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"Serf" redirects here. For the Saint, see Saint Serf.
Image:Costumes of Slaves or Serfs from the Sixth to the Twelfth Centuries.png
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 is the economic status of peasants under feudalism, specifically in the manorial economic system (also known as seigneurialism) and is a condition of bondage or modified slavery. Serfdom is the forced labour of serfs, on the fields of 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.

Serfs are laborers who are bound to the land; they formed the lowest social class of the feudal society. Serfs differed from slaves in that serfs were allowed property for themselves and could not be sold apart from the land which they worked. Serfs are also defined as people in whose labor landowners held property rights. In prerevolutionary Russia a landowner's estate was often measured by the number of "souls" he owned.

This feudal relationship evolved from agricultural slavery of late Roman Empire and spread through Europe around the 10th century; it flourished in Europe from the Middle Ages till the 19th century. After the Renaissance, serfdom became increasingly rare in most of Western Europe but was strong in the Central and Eastern Europe (this phenomenon was known as the second serfdom). In England, it lasted up to the 1600s and in France until 1789. In Eastern Europe the institution persisted until the mid 19th century. In Finland, Norway and Sweden feudalism was not established and therefore serfdom never existed either.


[edit] Etymology

The word "serf" originated from the Middle French "serf", and can be traced farther 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". This meaning fell out of use by the 1700s, but the current meaning was first used in 1611. The term "serfdom" was coined in 1850.

[edit] The system of serfdom

In medieval Europe, almost all land was owned by the nobility, the Church, or royalty. Serfs were allowed to work certain plots of land in exchange for a percentage of the product they produced. While most serfs were farmers, some serfs were craftsmen, such as blacksmiths or millers.

[edit] The serf's feudal contract

The serfs had a feudal contract much in the same fashion as a baron or a knight. A serf's feudal contract was that, in return for protection, he would reside upon and work a parcel of land held by his Lord.

The period 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 his place and all was right with God's world. Obviously the serf was worked harder than all others, and was the worst fed, but at least he had his place and, unlike slavery, there was a degree of reciprocity in the feudal contract.

A manorial Lord could not sell his serfs as a Roman might sell his slaves. On the other hand, if his Lord chose to dispose of a parcel of land, the serf or serfs associated with that land went with it to serve their new Lord. Further, a serf could not abandon his lands without permission, nor could he sell them.

[edit] Becoming a serf

A free man became a serf usually through force or necessity. A few bad years of crop failure, a war or brigandage left him unable to fulfill his duties as a free man. In such a case a bargain is struck with his lord: protection and forgiveness of fees owed in exchange for service (not an unreasonable arrangement in a largely cashless society and an idea which is in accord with the prevailing feudal political ideology).

The downside was that serfdom was heritable. A man was binding not only himself, but all his heirs as well. This was not true of a free man.

[edit] The difference between freedom and serfdom

The line between freedom and serfdom was often indistinct. A man might own some lands under free tenancy (for instance: a "cottier" or "cotter" was a free man, tenant of a "cottage"); others might owe serf-like duties.

It was always in the interest of the lords to prove that a servile arrangement existed, as this provided them with greater rights to fees and taxes. The legal status of a man was a primary issue in many of the manorial court cases of the period.

[edit] The serf's duties

The usual serf "paid" his fees and taxes in the form of seasonally appropriate labor, usually a couple of days a week plowing his lord's fields (demesne), harvesting crops, digging ditches, repairing fences, etc. The rest of his time was his own to tend to his own fields, crops and animals.

The tension of a serf's life derived from the fact that his work for his lord coincided 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 and so forth. On the other hand, the serf could look forward to being well fed during his service, and it was a poor lord who did not provide a substantial meal for his serfs during the harvest and planting times.

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 (usually 1/3 of the value; the "third penny"), while fees were assessed for various reasons, the birth of a child, a marriage, war, etc. Both were usually paid in the form of foodstuffs rather than cash.

Often there were rather humorous tests - humorous at least in retrospect - to judge the worthiness of their tax payments. A chicken, for example, was 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 common law and the manorial administration and court.

[edit] Benefits of serfdom

Within his constraints, a serf had some freedom. Though the common wisdom was that a serf owned "only his belly" — even his clothes were the property, in law, of his lord — an industrious or lucky serf might still accumulate personal property and wealth, and some serfs became wealthier than their free neighbours, although this was rather an exception to the general rule. A well-to-do serf might even be able to buy his freedom.

Serfs could raise what they saw fit on their lands (within reason — a serf's taxes often had to be paid in wheat, a notoriously difficult crop), and sell the surplus at market. Their heirs were (usually) guaranteed an inheritance.

The landlord could not dispossess his serfs without cause and was supposed to protect them from the depredations of outlaws or other lords, and he was expected to support them by charity in times of famine.

[edit] Variations

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 per week in the 17th century and 6 days per week in the 18th century, and early serfdom was most limited on the royal territories (królewszczyzny).

Sometimes, serfs served as soldiers in the event of conflict and could earn freedom or even ennoblement for valour 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 questions were asked. Laws varied from country to country: in England a serf who made his way to a chartered town and evaded recapture for a year and a day obtained his freedom.

In many cases, serfs had to obtain permission from their landlord to marry a partner from off the manor (merchet).

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. Even upon their death a peasant paid a tax in the form of their best animal to their lord in exchange for confirming their heir's rights to the land.

Furthermore, serfs had to pay to use the lord’s grain mill and bread oven and were charged for miscellaneous services such as using the lord’s carts to haul their produce. This was a great bone of contention within the village.

Many peasants were fined for grinding their own grain and resented the fees paid to the miller (multure), usually 1/24 of the total grain milled. Millers were routinely accused of providing short measure or taking too great a portion for their fee. A period riddle runs, "What is the boldest thing on earth?" The answer is, "A miller's shirt for it clasps a thief by the throat every day."

Many manors also required the use of the lord's oven to bake their daily bread. Such petty fees and usuries were the basis of much class resentment among peasants.

[edit] The freeing of the serfs

In the end, the nature of serfdom began to change when the value of taxes paid in kind began to be less than the value of outright renting of the land. In such cases many Lords "freed" their serfs in exchange for cash rents rather than service.

In practice, little changed for the peasants. They still had to farm their lands to feed their families, and pay their taxes. The main difference was that they could be turned off their lands if they failed to pay or if their Lord decided he wanted to use their fields for other purposes rather than wheat.

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 in exchange for, essentially, taking all the best land for themselves and "freeing" their serfs, may well have made serfdom a lifestyle desperately to be wished for by many peasant families.

The feudal relationship of serfdom gave way over centuries to private property and free labor. Being liberated from serfdom meant being able to sell one's land and work wherever one desired. Taxes levied by the state took the place of labor dues levied by the lord.

[edit] Dates of emancipation from serfdom in various countries

[edit] See also

[edit] External links

[edit] References

cs:Nevolnictví de:Leibeigenschaft es:Siervo eo:Servuteco et:Pärisorjus fi:Maaorja fr:Servage hr:Kmetstvo it:Servitù della gleba he:צמיתות hu:Jobbágy nl:Horigheid ja:農奴制 nn:Liveigenskap pl:Pańszczyzna pt:Servidão ro:Iobag ru:Крепостное право simple:Serfdom sl:Tlačanstvo sv:Livegenskap


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