How Villages Changed Under the Normans

What was life like in Norman villages?
Around 95% of the population lived in villages, and the economy was mostly based on sheep farming and the growing of crops. Life was hard, and bad harvests could result in starvation.
How many villages were there in Norman England?
The Domesday Book, in 1086, recorded nearly 13,500 villages in England.
  • Villages varied in size, but many would only have a handful of families. A village of 67 families was large, while some only had five or six households.
  • However, the Normans had destroyed large parts of the north of England in the Harrying of the North of 1069/70. One third of Yorkshire was described in 1086 as 'waste'.
Who were the peasants in Norman villages?
The peasants, who worked the land, were all Saxon. But there were different types of peasant.
  • Freemen paid the lord rent for their land. Often they also carried out 'boon work' - unpaid extra work on the lord's demesne.
  • Villeins were unfree peasants, who worked on the lord's land for no pay. They had a little land to farm for themselves. They could not leave the land without the lord's permission.
  • Bordars and cottars were poorer villeins, who rarely had enough land of their own to live on.
  • Around 10% of the population were slaves, who had no freedom and no land. The Normans gradually got rid of slavery, but it took time.
What work did peasants do in Norman villages?
Many aspects of village life did not change after the Norman Conquest. Peasants' work did not change, as it was guided by the weather and the seasons.
  • Each village was surrounded by large fields, which were divided into strips. Each peasant had a few strips of land to farm.
  • The villagers agreed which crops to grow in each field. Much of the year was spent ploughing, sowing seeds and growing crops, and harvesting them at the end of the summer.
  • Villagers also had their own gardens, which they used to grow fruit and vegetables. They also kept chickens and other animals.
  • Villages also had common land, where all the villagers grazed their animals - such as the oxen they used for ploughing.
  • There was often woodland, too, where pigs could root for acorns, and where villagers collected firewood.
  • All work was done by hand, apart from ploughing, which was done by ox-drawn ploughs - these were owned in common by the whole village.
What did people eat in Norman villages?
People's diets did not change after the Norman Conquest. But there was a big difference between what Saxon peasants and Norman lords ate.
  • Peasants ate what they could grow. Their diet basically consisted of bread, oat porridge and vegetables. They got dairy products from the animals they kept. Eating meat was a luxury.
  • By contrast, the Norman lords had much more variety. They also ate bread, but it was better quality than the peasants' bread. They ate much more meat, and fewer vegetables and dairy products. Overall, the Norman lords' diet was much worse than the peasants'.
What were houses like in Norman villages?
The houses that the Saxon peasants and the Norman lords lived in were also very different.
  • Peasants lived in single-room houses, which were dark, damp and smoky. They usually did not have windows, a fire in the middle of the room was used for warmth and cooking. The peasants brought their animals into the house at night.
  • The Norman lord lived in a much grander manor house. The manor house was usually built of stone. Although most business took place in the large hall, the lord had a separate sleeping chamber, and usually a separate kitchen building. The manor house had windows, although it still relied on a central hearth for heat.
Who was the bailiff in a Norman village?
The bailiff was the man in charge of making sure that the villagers did their work, especially on the lord's land. He was usually chosen from amongst the villagers.
How did villages change under the Normans?
Although village life largely stayed the same, the Normans did introduce some significant changes after 1066.
  • Almost all the old Saxon lords were replaced by Norman lords, who aimed to make more money from their new lands.
  • Almost every village had a church, which was built of stone. Wooden Saxon churches were pulled down and rebuilt.
  • The lords also built large manor houses from stone. Again, any wooden Saxon manor houses were rebuilt.
  • Many Norman lords built mills for grinding flour. The peasants had to use the lord's mill, and had to pay for the privilege.
  • The Norman lords charged more rent from their freemen. Many could not afford these higher rents, so became villeins.
  • The Normans did gradually end slavery, however, largely because the Church disapproved of enslaving Christians.
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