SOCAGE, a free tenement held in fee simple by services of an economic kind, such as the payment of rent or the performance of some agricultural work, was termed in medieval English law a socage tenement. In a borough a similar holding was called a burgage tenement. Medieval law books derived the term from socus, ploughshare, and took it to denote primarily agricultural work. This is clearly a misconception. The term is derived from O. Eng. soc, which means primarily suit, but can also signify jurisdiction and a franchise district. Historically two principal periods may be distinguished in the evolution of the tenure. At the close of the Anglo-Saxon epoch we find a group of freemen differentiated from the ordinary ceorls because of their greater independence and better personal standing. They are classified as sokemen in opposition to the villani in Domesday Book, and are chiefly to be found in the Danelaw and in East Anglia. There can hardly be a doubt that previously most of the Saxon ceorls in other parts of England enjoyed a similar condition. In consequence of the Norman Conquest and of the formation of the common law the tenure was developed into the lowest form of freehold. Legal protection in the public courts for the tenure and services deemed certain, appear as its characteristic feature in contrast to villainage. Certainty and legal protection were so essential that even villain holdings were treated as villain socage when legal protection was obtainable for it, as was actually the case with the peasants on Ancient demesne who could sue their lords by the little writ of right and the Monstraverunt. The Old English origins of the tenure are still apparent even at this time in the shape of some of its incidents, especially in the absence of feudal wardship and marriage. Minors inheriting socage come under the guardianship not of the lord but of the nearest male relative not entitled to succession. An heiress in socage was free to contract marriage without the interference of the lord. Customs of succession were also peculiar in many cases of socage tenure, and the feudal rule of primogeniture was 'not generally enforced. Commutation, the enfranchisement of copyholds, and the abolition of military tenures in the reign of Charles II. led to a gradual absorption of socage in the general class of freehold tenures.
See Pollock and Maitland, History of English Law, i. 271 ff. ; F. W. Maitland, Domesday Book and Beyond, 66 ff. ; P. Vinogradoff, Villainage in England, 113 ff., I96ff.; English Society in the nth Century, 431 ff. (P. Vl.)
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)