Villein, or villain, was a term used in the feudal era to denote a peasant (tenant farmer) who was legally tied to a lord of the manor – a villein in gross – or in the case of a villein regardant to a manor. Villeins occupied the social space between a free peasant (or "freeman") and a slave. The majority of medieval European peasants were villeins. An alternative term is serf, from the Latin servus, meaning "slave". A villein could not leave the land without the landowner's consent.
The term derives from Late Latin villanus, meaning a man employed at a Roman villa rustica, or large agricultural estate. The system of tied serfdom originates from a decree issued by the late Roman Emperor Diocletian (ruled 284–305) in an attempt to prevent the flight of peasants from the land and the consequent decline in food production. The decree obliged peasants to register in their locality and never leave it; they could leave their villages only to deliver a message or to accompany their lord to war.
Because of the low status, the term became derogatory. In modern French vilain means "ugly" or "naughty" and in Italian, villano means "rude" or "ill-mannered". In modern English villain means a scoundrel, criminal or a horrible member of society.
- "villein, n.", Oxford English Dictionary (online ed.), Oxford University Press, 2012, retrieved 29 August 2012
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