Serfdom is the status of peasants under feudalism, specifically relating to manorialism. It was a condition of bondage or modified slavery which developed primarily during the High Middle Ages in Europe and lasted in some countries until the mid-19th century.
Serfs who occupied a plot of land were required to work for the Lord of the Manor who owned that land, and in return were entitled to protection, justice and the right to exploit certain fields within the manor to maintain their own subsistence. Serfs were often required not only to work on the lord's fields, but also his mines, forests and roads. The manor formed the basic unit of feudal society and the Lord of the Manor and his serfs were bound legally, economically, and socially. Serfs formed the lowest social class of feudal society.
The decline of serfdom in Western Europe has sometimes been attributed to the Black Death, which reached Europe in 1347, although the decline had begun before that date. Although serfdom became increasingly rare in most of Western Europe after the Renaissance, it grew strong in Central and Eastern Europe, where it had previously been less common (this phenomenon was known as "later serfdom").
In Eastern Europe the institution persisted until the mid-19th century. It persisted in the Austrian Empire till 1848 and was abolished in Russia in 1861. In Finland, Norway and Sweden feudalism was not established, and serfdom did not exist; however, serfdom-like institutions did exist in both Denmark (the stavnsb nd, from 1733 to 1788) and its vassal Iceland (the more restrictive vistarband, from 1490 until 1894).
According to Joseph R. Strayer, the concept of feudalism can also be applied to the societies of ancient Persia, ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt (Sixth to Twelfth dynasty), Muslim India, China (Zhou Dynasty, and end of Han Dynasty) and Japan during the Shogunate. James Lee and Cameron Campbell describe the Chinese Qing Dynasty (1644 1912) as also maintaining a form of serfdom.
Tibet is described by Melvyn Goldstein to have had serfdom until 1959, but whether or not the Tibetan form of peasant tenancy qualified as serfdom was widespread is contested. Bhutan is described by Tashi Wangchuk, a Bhutanese civil servant, as abolishing serfdom officially by 1959, but Wangchuk believes less than or about 10% of poor peasants were in copyhold situations.
Costumes of slaves or serfs, from the sixth to the twelfth centuries, collected by H. de Vielcastel from original documents in European libraries.
The word "serf" originated from the Middle French "serf", and can be traced further back to the Latin servus, meaning "slave". In Late Antiquity and most of the Middle Ages, what we now call serfs were usually designated in Latin as coloni (sing. colonus). As slavery gradually disappeared and the legal status of these servi became nearly identical to that of coloni, the term changed meaning into our modern concept of "serf". The term "serfdom" was coined in 1850.
Dependency and the lower orders
Serfs had a specific place in feudal society, as did barons and knights: in return for protection, a serf would reside upon and work a parcel of land within the manor of his lord. There was thus a degree of reciprocity in the manorial system.
One rationale was that a serf "worked for all," while a knight or baron "fought for all" and a churchman "prayed for all"; thus everyone had a place. The serf was the worst fed and paid, but at least he had his place and, unlike slaves, had certain rights in land and property.
A lord of the manor could not sell his serfs as a Roman might sell his slaves. On the other hand, if he chose to dispose of a parcel of land, the serf or serfs associated with that land went with it to serve their new lord, benefitting him from their long-acquired knowledge of practices suited to the land. Further, a serf could not abandon his lands without permission, nor did he possess a saleable title in them.
Becoming a serf
A freeman became a serf usually through force or necessity. Sometimes freeholders or allodial owners were intimidated into dependency by the greater physical and legal force of a local magnate. Often a few years of crop failure, a war or brigandage might leave a person unable to make his own way. In such a case a bargain was struck with a lord of a manor. In exchange for protection, service was required, in cash, produce or with labour, or a combination of all. These bargains were formalized in a ceremony known as "bondage" in which a serf placed his head in the lord's hands, akin to the ceremony of homage where a vassal placed his hands between those of his overlord. These oaths bound the lord and his new serf in a feudal contract and defined the terms of their agreement. Often these bargains were severe. A 7th century Anglo Saxon "Oath of Fealty" states:
"By the Lord before whom this sanctuary is holy, I will to N. be true and faithful, and love all which he loves and shun all which he shuns, according to the laws of God and the order of the world. Nor will I ever with will or action, through word or deed, do anything which is unpleasing to him, on condition that he will hold to me as I shall deserve it, and that he will perform everything as it was in our agreement when I submitted myself to him and chose his will."
To become a serf was a commitment that encompassed all aspects of the serf s life.
Moreover, the condition of serfdom was inherited at birth. By taking on the duties of serfdom, serfs bound not only themselves but all of their future progeny.
Serfdom's class system
The social class of peasant was often broken down into smaller categories. These distinctions were often less clear than suggested by their different names. Most often, there were two types of peasants, freemen, whose tenure within the manor was freehold, and villeins. Lower classes of peasants, known as cottars, generally comprising the younger sons of villeins or bordars in the British Isles, and slaves, made up the lower class of workers.
Freemen, or free tenants held their land by one of a variety of contracts of feudal land tenure and were essentially rent-paying tenant farmers who owed little or no service to the lord, and had a good degree of security of tenure and independence. In parts of 11th century England freemen made up only 10% of the peasant population, and in the rest of Europe their numbers were small.
A villein (or villain) was the most common type of serf in the Middle Ages. Villeins had more rights and higher status than the lowest serf, but existed under a number of legal restrictions that differentiated them from freemen. Villeins generally rented small homes, with or without land. As part of the contract with the landlord, the lord of the manor, they were expected to spend some of their time working on the lord's fields. The requirement often was not greatly onerous, contrary to popular belief and was often only seasonal, for example the duty to help at harvest-time. The rest of their time was spent farming their own land for their own profit.
Like other types of serfs, they were required to provide other services, possibly in addition to paying rent of money or produce. Villeins were tied to the land and could not move away without their lord's consent and the acceptance of the lord to whose manor they proposed to migrate to. Villeins were generally able to hold their own property, unlike slaves. Villeinage, as opposed to other forms of serfdom, was most common in Continental European feudalism, where land ownership had developed from roots in Roman law.
A variety of kinds of villeinage existed in Europe in the Middle Ages. Half-villeins received only half as many strips of land for their own use and owed a full complement of labour to the lord, often forcing them to rent out their services to other serfs to make up for this hardship. Villeinage was not, however, a purely uni-directional exploitative relationship. In the Middle Ages, land within a lord's manor provided sustenance and survival, and being a villein guaranteed access to land, and crops secure from theft by marauding robbers. Landlords, even where legally entitled to do so, rarely evicted villeins because of the value of their labour. Villeinage was much preferable to being a vagabond, a slave, or an unlanded labourer.
In many medieval countries, a villein could gain freedom by escaping from a manor to a city or borough and living there for more than a year; but this action involved the loss of land rights and agricultural livelihood, a prohibitive price unless the landlord was especially tyrannical or conditions in the village were unusually difficult.
Bordars and cottagers
In England the Domesday Book, of 1086, uses bordarii (bordar) and cottarii (cottager) as interchangeable terms, cottager being derived from the native tongue whereas bordar being derived from the French.
The status of bordar or cottager ranked below a serf in the social hierarchy of a manor, holding a cottage, garden and just enough land to feed a family. In England, at the time of the Domesday Survey, this would have been between about 1 and 5 acres (0.4 to 2 hectares). Under an Elizabethan statute, the cottage had to be built with at least of land. However, the later Enclosures Act, removed the cottagers right to any land, "before the Enclosures Act the cottager was a farm labourer with land and after the Enclosures Act the cottager was a farm labourer without land".
The bordars and cottagers did not own their draught oxen or horses. The Domesday Book showed that England comprised 12% freeholders; 35% serfs or villeins: 30% cotters and borders: and 9% slaves.
The last type of serf was the slave. Slaves had the fewest rights and benefits from the manor. They owned no tenancy in land, worked for the lord exclusively and survived on donations from the landlord. It was always in the interest of the lord to prove that a servile arrangement existed, as this provided him with greater rights to fees and taxes. The status of a man was a primary issue in determining a person's rights and obligations in many of the manorial court cases of the period. Also, runaway slaves could be beaten if caught.
The serf's duties
The usual serf (not including slaves or cottars) paid his fees and taxes in the form of seasonally appropriate labour. Usually a portion of the week was devoted to ploughing his lord's fields held in demesne, harvesting crops, digging ditches, repairing fences, and often working in the manor house. The residue of the serf s time was devoted to tending his own fields, crops and animals in order to provide for his family. Most manorial work was segregated by gender during the regular times of the year; however, during the harvest, the whole family was expected to work the fields.
A major difficulty of a serf's life was that his work for his lord coincided with, and took precedence over, the work he had to perform on his own lands: when the lord's crops were ready to be harvested, so were his own. On the other hand, the serf of a benign lord could look forward to being well fed during his service; it was a lord without foresight who did not provide a substantial meal for his serfs during the harvest and planting times. In exchange for this work on the lord's demesne, the serf had certain privileges and rights, including for example the right to gather deadwood from their lord s forests, an essential fuel source.
In addition to service, a serf was required to pay certain taxes and fees. Taxes were based on the assessed value of his lands and holdings. Fees were usually paid in the form of agricultural produce rather than cash. The best ration of wheat from the serf s harvest often went to the landlord. Generally hunting and trapping of wild game by the serfs on the lord s property was prohibited. On Easter Sunday the peasant family perhaps might owe an extra dozen eggs, and at Christmas a goose was perhaps required too. When a family member died, extra taxes were paid to the lord as a form of feudal relief to enable the heir to keep the right to till what land he had. Any young woman who wished to marry a serf outside of her manor was forced to pay a fee for the right to leave her lord, and in compensation for her lost labour.
Often there were arbitrary tests to judge the worthiness of their tax payments. A chicken, for example, might be required to be able to jump over a fence of a given height to be considered old enough or well enough to be valued for tax purposes. The restraints of serfdom on personal and economic choice were enforced through various forms of manorial customary law and the manorial administration and court baron.
It was also a matter of discussion whether serfs could be required by law in times of war or conflict to fight for their lord's land and property. In the case of their lord's defeat, their own fate might be uncertain, so the serf certainly had an interest in supporting his lord.
Rights of serfdom
Within his constraints, a serf had some freedoms. Though the common wisdom is that a serf owned "only his belly" even his clothes were the property, in law, of his lord a serf might still accumulate personal property and wealth, and some serfs became wealthier than their free neighbours, although this was rare. A well-to-do serf might even be able to buy his freedom.
A serf could grow what crop he saw fit on his lands, although a serf's taxes often had to be paid in wheat. The surplus he would sell at market.
The landlord could not dispossess his serfs without legal cause and was supposed to protect them from the depredations of robbers or other lords, and he was expected to support them by charity in times of famine. Many such rights were enforcible by the serf in the manorial court.
Forms of serfdom varied greatly through time and region. In some places serfdom was merged with or exchanged for various forms of taxation.
The amount of labour required varied. In Poland, for example, it was commonly a few days per year per household in the 13th century; one day per week per household in the 14th century; four days per week per household in the 17th century and six days per week per household in the 18th century. Early serfdom in Poland was mostly limited on the royal territories (kr lewszczyzny).
"Per household" means that every dwelling had to give a worker for the required number of days. For example, in the 18th century, six people: a peasant, his wife, three children and a hired worker might be required to work for their lord one day a week, which would be counted as six days of labour.
Serfs served on occasion as soldiers in the event of conflict and could earn freedom or even ennoblement for valour in combat. Serfs could purchase their freedom, be manumitted by their generous owners, or flee to towns or newly-settled land where few questions were asked. Laws varied from country to country: in England a serf who made his way to a chartered town (i.e. a borough) and evaded recapture for a year and a day obtained his freedom and became a burgher of the town.
" 1846, by Jan Lewicki
(1795-1871); "directed against manorial property (for example, the manorial prisons) and rising against serfdom;
Galician, mainly Polish, peasants killed over 1000 noblemen and destroyed 500 manors in 1846."
Grain doesn't pay. Those two pictures illustrate the notion that agriculture, once extremely profitable to the nobles (szlachta) in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth
, became much less profitable from the second half of seventeenth century onwards
History of serfdom
Social institutions similar to serfdom were known in ancient times. The status of the helots in the ancient Greek city-state of Sparta resembled that of the medieval serfs. By the 3rd century AD, the Roman Empire faced a labour shortage. Large Roman landowners increasingly relied on Roman freemen, acting as tenant farmers, instead of slaves to provide labour.
These tenant farmers, eventually known as coloni, saw their condition steadily erode. Because the tax system implemented by Dioclecian assessed taxes based on both land and the inhabitants of that land, it became administratively inconvenient for peasants to leave the land where they were counted in the census. In 332 AD Emperor Constantine issued legislation that greatly restricted the rights of the coloni and tied them to the land. Some see these laws as the beginning of medieval serfdom in Europe.
However, medieval serfdom really began with the breakup of the Carolingian Empire around the 10th century. The demise of this empire, which had ruled much of western Europe for more than 200 years, was followed by a long period during which no strong central government existed in most of Europe.
During this period, powerful feudal lords encouraged the establishment of serfdom as a source of agricultural labor. Serfdom, indeed, was an institution that reflected a fairly common practice whereby great landlords were assured that others worked to feed them and were held down, legally and economically, while doing so.
This arrangement provided most of the agricultural labour throughout the Middle Ages. Slavery persisted right through the Middle Ages, but it was rare, diminishing and largely confined to the use of household slaves. Parts of Europe, including much of Scandinavia, never adopted many feudal institutions, including serfdom.
In the later Middle Ages serfdom began to disappear west of the Rhine even as it spread through eastern Europe. This was one important cause for the deep differences between the societies and economies of eastern and western Europe.
In Western Europe, the rise of powerful monarchs, towns, and an improving economy weakened the manorial system through the 13th and 14th centuries, and serfdom was rare following the Renaissance.
Serfdom in Western Europe came largely to an end in the 15th and 16th centuries, because of changes in the economy, population, and laws governing lord-tenant relations in Western European nations. The enclosure of manor fields for livestock grazing and for larger arable plots made the economy of serfs small strips of land in open fields less attractive to the landowners. Furthermore, the increasing use of money made tenant farming by serfs less profitable; for much less than it cost to support a serf, a lord could now hire workers who were more skilled and pay them in cash. Paid labour was also more flexible since workers could be hired only when they were needed.
At the same time, increasing unrest and uprisings by serfs and peasants, like Tyler s Rebellion in England in 1381, put pressure on the nobility and the clergy to reform the system. As a result serf and peasant demands were accommodated to some extent by the gradual establishment of new forms of land leases and increased personal liberties.
Another important factor in the decline of serfdom was industrial development especially the Industrial Revolution. With the growing profitability of industry, farmers wanted to move to towns to receive higher wages than those they could earn working in the fields, while landowners also invested in the more profitable industry. This also led to the growing process of urbanization.
Serfdom reached Eastern European centuries later than Western Europe it became dominant around the 15th century. Before that time, Eastern Europe had been much more sparsely populated than Western Europe, and the lords of Eastern Europe created a peasantry-friendly environment to encourage migration east. Serfdom developed in Eastern Europe after the Black Death epidemics, which not only stopped the migration but depopulated Western Europe.
The resulting large land-to-labour ratio combined with Eastern Europe's vast, sparsely populated areas gave the lords an incentive to bind the remaining peasantry to their land. With increased demand for agricultural produce in Western Europe during the later era when Western Europe limited and eventually abolished serfdom, serfdom remained in force throughout Eastern Europe during the 17th century so that nobility-owned estates could produce more agricultural products (especially grain) for the profitable export market.
Such Eastern European countries included Prussia (Prussian Ordinances of 1525), Austria, Hungary (laws of the late 15th and early 16th centuries), the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (szlachta privileges of the early 16th century) and the Russian Empire (laws of the late 16th and first half of the 17th century). This also led to the slower industrial development and urbanisation of those regions. Generally, this process, referred to as 'second serfdom' or 'export-led serfdom', which persisted until the mid-19th century, became very repressive and substantially limited serfs' rights. Before the 1861 abolition of serfdom in Russia, a landowner's estate was often measured by the number of "souls" he owned.
In many of these countries serfdom was abolished during the Napoleonic invasions of the early 19th century. Serfdom remained in force in most of Russia until the Emancipation reform of 1861, enacted on February 19, 1861, though in Russian Baltic provinces it had been abolished at the beginning of the 19th century. According to the Russian census of 1857, the number of private serfs in Russia was 23.1 million. Russian serfdom was perhaps the most notable Eastern European institution, as it was never influenced by German law and migrations, and serfdom and the manorial system were enforced by the crown (Tsar), not the nobility.
The decline of serfdom
End of serfdom: a German Freilassungsbrief (Letter for the End of a serfdom) from 1762.
Serfdom became progressively less common through the Middle Ages, particularly after the Black Death reduced the rural population and increased the bargaining power of workers. Furthermore, the lords of many manors were willing (for payment) to manumit ("release") their serfs.
In England, the end of serfdom began with the Peasants' Revolt in 1381. It had largely died out in England by 1500 as a personal status, and was fully ended when Elizabeth I freed the last remaining serfs in 1574. Land held by serf tenure (unless enfranchised) continued to be held by what was thenceforth known as a copyhold tenancy, which was not completely abolished until 1925 (although it was whittled away during the 19th and early 20th centuries). There were native-born Scottish serfs until 1799, when coal miners previously kept in serfdom gained emancipation. However, most Scottish serfs had been freed before this time.
Serfdom was de facto ended in France by Philip IV, Louis X (1315), and Philip V (1318). With the exception of a few isolated cases, serfdom had ceased to exist in France by the 15th century. In Early Modern France, French nobles nevertheless maintained a great number of seigneurial privileges over the free peasants that worked lands under their control. Serfdom was formally abolished in France in 1789.
In other parts of Europe, there had been peasant revolts in Castille, Germany, northern France, Portugal, and Sweden. Although these were often successful, it usually took a long time before legal systems were changed.
Era of the French Revolution
The era of the French Revolution (1790s to 1820s) saw serfdom abolished in most of Western Europe, while its practice remained common in Eastern Europe for another century or more. In France, serfdom had been in decline for at least three centuries by the start of the Revolution, replaced by various forms of freehold tenancy. The last vestiges of serfdom were officially ended on August 4, 1789 with a decree abolishing the feudal rights of the nobility.
It removed the authority of the manorial courts, eliminated tithes and manorial dues, and freed those who still remained bound to the land. However, the decree was mostly symbolic, as widespread peasant revolts had effectively ended the feudal system beforehand; and ownership of the land still remained in the hands of the landlords, who could continue collecting rents and enforcing tenant contracts.
In German history the emancipation of the serfs came in 1770-1830, beginning with Schleswig in 1780. Prussia abolished serfdom with the "October Edict" of 1807, which upgraded the personal legal status of the peasantry and gave them ownership of half or two thirds of the lands they were working. The edict apply to all peasants whose holdings were above a certain size, and included both Crown lands and noble estates. The peasants were freed from the obligation of personal services to the lord and annual dues; in return and land owners were given ownership of 1/3 to 1/2 of the land. The peasant owned and rented the lands that were deeded to the old owners. The other German states imitated Prussia after 1815.
In sharp contrast to the violence that characterized land reform in the French Revolution, Germany handled it peacefully. In Schleswig the peasants, who had been influenced by the Enlightenment, played an active role; elsewhere they were largely passive. Indeed, for most peasants, customs and traditions continued largely unchanged, including the old habits of deference to the nobles whose legal authority remains quite strong over the villagers. The old paternalistic relationship in East Prussia lasted into the 20th century. what was new was that the peasant could now sell his land, enabling him to move to the city, or buy up the land of his neighbors.
The land reforms in northwestern Germany were driven by progressive governments and local elites. They abolished feudal obligations and divided collectively owned common land into private parcels and thus created a more efficient market-oriented rural economy. It produced increased productivity and population growth. It strengthened the traditional social order because wealthy peasants obtained most of the former common land, while the rural proletariat was left without land; many left for the cities or America. Meanwhile the division of the common land served as a buffer preserving social peace between nobles and peasants. East of the Elbe River, the Junker class maintained large estates and monopolized political power.
The eradication of the feudal system marks the beginning of an era of rapid change in Europe. The change in status following the enclosure movements beginning in the later 18th century, in which various lords abandoned the open field farming of previous centuries and, essentially, took all the best land for themselves in exchange for "freeing" their serfs, may well have made serfdom seem more desirable to many peasant families.
In his book Das Kapital, in Chapter 26 entitled "The Secret of Primitive Accumulation" and Chapter 27, "Expropriation of the Agricultural Population from the Land", Marx claimed that the feudal relationships of serfdom were violently transformed into private property and free labour: free of possession and free to sell their labour force on the market. Being liberated from serfdom meant being able to sell one's land and work wherever one desired. "The so-called primitive accumulation, therefore, is nothing else than the historical process of divorcing the producer from the means of production. It appears as primitive, because it forms the pre-historic stage of capital and of the mode of production corresponding with it."
In a case history of England, Marx described how the serfs became free peasant proprietors and small farmers, who were, over time, forcibly expropriated and driven off the land, forming a property-less proletariat. He also claimed that more and more legislation was enacted by the state to control and regiment this new class of wage workers. In the meantime, the remaining farmers became capitalist farmers operating more and more on a commercial basis; and gradually, legal monopolies preventing trade and investment by entrepreneurs were broken up.
Taxes levied by the state took the place of labour dues levied by the lord. Although serfdom began its decline in Europe in the Middle Ages, it took many hundreds of years to disappear completely. In addition, the struggles of the working class during the Industrial Revolution can often be compared with the struggles of the serfs during the Middle Ages. In parts of the world today, forced labour is still used. Serfdom is an institution that has always been commonplace for human society; however, it has not always been of the same nature.
Dates of emancipation from serfdom in various countries
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- Blum, Jerome. The End of the Old Order in Rural Europe (Princeton UP, 1978) * Coulborn, Rushton, ed. Feudalism in History. Princeton University Press, 1956.
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- Scott, Tom, ed. The Peasantries of Europe (1998)
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- White, Stephen D. Re-Thinking Kinship and Feudalism in Early Medieval Europe (2nd ed. Ashgate Variorum, 2000
- Wright, William E. Serf, Seigneur, and Sovereign: Agrarian Reform in Eighteenth-century Bohemia (U of Minnesota Press, 1966).
- Wunder, Heide. "Serfdom in later medieval and early modern Germany" in T. H. Aston et al., Social Relations and Ideas: Essays in Honour of R. H. Hilton (Cambridge UP, 1983), 249-72
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