Since England was dominated by a system of open fields, the villan’s land was a collection of small strips of arable land in each of the communal fields, interspersed with strips of land of other villans. Each such strip represented an area cultivated by one plow for one day. The distribution of lanes between members of the community was carried out on the basis of the principle of justice: each peasant had a certain share of highly fertile land and land of lower quality. The domains of the feudal lord were also usually interspersed with strips of villans, although the trend towards the formation of compact land plots gained more and more strength over time.

The main farm of the villan was arable farming, and the main cultivated crop was various types of cereals (rye, wheat). Animal husbandry was of secondary importance, and the number of livestock in a villan had to be proportional to the size of his allotment. Unlike free landowners, villans were required to pay a small fee for grazing livestock on communal lands. With the growth of European demand for wool and cloth, the importance of sheep breeding began to increase. Already in the 13th century, some Villanic farms were reoriented to sheep breeding. Later this process accelerated significantly, and although the basis of commercial sheep breeding was made up of manorial farms of feudal lords, the well-to-do part of the villans also took part in the rapid development of this branch of agriculture in the 14th-15th centuries.

Estate transformation

By the end of the 12th century, there was a tendency to commute the duties of villans. Instead of performing ineffective corvee work on the land of the master, part of the villans began to be transferred to the payment of a fixed monetary payment to the lord. A stratum of villans appeared and began to grow rather quickly, who did not carry or bear insignificant labor service, but paid money rent. The commutation of duties significantly improved the economic situation of the peasant economy and contributed to its involvement in commodity-money relations. Some of the first to move to rent relations were some church organizations, for example, foreign abbeys owning lands in England, and the Order of the Knights Templar. However, in the context of growing demand for agricultural products and significant progress in agricultural technology in the second half of the 13th — early 14th centuries, the processes of commutation of labor duties slowed down and there was a tendency to restore the corvee in full. The plague epidemic of 1348 also played a negative role, leading to a shortage of workers in agriculture and an increase in the attachment of villans to the land. However, at the end of the XIV century, the growth of social tension (the uprising of Wat Tyler in 1381 and other actions of the peasants) led to the acceleration of the commutation of corvee duties and a massive transition from feudal to lease relations in the master’s economy.

At the same time, there was a process of fixing the volume of labor and quitrent duties of villans in the manorial scrolls of every English estate. By the XIV century, a fairly stable legal tradition had developed to prevent an arbitrary increase in duties by the feudal lord. The Villans began to seek to provide them with copies of extracts from the minutes of the manorial court, which contained a complete list of duties due to the feudal lord from the villan’s allotment, and which confirmed the peasant’s rights to land. These copies served as a guarantee to the peasant against an arbitrary increase in the volume of his duties and transformed the lord’s absolute feudal power over the villain into a system of customary legal relations. In the 15th century, the replacement of serf holding with a copygold became universal, and the feudal-dependent villan was replaced by a personally free copyholder who performed strictly defined and fixed duties to the lord.

Villans in France

In France, starting from the 9th century, villans were understood as the category of personally free peasants who kept their lands from the feudal lord. In contrast to the bulk of the dependent peasantry, the servos, the villans usually did not carry, or carried a small amount of labor service. Villans paid the seigneur a quitrent (talu), initially in kind, and from the 12th century in cash. The size of the villan’s talja was significantly less than that of the serfs, and was fixed by custom. In addition, the villans paid the lord a fee for the marriage of daughters (formarjaage), payment upon inheritance (menmort), as well as fees for using banalities: baking bread in the bakery of a feudal lord, making wine in his winery, etc. However, the villan had complete personal freedom, he could move freely and in some cases leave his lord.

In the XII century, a massive process of redemption by villans of their obligations began by making a lump sum for the senor’s refusal of certain privileges. As a result, the dependence of the French villain on the lord has lost its personal character. At the same time, the serfs were liberated, which were transformed for ransom into personally free villans. Later, on the basis of the villains category, a fairly wide stratum of small free landowners was formed in France. Nevertheless, vestiges of the Villan state and duties (mainly menmort and formarage) persisted until the French Revolution.

Villans in other countries