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Costumes of slaves or serfs, from the sixth to the twelfth centuries, collected by H. de Vielcastel from original documents in European libraries.

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). 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 Francemarker in 1789.

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 Englandmarker, the end of serfdom began with Tyler’s Rebellion and was fully ended when Elizabeth I freed the last remaining serfs in 1574. There were native-born Scottishmarker 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 Russiamarker in 1861. In Finland, Norway and Sweden feudalism was not established, and serfdom did not exist.

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

Feudalism, according to Joseph R. Strayer, can be applied to the societies of Iranmarker, ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt (Sixth to Twelfth dynasty), Muslim India, Chinamarker (Zhou Dynasty, and end of Han Dynasty) and Japanmarker during the Shogunate. James Lee and Cameron Campbell describe the Chinese Qing Dynastymarker (1644-1912) as also maintaining a form of serfdom. 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 to have had serfdom until 1959, but whether or not the Tibetan form of peasant tenancy qualified as serfdom was widespread is contested. Bhutanmarker 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.


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. 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 Englandmarker 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 status than those held as slaves, 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.


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 ; 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 is that a serf owned "only his belly" — even his clothes were the property, in law, of his lord — a serf might still accumulate personal property and wealth, and some serfs became wealthier than their free 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 Polandmarker, 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.

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 Spartamarker 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 around the 10th century. The demise of this empire, which had ruled much of western Europe for more than 200 years, was followed by a long period during which no strong central government existed in most of Europe.

During this period, powerful feudal lords encouraged the establishment of serfdom as a source of agricultural labor. Serfdom, indeed, was an institution that reflected a fairly common practice whereby great landlords were assured that others worked to feed them and were held down, legally and economically, while doing so.

This arrangement provided most of the agricultural labour throughout the Middle Ages. Slavery persisted right through the Middle Ages, but it was rare, diminishing and largely confined to the use of household slaves. Parts of Europe, including much of Scandinavia, never adopted many feudal institutions, including serfdom.

In the later Middle Ages serfdom began to disappear west of the Rhinemarker 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.

Grain pays
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 . 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), Austriamarker, Hungarymarker (laws of the late 15th and early 16th centuries), the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (szlachta privileges of the early 16th century) and the Russian Empiremarker (laws of the late 16th and first half of the 17th century).
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

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 Sovietmarker-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 internal passports and household registration. 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 vastly reduced prices and use the surplus to invest in heavy industry.

This system existed in the USSR until as late as 1974 when the Soviet Government Decree #667 was put in effect. This decree granted peasants identification documents, with an unrestricted right to move within the country — thus detaching them from the piece of land where they had worked.

However, 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.

Dates of emancipation from serfdom in various countries

See also

External links


  1. Maurice Druon, Le Roi de fer, Chapter 3
  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. 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. Goldstein, Melvyn C. 1988. "On the Nature of Tibetan Peasantry." Tibet Journal 13, 1:61-65.
  9. 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. 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. [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.
  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

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