The concept of a villain conjures up an evil tax collector, a pompous dictator, or a Snidely Whiplash type. While the general antagonists in western culture that face off against the heroes have archetypes passed down in multiple recognizable forms, the word ‘villain’ doesn’t have a stable background. Instead, the “villains” of old, probably wouldn’t be considered evil by today’s standards.
The etymology of villain stretches back first to the Middle Ages, where vilains or vellains were serfs that were legally tied to the lands of barons and landowners. Even before that, the word draws from the Latin word villanus, meaning an individual tied to the Ancient Roman villa system that normally found workers in the slave markets of the day. This class of rural farming folk without any assets became tied to the land and manor itself. Following the collapse of the Roman Empire, the system was so ingrained in Western Civilization that it simply continued unimpeded for over a thousand years, giving birth to the archetype of the downtrodden serf.
This pseudo-slavery contrasted the economic changes of Europe throughout the Middle Ages, where overpopulated areas would have fleeing serfs looking for freedom. For those who were lucky enough to breathe the air of freedom, serfdom was viewed as the lowest form of life. Over time, the archaic term began to describe the unkempt, unruly, and undesirables in languages like French, English, and Spanish, all adopting definitions with derogatory connotations.
Ironically, the image of the downtrodden serf under a cruel landlord isn’t what a liberal West would normally think of as a villain. If anything, in a prevailing international ethos of personal freedom, vilains of yore would probably be our underdogs.