In the countryside, where most of the population lived, the most important man in a fourteenth century village was the reeve. Although he was a villein, he had great responsibility. The village housed the serfs and tenants of the lord of the manor. There were three main officials who ran the manor:
- the steward
- the bailiff
- the reeve
The first two looked out entirely for the lord’s interests, but the reeve also had responsibilities to the villagers.
Men who worked the land were either free or serfs (cottagers, smallholders or villeins). Serfs were not slaves, but they could do very little without the permission of the lord of the manor. The reeve was a villein, which meant he was a serf. He was selected for the position by the other villagers. Usually he came from one of the better-off families. The position of reeve meant that he had further opportunity to increase his wealth.
He came into the position at Michaelmas (29th September). This was when the agricultural year began. He served a fixed term, a number of years, and one of his main tasks was to make sure that those who owed labour to the lord reported for work and gave what they owed. He was responsible for every activity on the lord’s demesne as well as the livestock. The demesne was the farm that the lord kept for his own benefit. The rest of the land was leased to tenants. The demesne was worked by the lord’s own serfs, who were normally required to work for him for three days a week and to provide additional services at ploughing and harvest times. The serfs lived off their own strips of land, which they worked when they were not working for the lord. These strips also belonged to the lord.
Some reeves sold produce from the lord’s demesne and some collected rents. The reeve had to provide the demesne account at the end of the agricultural year, which he usually did by reading the marks on his tally stick to the lord’s clerk, who wrote it down.
The reeve was not paid with money, but the benefits he received made the position more than worthwhile. He did not have to provide any agricultural labour to the lord, and he might eat occasionally at the lord’s table. In many places, however, where quotas were required to be met by the village, the reeve would probably have to make up any shortfall himself.
Reeves were sometimes accused of using their master’s property, seed and labour provided by the villeins on their own holdings.
One of the reasons why the position of reeve was unpopular (some men paid to avoid the responsibility) was that the demesne was usually about ten times or more the size of anything the reeve had managed before and there was always the risk that he might not be capable of managing it, if it was his first term. The risk of a bad choice being made by the villagers was felt by both the lord and the reeve. The reeve had local knowledge of the land, the labour, the nearby markets, the best crops to grow and the best animals to raise, but he was responsible for making it all work together, ensuring that the harvest was sufficient for the lord’s household with enough to spare for sale. There was always a chance that an inexperienced reeve would be overwhelmed by the size of the task. The lord bore another risk – that the reeve would prove to be dishonest. To mitigate this risk most manors had stewards and auditors to check on the reeve.
If he was any good a reeve could usually make a profit from his office, not however, to the extent depicted in the Canterbury Tales. There is an old reeve among Chaucer’s pilgrims. Chaucer implies that he is as much a crook as the miller, his fellow pilgrim, since he is richer than his lord.