What Was a Freeman in the Middle Ages?

In the Middle Ages, a freeman was a tenant-worker who was not bound to the land, but instead paid rent in exchange for residence. Freemen were free to take their services to other manors or villages if they pleased. This distinguished them from other members of the Third Estate, such as serfs—who were basically a part of the land and sold along with it during transfers of property.

Medieval society was made up of three social classes, known as the Three Estates. Freemen were part of the Third Estate. Because their lives were not bound to a specific piece of land, as was the case with serfs, freemen enjoyed slightly more social mobility. Freemen could take their services to either the rural or urban parts of the country.

If they chose a rural lifestyle, they paid a fixed rent (either money or produce) in exchange for using the owner’s land. Some freemen became landowners themselves and even became wealthy through their industry. Other freemen chose to live in the city, where they could participate in wage labor or engage in independent commercial activities such as trading.

Although freemen enjoyed greater liberty and mobility than serfs, it was still highly unusual for them to rise into a higher Estate. The few who accomplished this did it by showing extraordinary valor in battle or by entering the clergy.