The most common fief was a land holding called a manor. During the Middle
Ages nine families worked on a manor producing food to feed themselves
and provide food for a tenth family to do something else. (In the modern
United States, the relationship is perhaps 100 to 1 in the other
A typical manor was a great house or castle, surrounded by fields,
cottages, pastures, and woodlands. The manor was largely self-sufficient.
Surpluses of a few commodities were traded with other manors for
commodities in shortage. As the Middle Ages continued and the markets of
towns grew, manors became more specialized because they were more
efficient at producing only a few commodities. Some manors specialized in
cheese, pigs, wine, grain, or vegetables, for example.
The lord of the manor (landlord) occupied the manor house or castle with
his family, servants, and retainers. Retainers were usually knights and
professional soldiers on hand to provide defense and be ready to fulfill
any feudal military obligations to a senior lord. The larger the manor,
the greater the number of retainers.
The population of a manor consisted mainly of peasants (nonnoble and
nonprofessional). The farmhands were mostly serfs who spent up to half of
their week working the lord's lands in return for his protection. Each
serf family owned several rows in each of the manor's fields from which
it obtained a living. Serfs were not slaves, but they were not free
either. They could not marry, change jobs, or leave the manor without the
lord's permission. But a serf had some rights, unlike a slave. His
position was hereditary and passed down in his family. His land could not
be taken so long as he fulfilled his obligations. While the relationship
between vassal and lord seems comparable to serf and landlord, a clear
distinction was made in the Middle Ages between an honorable contract to
provide military service versus mere manual labor.
Farming technology gradually changed the lives of serfs as the Middle
Ages progressed. Food production increased and surpluses were sold,
providing serfs with the money to buy their freedom. By the end of the
period, there were few serfs in western Europe.