The rural world

Peasants at work

The status of the peasantry depended on new developments in agriculture, their types of production, their various geographical situations etc. The system of the great domains with their troops of country serfs disappeared in the early Middle Ages. The typical rural seigniory in the Norman period thus usually relied on direct farming of the lord’s estate, which would vary in time and place, and the allotment of cultivated plots in return for rent in kind or money as fixed by leases (livelli). Such was the case for example in the old Lombard principalities. But the status of small free-holders gathered together in village communities was maintained as it was throughout the west, and especially in Byzantine Apulia.

The Norman seigniory settled into this context and in particular introduced the notable change of the appropriation by the lord of the rights of the public authority whereby he imposed corvées, cartage or highway maintenance in return for the right to till his land. There is nothing original about this, except that the Norman overlords would appear to have invented the idea. It seems to have marked the rural societies of the Mezzogiorno, so much so that in the following period, being able to prove that one’s family was exempt improved one’s chances of obtaining freeman status.

The villeins (villani), a term also known in the Anglo-Norman world, indicated a special condition in the Mezzogiorno: that of the peasants held most tightly under Norman seigniorial control, namely the Moslems of Sicily. This status was also found, albeit much less commonly, in Apulia and Calabria. The rise of the rural seigniory also brought a special category of freemen who came and placed themselves under the protection of a lord and hence became dependent on him: the affiditati (those who had sworn fealty to him).

Relations between the secular and ecclesiastical lords became custom-bound, more favourable to the rural communities when the lord needed them to work fresh land. It is not so much a question of imported institutions but the outcome of the balance of power between peasants and land-holders which, in the Mezzogiorno as elsewhere, presented a range of different local situations and hierarchies, depending chiefly on a peasant’s available resources, especially his ploughing gear (swing-plough and draught animals).

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