Introduction: The unfree members of society

Pages xlvi-xlvii

Final Concords of the County of Lincoln 1244-1272. Originally published by Lincol Record Society, Horncastle, 1920.

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Many cases in this volume relate to the unfree members of English society in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. These persons are generally referred to as villeins; once they are called natiui, born serfs (fn. 1); and in many instances the word neifty, natiuitas (the condition of being a neif, natiuus) is used to describe their condition. (fn. 2) In twenty-nine cases from John and Sarah de Rye's manor at Sutton in Holland the words used are natiuitas siue seruitudo. (fn. 3) In two places cottars, whose tenements were smaller than those of villeins, are mentioned. (fn. 4)

The concords in this volume tell nothing about the agricultural services which the villeins owed to their lords. The services of ploughing, digging, mowing, reaping and attendance at the lord's boon-days, are those which are due from the free tenants holding in villeinage. Villeins are frequently transferred from one lord to another along with the land to which they are attached, the land carrying with it the villeins settled upon it as it carries the buildings erected upon it—uillenagia cum uillanis ea uillenagia tenentibus et sequelis suis. (fn. 5) Uillenagium in this context means villein-land or customary land, and it is perhaps scarcely legitimate to translate it, as has been done in the text, by the word villeinage, which properly means either the status or the tenure of a villein.

A villein might obtain his personal freedom as the result of a plea of neifty begun by his lord; or of a plea de probanda libertate originated by himself (fn. 6); or by charter from his lord, which is the method adopted in the case of the twenty-nine villeins quoted above. It was a principle of thirteenth century law that a villein could have no heir but his lord; and therefore the concords speak of his sequel, sequela, issue. It is a word that is used of animals, for their brood or litter, and it marks the inferiority of the unfree. (fn. 7) If a lord made a grant of land to be held freely by the villein and his heirs, as in the cases relating to the villeins of Sutton, even though there were no formal quittance of neifty, as there is in those cases, such a grant would, by implying the villein's personal freedom, actually effect his enfranchisement. (fn. 8) In the Sutton grants it is impossible to trace any principle in the amounts paid for enfranchisement. One villein who receives eight acres pays 5l. of sterlings and owes a yearly rent of 3s. 0½d., while another, who receives eight acres and a quarter pays 60 shillings of sterlings and owes a rent of 1s. 2½d. (fn. 9)


  • 1. See below, p. 129, no. 8.
  • 2. See Index of Subjects, s.v. Pleas.
  • 3. See below, pp. 191, 195, 200, 202, 204, 206–8, 210–11, 213–17, 219–22.
  • 4. See below, p. 48, no. 36; p. 302, no. 57.
  • 5. See Index of Subjects, s.v. Villeins.
  • 6. See above p. xxxv. Below, p. 4, no. 7; p. 71, no. 68. Cp. p. 28, no. 87; pp. 129–30, no. 8.
  • 7. Hist. Eng. Law, i, 381.
  • 8. Ibid., i, 427.
  • 9. See below, p. 195, no. 34; p. 211, no. 100.