In the novel I’m currently working on there’s a secondary character who’s a steward. I got a little confused about whether he would be called a steward or a seneschal, so I decided to check.
It turned out to be even more confusing than I thought. There were also two different roles with the same title. In the domestic sphere, the steward was the official in charge of the daily running of a castle or house. In the administrative sphere, the steward was responsible for the lord’s estates.
The difficulty of whether it was steward or seneschal was easily solved. A seneschal was a steward of a great estate.
Essentially, the steward was his lord’s deputy. It was his job to defend his lord’s rights and to look after his property.
Legal knowledge was an important qualification, since he had to represent his lord in court. This was not as hard to come by as you might think. Many people were familiar with the law in the fourteenth century, because it was a very litigious time.
If he had many estates under him, the steward was supposed to visit them and liaise with the bailiffs. The bailiff was the lord’s permanent representative on the manor. The steward had to instruct and guide these men. Lords were advised to appoint older men to the position of steward, because they would know a bit about managing others and they would have some experience of life. Lords were also advised to appoint honest men, although that was more difficult. As well as being a very litigious time it was also a fairly corrupt time.
The steward was supposed to audit the manorial accounts, so being good with numbers was also a requirement. He went to each manor two or three times a year and stayed for a day or two. He supervised any large building projects, such as mills or barns. He gave permission (or not) for any larger than usual expenditure.
The steward presided over the manorial court. He was not the judge, as the decisions were made by villagers acting as jurors. His role was to give weight to those decisions.
The stewards of great lords were usually knights. Not all lords of estates were laymen, many of them were abbots. In the latter case, their stewards were usually clerics. An abbey’s steward might be known as the cellarer.
A Dictionary of Medieval Terms and Phrases by Christopher Corèdon and Ann Williams
Life in a Medieval Village by Joseph Gies and Frances Gies
The English Manor by Mark Bailey