What is a Demesne?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

In the manorialist system of land ownership which existed across much of Europe during the feudal era, the demesne was a section of land set aside for the exclusive use of the lord of the manor. By contrast, so-called alienated lands were given out as freeholds by the lord. The lord could use the demesne however he saw fit, and the uses for this land shifted radically throughout the feudal era, depending on the condition of the economy, the demand for various consumer goods, and regional differences.

Since a demesne was the land a lord had exclusive right to, many feudal leaders built permanent structures on theirs.
Since a demesne was the land a lord had exclusive right to, many feudal leaders built permanent structures on theirs.

This term literally means “domain,” and it sometimes appears in old books as an archaic spelling for “domain.” It comes from the Old French demeine, derived from the Latin dominicus, “belonging to the master.”

Lords of the manor typically chose the best land for themselves.
Lords of the manor typically chose the best land for themselves.

The demesne did not necessarily have to be contiguous with the manor house, although it often was. It was common for lords to select the finest lands for themselves, and there was sometimes a conflict between the lord's demesne and the glebe lands belonging to the Church, since the Church was also eager to get its hands on the best land possible. Many such conflicts had to be resolved by the Monarch, with Monarchs considering the balance between rewarding loyal followers with land and placating the immensely powerful medieval Church.

In some regions, the lord worked the demesne himself, but it was more common for the land to be worked by serfs, who labored for free in return for housing and small plots of land on which they could grow their own food. This slave-like relationship slowly began to evolve, with the lord instead renting out lands to serfs and peasants for them to work. Over time, many of these rents turned into hereditary leases, and although the residents did not own the land in freehold, they essentially controlled it and acted like landlords, looking out for the well-being of the land and making critical decisions about land use.

After the medieval era, this type of land ownership began to be phased out, although some examples of former manorial estates do exist. For example, several small villages and settlements in England are still owned by a single family which leases homes to residents in a remnant of the feudal system. In modern times, feudalism has come to be viewed as an extremely unjust system, especially in the United States, where many people have a great deal of faith in upward mobility, something which was not available to most people in the feudal era.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@ceilingcat - You're probably right. After all, a medieval king probably would have believed the church had some kind of power over his immortal soul. Better not to anger the priests!

Anyway, I think it's interesting how this practice evolved into the feudal system. I'm also a little surprised to hear that there are some villages in England that are still owned by one family and rented out to people that live there. As an American, I can't imagine wanting to live in my hometown but never having the option to buy my own home! Plus, what if you angered the family that owned your house somehow? I could just see that ending badly.


I find it very entertaining that the Medieval church would often argue with the lord of the manor over the demesne. Churches are normally supposed to concerned with matters of the soul, so I would imagine a contemporary church engaging such a dispute.

Still, times were different then, as the article said. The medieval church had much more power. I imagine it was extremely difficult for kings to settle these types of disputes. Whichever way the kind ruled, someone would still be upset.

I kind of imagine most of those disputes were probably settled in favor of the church, as it was much more powerful than one single nobleman.

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