Slavery and serfdom in medieval Milton Abbas

In our translation of the Milton Abbey Customary of 1317, which is not yet completed, it is clear that the majority of the peasants working on the Abbey were compelled to provide labour services, that is they had to work many days of the year for the Abbot, mostly without pay or food, doing all the agricultural jobs such as reaping, ploughing, sowing, threshing, harrowing, mending fences and buildings, washing sheep, digging ditches, moving pens, manuring, and carting. On top of this they had to pay rent for their land and cottages. They also had to pay for many other things, such as sheriffpenny, scotpenny, nutpenny, the meaning of which we are still researching. They could not move to another village, nor get their children educated, nor marry without the Abbot’s consent. Even if they wanted to do any of these things they had to pay, of course. When they died their best goods, often a cow or ox, were taken by the Abbot. On top of all this serfdom they had to pay tithes to the church, and when they died, their children inherited the same servile status. If the Abbot sold their land, then their servile status was still bound to the land, and their labour service remained the same. So, in effect they were bought and sold as chattels at the Abbot’s whim.

In Hutchins’ History and Antiquities of the County of Dorset it says “In the customary of Milton it appears that in all or most of the manors belonging to the convent their tenants were quite slaves….”. Some of the work listed for each person covers several pages of text, and is minutely described. It seems that the poor peasants on Milton Abbey estates had very little time left over to tend to their own plots. Clearly their wives and children had to do most of this manual work. 

We are researching other customaries of the early 14th century to see if other landlords were just as demanding as the Abbot of Milton.

Of course the word slave was not used to describe these peasants at the time. The customaries are in Latin, as is Domesday book, and words such as villani, servarri, cottarrii, bordarri, virgatarri, are used, depending on how much land they rented from the Abbot. It is likely that they did not know today the work that would be demanded of them tomorrow by the bailiff or steward. They had to do as they were told, or they would be brought before the Abbot’s court, which was held every few weeks, and fined. If they did not pay the fine then their goods were taken by the Abbot. They were also brought to court if their work was unsatisfactory, but this is another story (and another set of documents – the manor court rolls).

For more on the topic of medieval serfdom and slavery see the History of Law blog, and the Economic History Society.

This entry was posted in Medieval history. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s