Working through manorial records one encounters a good deal of vocabulary that has gone the same way as the manorial system itself. Some of it takes some explaining; for example demesne (pronounced demain) was land within a manor reserved for the lord’s personal benefit. It was worked by villeins in return for their tenement or rented land or dwelling. Other terms like courts and customs, are more familiar but had a particular meaning within the manor. But what was a manor anyway?
In simple terms a manor was a unit of jurisdiction – a system of social and economic organisation based on tenants holding land from a superior lord. The manor was run according to a set of rules known as the customs of the manor and its business was conducted in manorial courts.
As far as customs are concerned, the world is your oyster so to speak, in yielding some rather wonderful-sounding words. Allegiance is probably obvious in requiring tenants to pay homage to their lord, while a defaulter was the unwise tenant who failed to show up at the court when required. But what about biscot and borchalpening? Biscot was not a small Italian biscuit but a fine on landholders who did not adequately maintain their waterways while borchalpening was a halfpenny fine paid at the view of frankpledge which concerned the operation of tithings, groups of ten households held responsible for the behaviour of each member. It’s exhausting.
Courts were held two or three times a year to receive the tenants’ suit or allegiance and to amerce or fine those who did not show up or send their essoin or excuse for non-appearance. It all sounds very threatening, as does doom, the judgement reached by the jury of the manor court on any misdemeanours.
I do like the sound of scot ale however, a dinner given to tenants on rent days – small recompense for having to work in this system. Yet even in death there was no escape and the unfortunate heir would have to pay a heriot in the form of a best beast or monetary sum to the lord of the manor for the dubious privilege of returning his land at the end of the deceased’s tenancy. All these practices gradually died out and the manorial system was abolished in 1922. Sighs of relief all round I should think.