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Serfdom is the socio-economic status of unfree peasants under feudalism, and specifically relates to Manorialism. It was a condition of bondage or modified slavery which developed primarily during the High Middle Ages in Europe. Serfdom was the enforced labour of serfs on the fields of landowners, in return for protection and the right to work on their leased fields.

Serfdom involved not only work in fields, but also various other activities, like forestry, mining, transportation (both land and river-based), and crafts. Manors formed the basic unit of society during this period, and the lord and his serfs were bound legally, economically, and socially. Serfs were labourers who were bound to the land; they formed the lowest social class of the feudal society. Serfs were also defined as people in whose labour landowners held property rights. Before the 1861 abolition of serfdom in Russia, a landowner's estate was often measured by the number of "souls" he owned. Feudalism in Europe evolved from agricultural slavery in the late Roman Empire and spread through Europe around the 10th century; it flourished in Europe during the Middle Ages but lasted until the 19th century in some countries. The Black Death broke the established social order and weakened serfdom. For example, serfdom was de facto ended in France by Philip IV, Louis X (1315), and Philip V (1318).[1][2] 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.[3]

After the Renaissance, serfdom became increasingly rare in most of Western Europe but grew strong in Central and Eastern Europe, where it had previously been less common (this phenomenon was known as "later serfdom"). In England, the end of serfdom began with Tyler’s Rebellion and was fully ended when Elizabeth I freed the last remaining serfs in 1574.[2] 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. In Eastern Europe the institution persisted until the mid-19th century. It persisted in Austria-Hungary till 1848 and was abolished in Russia in 1861.[4] In Finland, Norway and Sweden feudalism was not established, and serfdom did not exist. But serfdom-like institutions did exist in both Denmark (the stavnsbånd, from 1733 to 1788) and its colony Iceland (the much more restrictive vistarband, from 1490 until the late 1800s).

According to the census of 1857 the number of private serfs in Russia was 23.1 million.[5]

Feudalism, according to Joseph R. Strayer, can be applied to the societies of Iran, 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.[6] According to Pierre Bonnassie, feudalism could also be seen in Spain. Although serfdom is believed to exist in all these regions, it was not uniform throughout them. Tibet is described by Melvyn Goldstein[7][8] to have had serfdom until 1959, but whether or not the Tibetan form of peasant tenancy qualified as serfdom was widespread is contested.[9][10] 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.[11]



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". 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.

Dependency and the lower orders

The 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 held by his lord. There was thus a degree of reciprocity in the manorial system.

The 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. The serf worked harder than the others, and was the worst fed and paid, but at least he had his place and, unlike in slavery, he had his own land and property.

A manorial lord 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. Further, a serf could not abandon his lands without permission, nor could he sell 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 baron. 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 the lord. In exchange for protection, service was required, in payment and/or with labour. These bargains were formalized in a ceremony known as "bondage" in which a serf placed his head in the seigneur's hands, parallel to the ceremony of "homage" where a vassal placed his hands between those of his lord. These oaths bound the seigneur to their new serf and outlined the terms of their agreement.[12] 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 invaded all aspects of the serf’s life.

Moreover, serfdom was inherited. By taking on the duties of serfdom, serfs bound not only themselves but all of their future heirs.

Serfdom's class system

The class of peasant was often broken down into smaller categories. The distinctions between these classes were often less clear than would be suggested by the different names encountered for them. Most often, there were two types of peasants - freemen and villeins. However, half-villeins, cottars or cottagers, and slaves made up a small percentage of workers.


Freemen, or free tenants, were essentially rent-paying tenant farmers who owed little or no service to the lord. In parts of 11th century England these freemen made up only 10% of the peasant population, and in the rest of Europe their numbers were relatively small.


A villein was the most common type of serf in the Middle Ages. Villeins had more rights and higher status than the lowest serf, but were under a number of legal restrictions that differentiated them from the freeman. Villeins generally rented small homes, with or without land. As part of the contract with their landlord, they were expected to use some of their time to farm the lord's fields and the rest of their time was spent farming their own land. Like other types of serfs, they were required to provide other services, possibly in addition to a rent of money or goods. These services could be very onerous. Villeins were tied to the land and could not move away without their lord's consent. However, in other regards, they were free men in the eyes of the law. Villeins were generally able to have their own property, unlike slaves. Villeinage, as opposed to other forms of serfdom, was most common in Western European feudalism, where land ownership had developed from roots in Roman law.

A variety of kinds of villeinage existed in the European Middle Ages. Half-villeins received only half as many strips of land for their own use and owed a full complement of labor 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 exploitative relationship. In the Middle Ages, land guaranteed sustenance and survival, and being a villein guaranteed access to land. 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 to a city and living there for more than a year; but this avenue involved the loss of land and agricultural livelihood, a prohibitive price unless the landlord was especially tyrannical or conditions in the village were unusually difficult. Villeins newly arrived in the city in some cases took to crime for survival, which gave the alternate spelling "villain" its modern meaning.


Cottars, cottiers or cottagers, another type of serf, did not possess parcels of land to work. They spent all of their time working in their masters' fields. In return, they were given their hut, gardens, and a small portion of the lord’s harvest.

In various countries of Europe (the British Isles, Switzerland, France...), a 'cottier' referred to a landless person renting and cultivating a small holding - known as 'cottier tenure'. The land was let annually and in small portions directly to labourers with the rent fixed, who usually off-set their rent against a number of days working on the rentier's lands for free.


The last type of serf was the slave. Slaves had the fewest rights and benefits from the manor and were also given the least. They owned no land, worked for the lord exclusively and survived on donations from the landlord. 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. 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 plowing his lord's fields (demesne), harvesting crops, digging ditches, repairing fences, and often working in the manor house. The lord’s demesne included more than just fields: it included all grazing rights, forest produce (nuts, fruits, timber, and forest animals) and fish from the stream; the lord had exclusive rights to these things. The rest of the serf’s time was devoted to tending his or her own fields, crops and animals in order to provide for his or her 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 could look forward to being well fed during his service[citation needed]; it was a poor lord 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 property, the serf had certain privileges and rights. They were allowed to gather deadwood from their lord’s forests. For a fee, the serfs were allowed to use the manor’s mills and ovens. These paid services were called banalities in France during this time.

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 foodstuffs rather than cash. The best ration of wheat from the serf’s harvest always went to the landlord. For the most part, hunting on the lord’s property was prohibited for the serfs. On Easter Sunday the peasant family owed an extra dozen eggs, and at Christmas a goose was expected as well. When a family member died, extra taxes were paid to the manor for the cost of that individual's labour. Any young woman who wished to marry a serf outside of her manor was forced to pay a fee for the lost labour.

Often there were arbitrary tests 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.

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.

Benefits of serfdom

Within his constraints, a serf had some freedom. Though the common wisdom[citation needed] is that a serf owned "only his belly" — even his clothes were the property, in law, of his lord[citation needed] — a serf might still accumulate personal property and wealth, and some serfs became wealthier than their free neighbors, 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.


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 labour required varied. In Poland, for example, it was a few days per year in the 13th century; one day per week in the 14th century; four days per week in the 17th century and six days per week in the 18th century. Early serfdom in Poland was mostly 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 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.

"Galician slaughter" 1846, by Jan Lewicki (1795-1871); "directed against manorial property (for example, the manorial prisons) and rising against serfdom[13]; Galician, mainly Polish, peasants killed over 1000 noblemen and destroyed 500 manors in 1846."
Grain pays
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. In 332 AD 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[citation needed] 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,[14] but it was rare, diminishing and largely confined to the use of household slaves.[citation needed] 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 countries 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[citation needed]. 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.

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. 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. Serfdom had largely died out in England by 1500 as a personal status, but land held by serf tenure (unless enfranchised) continued to be held by what was thenceforth known as a copyhold tenancy, which was not abolished until 1925. During the Late Middle Ages, peasant unrest led to outbreaks of violence against landlords. In May 1381 the English peasants revolted because of the heavy tax placed upon them by Parliament. There were similar occurrences at around the same time in Castille, Germany, northern France, Portugal, and Sweden. Although these peasant revolts were often successful, it usually took a long time before legal systems were changed. In France this occurred on August 11, 1789 with the "Decree Abolishing the Feudal System". This decree abolished the manorial system completely. It abolished the authority of manorial courts, outlawed pigeon houses, eliminated and altered tithes (set taxes), and freed those who were enslaved. The majority of the population consisted of peasants. This social system was no longer viable. 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.

The alleged return of serfdom

Some economic and political thinkers have argued that centrally-planned economies, especially the Soviet collective farm system and other systems based on Soviet-style Communist economics, amount to a return to government-owned serfdom. This view was put most powerfully by Friedrich Hayek in The Road to Serfdom as early as 1944 and has since been adopted by others including Mikhael Gorbachev. In certain Communist countries, farmers were tied to their farms, either kolkhoz which were theoretically collectives, or sovkhoz which were state-owned, through a system of residency registration since it was very difficult to exchange a house in a collective farm on a flat in a city and move away. Collective farmers had to plant crops according to central planning, especially if they were on state-run farms. These authorities would then buy their agricultural produce at vastly reduced prices and use the surplus to invest in heavy industry. The farmers were frequently ivited to jobs in cities or could enroll an educational intitution so to move to a larger city.

The Laogai camps, which are the application of forced labor by the Chinese government, constitute an integral part of China's economy and are viewed by some analysts as institutions of slavery.[15]

Dates of emancipation from serfdom in various countries

See also



  1. ^ Maurice Druon, Le Roi de fer, Chapter 3
  2. ^ a b
  3. ^ Serfdom - LoveToKnow 1911
  4. ^ Serf. A Dictionary of World History
  5. ^ Russia by Donald Mackenzie Wallace
  6. ^ Headship succession and household division in three Chinese banner serf populations, 1789–1909
  7. ^ a b Goldstein, Melvyn C. 1986. "Re-examining Choice, Dependancy and Command in the Tibetan Social System-'Tax Appendages' and Other Landless Serfs." Tibet Journal 11, 4:79-112.
  8. ^ a b Goldstein, Melvyn C. 1988. "On the Nature of Tibetan Peasantry." Tibet Journal 13, 1:61-65.
  9. ^ a b Barnett, Robert (2008) What were the conditions regarding human rights in Tibet before democratic reform? in: Authenticating Tibet: Answers to China’s 100 Questions, pp. 81-83. Eds. Anne-Marie Blondeau and Katia Buffetrille. University of California Press. ISBN 978-0-520-24464-1 (cloth); ISBN 978-0-520-24928-8 (paper)
  10. ^ a b Samuel, Geoffrey (Feb., 1982) Tibet as a Stateless Society and Some Islamic Parallels The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 41, No. 2, pp. 215-229
  11. ^ a b [1] T Wangchuk Change in the land use system in Bhutan: Ecology, History, Culture, and Power Nature Conservation Section. DoF, MoA -
  12. ^ Marc Bloch "Feudal Society: the growth of the ties of dependence".
  13. ^ Robert Bideleux and Ian Jeffries, A History of Eastern Europe: Crisis and Change, Routledge, 1998. ISBN 0-415-1611-8. p. 295 – 296.
  14. ^ Ways of ending slavery
  15. ^ What is the economic significance of the Laogai?
  16. ^ Richard Oram, 'Rural society: 1. medieval', in Michael Lynch (ed.), The Oxford Companion to Scottish History (Oxford: University Press, 2005), p. 549.
  17. ^ J. A. Cannon, 'Serfdom', in John Cannon (ed.), The Oxford Companion to British History (Oxford: University Press, 2002), p. 852.
  18. ^ Cannon, 'Serfdom', p. 852.
  19. ^
  20. ^ Emancipation of the Serfs


  • Gorbachev's BBC Interview
  • Dhont, Jan, La Alta Edad Media (Das früche Mittlelatter), Madrid: Siglo XXI. ISBN 84-323-0049-7
  • Backman, Clifford R. The Worlds of Medieval Europe. New York/Oxford: Oxford UP, 2003.
  • Coulborn, Rushton, ed. Feudalism in History. London: Princeton UP, 1956.
  • Freedman (Paul), Bourin (Monique) ed., Forms of Servitude in Northern and Central Europe. Decline, Resistance and Expansion, Brepols, 2005.
  • Frantzen, Allen J., and Douglas Moffat, eds. The World of Work: Servitude, Slavery and Labor in Medieval England. Glasgow: Cruithne P, 1994.
  • Pierre, Bonnassie. From Slavery to Feudalism in South-Western Europe. Trans. Birrell Jean. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1991
  • White, Stephen D. Re-Thinking Kinship and Feudalism in Early Medieval Europe. second ed. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Variorum, 2000

External links

1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

SERFDOM (from Fr. serf, Lat. servus, a servant or slave). The notion of serfdom is distinct from those of freedom and of slavery. The serf is not his own master: to perform services for other persons is the essence of his status, but he is not given over to his lord to be owned as a thing or an amimal - there are legal limits to the lord's power. Serfdom is very often conceived as a perpetual adherence to the soil of an estate owned by a lord, but this praedial character is not a necessary feature of the condition. Hereditary serfdom may sometimes assume the shape of a personal relation between servant and master. Such being the general features of serfdom, it is sure to appear in very different ages and countries. It will be formed naturally, for instance, in cases when one barbarous community conquers another, but it is not able to destroy entirely the latter or to treat its members as mere chattels. This mitigated form of appropriation of human beings by their conquerors may be brought about as well by the paucity or comparative weakness of the victors as by the difficulty for them to draw income from pure slaves. In a state of backward agriculture and natural economy it will sometimes be more profitable for the conquerors as well as for the conquered to leave the dependent population in their own households and on their own plots, at the same time taxing them heavily in the way of tribute and services. Such an arrangement clearly obtained in several of the agricultural states on ancient Greece. The Penestae of Thessaly appear as a remnant of a distinct tribe settled on the confines of Macedonia and at the same time as a class of tributary peasants serving Thessalian aristocrats. The Mnoitae, Klarotae and Apha miotae of Crete were more or less in the same position. Their chief occupation was the cultivation of the shares (KAilpot) of the Dorian aristocracy, but they lived in households of their own and were considered as subjects rather of the Cretan commonwealths than of private men. The relation between both classes is well illustrated by a fragment of the Cretan poet Hybrias, who thus glories in his shield and sword: "I till the land with them, I press the wine from the grapes. On account of them I am called the lord of the Mnoa." Even in the case of the Helots of Sparta, although their condition was very hard and they were made to perform services to any Spartiate who might require them to do so, features of a similar tributary condition are apparent. The chief work of the Helots was to provide a certain quantity of corn, wine and oil for the lords of the shares on which they were settled (roughly 82 medimni of barley a year per share); personal services to other Spartiates were exceptional. Pollux in his account of the Helots places them distinctly in an intermediate position between free men and slaves. The fact that in these instances governments had a good deal to say in the regulation of the status of such serfs is well worth noting: it explains to a great extent the legal limitations of the power of the lords. Even downright slaves belonging to the state or to some great temple corporation were treated better and carefully distinguished from private slaves by the Greeks.

We shall not be astonished to find, therefore, in the Hellenistic states of Asia a population of peasants who seem to have been in a condition of hereditary subjection and adherent to the glebe on the great estates of the Seleucid kings (see Rostowtzew in Lehmann's Beitrdge zur alten Geschichte, ii.). It is not unlikely that the customs of these Aaoi sacr Alkol went back to the epoch of the Persian monarchy. In any case these peasants (y€ opyoL) were certainly not slaves, while, on the other hand, their condition was closely bound up with the cultivation of the estates where they lived. The regulation by the state of the duties and customary status of peasants on government domains turns out to be one of the roots of serfdom in the Roman world, which in this respect as in many others follows on the lines laid down by Hellenistic culture. It is important for our purpose to notice that the condition of coloni was developed as a result of historic necessity by the working of economic and social agencies in the first centuries of the Roman empire and was made the subject of regular legislation in the 4th and 5th centuries. In the enactments of Justinian, summing up the whole course of development (C.J. xi., 48, 23), two classes of coloni are distinguished - the adscripticii, representing a more complete state of serfdom, and the free coloni, with property of their own. But the whole class, apart from minor variations, was characterized by the idea that the peasants in question were serfs of the soil (servi terrae) on which they were settled, though protected by the laws in their personal and even in their praedial status. Thus the ascription to the soil, although originally a consequence of ascription to the tributes (adscriptio censibus), became the mark of the legal status of serfdom. The emperors actually tried in their legislation to prevent the landowners from evicting their coloni and from raising their rents. In this way fixity of tenure and service was aimed at and to a certain degree enforced by the state.

With the break-up of the Roman empire the legal protection in regard to serfs could not be kept up in the same way as before. The weak governments which took the place of imperial authority were not able to maintain the strict discipline and the stress of judicial power which would have been necessary to guarantee the tenure and status of the serfs. And yet serfdom became the prevailing condition for the lower orders during the middle ages. Custom and economic requirements produced checks on the sway of the masters which proved effectual even when legal protection was insufficient. The direction of events towards the formation of serfdom is already clearly noticeable in Celtic communities. In Wales and Ireland the greater part of the rural working classes was reduced not to a state of slavery, but to serfdom. The male slave (W. cceth) does not play an important part in Celtic economic arrangements: there is not much room for his activity as a completely dependent tool of the master. The female slave (cumal) was evidently much more prominent in the household. Prices are reckoned out in numbers of such slaves and there must have been a constant call for them both as concubines and as household servants. As for male workmen they are chiefly tceogs in Wales, that is half-free bondmen with a certain though base standing in law. Even these, however, could not be said to form the social basis for the existence of an upper free class. The latter was numerous, not wealthy as a rule, and had to undertake directly a great part of the common work; as may be seen from the extent of the free and servile tenures on the estates carved out for English conquerors in Wales and Ireland. Anyhow, the taeog class of half-free peasants stands by the side of the smaller tribesmen as subjected to heavier burdens in the way of taxation and services in kind. In Wales they are distributed into gavells and gwelys, like the free tribesmen themselves and thus connected with the land, but there is nothing to show that this connexion was deemed a servitude of the glebe. The tie with the lord is after all a personal one.

The Germanic tribes moved on similar lines. Slavery was not a natural institution with them, although it did occur. In the eyes of a Roman observer, however, even downright slavery was turned into serfdom by the force of circumstances. As Tacitus tells us, the ancient Germans made use of their slaves in a different way from the Romans. These slaves had their separate households, while the masters exacted tribute from them in the shape of corn, cattle or clothes, and the serfs had to obey to the extent of rendering such tribute (Tacitus, Germania, 21). This means, of course, that it was in the interest of the master to levy tribute and not to organize slave labour. After the conquest of the provinces by the Germanic invaders the Roman stock of coloni naturally combined with German tributary peasants to form medieval serfdom. A half-free group is marked off in the early laws under the designation of liti, lazzi, aldiones. But in process of time this group was merged with freedmen, settled slaves (servi casati) and small freedmen into the numerous class of serfs (servi, rustici, villani) which appears under different names in all western European countries. The customary regulations of the duties of an important group of this class in regard to their lords are clearly expressed in the Bavarian law (7th century): serfs settled on the estates of the church have to work, as a rule, three days in the week for their masters and are subject to divers rents and payments in kind. The regulations in question, although entered in a legal text, are not a legislative enactment but the result of a slow process of adjustment of claims between the ecclesiastical landowners and masters on one side and their rural dependents on the other. There can be no doubt that they were largely representative of the conditions prevailing on Bavarian estates belonging not only to the church but also to the duke and to lay lords. The old English Rectitudines singularum personarum (r ith century) present other variations of the same customary arrangements. The rustic class appears in them to be differentiated into several subdivisions - the geneats performing riding duties and occasional services, the geburs burdened with week work and the cotsets holding cottages and performing light work in the shape of one day in the week and services to match (see Villenage). Of these various groups that of the geburs corresponds more closely to the continental serfs (coloni, Härige, unfreie Hintersassen). The dualism characteristic of medieval serfdom, its formation out of debased freedom and rising servitude, may be traced all through the history of the middle ages. French jurists of the 13th century, e.g., lay stress on a fundamental difference in law between the complete serf whose very body belongs to his lord (cf. the German Leibeigenschaft) and the villein or roturier, who is only bound to perform certain duties and ought not to be further oppressed by the landowners on whose soil he is settled (Beaumanoir, Coutume de Beauvaisis). But the same texts which draw the line between the two classes make it clear that there were no other guarantees to the maintenance of the rights of the superior rustics than the moral sense and the self-interest of their masters. Should the lords infringe the well-established rights of their subjects, the latter had no court to appeal to and only God could inflict punishment on the oppressors. It must be added, however, that even in the darkest times of feudal sway, economic forces provided some protection for the peasants who had lost the means of appealing to legal remedies. A certain balance had to be struck in most cases between the greed and selfishness of the class of landowners and the necessary requirements and human aspirations of the subjects. Feudal masters could not afford to act with the ruthless cruelty of slaveholders relying on government and civilization to back their claims to a complete sway over their human chattels. Lords who did not wish to see their estates deserted had to submit to the rule of custom in respect of exactions. And the screen of rural custom proved sufficient to allow of the growth of some property in the hands of the toiling class, a result which in itself rendered possible further emancipation.

A very instructive example of the formation of serfdom is presented by the history of Russia.. Personal slavery in the sense in which it existed in the West was practised in ancient Russia (kholopi) and arose chiefly from conquest, but also from voluntary subjection in cases of great hardship and from the redemption of fines and debts (cf. the O. Eng. wite-theow). But the number of personal serfs was not large and they were principally to be met in the households of great people. The gr eat mass of the peasantry was originally free. Even when in the course of time landownership was appropriated by the crown, the ecclesiastical corporations and the nobles, the tillers of the land retained their personal freedom and were considered to be farmers holding their plots under contracts. They were free to leave their farms provided they were able to effect a settlement in regard to all outstanding rent arrears and debts. Members of the household who were not directly responsible for the farms could look out for their livelihood as they pleased. The custom of the country gradually took the shape of a simultaneous resettlement of all conditions of rural occupation about St George's day (November 24), that is after the gathering of the harvest and the practical winding up of rural work. Such was the legal state of affairs up to the end of the 16th century. A great change supervened, however, through the slow working of economic and political causes. The peasants settled under the sway of nobles and churches could very seldom produce a clean bill in regard to their money relations with the landlords. They generally had to account for arrears and got into debt from the very start by taking over stock with the farm. The longer they remained on the same plot, the more entangled became the ties of their economic dependence. Thus, as in the case of many Roman coloni, thoroughly free settlers gradually lapsed into a state of perpetual subjection from which they could not emancipate themselves by legal means. On the other hand, the growth of the Muscovite state with its fiscal and governmental requirements involved a watchful repartition of burdens among the population and led ultimately to a system of collective liability in which the farms were considered chiefly as the sources of taxable income. The government was directly interested in maintaining their efficiency and in preventing migrations and desertions which led to a weakening of the taxpaying communities. A third aspect of the question must also not be desregarded, namely, the keen competition between landowners trying to attract settlers to their estates at the expense of their needy or less powerful neighbours. The first legislative measures of the Moscow rulers directed towards the establishment of a servile class similar to the Roman coloni fall into the first years of the r7th century (A.D. 160r, 1606) and consist in enactments against landowners depriving their neighbours of the tillers of their estates. But matters were clearly ripe for a wider application of the view that the peasant ought to stick to the soil, and the restoration of the Muscovite empire under the Romanovs brought with it the consolidation of all rural arrangements around this principle. Peter the Great regularized and completed this evolution by effecting a comprehensive cadastre and census of the rural population. The ultimate result was, however, not only the fixity of peasant tenures, but the subjection of the entire peasant population as a separate class (Krepostrie) to the personal sway of the landowners. The state insisted to a certain extent on the public character of this subjection and drew distinctions between personal slavery and serfdom. In the midst of the peasants themselves there lived a consciousness of their special claims as to tenant right, claims which sometimes assumed the shape of the quaint saying, "The land is ours, though we are yours." But, in fact, serfdom naturally took the form of an ugly ownership of live chattels on the part of a privileged class, and all sorts of excesses, of cruelty, ruthless exploitation and wanton caprice, followed as a matter of course. Emancipation was brought about in the 9th century by economic causes as well as by humanitarian considerations. The fabric of a state built up on the basis of serfdom proved inadequate to meet the tasks of modern times. Private enterprise and the free application of capital and labour were hindered in every way by the bondage of the peasant class. Even such a necessary measure as that of moving cultivators to the rich soil of the south was thwarted by the adherence of the northern peasantry to the glebe. On the humanitarian and liberal ideas making for emancipation we need not dwell, as they are self-evident. After several half-hearted attempts directed in the course of Nicholas I.'s reign to face the question while safeguarding at the same time the rights and privileges of the old aristocracy, the moral collapse of the ancien regime during the Crimean war brought about the Emancipation Act of the 19th of February 1861, by which some 15 millions of serfs were freed from bondage. The most characteristic feature of this act was that the peasants, as distinct from household servants, received not only personal freedom but allotments in land in certain proportions to their former holdings. The state indemnified the former landowners, and the peasants had to redeem the loan by yearly payments extending over a number of years.

If we turn back from this course of development to the history of serfdom and emancipation in the West striking contrasts appear. As we have already noticed, medieval serfdom in the West was the result of a process of customary feudal growth hardly interfered with by central governments. The loosening of bondage is also, to a great extent, prepared by the working of local economic agencies. Villeins and serfs in France rise gradually in the social scale, redeem many of the onerous services of feudalism and practically acquire tenant-right on most of the plots occupied by them. Tocqueville has pointed out that already before the revolution of 1789 the greater part of the territory of France was in the hands of small peasant owners, and modern researches have confirmed Tocqueville's estimate. Thus feudal overlordship in France had resolved itself into a superficial dominion undermined in all directions by economic realities. The fact that there still existed all kinds of survivals of harsh forms of dependence, e.g. the bondage of the serfs in the Jura Mountains, only rendered the contrast between legal conditions and social realities more pointed. The night of the 4th of August 1789 put an end to this contrast at one stroke and the further history of rural population came to depend entirely on the play of free competition and free contract.

The evolution of serfdom in Germany was effected by the working of somewhat more complicated causes. The regulating influence of government made itself felt to a greater extent, especially in the east. The colonization of the eastern provinces and the struggle against the Sla y s necessitated a stronger concentration of aristocratic power, and the reception of Roman law during the 5th and 16th centuries hardened the forms of subjection originated by customary conditions. It may be said in a general way that Germany occupied in this respect, as in many others, an intermediate position between the west of Europe and Russia. Emancipation followed also a middle course. It was brought about chiefly by governmental measures, although the ground was to a great extent prepared by social evolution. The reforms of Stein and Hardenberg in Prussia, of the French and of their clients in South Germany, opened the way for a gradual redemption of the peasantry. Personal serfdom (Leibeigenschaft) was abolished first, hereditary subjection (Erbunterthanigkeit) followed next. Emancipation in this case was not connected with a recognition of the full tenant-right of the peasants; they had to part with a good deal of their land. To the last the landowners were not disturbed in their economic predominance, and succeeded very well in working their estates by the help of agricultural labourers and farmers. In the west the small peasant proprietorship had a better chance, but it arose in the course of economic competition rather than through any general recognition of tenant-right. On the whole serfdom appears as a characteristic corollary of feudalism. It grew up as a consequence of customary subjection and natural husbandry; it melted away with the coming in of an industrial and commercial age.

Authorities. - Wallon, Histoire de l'esclavage dans l'antiquite; Pauly-Wissowa, Realencyklopddie des klassischen Altertums, s.v. " Coloni"; Fustel de Coulanges, Recherches sur quelques problemes d'histoire; Institutions politiques de la France (L'alleu et le domaine rural); F. Seebohm, English Village Community (1883); P. Vinogradoff, The Growth of the Manor (1905); G. Waitz, Deutsche Verfassungsgeschichte (1844, ff.); P. Viollet, Histoire du droit francais (3rd ed., 1905); Engelmann, Geschichte der Leibeigenschaft Russland; Kluchevsky, Lectures on the History of Russia (in Russian), ii. (1906); G. Hansen, Die Aufhebung der Leibeigenschaft in Schleswig and Holstein (1861); G. F. Knapp, Die Bauernbefreiung in Preussen (1887); Handworterbuch der Staatswissenschaften, ed. by Conrad and Lexis, s.vv. " Bauernbefreiung," "Unfreiheit," "Grundherrschaft."

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Simple English

Serfdom is a legal and economic system.

A serf is a laborer who has to stay in one area. Serfs were the lowest social class of the feudal society. Serfs were different from slaves. Serfs could have property. In most serfdoms, serfs were legally part of the land, and if the land was sold, they were sold with it.

Serfdom is the forced labour of serfs, on the fields of the land owners. Serfs got protection and the right to work on the leased fields. Serfs worked in fields, and other agricultural-related works, like forestry, transportation (both land and river-based), work in craft and even in manufactures.

Serfdom came from agricultural slavery of Roman Empire and spread through Europe around the 10th century. Most people lived in serfdoms during the Middle Ages of Europe.

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



The word "Serf" came from the Latin servus, meaning "slave".[1]

The system of serfdom

All land was owned by landowners - nobility, Church and monarchs. A serf is any peasant who has to do manual labor for someone else in order to get to keep his land.

While most serfs were farmers, some serfs were craftsman - like the village blacksmith, miller or innkeeper.

The serf's feudal contract

The serfs had a feudal contract, just like a baron or a knight. A serf's feudal contract was that he would live on and work a piece of land held by his Lord. The serf would get protection in return.

During that time, people said that the a serf "worked for all", a knight or baron "fought for all" and a churchman "prayed for all." Everyone had his place and all was right with God's world. The serf did not have as good a position as the knights or barons, but was better than slavery. Serfs had some rights in the feudal contract.

A manorial Lord could not sell his serfs like Romans can sell their slaves. If his Lord sold some land, the serf of that land went with it to serve their new Lord. A serf could not leave his lands without permission. A serf could not sell his lands.

Becoming a serf

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

The serf's duties

The usual serf "paid" his fees and taxes by working for the lord 3 or 4 days a week. At different times in the year he would do different things. A serf could 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.


The big problem for serfs was that he had to do the work for the Lord before he could do his own work. When his Lord’s crops needed to be harvested, his needed to be harvested, too. The Lord would give them very good food when they worked for him.

The serf also had to pay taxes and fees. The Lord decided how much taxes they would pay from how much land the serf had, usually 1/3 of their value. They had to give money for fees when they got married, had a baby, or there was a war. Money was not very common then, so usually they paid by giving food instead of money.

Tax tests

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.

Benefits of serfdom

A serf had some freedom. A serf could get and keep property and money. Some serfs had more money and property than their free neighbours. A serf could sometimes buy his freedom.

Agricultural benefits

Serfs could grow what they wanted on their lands. Sometimes their taxes had to be paid in wheat, which is very difficult to grow. They took the wheat they didn’t give for taxes to the market. Their heirs usually got an inheritance.

The lord could not make the 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.


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

Work times

In different places and times, serfs had to work different amounts. In the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the 13th century it was 2 - 3 days a year. In the 14th century, serfs had to work one day per week. They had to work 4 days per week in the 17th century. They had to work 6 days per week in the 18th century.


Sometimes, serfs were soldiers during war. They could get freedom or even ennoblement for bravery in war. 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 get permission from their lord to marry someone who was not a serf for that lord.


Sometimes serf had to pay money because of something they did. This is called a fine. They had to pay a fine when they inherited money or property. They had to pay a fine if they became a priest or monk. They had to pay a fine if their children went to the city instead of staying and being a serf. They had to give their best animal to their lord when they died so that their children would get to stay on the land.

A serfs had to pay to use the lord’s grain mill and bread oven. They had to pay to use the lord’s carts to carry their produce. The serfs were very angry about that. Many peasants had to pay a fine because they used their own grain mill. The miller 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 lords made the serfs use the lord's oven to bake their daily bread.

Freedom for the serfs

Serfdom began to change because lords could make more money just renting the land. Many Lords "freed" their serfs to get cash from their serfs instead of work from them.

This didn’t really change the serfs’ life. They still had to farm their lands to feed their families, and pay their taxes. The main difference was that they could be forced off their lands if they didn’t pay the rent, or if their Lord decided he wanted to use their fields for raising sheep (for example) rather than corn.

The lords took the best land for themselves. Even though the serfs were “free”, their life was harder.

Serfs in Greece

The helots in the ancient Greek city-state of Sparta and the peasants working on government lands in ancient Rome worked like serfs, but they did not use that name. They were called coloni, or "tenant farmers”. The Germanic tribes took over the Roman Emdire. They took the lands from the wealthy Romans as the landlords but left the economic system of serfdom.

Beginning of serfdom

The serfdom of medieval times 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. It was followed by a long time when there were no strong central governments in most of Europe.

During this time, feudal lords worked to make serfdom the common way for people to live. Serfdom was the system where great landlords could make sure other people worked to feed them and are forced, legally and economically, to keep doing that.

This system gave most of the agricultural labor during the Middle Ages. There was slavery during the Middle Ages, but it was not common. Usually they were only slaves to take care of people’s houses. Parts of Europe, including much of Scandinavia, never used serfdom or other feudal institutions.

End of serfdom

In the later Middle Ages serfdom began to go away west of the Rhine even as it grew in 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. Serfdom was not common after the Renaissance.

Serfdom in Western Europe mostly ended in the 15th and 16th centuries. This was because of changes in the economy, population, and laws about what lords could make their tenants do in Western European nations. The end of serfdom in England around 1600 conincides approximately with the start of chattel slavery in the English-speaking parts of the Western hemisphere.

At the same time, there were more protests by serfs and peasants, like Tyler’s Rebellion in England in 1381. This put pressure on the nobility and the clergy to change the system and make it better. The new ways of renting the land gave people more freedom.

The Industrial Revolution helped end serfdoms. Farmers wanted to move to towns to make more money than working in the fields. Land owners also put their money into industries that made more money for them. This caused urbanization.

Serfdom reached Eastern European countries later than Western Europe. It became the main way around the 15th century. Before that time, Eastern Europe had less people than Western Europe. The lords of Eastern Europe tried to make people want to move there from Western Europe. Serfdom developed in Eastern Europe after the Black Death epidemics. That stopped the people moving to Eastern Europe, and many people who were already there died.

Serfdom in Russia

There was still serfdom in Russia until February 19, 1861. In Russian Baltic provinces it ended in the beginning of 19th century (Russian Serfdom Reforms). Russian serfdom was different than in other Eastern European countries, because it wasn’t changed by German law and people coming from Germany. The serfdom and manorialism systems were forced by the crown (Tsar), not the nobility.

Dates for the end of serfdom in different European countries

Return of Serfdom

Some people say that planned economies, especially those based on Soviet-style Communist economics, such as the Soviet collective farm system, are government-owned serfdom. Friedrich Hayek said that in his book Road to Serfdom . Mikhail Gorbachev believed that, too. In some Communist countries, farmers were tied to their farms. Some were called kolkhoz which were supposed to be collectives. Some were called sovkhoz which were state-owned. The government used a system of internal passports and household registration (such as 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. These authorities would then "buy" their agricultural produce at very low prices and use the money they made to invest in heavy industry.[needs proof]

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

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