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Modern-day (2007) Latin inscription, quoting from the Liber Paradisus, a law which abolished slavery in Bologna, in 1256.

Serfdom is the forced labour of serfs in a feudal society. In medieval Europe, serfs were peasant farmers who worked without pay for a lord. In exchange, they got to live and work on the lord’s manor. They also got the lord’s protection.

Serfs had more rights than slaves (for example, serfs could own property). However, they were not completely free. They could not move, marry, or leave the manor without the lord’s permission. In most serfdoms, serfs were legally part of the land. If the land was sold, they were sold with it. Serfs worked in their lord’s fields. They sometimes did other things related to agriculture, like forestry and transportation (by both land and river). Some also worked in craft and manufacturing.

Serfdom developed from agricultural slavery in the Roman Empire. It spread through Europe around the 10th century. During the Middle Ages, most European people lived in serfdoms.

Serfdom lasted up to the 1600s in England and until 1789 in France. In most other European countries, serfdom continued until the early 19th century.

Serfdom was unusual in the Russian Empire until the 18th century when it became widespread. Alexander II of Russia abolished it in 1861,

The system of serfdom[change | change source]

During the Middle Ages in Europe, monarchs, the Catholic Church, and the nobility owned all land. Serfs did not own land. Instead, they did manual labor for landowners in exchange for a place to live and work.

Most serfs were workers, but some were craftsmen - like the village blacksmith, miller or innkeeper.

The serf's feudal contract[change | change source]

Serfs had a feudal contract, just like a baron or a knight. A serf's feudal contract said that he would live and work on a piece of land owned by his lord. A serf was allowed to have their own home, fields, crops, and animals on the lord’s land. Serfs had some rights in the feudal contract. In return for their work, the serf would get protection.

During feudal times, people said that a serf "worked for all", a knight or baron "fought for all," and clergy "prayed for all." Serfs were in a lower social class than knights and barons. However, they were better off than slaves.

A manorial lord could not sell his serfs like Romans sold slaves. Serfs were legally tied to the land they worked on. If their lord sold his land, the serfs were sold along with the land. Serfs could not sell the land they lived on, and could not leave the manor without their lord’s permission. Often, they needed the lord’s permission before they could marry someone who was not also a serf for that lord.

Becoming a serf[change | change source]

A free man usually became a serf because he owed a large debt. He would make an agreement with the lord of the land. The lord would keep him safe, give money to pay his debt, and give him land to work on. In return, he would work for the lord. All his children would become serfs.

The serf's duties[change | change source]

Serfs had to pay taxes to their lord. The lord would decide how much each serf had to pay, based on the size of the land the serf lived on. Usually, serfs had to pay 1/3 of their land’s value in taxes. When the lord was fighting a war, serfs also had to pay wartime taxes.

Money was not very common during the Middle Ages. Serfs usually paid their lord by giving food and working without pay. Usually, serfs spent five or six days a week working for their lord. On these days, the lord would give his serfs better food. However, serfs had to do the lord’s work before they could do their own work. When the lord’s crops needed to be harvested, the serf’s own crops needed to be harvested too. Still, the serf could not harvest his own food until he had done his required work for the lord.

At different times in the year, serfs would do different things. A serf might plough his lord's fields, harvest crops, dig ditches, or repair fences. The rest of his time he could take care of his own fields, crops and animals.

There were strange tests to decide if something was good enough to be given for taxes. A chicken, for example, had to be able to jump over a fence. That showed that the chicken was young and healthy.

Lords also required serfs to pay fines when they did certain things. For example, a serf would have to pay a fine:

  • If he inherited money or property
  • If he became a priest or monk
  • If his children moved to the city instead of staying and being a serf on the lord’s manor
  • If he used his own mill to grind the grain he grew

When a serf died, his children could only stay on the land if they gave the lord their best animal.

Serfs had to pay to use the lord’s grain mill. Many serfs thought this was unfair. Millers charged a fee called multure, which was usually 1/24 of the total grain milled. The serfs often thought the millers were not honest.

Many serfs had to use their lord’s ovens to bake their daily bread. They had to pay to use these ovens. They also had to pay to use the lord’s carts to carry their produce.

Benefits of serfdom[change | change source]

Serfs had some freedoms. They could get and keep property and money. Some serfs had more money and property than their free neighbours. Sometimes, serfs could buy their freedom.

The lord could not make serfs leave his land unless he had good reasons. The lord was supposed to protect them from criminals or other lords, and he was supposed to give them charity during famines.

Agricultural benefits[change | change source]

Serfs could grow what they wanted on their lands. Sometimes they had to pay their taxes in wheat, which is difficult to grow. They could take the wheat they did not give for taxes to the market.

Mostly, serfs were subsistence farmers, eating what they grew. Their heirs usually got an inheritance.

Variations[change | change source]

The rules for serfdom were different at different times and places. In some places, serfdom changed into different types of taxation.

In the 13th-century Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, serfs had to work two to three days a week for their landlords. In the 14th century, they had to work one day per week. In the 17th century, they had to work four days per week. In the 18th century, they had to work six days per week.[source?]

Sometimes, serfs had to be soldiers during war. They could earn their freedom or even become nobles as a reward for bravery in war.

Serfs could also gain their freedom in other ways. Sometimes they could buy their freedom. Enlightened or generous owners could free a serf (this is called manumission). Some serfs were able to flee to other towns or to newly settled land where people would not ask questions about the serf’s past. Laws varied from country to country. In England, a serf became free if he made his way to a chartered town and avoided being recaptured for a year and a day.

Freedom for the serfs[change | change source]

When people started to use money more, and barter became less important, serfdom began to change. Now lords could make money by renting their land. This was more profitable than getting unpaid work from serfs. Many lords "freed" their serfs when their work became less valuable than money.

Still, the serfs' lives were not seriously changed. They still had to farm their land, take care of their families, and pay their taxes. However, they could no longer be forced off their lands if they did not pay rent, or if their Lord decided he wanted to use their fields for a different purpose.

History of serfdom[change | change source]

Serfs in antiquity[change | change source]

The helots in the ancient Greek city-state of Sparta worked like serfs. So did peasants working on government lands in ancient Rome. However, these workers were not called “serfs.” Instead, they were called coloni, meaning "tenant farmers.” When Germanic tribes took over the Roman Empire, they took the lands from the wealthy Romans. They became the new lords in the same economic system of serfdom.

In Western Europe[change | change source]

Medieval serfdom in Western Europe began with the breakup of the Carolingian Empire around the 10th century. This empire had ruled most of western Europe for more than 200 years. After the empire broke up, Western Europe had no strong central governments for a long time. During this time, feudal lords worked to make serfdom the common way for people to live. Under serfdom, rich landlords could force other people to work for them and feed them. Serfs did most of the agricultural work in medieval Western Europe. Slavery did exist during this time, but it was not common. Usually slaves were only used to take care of people’s houses.

Some parts of Europe, including much of Scandinavia, never used serfdom or other feudal institutions.

In Eastern Europe[change | change source]

Grain pays

Serfdom reached Eastern European countries later than Western Europe. It started in Russia around the 12th century, but was not common until several hundred years later. By the 17th century, serfdom was the most common relationship between Russian peasants and the nobility. It was most common in the central and southern areas of the Tsardom of Russia, and later the Russian Empire.

Serfdom in Ukraine, in other Cossack lands, in the Urals and in Siberia was rare until the reign of Catherine the Great (r. 1762–1796). At that time, it spread to Ukraine[source?]. Noblemen began to send their serfs into Cossack lands in an attempt to harvest their extensive untapped natural resources.

Russian serfdom was different than in other Eastern European countries, because it was not changed by German law or by people coming from Germany. In Russia, serfdom and manorialism systems were enforced by the crown (the Tsar), not by the nobility.

End of serfdom[change | change source]

In Western Europe[change | change source]

By the 13th and 14th centuries, serfdom was becoming less common in Western Europe. The manorial system weakened as powerful monarchs took control, towns developed, and the economy improved. At the same time, there were more protests by serfs and peasants, like Wat Tyler’s Rebellion in England in 1381. This put pressure on the nobility and the clergy to change the system and make improvements. New ways of renting the land gave people more freedom. By the 15th and 16th centuries, serfdom was ending in Western Europe. As the economy continued to change, serfdom became less profitable than renting land for money. Other causes for the end of serfdom included changes in the population and laws about what lords could make their tenants do.

The Industrial Revolution also helped to end serfdom. Landowners began to put their money into industries, because they made more money this way than they did from having serfs. This caused urbanization. As towns got bigger, farmers wanted to move off of manors. They could make more money working in town than they could by working in a lord’s fields.

In England, serfdom ended around 1600. After the Renaissance, serfdom was not common in Western Europe. However, as serfdom was ending, chattel slavery was beginning in the English-speaking parts of the Western Hemisphere.

In Eastern Europe[change | change source]

Serfdom existed in Russia until February 19, 1861. In Russian Baltic provinces, it ended in the beginning of the 19th century.

Dates for abolition in European countries[change | change source]

Return of serfdom[change | change source]

Some people say that planned economies, especially those based on Soviet-style Communist economics (like the Soviet collective farm system) are government-owned serfdom. Friedrich Hayek said this in his book The Road to Serfdom.

Mikhail Gorbachev grew up in a kolkhoz. These were supposed to be collectives. There were also sovkhoz, which were state-owned. The government used a system of internal passports and household registration (like China's hukou system) to make people stay on their farms. They had to plant crops according to instructions from the central authorities, especially if they were on state-run farms. The state then bought their agricultural produce at low prices and invested heavily in industrialization. Gorbachev said this was much like being a serf.

This kind of serfdom lasted in Russia until 1974 (with a brief break during the Russian Civil War). USSR Government Decree #667 gave peasants identification documents, with an unrestricted right to move within the country, for the first time in Russian history. It is possible that a system like this still exists in rural China.

Related pages[change | change source]

Other websites[change | change source]

References[change | change source]

  • War Communism to the NEP: The Road from Serfdom
  • Gorbachev's BBC Interview
  • Hayek, Friedrich A. von, The Road to Serfdom, London: Routledge, 2001. ISBN 0415255430