Whilst I was finding out about stewards last week, I was also reading about bailiffs. The bailiff was the senior person living on the manor if the lord was absent.
Whereas the position of steward was one of honour, demonstrating the regard in which a man was held by his lord, that of bailiff was much lowlier. He was likely to be a younger son of the gentry or the member of a better-off peasant family and was appointed on the steward’s recommendation. That means that somehow or other he had to have come to the attention of the steward. In the worst cases this might be through bribery, but you can also imagine pushy parents putting their sons in the way of local stewards, or stewards appointing their own illegitimate sons. Often, of course, the steward would simply come across a young man who impressed him.
The bailiff was an employee of the lord of the manor and he collected the rents, so reading and writing were necessary skills. As the lord’s permanent representative on the manor, he didn’t just represent the lord to its inhabitants, but also to strangers and visitors. When the lord was absent, the bailiff lived in the manor house. His life would have been fairly comfortable, except that he was usually hated by the tenants and villeins.
In many ways, his duties were the same as those of the reeve, the chief villein on the manor. There were major differences between them, however, not least that the bailiff was paid and the reeve was not. The reeve was compensated in other ways, and occasionally helped himself to compensation, but the bailiff was paid with money.
The bailiff’s first priority was the demesne, the part of the manor that was solely for the support of the lord. It was the bailiff’s job to manage the livestock and the crops, and to make sure that as little as possible was stolen. He was also responsible for buying in from outside things that couldn’t be grown or made on the manor, such as salt, iron, tar, parchment or nails.
The bailiff was supposed to view the whole manor every day so that he could decide when the land was to be manured, and when the threshing, ploughing sowing and harvesting were going to take place. He also had to watch over the shearing of the sheep. The sale of wood and skins from the manor was his responsibility. The money from these would have been an important part of the lord’s income. He decided which of the lord’s livestock should be bought or sold.
The bailiff also had non-agricultural duties. He was chief law officer and business manager for the manor.
Lords were advised not to appoint friends or relatives as their bailiffs, but the mere fact that this advice is recorded indicates that it was a fairly common practice that must have led to many problems.
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
Life in a Medieval Castle by Joseph Gies and Frances Gies