Duhaime's Law Dictionary

Villeinage Definition:

A form of slavery under the English feudal land system; the Lord owned a villein outright, as a chattel.

Related Terms: Manumission, Socage, Slavery

Farmers and for the most part, slaves, subject entirely to the lords of their lands, in the ancient English feudal system.

Consider this statement of the law circa Sir Edward Coke, as stated in Combes's Case:

"(T)he Lord may beat his villain for cause or without cause and the villain shall not have any remedy...."

John Bouvier notes that the power of the Land Lord over his villeins was "absolute":

"He can sell them and treat them as he pleases; for they are his chattels ....

"The villein held a plot of land and made a living out of it... While the Lord might imprison and beat his villein, the criminal law protected him against grosser forms of violence.

"While he was, as against his Lord, rightless, or nearly so, as against the rest of the world he was regarded as free....

"[T]he chief profit to be made from villeins is from manumission. At the end of the 16th century, villein tenure and villein status were obsolete."

In Thimblerig v Hookey, Justice Coleridge wrote:

"A villein, if I have not forgotten my Oxford learning, was one who did odd jobs.

"A villein carried food to the pigs...

"The villein was dependent on a lord and was his man."

In his Tenures, Thomas Littleton wrote that the duties of the villein included:

"... to carry ... the dung of his Lord out of the city ... and to spread the same upon the land, and such like."

According to Wharton, there were two kinds of villeinage:

"1st, pure, where a man holds upon terms of doing whatsoever is commanded of him; and 2nd, privileged, otherwise called villein socage."

In his 1871 book, Heard writes:

"About the year 1554, Henry VIII manumitted two of his villeins in these words, which are not without their application at the present day:

"Whereas God created all men free, but afterwards the laws and customs of nations subjected some under the yoke of servitude, we think it pious and meritorious with God to manumit Henry Knight, a taylor, and Herle, a husbandman, our natives, as being born within the manor of Stoke Clymmysland, in our county of Cornwall, together with all their goods, lands, and chattels acquired or to be acquired, so as the said persons and their issue shall from henceforth by us be free and of free condition."


  • Combes's Case, 9 Co. Rep. 76
  • Heard, Franklin Fiske, Curiosities of the Law Reporters (Boston: W.S. Bartlett, 1871), page 41.
  • Somerset v Stewart, 1 Lofft 1 (1772). In relation to this case, the defendant Charles Stewart is also sometimes presented as Steuart or Stuart).
  • Thimblerig v Hookey (citation needed)
  • Wambaugh, Eugene, Littleton's Tenures in English (Washington: John Bryne Law Publishers, 1903), page 84.

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