We’re being meaner than we think when we call a character a “villain.” But it’s not the villain that we’re insulting — it’s an entire class of people.
Villeins, as they were known in the 1300s, were a class of peasant loosely tied to the owner of the land they worked. They weren’t quite serfs, but they were much closer to the bottom of the social pyramid than the top. Unable to move away without approval, they owed duties on everything they used, and had to give a portion of everything they produced to the land owner.
Some people pitied villeins, but among the higher circles of society, the term took on a pejorative meaning. The nobility had an elaborate code of conduct to which they adhered, desiring to maintain their honor. Villeins did not reap the benefit of that code of honor, both because it was more about vanity than morality and because it was acknowledged that they were excluded from the very concept of honor. A villein had no honor to lose, and did not need to be dealt with honorably. There seemed to be a mutual antagonism between the high class and the low class. Since only the high classes could read and write, we tend to get only their side of the conflict. They considered the peasants to be stupid, sulky, and treacherous. One text about the peasantry, Le Despit Au Villain, contains the phrase “From the villein comes all unhappiness.”
That seems an accurate modern assessment of villains in stories — they usually do provide all the unhappiness in any given story. Still, it’s awfully tacky of us to essentially call them “filthy peasants.”
[Source: A Distant Mirror, by Barbara Tuchman]