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Essentially, manorialism (a very broad term) depended on the fact that serfs were tied to the land, meaning that they could not leave, nor could they purchase the land on which they worked, which was usually divided into strips around the manorial lands. They farmed their lands, kept some for themselves, and owed the rest to the lord who owned the land. They also often had to pay dues for milling grain as well as other services. On the one hand, this was clearly an unequal relationship. On the other, it also entailed certain obligations on the part of the lord, who offered his protection, legal and otherwise, to the peasants. They also had access to common lands for grazing livestock. In any case, manorial obligations were never monolithic, and were often negotiated between lord and serfs, especially in times when there were labor shortages. The mutuality of the lord-serf relationship should not be understated. But certainly, serfs had little to no economic or social independence, and often lived very difficult lives, suffering terribly during times of famine and poor harvests.
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