Why did manorialism come to be the structure under which Europeans lived?

Manorialism came to be the structure under which Europeans lived because of the need for labor and security during several turbulent centuries of little centralized political control. Large landowners required laborers to farm their manors, while landless workers needed employment and protection. Constantine’s Laws and the Theodosian Code legally supported the system, binding workers to specific territory and curtailing their ability to challenge their servile status.

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Manorialism was a central component of feudalism, which persisted in Europe through the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance. The manorial system has its roots in the Roman villa system, in which a central powerful individual and his estate secured the work of laborers, especially in agriculture but also for personal service. Many of these workers were slaves.

In the chaotic years as the Roman Empire was challenged and eventually fell, these workers left the enslaved status. Amidst the nearly constant violent conflicts and threats from hostile forces, landowners swore allegiance to more powerful figures who commanded military forces. Their estates were called manors or fiefs, and the associated agricultural land was worked by dependent laborers, usually called serfs. Although these workers were not enslaved, they and their descendants remained contractually bound to the local lord. In exchange, they were afforded protection from violent attacks.

The manorial system solidified and expanded in part through legislation that favored the rights of the landlords and denied rights to the workers, often referred to by the Latin term coloni. In the fourth century BCE, the emperor Constantine I had enacted a set of laws that created the consolidated colonus class, which consisted of both former slaves and free farmers. These laws significantly limited the ability of coloni to challenge their status in the courts. In the fifth century, within a large body of laws known as the Theodosian Code, these limitations were made even more stringent. Workers did not have the right to freely move between employers, but were bound to the land they worked and to that specific landowner.

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