24 October 2011

Villains: ...or villeins?

By Lindsay Townsend
Sheep pen, from the Luttrell Psalter
In English, ‘villain’ means a criminal. This word is derived from the older word ‘villein’ which originally meant a worker on the land and has a history going back to the Roman villa. In the Middle Ages, villeins were bound by law to their land and their lord and had to perform various low-status jobs, such as working in their lord’s fields. Villeins came to resent these ‘dues’ particularly as the lord was often lax when it came to his side of the bargain (such as protection).

Worse, in popular beliefs of the time, villeins were seen as low, crude creatures. In art they were deliberately depicted as ugly, because of their low status. Hence the rather unflattering portraits in the margins of ms such as the Luttrell Psalter. (This has meant that in modern French ‘vilain’ means ‘ugly’.) They were seen as having no entitlements. ‘Villeins ye are, and villeins ye shall remain,’ replied King Richard II after the brutal suppression of the Peasants’ Revolt in England in 1381. The church taught that a villein not doing his lord’s work was not only liable to be fined, but could also expect to go to hell. Villein women were vulnerable to rape and sexual exploitation by their ‘betters’ and no one complained. Andreas Capellanus, writing in the twelfth century, suggested to any knight seeking to embrace a peasant woman that he should ‘not hesitate to take what you seek and to embrace her by force’.

In verse as well as art the villein was depicted as crude, vulgar, stupid and sulky. Court records of the Middle Ages show villeins being fined for not turning up for work on their lord’s land. Any requested for better treatment was regard as the ‘malice’ of servants. ‘What should a serf do but serve?’ asked a monk. One belief of the time was that villeins were descended from Cain, the first murderer.

So perhaps it is not surprising that 'villain' has come to mean a person of evil deeds!

Lindsay Townsend

Lindsay Townsend writes historical romance set in medieval England and the ancient Mediterranean. Lindsay's latest book, To Touch the Knight, a story of jousting, deception and romance at the time of the Black Death, is published by Kensington Zebra in July.