Peasants on their way to Rome

Once again, I find time catching up with me. I had a plan for the Caltrop Core Jam that has gotten too ambitious to finish for the jam. Instead I will try out a new game, Run, Villein Run!

But What Is a Villein?

Peasant Woman Carrying Two Bundles
Villeinage exited for a long time!

First off, lets discuss exactly what a villein was. In order to do that, we need to talk a bit about the history of common folk and land rights in Medieval England. Some of what I am about to discuss would apply to some other parts of Europe and their practices of manorialism & serfdom. However, I am focusing on England because that is what I am most familiar with. Also keep in mind that we are talking about a legal tradition that existed for a long time in a wide area, so it likely experienced changes over the course of time and I am trying to make this relatively simple.

Villeins have the connection into the modern term of “villain” thanks to poor-shaming and rural-shaming, but in reality were common folk. Their lives were similar to serfs and other forms of unfree peasantry. All of these unfree peasants were bonded tenants at the bottom of the land tenure system, They would normally live on land belonging to a manor in one of the surrounding small settlements.

The seed of villeinage and serfdom in the Western legal tradition comes from Late Roman law in Emperor Diocletian’s (284-305) reforms. He sought to anchor the Empire’s population to prevent free folk from moving to urban centers. In theory it would make land-based taxation easier & stabilize the agrarian economy.

What did a Villein do?

A villein was required to do labor for the lord of the manor that they lived under. In exchange, they were guaranteed a plot for a home, loaned land to farm for their own, and basic legal protections. The labor villeins had to do for their lord depended on the economics of the particular manor, but could include work in mines or forests in addition to the typical agricultural work on the Lord’s demesne. Either way, it would often involve several day’s labor a week. In peak labor times like harvests, it was round the clock with work on the lord’s fields coming first.

Why be a Villein?

Because of the basic guarantees to land that villeinage provided, a number of people willingly entered into this bonded relationship in the Early to High Medieval periods, but most were born into it. Using the Domesday Book of 1086 as an example, they made up ~35% of the recorded population. About 12% were free landholders and the remainder were various forms of landless laborers and slaves (likely þēow or thralls that could be bought and sold in Anglo-saxon England). To some, villeinage was more stable and preferable than a life of vagrancy (homelessness) or being a landless cotter surviving on their labor alone.

Villeins also gained some basic rights others in their communities either didn’t have or had to pay for. These included the right to harvest deadwood from manor forests or use the designated common lands for animals. The only mentions of land being taken away from a villein that I am aware of was through an exchange of one land for another or failure on the villein’s part to complete their required services. Finally, the structure of land tenure protected the villain from changes of lordship because the tenancy were bound to the land or manor itself. Should a title to a manor house change hands between nobles, the villains would stay put and be largely unaffected.

Villeins paying their taxes to the manor's steward or bailiff
Villeins paying their taxes & fees to the manor’s steward or bailiff

This is not to say that villeins could not own private property or had no rights. In fact, except in the eyes of all other persons other than their lord, they were legally equal to a free peasant, if not always treated such socially.

However, many rights we would now consider basic either required their lord’s permission or the payment of a fine to exercise. For example, a villein often need permission and pay a fine to marry known as “merchet.” Others fees included the “fistlingpound,” which seems to be some kind of like insurance against physical harm & punishment for the villeins and their village, and “chevage or “chiefage” which acted as a kind of poll-tax. Moving to another place required both the permission of the current manor lord and the lord of the villein’s new manor because they were basically transferring their labor and its contribution to the land’s wealth from one property to another. The most legal means of freedom for a villein normally required compensating the lord for their loss in a process commonly called manumission or enfranchisement.

So How Did One Become a Free Person?

Eventually villeinage largely died out on it’s own, at least in England. As the economy and society changed in England, many lords were willing to manumit (break the bond) their villeins. Some of these now free peasants would continue living at the manor with a different form of tenancy arrangements like sharecropping or rents. Others were unfortunately evicted as

However, another means of gaining freedom from a villeinage was to flee from one’s manor lands and seek refuge in a free city or borough for at least a year based on old Anglo-Saxon customs. In fact this is one of the customs that inspired modern ideas of “Freedom of the City” comes from. Burghers were know to prevent officials from the feudal lords from taking away villeins from the city. This behavior inspired a petition during the Parliament of 1391 to Richard II.

“In a Petition to Parliament AD 1391, various feudal lords complain that if they or their officers enter a franchised city or borough in order to seize their villeins according to law and custom, the burghers prevent such seizure by force. […] Moreover, if a villein be taken by his lord, the citizens or burghers set up their franchise, and will not allow him to be removed, to the lord’s serious damage. These petitioners therefore pray his Majesty give directions in Parliament that existing feudal rights over the persons of fugitive villeins may be peacefully exercised in all cities and boroughs, notwithstanding any franchises, customs and usages to the contrary.”

-A History of Private Bill Legislation, Chapter 6

This would have effectively banned the custom and made the fugitive status of escaped villeins permanent if Richard II agreed. However, he decided to not accept their petition. He did not want to further destabilize the Commons that had been burdened under heavy taxes to the point of rebellion only ten years prior. Therefore, the rules of city freedom remained in place until villeinage become effectively defunct as a land tenure practice.

Now, this was not necessarily a very common practice to flee to the chartered cities & buroughs because it did mean losing out on a potentially more stable life, but it was common enough that under exploitative or harsh lords that villeins and their cottar kin would make the effort, as fleeing was one of the few means of peasant resistance. This was also a frequent occurrence among the serfs from other parts of the world. For example, some of you may have heard of Russian serfs fleeing to the lands of the Don Cossacks.

Now to the Game!

As you can probably surmise now, the game would cover the attempted flight of a villein from their village to a borough or city to escape an abusive lord and their staff. They would likely not be able to prepare much and would need to cross much of the country on foot. This would mean that they would have to not only evade capture, but also find some means of surviving along the path. I could see this working best as solo or a 1 player / 1 storyteller game, but my game is likely going to be 1+1 or a small group

An expanded version of this game could also cover survival in the city or borough the villein escapes to for the year and a day that they have to be in hiding within the limits. This would include not only keeping a low profile, but also finding ways to survive in the new borough and seeking allies should the lord’s bailiffs come to find you. This will go beyond the scope of Run Villein, Run! but I might cover this in an expansion or a new, related game.

It could even be possible expanding this type of game to a non-Medieval setting. I could see a game of this style working to explore people trying to escape or fight against different kinds of exploitation. The means of escaping could be drastically different, but ultimately the basic mechanics of avoiding detection, surviving on limited resources, and reaching a final point would likely be similar. Any of these variants could also include a community building mechanic once the escape to a temporarily safe place has been achieved to prepare for possible detection and defense against the people coming to take you back.

I hope you enjoyed this admittedly deeper dive than I intended. I would love to see if any of you reading this are inspired by this idea yourselves so please let me know if you release something! I might come back to this idea at some point, hopefully with some mechanics fleshed out. Who knows what the future holds.

Remember that if you like what you see on the blog and you would like to see more that you can support me by purchasing my games on or supporting my work here via Ko-fi!

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