views updated May 18 2018


SERFDOM. Serfdom was a status of legal bondage, almost invariably referring to peasants in enforced dependence on seignorial overlords. Serfdom could be an inherited, personal status (serfs of this sort were known as neifs in English, hommes de corps in French, and Erbuntertanen in German) or the consequence of the tenure of servile land (serfs of this sort were known as villeins in English, serfs de la glèbe in French, and Gutsuntertanen in German). During the early modern period serfdom encompassed a wide variety of conditions and social relations. Generally speaking, however, serfdom was a more recent, more widespread, and more onerous phenomenon in eastern than in western Europe, although even here there were important regional variations.

West European serfdom was of diverse and often obscure origin. In some places it developed out of the late Roman colonate (peasant tenants who were legally tied to the land during the fourth and fifth centuries); in others it was the result of self-commendation by peasants to powerful landlords in exchange for protection. Particularly important was the extension of the private jurisdictions of landlords at the expense of public systems of justice during the tenth and eleventh centuries, a process often accompanied by the imposition of fees and labor services on the peasantry. Finally, at the frontier between Christendom and the Islamic world, serfdom was also spread through military conquest. Thus in Sicily, which was seized by Norman adventurers between 1061 and 1091, most serfs were Muslims.


By the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, serfdom in western Europe had acquired a more precise legal definition, and was associated with a fairly standard series of legal disabilities. Particularly prominent was the obligation to provide corvées, or labor services, for the lord, ranging from a few days a year in southern France and the Mediterranean to one to two days every week on the northern European plain and in England. Serfs were forbidden to live outside the seignorial territory, and had to pay fines to marry the serf of another lord (merchet, formarriage, Ungenossame). Serfs were also subject to a characteristic set of fees, including poll taxes or annual recognition fees (tallage, chevage ), fees at the commencement of tenancy (entry fines, Handlohn, Erdschatz ), and death duties (heriots, mainmorte,Todesfälle ). Finally, serfdom often entailed disqualification from public office or exclusion from public jurisdiction.

Nevertheless, serfs were not slaves, but persons with rights in law. Only rarely could serfs be sold apart from their land; most "sales" of serfs in western Europe represented only the transfer of jurisdictional rights from one overlord to another with no physical movement of the peasants concerned. Moreover, de facto control of the means of production (the tenanted land) gave the serf leverage to bargain, and over the course of the Middle Ages, most of the rents, fees, and charges associated with serfdom became fixed by custom, while labor services tended to be commuted into cash payments. Serfs always retained extensive potential to resist seignorial pressure, either actively, through negotiation, protest, flight, and revolt, or passively, through foot-dragging and pilfering. Western European serfs also became adept at manipulating royal courts and other systems of public justice, despite seignorial efforts to impede their access to external legal authorities. Furthermore, it should be kept in mind that the serf's material circumstances were by no means necessarily inferior to those of the free peasant, as the legal encumbrances of servility were often counterbalanced by the greater size of servile, as opposed to free, landholdings. The English "Hundred Rolls" of 12791280 indicate that the average villein landholding was twice the size of its free counterpart, and similar patterns emerge from mid-sixteenth-century Swabian tax registers.

Serfdom was never a universal condition of the West European peasantry. It was insignificant in Scandinavia and most of the Iberian Peninsula (Catalonia being the main exception). Even in England, where servility assumed much greater significance, free peasants made up fully 50 to 60 percent of the rural population during the High Middle Ages. Furthermore, from the thirteenth century serfdom began to decline in significance throughout western Europe. Sometimes this happened through formal decrees of enfranchisement, as at Bologna (1257) and Florence (1289), or through mass sales of freedom, as in the Paris region from 1246. During the later Middle Ages serfdom also became a subject of several peasant protest movements, most notably the so-called Jacquerie in northern France (1358), the Peasants' Revolt of 1381 in England, and the German Peasants' War of 15241526. Almost all of these uprisings failed to secure a formal abolition of servile status, and instead were brutally suppressed by the authorities. The one great exception to this pattern occurred in Catalonia, where a series of revolts beginning in the 1370s culminated in the Peasants' War of 14621486 and ended with the suppression of serfdom by the Sentence of Guadalupe (1486). Despite the limited immediate successes of these rural rebellions, serfdom was in fact fatally undermined in western Europe by the plagues of the fourteenth century and by the ensuing late medieval agrarian depression.

The wave of epidemics that commenced with the Black Death of 13471351 and persisted into the fifteenth century created an acute labor shortage throughout the European continent, and the peasantry was able to capitalize on this situation by extracting major concessions from overlords. Initial efforts to enforce strict pre-plague wage and labor conditions, such as the English Statute of Laborers (1351) and the German Golden Bull of Charles IV (1356) foundered on economic realities and peasant resistance, and serfdom began to wither away through the practical modification of tenurial arrangements, rather than through formal abolition (that serfdom declined primarily in this way underscores the fact that most west European peasants incurred serfdom through villeinage rather than neifty). Landlords began to abandon the direct exploitation of seignorial reserves, which had required the mobilization of considerable labor services, and instead began parceling out their demesnes to the peasants in tenancy. Labor services and servile disabilities were gradually abandoned or (more commonly) commuted into fixed monetary payments and made incidents of land tenure, while peasant property rights grew more secure and increasingly heritable. In England, where the phenomenon has been particularly well studied, bondland was transformed over the course of the later Middle Ages into secure "customary" tenure, with robust rights of inheritance, conveyance, and mortgage. The tenant's rights were formalized in the manorial court roll, and a copy of the entry was issued to the tenant (hence the alternative appellation "copyhold" tenure). From the fifteenth century disputes over copyhold land could be appealed to royal courts, and by the 1580s English common law even upheld the copyholder's right to sublet such property to third parties. A similar pattern obtained in Germany, where the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries saw the spread of heritable tenancy (Erblehenrecht) with extensive rights of conveyance, and guaranteed by the issue of parchment charters authenticated by seal.

By the beginning of the sixteenth century, therefore, the burdens of servility had been "tenurialized" in most of western Europe, thereby disarming serfdom as a status of legal bondage. In France, even tenurial serfdom was largely confined to the eastern regions of Burgundy and Franche-Comté, where one-third to one-half of the population remained serfs until the institution was abolished by the French revolutionaries on 3 November 1789. In England, serfdom was still mentioned in the grievance lists of Kett's Rebellion (1549), and crown serfs were manumitted as late as 1575, but as far as contemporary commentators like Thomas Smith (1581) and William Harrison (1577) were concerned, neifty had ceased to exist, while villeins were "so fewe . . . it is not almost worth the speaking" (quoted in Hilton, 56). The most significant exceptions to this trend in western Europe were the German-speaking lands of the Holy Roman Empire, where serfdom remained a vital institution throughout the early modern period.

The persistence, indeed intensification, of serfdom in Germany at the end of the Middle Ages was in part a reaction to the late medieval agrarian crisis. Thus, in the German southwest, ecclesiastical lordships in particular began to impose new mobility restrictions and extend the scope and weight of death duties during the later fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries in order to retain control over the thinning ranks of the tenantry. This seignorial reaction ultimately collapsed because of determined peasant resistancemost spectacularly the aforementioned Peasants' War of 15241526and most lordships came to an accommodation with their subjects guaranteeing peasant inheritance rights and capping the disabilities imposed by servility. More significant changes flowed from the second impetus for the revival of serfdom in Germany (again, especially in the southwest), namely the drive for territorial centralization. During the later fifteenth and well into the sixteenth centuries, rural lordships, territorial princes, and even free imperial cities began systematically exchanging rights with neighboring territories over "foreign" serfs in order to create exclusive jurisdictions free of legal claims from external authorities. Territorial serfdom of this sort did also entail some fiscal burdens and marriage and mobility restrictions, but the former were not especially onerous and the latter could always be waived for a moderate fee. By the early seventeenth century serfdom had ceased to occasion widespread complaint in Germany (with the notable exception of a protracted conflict in Hauenstein, in the southern Rhine Palatinate, between 1725 and 1745), and the institution persisted in its tenurial and territorial forms until abolished in the various German states over the years between the revolutions of 1789 and 1848.


In eastern Europe serfdom had a rather different history from patterns in the west, although historians now characterize the east-west contrast as a gradual and varied transition, rather than in terms of a sharp demarcation along the river Elbe. Serfdom appeared only at the end of the fifteenth and especially during the sixteenth century in Eastern Europe, and was closely associated with intensified seignorial jurisdiction (often called Gutsherrschaft ) and the spread of vast demesnal economies predicated on large-scale inputs of labor service (often called Gutswirtschaft ). Explanations for the rise of Gutsherrschaft and Gutswirtschaft remain controversial, but most accounts stress a combination of factors, including the relative sparseness of population (which increased the appeal of a dependent labor force), the sixteenth-century boom in cereal prices as a result of both local and international demand, and the relative weakness of village communities, which were less able (though by no means utterly incapable) of resisting seignorial pressure than their counterparts in western Europe.

Eastern European serfs were subjected to the same kinds of disabilities as in the west, including the obligation to provide labor services, and restrictions on mobility and outmarriage. Eastern European serfdom also recognized the distinction between tenurial and personal serfdom, with the former pattern predominating in the lands of the Austrian Habsburgs and Prussian Hohenzollerns, and the latter obtaining in Poland, Hungary, andRussia. On the other hand, serfdom tended to be introduced in eastern Europe by governmental decrees forbidding peasants from leaving the jurisdiction or territory of their landlords, rather than spreading piecemeal as a result of the policies of individual overlords (as in the west). Decrees of this sort were first passed in Bohemia (1487) and Poland (1496), and thereafter in Hungary (1514), Prussia (1526), Brandenburg (1528), upper Austria (1539), Pomerania (1616 and 1645), Russia (1649), and Mecklenburg (1654).

Eastern European serfdom has often been characterized as more oppressive than its western counterpart because of the intensity of labor services demanded (three, four, and in some cases up to six days of work per week), the denial of a serf's right of appeal against the lord to royal or other public courts, and the fact that serfs could be sold apart from their land in the east (thousands of such cases have been documented for Poland alone). Although this contrast is broadly true, it is subject to important qualifications. First of all, a great deal of time often elapsed between a royal proclamation of serfdom and the full elaboration of seignorial jurisdiction and demesnal economies. In the Russian case it seems that it was only in the later eighteenth century that the system of servile dependency implied by the 1649 law code was actually enforced. Moreover, in some parts of eastern Europe (in particular Prussia and the Austrian Habsburg lands), the steady intrusion of royal courts into seignorial jurisdiction during the eighteenth century created a significant avenue for the mitigation of serfdom, as peasants were able to appeal to the crown for redress. Nevertheless, serfdom lasted much longer in eastern than in western Europe, and was only abolished over the course of the nineteenth century, beginning in Prussia (1807), and then later Austria (1848), Hungary (1853), Russia (1861), and Romania (1864).

See also Agriculture ; Class, Status, and Order ; Enclosure ; Feudalism ; Laborers ; Landholding ; Peasantry ; Peasants' War, German ; Plague ; Serfdom in East Central Europe ; Serfdom in Russia .


Aston, T. H., and C. H. E. Philpin, eds. The Brenner Debate: Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development in Pre-Industrial Europe. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1985.

Bloch, Marc. Slavery and Serfdom in the Middle Ages: Selected Essays. Translated by William R. Beer. Berkeley, 1975.

Blum, Jerome. The End of the Old Order in Rural Europe. Princeton, 1978.

Bush, M. L., ed. Serfdom and Slavery: Studies in Legal Bondage. London and New York, 1996.

Freedman, Paul. The Origins of Peasant Servitude in Medieval Catalonia. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1991.

Hilton, R. H. The Decline of Serfdom in Medieval England. London and New York, 1969.

Hoch, Steven L. Serfdom and Social Control in Russia: Petrovskoe, a Village in Tambov. Chicago, 1986.

Luebke, David Martin. "Serfdom and Honour in Eighteenth-Century Germany." Social History 18, no. 2 (1993): 143161.

Scott, Tom. Society and Economy in Germany, 13001600. Houndmills, U.K., and New York, 2002.

Scott, Tom, ed. The Peasantries of Europe: From the Fourteenth to the Eighteenth Centuries. London and New York, 1998.

Govind P. Sreenivasan


views updated May 23 2018


Serfdom is the name of the condition of a peasant who does not enjoy the rights of a free person, but is not a slave. While the slave is an object of the law, the serf is still a subject of the law. The classic definition of serfdom in the Russian context is given in Jerome Blum's Lord and Peasant in Russia (pp. 68). Thus a serf is a peasant who (1) is bound to the land; or (2) is bound to the person of a lord; and (3) is not directly subject to the state, but is subject to a lord who in turn is subject to the state (such as it may be). Thus a serf bound to the land cannot be moved by any lord, and is supposed to be a "fixture" on that land regardless of who owns or holds the land. But if a serf is bound to the person of a lord, he essentially begins to resemble a slave in that the lord nearly becomes the owner of the serf: the lord can move the serf from one plot of land to another (or even into his household), and may even be able to sell the serf to a third party. The first and second conditions are mutually exclusive, for a serf cannot be bound to the land and simultaneously bound to the person of a lord. The third condition is most difficult to comprehend, but can arise under one of two circumstances: either state power does not exist (as during the manorial era of Russia in the early period of the "Mongol yoke," from 1237 to 1300 or even 1350) and thus the sole extant conflict-resolution power is exercised by a large estate owner, or the existing state power has abdicated or ceded judicial or taxing authority to the owner or holder of land. The third condition can exist by itself or in conjunction with the first or second conditions.

Whether there was serfdom of the third category in the early Mongol period, after the collapse of Russian princely power and during the period when the sole authority may have been the owner of a large estate (votchina ) or manor, is an issue. While there may have technically been serfdom between 1237 and 1300 or 1350, the reality was certainly such that no peasant knew he was a serf. In those decades most peasants lived on land they considered their own, not on a manor. Moreover, given the reigning system of slash-and-burn (assartage ) agriculture, peasants were accustomed to farming a new plot of land every three years and could freely move away from any manorial lord who was the slightest bit oppressive. Thus no one views any of the peasants of Russia as "serfs" until the second half of the fifteenth century.

Serfdom began as a result of the civil war of 14251453, which left much of Russia in ruins. Selected monasteries were allowed to forbid their peasant debtors to move at any time except around St. George's Day (November 26compare with the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday), the day in the pagan calendar when the harvest was completed and thus debts could be collected. In 1497 the St. George's Day limitation was extended to all peasants; they were bound to the land and could not legally move at other times of the year. Lords were limited to collecting the traditional rent and had no authority over the peasants.

Ivan IV's mad Oprichnina (15651572) was responsible for initiating changes in the status of the peasant. Ivan gave his special Oprichnina troops, the oprichniki, control over the peasants living on the lands they possessed, which allowed them to raise their rents to whatever level they pleased. As a result the oprichniki "collected as much rent in one year as previously had been collected in ten." This and other barbarous acts of the Oprichnina resulted in the depopulation of much of old Muscovy as the peasants fled to newly annexed areas (colonial expansion). Certain landholders (pomestie ) then successfully petitioned the government to repeal the peasants' right to move on St. George's Day. In 1592 this repeal was temporarily extended to all peasants. Thus serfdom became the temporary legal status of all peasants.

Limitations were placed on the recovery of fugitive peasants in 1592, but they were repealed in the Law Code of 1649 (Ulozhenie). According to Chapter 11, Article 1, of the Ulozhenie of 1649, any peasants who had been recorded as living on state, court, or peasant taxable lands could be returned to those lands without any time limits. Article 2 stated the same for peasants living on seignorial lands. Thus all peasants in Russia within the reach of the Ulozhenie were serfs. The code also specified how runaways should be returned, and especially what should happen if male and female fugitives married. The Orthodox Church held that marriage was inviolable, so the couple had to be returned to the lord of one of them. The most rational

solution to this problem was that the lord who received a fugitive lost the couple, as punishment for having received the runaway. If the couple was on neutral territory, the contesting lords cast lots; the winner got the couple and paid the loser 10 rubles for the serf he had lost. The serf family was not inviolable, however, and under certain circumstances could be broken up.

Other articles of the Ulozhenie established rules that led to the further abasement of the serfs, ultimately to a change in their status to something resembling slaves. It started with owners of hereditary estates, who were allowed to manumit their serfs (a practice ominously borrowed from slavery) and transfer them from one estate to another. This seemed innocent enough, as the state was primarily concerned about service landholdings and having the serfs there to support whichever cavalryman might be holding it at the moment. Both logical and juridical problems automatically arose when service landholdings were converted into hereditary estates in 1714.

Prior to that time, however, it appears that the process of converting the serf from a peasant bound to the land to a peasant bound to the person of a lord was under way. Between the Ulozhenie and the introduction of the soul tax in 1721, the extent to which this had progressed is disputed. Some transactions appear to have been concealed sales of peasants, for example. After 1721, conditions worsened. Lords were held responsible for the collection of the soul tax, which putatively gave them additional power over the serfs. Then in 1762 lords were freed from twenty-five-year (essentially lifetime) compulsory military service, so that many of them spent most of their lives on their estates and took an interest in the management of those estates. This was the coup de grace, which often

converted seignorial serfdom into near slavery. Serfs were auctioned, traded, moved to wherever their lords wanted them to live, and even compelled to breed. However, lords did not own a serf's inventory, clothing, personal property, and so on. These features increasingly distinguished seignorial serfs from serfs living on state and court lands, who came to be called "state peasants" even though they were still really serfs.

Serfdom was abolished in stages, depending on which category peasants belonged to. In 1861 serfs serving in lords' households (house serfs [dvorovye lyudi], nominally, and probably frequently literally, descendants of house slaves who had been put on the tax rolls in 1721) and possessional serfs (those assigned to work in factories, typically textile and metallurgical, whose output collapsed in 1861) were freed in all respects immediately. Seignorial serfs were immediately freed from landlord control (from being bound to the person of their lord) and were instead bound to the commune (i.e., to the land). This was done to avoid flooding the cities (officials knew the Manchester phenomenon) and to ensure stability (the same officials believed the commune was a stabilizing factor in the countryside). A separate emancipation freed the state serfs and peasants in 1863. Serfdom was finally abolished in 1906 and 1907, when communal control over the former seignorial peasants was abolished and they were allowed to move wherever they desired. Many peasants believed that serfdom was reinstituted when the Soviets collectivized agriculture at the end of the 1920s.

See also: emancipation act; enserfment; law code of 1649; oprichnina; peasantry; slavery


Blum, Jerome. (1961). Lord and Peasant in Russia: From the Ninth to the Nineteenth Century. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Emmons, Terence. (1968). The Russian Landed Gentry and the Peasant Emancipation of 1861. London: Cambridge University Press.

Field, Daniel. (1976). The End of Serfdom: Nobility and Bureaucracy in Russia, 18551861. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Hellie, Richard. (1971). Enserfment and Military Change in Muscovy. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Hellie, Richard, ed. and tr. (1967 and 1970). Muscovite Society. Chicago: The University of Chicago Syllabus Division.

Hellie, Richard, editor and translator. (1988). The Muscovite Law Code (Ulozhenie) of 1649. Irvine, CA: Charles Schlacks, Jr., Publisher.

Moon, David. (2001). The Abolition of Serfdom in Russia, 17621907. New York: Longman.

Richard Hellie


views updated May 18 2018

serfdom is the general term for servitude to a superior, but distinguished from slavery by being regulated by custom. The name masks a great variety of arrangements. There were large areas of England where it had never applied, particularly in Kent, the old Danelaw, and parts of the west country. Though the basic obligation of the unfree was to work for three days a week on the lord's demesne, to assist at harvest time, and to pay certain dues, the details differed from estate to estate. It was understood that serfs and their families should not be moved from their lands as chattels, but there are instances where it was done. The nearest that serfdom came to being a complete system was in the two centuries after the Norman Conquest. Before then personal vassalage was common, but a considerable proportion of peasants were slaves. By the 13th cent. the pattern was beginning to unravel as more and more villeins obtained their freedom and became copyholders. The system withered away, though it was a slow process, and as late as 1549, in Kett's rebellion, there were demands that bond-men should be made free. In Scotland serfdom disappeared even sooner, and had gone by the 14th cent., though clan and family loyalties remained strong and heritable jurisdictions survived until the 18th cent. By a remarkable throwback, a system akin to serfdom was introduced in Scotland in the 17th cent. to control the supply of labour in coal-mines and salt-pans, especially in Fife. In 1701 a statute declared that habeas corpus did not apply to the miners and in 1708 it was enacted that a collier escaping could be brought back within eight years. The system was finally abolished as late as 1799 (39 Geo. III c. 56) when the colliers were declared ‘free from their servitude’.

J. A. Cannon


views updated Jun 11 2018

serfdom This is a form of unfreedom, akin to slavery but associated with feudalism, principally in medieval Europe. This system of servitude, which tied particular tenants and their heirs, for life, to landlord masters through ties of fealty, was simultaneously a system of authority and economic adaptation.