The Medieval Bailiff


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


April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Life

30 responses to “The Medieval Bailiff

  1. Looks like the role of a bailiff expanded through the years as now they have much more power. Or is that another use of the word?

    Liked by 4 people

    • I think it’s an amalgamation of both the roles of rent collecter and officer of the law. As a representative of the crown and of the lord of the manor, they would have been powerful men in the fourteenth century.

      Liked by 3 people

  2. Wonder if the surname Baily (Ballie, Bailey, etc.) came from the position of bailiff? While it also means the enclosed land surrounding the motte, it is so common a name that it must have derived from a position of employment.

    It would be an interesting to hear stories about bailiffs & why they were chosen.

    Also interesting is the payment of the reeve. That position seems fraught with opportunities to feather nests and foster enemies.

    Bailiff, reeve, steward, seneschal — all positions that can make one a marked man. Fortunate was the lord who could find truly honest and dependable men!

    But the times were hard and hard men were the ones who got ahead when blood ties weren’t possible!

    Bravo! Please ma’am, may we have more?

    Liked by 5 people

    • I think the surname does come from this office.

      Reeves were always assumed to be feathering their own nests at the expense of their lord. Chaucer’s reeve certainly was. Some reeves had to make up any shortfalls on the agricultural side of the manor out of their own pocket, so many would rather pay a fine that take on the role.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Oh! One of your sources is named Bailey! Wonder where HIS surname sourced? ☺

    Liked by 2 people

  4. A very demanding position, so much to do!

    Liked by 4 people

  5. Great post April. Thank you for sharing your research. I always learn something new.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. What’s that? Cronyism a common practice between people in power, you say? Psssh nothing of the sort 😉

    Liked by 2 people

  7. So would the demesne have been the approximate equivalent of what I’ve sometimes heard referred to nowadays as the “home farm”? Bailiffs must have been very busy men.

    Loved the last paragraph. I tend to operate on the assumption that more advice on what people shouldn’t be doing, the more likely they are to be doing it. (This is particularly true of all the advice on female behaviour of course.)

    On a slightly different note, I looked for Terry Jones’ Chaucer book in the local library – they didn’t have it – but found a reduced price copy online so ordered it. I hope it arrives while I’m still in holiday mode.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Now you’re asking. I don’t know about the ‘home farm’. Wikipedia says it is and it would make sense.

      I think the bailiffs must have been incredibly busy. I doubt anyone would have wanted to make life easier for them.

      I hope you enjoy the Terry Jones book. The pictures are worth it, even if you don’t enjoy the text. Pearsall’s biography of Chaucer arrived last week. It’s second hand, but the person who owned it must have treated their books as I treat mine. I can tell it’s been read, but there’s no damage to the book. I’ve already had a peak, and he suggests that Lewis Chaucer was conceived when Chaucer raped Cecily Champagne. I want to read it soon.

      Liked by 2 people

  8. Pingback: The Reeve | A Writer's Perspective

  9. I hadn’t know what a bailiff did before reading your post. Thank you for explaining it.

    I know some women were nuns in the middle ages. Out of curiosity, do you know what other occupations they could have held back then?

    Liked by 2 people

    • Women brewed and sold ale. I know some women had special tasks in goldsmithing, but only if they were married to a goldsmith. During the Black Death some were allowed to carry on the trades of their late husbands, presumably because they’d worked with them when they were alive. Spinning was mostly done by women. I haven’t really come across anything else, but that doesn’t mean women didn’t do other things.

      Liked by 3 people

    • Well, there were always domestic jobs; maid, housekeeper, scullery wench, child care. There were castle gardens to tend, dairies (women tended to get better results when milking — men’s hands could be hard on the teats) and the creating of cheeses & milk products, midwives, sewing (everything was hand stitched), field work (men reaped & women usually gathered and stooked sheaves); hoeing, weeding, shooing away crows & rooks, poultry (including pigeons, quail, peacocks, etc.), basketry (baskets were essentials & often quite specialized). Being a time when all things were handmade, women were indispensable.

      Unmarried women, especially older ones, were expected to stay busy and earn their keep. Carding & spinning were so connected to unmarried women that the word “spinster”, once just the name of the job, came to mean any unwed woman. Unmarried women were suspect, and considered — as with widows — the Devil’s prime targets for mayhem & mischief. So odious was the unmarried state that it was almost dangerous to not have a husband, or if a widow, children old enough to take care of their mothers & prevent them from being labeled village scolds.

      Common women could not often provide a dowry to join a convent. Instead, they would be employed at nunneries in the same occupations as would be found in any large household. A poor woman aspiring to religious life would have to be considered unusually pious and special to be allowed to take orders. Dowries were as critical to convent life as they were to marriage. The religious sisters we are familiar with — the ones who serve God as teachers, nurses, etc., weren’t so familiar to the medieval folk. Many convents were just places where people with means could tuck unmarried daughters & gain points in Heaven. Giving a child to God, even if the child had no inclination for it, was an act of piety and scored good marks for the parents.

      I love how April inspires me to remember the things she and her resources taught!

      Liked by 3 people

      • Sadly, paid domestic work wasn’t available to women in the fourteenth century. Household servants were men, with the exception of the women who waited on the lord’s wife and daughters. There would be a nursemaid for the younger children. Men cooked and men cleaned.

        Any agricultural work women did was supporting their husbands, brothers or fathers. Men made the baskets and men wove. Fine decorative sewing tended to be done in convents.

        Few women could be independent. Even widows who were financially secure were encouraged to marry again.

        Liked by 4 people

        • That’s right! Women were scarcer in occupations, unless assisting husbands. I’m jumping ahead a bit. I do remember reading about women preparing basket weaving materials (removing pith from willow twigs), but they did it so the husbands were free to do the actual weaving. I do not remember the time frame — probably somewhat past the 1400’s. I used to do a little basketry, and smaller, nimbler hands are better for such mundane chores.

          Children might also have been employed at the task.

          Liked by 1 person

  10. I love reading medieval mysteries/crime novels and reading your posts has added so much to my understanding of terms used and so increased my enjoyment. Thanks

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I always find these posts so fascinating.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Pingback: Anatomy of a Monastery – The Obedientiaries Part One | A Writer's Perspective

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