From Academic Kids

Costumes of Slaves or Serfs, from the Sixth to the Twelfth Centuries, collected by H. de Vielcastel, from original Documents in the great Libraries of Europe.
Costumes of Slaves or Serfs, from the Sixth to the Twelfth Centuries, collected by H. de Vielcastel, from original Documents in the great Libraries of Europe.

Serfdom refers to legal and economic status of peasants under feudalism economic system, specifically in the manorialism (also known as seigneurialism) system. A serf is a laborer who is bound to the land, and form the lowest social class of the feudal society. Serfs differ from slaves in that serfs are not property themselves and cannot be sold apart from the land which they work. Serfdom is the forced labour of serfs, on the fields of the privileged land owners, in return for protection and the right to work on their leased fields. Serfdom involved work not only on fields, but various agricultural-related works, like forestry, transportation (both land and river-based), work in craft and even in manufactures. Serfdom evolved from agricultural slavery of Roman Empire and spread through Europe around 10th century. It was dominant during the Europe's Middle Ages. In England serfdom lasted up to 17th century, in France until 1789, in most other European countries until the early 19th century, and the last European country to abolish serfdom was Russia until 1861.



Serf is derived from word servus, Latin for slave or servant.


All land was owned by various landowners - nobility, Church and monarchs. Serfs and their families were allowed to farm some of the land to support themselves. Serfs were taxed on the produce and profits of their holdings. In addition, they had to devote a fair amount of time and labor to working the landowners demesne land, the section of the manor kept directly under the landowners control and not used by other tenants.

The status of a serf was somewhat better than that of slave, for a serf had some rights and was not a property himself no one owned him. But he was in various ways tied to a plot of land, the land was owned by someone else and could change owners. Typically, when serfdom prevailed, the land itself could not be sold because it was associated with political powers (just as the Queen of Great Britain cannot sell Great Britain). Instead, the land was transferred via war, marriage, and the like.

A serf was a peasant. While most serfs were farmers, some serfs were craftsmen - like the village blacksmith, miller or innkeeper. They were bound to the place and could not leave without the landowner's permission. They also owed work to the landowner; normally they were expected to farm the landowners' estates as well as their own, owed in addition some portion of their own harvest to the landowner, and were further required to perform other labor services upon demand. Their social and legal status was hereditary.

Within these constraints, a serf had some freedom. A serf might accumulate personal property and wealth, and some serfs became wealthier than their lords - although this was rather an exception to the general rule. Serfs could raise what they saw fit on their lands, and sell the surplus at market. Their heirs were guaranteed an inheritance. The landowner could not dispossess his serfs without cause and was supposed to protect them from outlaws or other lords, and he was expected to support them by charity in times of crop failure. The restraints of serfdom on personal and economic choice were enforced through various forms of manorial court and the manorial administration.

Specifics 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 serfdom required varied, for example in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the 13th century it was few days a year; in the 14th century, one day per week; 4 days in the 17th century and 6 days in the 18th century, and serfdom was most limited on the royal territories (krlewszczyzny). The Russian system of serfdom was based on the principle that the lord owned the peasant under his control, so he could dispose of his serfs as he wished: he could even separate them from their land. Sometimes, serfs served as soldiers in the event of conflict and could earn freedom or even nobilitation for valor in combat. In other cases, serfs could also purchase their freedom, be manumitted by their enlightened or generous owners, or flee to towns or newly-settled land where few question were asked. Laws varied from country to country: in England a serf who evaded recapture for a year and a day obtained his freedom.

In many cases, serfs had to obtain permission from the landowner of their manor to marry a partner from off the manor. They could also be obliged to pay fines: on inheritance, on becoming a priest or monk or on having their children leave the manor and go to cities. Furthermore, serfs had to pay to use the lords grain mill and bread oven and were charged for miscellaneous services such as using the lords carts to haul their produce.

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, as did the condition of the peasants working on government lands in ancient Rome. These Roman peasants, known as colini, or "tenant farmers", are some of the possible precursors of the serfs. The Germanic tribes invading the Roman Empire for the most part displaced wealthy Romans as the landlords but left the economic system itself intact. 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 the western Europe for more than 200 years, was followed by a long period during which no strong central governments 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 are assured that others work to feed them and are held down, legally and economically, while doing so. This arrangement provided most of the agricultural labor 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 society and economy of eastern and western Europe that has lasted down to our own day.

In the 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 there generally came to an end in the 15th and 16th centuries, largely because of changes in the economy, population, and laws governing lord-tenant relations. 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. Also, 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 labor 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 leasing the land and increased personal liberties. Another important factor in the decline of serfdom was industrial development - especially the Industrial Revolution. With the growing profitabilty of industry farmers wanted to move to towns to receive higher wages then those they could earn working in the fields, while landowners also invested in the more profitable industry. This also lead to the growing process of urbanization.

Serfdom reached Eastern European countries relatively later then Western Europe - it became dominant around the 15th century. Before that time the population density of Eastern Europe was much lower then that of Western Europe, thus 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 Eastern Europe. The resultant large land-to-labor ratio combined with vast, sparsely populated areas gave the lords an incentive to bind the remaining peasantry to their land. With increased demand for agricultural products 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 include Prussia (Prussian Ordinances of 1525), Austria, Hungary (laws of late 15th/early 16th century), the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (szlachta privileges of early 16th century) and the Russian Empire (laws of 16th century). This also led to the slower industry 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. In many of these countries serfdom was abolished during the Napoleonic invasions of the early nineteenth century. Serfdom persisted longest in Russia, where it remained the practice until February 19, 1861 (Russian Serfdom Reforms). Russian serfdom was perhaps the most unique among the Eastern European experiences, as it was never influenced by German law and migrations, and the serdom and manorialism systems were forced by the crown (Tsar), not the nobility.

See also

External links

de:Leibeigenschaft es:Siervo eo:Servuteco fr:Servage nl:Horige pl:Pańszczyzna ru:Крепостное право sv:Livegenskap


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