Serfdom: Western Europe

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Liana Vardi

Serfdom is a form of bondage. Unlike slavery in the Roman Empire or in the American South, where the slave was considered chattel for the master to treat as he or she pleased and had no legal recourse, serfdom came in many variants, and the rights and obligations of serfs differed from place to place. Serfdom was primarily a means of attaching peasants to the land, restricting their mobility and choice of how, where, and when to dispose of their own labor, and of extracting payments in return for services over which the landowner had a monopoly. Hence serfdom, like slavery, was predicated on the use of power by one group over another, but unlike slavery it rested on a modicum of consent because, despite the unequal distribution of power, the system was more responsive to peasant pressure and needs.

In the medieval West serfdom was a way of organizing agricultural production and governing people. In its latter function, and marxists would argue in the former as well, serfdom was thus linked to the fragmentation of power associated with the breakup of the Roman Empire and its successor states and the devolution of public powers to local lords. This process, known as feudalism, took centuries to evolve and then centuries to decline, so the history of serfdom becomes a pendant to western European state building. This article examines the social, economic, and political aspects of serfdom and reviews its cultural ramifications.


In the middle of the nineteenth century Karl Marx posited three stages of economic development: the ancient or slave mode of production, the feudal mode of production, and the capitalist mode of production, which he envisioned as eventually superseded by communism. Feudalism, in this schema, was a political system in which the ruling class extracted agricultural surpluses from peasants through the use of extra-economic coercion. The survival of the ruling class depended on this oppression of the peasantry, an oppression most clearly displayed in the institution of serfdom. What was serfdom in this marxist model? In an era of extremely low yields, crops had to be grown on vast tracts of land to produce surpluses and required armies of laborers. Slavery was one answer to this problem but, with the disintegration of the Roman Empire and the disappearance of steady supplies of slaves, a homegrown version was devised that took some though not all the elements of slavery by evolving new ways of tying labor to the land. The decay of the state and its replacement with autonomous lordships was the natural consequence of this localized, low-level productivity. This version privileged the inner logic, the imperative dictating the forms both of serfdom and feudalism. The economic limitations of the era imposed the system most suited to surplus extraction.

Historians have not totally abandoned this interpretation but have introduced nuances and chronologies that render the process more diffuse, haphazard, and uneven. Local circumstances and local arrangements have become more important than abstract models in explaining how feudalism and serfdom actually worked. Moreover, the association between Roman slavery and medieval serfdom, once commonplace, has been challenged by interpretations that posit a break between the two in the ninth and tenth centuries and the full emergence of serfdom only in the eleventh.

Roman agriculture relied on slaves both on large estates and on small farms. On the bigger estates, slave gangs housed in dormitories cultivated the crops, while family farms might use one or two slave helpers. In the late Roman Empire, slaves were settled on estates divided into two sections: the reserve of land retained by the landowner and a series of plots given to the slaves to till as their own, hence their name servi casati (hutted slaves) or coloni (colonists), growing enough food to sustain themselves and their families. To remedy the labor shortage, slaves were permitted to marry. They were given a stake in the estate through plots, which they farmed and could pass on to their heirs. In return for these plots, the slaves owed the landowner rent, dues, services, and most importantly labor on their domains. Some slaves were not given land but were retained on the estate as servants. They were called mancipia to differentiate them from the landed serfs. Slaves passed on their servile status to their children. Later those enserfed by dint of their birth, a condition referred to in English as neifty, were known as bondsmen and bondswomen. In other languages they were nativi per corpora, nativi domini de sanguine; hommes de corps, Leibeigene, and Erbuntertanen. The historian Michael Bush has considered medieval serfdom an amalgam of this settlement of slaves and another late Roman development, the tying of peasant tenants to an estate by imperial decree. Those who rented land were forbidden from moving away, reducing them to bondage because of the land they occupied. They came to be called tenurial serfs, tenants of lands in villeinage, serfs à la glèbe, Gutsunternanen, and servi terrae. The origin of enserfment, via blood or via land tenure, continued to differentiate types of servility. Descendants of settled slaves generally owed more services than tenurial serfs who retained a higher status.

In the cases described above, slave and peasant were turned into serfs without their consent. Yet from the seventh to the tenth centuries, one finds repeated instances of peasants giving themselves into bondage, apparently willingly, and most frequently to churches and monasteries, to whom they donated their land, renting it back as bonded laborers. The reasons were manifold: piety, desire for protection in unsettled times, debt, and in some cases crime. These voluntary enserfments demonstrate that serfdom is a complicated process with numerous causes and ramifications that do not readily yield to simple schema.


Whatever the means of their enserfment, over time serfs became liable to a range of payments and were expected to perform labor services for their lords. The most important services were agricultural labor on the demesne or that part of the estate the lord retained as his own, haulage and cartage, military aid or its equivalent, upkeep of the lord's castle, and food and lodging for the lord's men when they visited the area. Serfs remained at the master's mercy, meaning that he could dictate to them the terms and nature of their obligations at will. This arbitrariness, mainly the lot of bondsmen, was one of the most resented aspects of serfdom and the most combated. By the late Middle Ages serfs demanded and gradually obtained fixed dues and services, a situation that most tenurial serfs already enjoyed, except in those places and times when lords extended their demands and imposed harsher terms on all their dependants, a process examined below.

Although the system was predicated on labor services on the demesne, the trend in Western medieval serfdom was to reduce this forced labor. In region after region labor services fell by the thirteenth century from an initial three to six days a week to a maximum of a couple of weeks a year known as corvées, boons, or noctes. Since the several days they owed consisted of plowing and harvesting, the most important phases in the agricultural calendar, this continued service to the lord interrupted the serfs' work on their own plots. The reduction of labor services and their commutation into cash arose from the lords' increasing need for revenue. Over time they gave up tilling their properties directly and leased more of the demesne since collecting rent from serfs was more lucrative than feeding them. What is more, the rise in population in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries provided cheap seasonal labor for lords who continued to farm their domains.

Initially serfs paid symbolic annual rents on their tenures, a few coins supplemented by a fowl, eggs, a piece of linen, or another gift in kind, that expressed the lord's continued primary ownership of that land. The commutation of labor services to cash created an additional rent due either in cash or kind depending on the time and place.

Different types of tenures developed. While most serfs enjoyed long-term or perpetual leases known in Roman law as emphyteutic, other tenures were leased for shorter periods ranging from three to twenty-four years and rents were adjusted at the termination of each lease. One of the perceived advantages of serfdom for the peasant, historians reckon, was that it ensured long-term tenure, in the best of circumstances at fixed rents.

Since the system was predicated on the control of labor, serfs could not leave the estate, dispose of their land, or marry out of the lord's jurisdiction without his consent and the payment of a fee. They remained bound to the land with the greater independence that came from "owning" their plots and passing them on to their heirs and from the symbiotic relationship that made the landowners dependent on their work and their rent. This arrangement of demesne and peasant tenures with their array of labor services and rents, commonly referred to as the manorial system, spread throughout Europe in Carolingian times.

Attached to the manor or living alongside it was a free peasantry that survived the Roman Empire and the reconfiguration of barbarian tribes into small kingdoms in the fifth, sixth, and seventh centuries. These peasants owned farms large enough for a family to till, roughly the area worked by one plow, called mansi, manses, hides, or Hufen, that later became units of taxation. Free peasants answered to their territorial ruler, whether a king, duke, or count. They could appeal to his law, and they paid him taxes. To benefit from common pastures and woods, these free peasants might also pay a fee to the local landowner or lord. Their land, however, remained their sole property and was known as allodial. The debates about serfdom and its extent rest on divided opinions about the resilience of this free peasantry or its reduction, gradual or abrupt, to servitude around the eleventh century.

Debates about this process arise in part from the lack of documentation in an age when record keeping was decentralized and haphazard and invading Vikings, Saracens, and Magyars plundered monasteries and dispersed their archives. Debates also hinge on the changing meanings of terms inherited from Rome. Latin terms for slave, such as servus for men and ancilla for women, came to suggest different levels of dependency and were applied to serfs and freemen alike. At this juncture the new word "slave" (esclave, esclavo, schiavo, or Sklave) emerged in Europe from the Slav merchants who provided actual slaves in medieval times. The coexistence of personal and tenurial forms of servitude complicated matters because servitude was tied to individuals in some cases and to land in other cases. Over time free peasants might rent land on which they owed servile services, whereas serfs might till free land. Mixed marriages raised further questions about status. Did they enslave the freeman or free the slave? In Germany, for example, children's servility derived from the status of their mother. Roman law did not recognize slaves as it did free peasants, though research suggests that the law in the late empire did. In other words, slaves could not appeal to the royal or comitial courts that supplanted the Roman ones. Membership in village communities was initially denied to personal serfs though it might be extended to tenurial serfs. In time, however, the community came to accept and integrate them all.

Historians who question the continuity between Roman slavery and medieval serfdom point to a decrease in slavery in the ninth and tenth centuries. In Spain, for example, the upheavals caused by the invasions and the weaknesses of the post-Carolingian state allowed many to gain their freedom. When serfdom was imposed in the eleventh century, it fell on a free peasantry whose independence had deteriorated because of poverty. Subdivision of plots among heirs made successful farming difficult. Growing indebtedness forced many to forfeit or sell their land and to rent instead. In this version, only a minority of European peasants owned land by the eleventh century. What differentiated the remainder was the range of obligations attached to their tenures. Free tenants paid rent and owed services specified in leases, contracts, or by local custom. Serfs owed services and rent at the discretion of their lords. Since it was not in the interest of lords to alienate their tenants, conditions for serfs usually followed the custom of the manor, so in England these were sometimes called customary tenants. Changes in the nature of lordship in the eleventh century granted lords increased powers.


Roman and barbarian law codes defined person and status clearly, differentiating a citizen from a slave. The dilution and gradual erosion of these law codes into local customs as royal and public powers weakened in the aftermath of new invasions and the disintegration of the Carolingian state makes it extremely difficult and controversial to reconstruct a linear progression in rural relations and to generalize its extent. It is as if rural society disappeared into a tunnel to reappear several centuries later with a different configuration. In some cases, slaves and freemen became serfs. Generic terms for "peasant," including rustici in Italian, Bauer in German, and vilain in French, entered the languages, although the equivalent term "villein" in English was confined to the unfree. Historians have associated these phenomena with two trends. As early as the ninth century, society was viewed by jurists and clerics as divided into three groups: those who prayed and those who fought supported by those who worked. All rustics were thus treated as part of the laboring class, one strain in the leveling process. More pertinent was the devolution of power lower down the social hierarchy from monarchs and counts to their knights and supporters, who were granted or who seized territories and legal and pecuniary rights over them. What had once been public authority was converted to and confused with private authority. These new lords, ensconced in castles their estates, acquired banal (pronounced bay-nal) lordship in English, seigneurie banale in French, and Grundherrschaft in German. The fact that free and unfree peasants lived on territories designated as banal lordships merged their status, for all became subject to the lord's law.

For some historians this process of dissolution began in the ninth century if not earlier. For others the transformation occurred around the year 1000. This latter thesis was put forward by the French medievalists Marc Bloch and Georges Duby, who posited a mutation in the eleventh century that significantly altered social relations in the French countryside. In this version, lords enjoyed uncontested authority for perhaps a century and a half. Then a hierarchy was reestablished and power accrued once again to counts, dukes, and as of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries to monarchs. The overall thesis has been challenged by historians who question the date and the extent of the transformation. These scholars argue that changes in the eleventh century were neither clear-cut nor drastic, that lords did not obtain absolute authority, and that terminology is too uncertain to support wholesale assertions.

For Bloch, moreover, serfdom was characterized by three payments known in French as the chevage, a poll tax levied arbitrarily; the formariage (merchet), a fee to the lord for the right to marry a woman from outside the seigneurie by which the bride became a serf; and the mainmorte (heriot), which limited the serf's freedom in allocating his inheritance. All those liable to these restrictions and the fees that accompanied them were considered serfs, meaning the majority of peasants. Further research has demonstrated that the distinction between free and unfree loosened as of the eleventh century, so even freeborn peasants might be liable to some of those fees. Consequently the payments did not necessarily indicate free or unfree status, at least in France. Common subjection to banal lordship became the defining criterion for payments and services. Categories such as "free" and "unfree" disappeared, yielding instead the mixture of independence and dependence that typified all medieval social relations.


The confusion of public and private powers allowed lords to prosecute, levy taxes on, and collect dues from their tenants, servile or not, and from the surviving free peasantry. The lord's role in defending the peace at a time when no other public authority existed meant that peasants of all stripe had to rely on the protection of his law court and his castle. This also meant that the lord had the means at hand to police his territory and to secure his peasants' obedience and, as long as neighboring lords cooperated, the power to pursue runaway serfs. In return for protection, peasants helped build and maintain castles and fortifications, and they might be asked to perform guard duty. As weaponry became more sophisticated and costly, they were no longer expected to follow their lord into battle, a drop in status in this warrior society. Yet they were expected to help him defray its costs. The commutation of physical services to monetary payments became more common as seigneurs needed more money to fight their wars and to provide their households with luxuries

The Austrian historian Otto Brunner has suggested that protection lay at the heart of the system. The lord ensured the safety of the inhabitants against marauders and protected their "rights" to their land against intruders. His authority resembled that of a head of household. Although the undisputed master, he was supposed to act for the benefit of his tenants and not arbitrarily. As lord he defended and upheld local custom, which devolved from old tribal law. The relationship between lord and peasant was not merely paternal but mirrored that between lord and vassal. The peasant, serf or free, who held a tenure from a lord owed him aid and fidelity, in some cases sealed by an oath. The lord bestowed on the peasant protection in times of war, food in times of famine, and at all times intercession with outside powers.

German historical tradition is more firmly attached to this feudal model than the English or the French. Werner Rösener, for example, attributes reciprocal obligations to the fact that both serfdom and feudalism originated in the Roman estate system and in Teutonic tribal customs, which stressed clientage and oath taking. This similarity between serfdom and the feudal ceremonies of vassalage can be clearly perceived in the ritual of seisin, which took place at the death of a serf and the transfer of his holding to his heir. With a symbolic gesture, sometimes in the form of a rod passed to and fro, the lord "recovered" his land and then "granted it anew" to the heir, who thus acknowledged the lord's primary ownership and hence his right to dues and services.

The fee on marriage (merchet) gave rise to a peculiar legend built around the ritual accompanying the lord's agreement to a serf's marriage. In some places he gestured toward or even crossed over the marriage bed. Over time this practice expanded into the myth of the "lord's first night," the right of the lord to deflower the bride. In the eighteenth century, thanks to plays by Voltaire and Pierre-Augustin Beaumarchais and to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's opera The Marriage of Figaro (1786), this so-called right encapsulated for contemporaries all the horrors and humiliations of serfdom.

Banal lordship gave unscrupulous lords a free hand to increase their demands from their tenants, who lost their capacity to appeal to outside authorities. What is more, the distance from or dissolution of public justice meant that it became increasingly difficult for peasants to prove their original freedom by a court writ, in the case of England, to demonstrate that they held allodial land protected by the king. The lord's main asset was his law court. Although the devolution of public and royal power meant that some lords obtained what is known as high or blood justice allowing them to judge criminal cases, symbolized by a gallows, real profits came from low and middle justice, that is, civil suits and the settlement of local disputes, and in particular from fines for contravening the lord's orders and decrees. Peasants were fined for every breach of the peace, for quarrels and insults, for petty thefts, for indecent behavior, for scavenging, and for planting and harvesting before the official date. Judges in these cases were the lord's appointed stewards, who received a portion of the fines. Interestingly, although slaves had no legal existence and could not be called as witnesses, serfs, whatever their origins, were treated as full members of the community and served on the lord's court.

Banal power gave the lord the further right to monopolize some basic facilities and to force his peasants to use them. These monopolies most commonly consisted of the flour mill, the communal oven, and the winepress. The lord also charged tolls on markets, duties on goods crossing his territory, and fees for the use of his forest and for the right to hunt and fish.

Banal authority therefore could prove extremely remunerative. The weight of these exactions varied from place to place since, by definition, banal authority was local and private. It could even vary from one manor to another, depending on the particular terms granted a tenant, serf, or peasant. At its harshest, banal authority yielded one-third of the lord's revenues above and beyond rent and taxes. Lords were eager to maintain such prerogatives and only desisted when peasants fled en masse or when an outside authority intervened to challenge the legality of lordly demands. Banal lordship was eventually defeated by peasant resistance and by the development of state power, which staked its claims to peasant revenues.


Banal lordship gave lords power over their peasants, serfs and free alike, that exceeded the presumed compensation for their use of the lord's land in perpetuity or for limited time periods. Excessive or new demands, the subjection to a humiliating string of payments, and arbitrary treatment already were decried by peasants as "bad customs" (mals usos, mauvaises coutumes, malos usos) in the tenth and eleventh centuries. Their grievances often went unheeded by lords and rulers, even if they were duly noted by clerics. Some historians have even posited that the worse abuses only existed in the minds of monks.

Peasants resisted in big and small ways. They dragged their feet, performed services perfunctorily, pilfered, were late in their payments, or fled. The village community, once it became better organized, provided some autonomy from the lord and mutual support in case of conflict. When conditions grew intolerable, peasants rebelled. In a society controlled by landowners with full policing powers, intolerable conditions often were imposed by lords seeking to increase their revenues and to reduce all peasants to the status of serfs. Rebellious peasants might succeed in convincing their lord to rescind some of the worst abuses or, most likely, to let them buy them off. Commutation of services to rent was one such result. Peasants neither rebelled constantly nor fled their lords at the slightest provocation because the system provided them with some important benefits. They were given protection in insecure times but more importantly they owned their land, even if in return for rent and services, and could pass it on to their heirs. This made it hard to pick up and leave. Lords for the most part wanted to keep good tenants, even servile ones, and so did not always treat them harshly, even if they had the authority to do so. In fact another cause of peasant rebellion in the late Middle Ages and certainly one of its most common justifications was the perceived decline in mutualism, the sense that the system was breaking down and that lords were no longer fulfilling their obligations. When lords failed to render services and merely demanded them, the peasants felt justified in rebelling.

Peasant rebellions became more common in the late thirteenth century and the fourteenth century with worsening economic conditions. Population growth had fragmented holdings, increasing peasant demand for land and encouraging landowners to raise rents, even on plots where rents were fixed. The drop in population by one-third in western Europe as a result of the Black Death in 1348 caused the retreat of serfdom in some regions as lords facing depopulated villages granted peasants franchises to induce them to stay. In England, on the other hand, the Black Death made lords apply legal constraints more severely, tying peasants to their estates. A peasant rebellion in 1381 demanded the end of the lords' arbitrary powers, asking the king to force lords to follow local customs and to provide fixed terms. Although the rebellion failed in the short-term, as of 1400 serfdom was on the decline, and it soon disappeared altogether from England. In 1525 German peasants rebelled against the reintroduction of serfdom as lords began once more to tie peasants to their estates. Although the revolt was brutally put down, western German peasants managed to regain their freedom, whereas their eastern German counterparts saw their liberties extinguished.


How widespread was banal lordship? What proportion of peasants were enserfed? Historians can provide only vague estimates. When historians relied principally on legal definitions of the free and the unfree, they concluded that most European peasants were serfs in the Middle Ages. In the second half of the twentieth century, however, historians turned to regional studies to undertstand how feudalism and serfdom functioned at the manorial, village, or county level. This has yielded a much more complex picture of the phenomenon, blurring distinctions. Serfs and the freeborn recombined in different configurations depending on the time and place. Few therefore are able or willing to hazard overall conclusions. Still, it appears that servitude did not exist in most of Scandinavia but was widespread in Denmark. It was weak in Spain except for Catalonia. In Italy serfdom was commuted into payments early as townspeople helped peasants gain franchises from lords. Seigneurial dues disappeared altogether in the fourteenth century from central and northern regions of Italy but lasted longer in the south. The Normans introduced serfdom into Sicily and England when they conquered those areas in the eleventh century. Serfdom prevailed in northern France, Flanders, southwestern Germany, and England and gradually vanished from these areas between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries. At its height in England, in the fourteenth century, 40 percent of peasants were serfs. In France, on the other hand, by the end of the twelfth century only 20 percent of peasants remained in servitude. In those areas in France, Germany, or Switzerland where serfdom survived into the fifteenth century, it was not abolished until the French Revolution or its aftermath. Out of 27 million total inhabitants, several hundred thousand serfs still existed in France in 1789, located mainly in Burgundy and Franche-Comté, whose serfdom derived from the type of tenure. Their servile payments varied from severe to light, depending on the locality. Moreover, lords throughout France retained most of their monopolies and their right to levy feudal dues on peasants, serf or free, through the early modern period. All such vestiges of feudalism were swept away during the Revolution.

From the first, individual serfs could buy their freedom, although the price of this manumission varied from place to place. The more general process of liberation, on the other hand, required the connivance of the state with the peasants. This happened when territorial rulers began to rebuild their authority and to reclaim from lords their rights to peasant incomes and taxation. This process went hand in hand with the right of appeal to the king's law courts. In England freemen recovered this privilege as of 1200. Reference to Roman imperial law helped late medieval territorial rulers justify their claims to power. One of the consequences of this reintroduction of Roman law was that it brought back sharp distinctions between the free and the unfree, meaning freeman and serfs, where medieval practice had blurred these distinctions. Some peasants therefore were relegated to the status of the unfree, increasing their lords' arbitrary powers over them. If monarchs wanted to liberate peasants and serfs from the lords and turn them into taxable subjects, they needed to support peasants against their lords, heed their grievances, and reduce the lords' capacity to levy dues and taxes and to have full legal powers over them. Except for Catalonia, such emancipation occurred piecemeal and not by general decree. French peasants, for example, bought their freedom in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries with payments to the crown.

Rulers' collusion with lords, on the other hand, retarded such liberation. Servitude was enforced in England in the eleventh century and again in the fourteenth century because the developing state sided with lords. Lords, moreover, agreed to support each other by not granting asylum to runaway serfs. In Catalonia lords also managed to dictate terms, and the king permitted the introduction of serfdom there in the thirteenth century, much later than elsewhere. Servitude was abolished when a stronger monarch backed the peasants' demand for redemption in 1486, after a series of local rebellions.

Since serfdom disappeared in western Europe gradually, unlike in eastern Europe, where it would be abolished officially in the nineteenth century as in Catalonia, in the sixteenth century, the process has been ascribed to

  • the blurring of free and unfree under banal lordship;
  • peasant resistance and the support of the state;
  • changes in husbandry and development of the village community;
  • land clearance, new settlement, and the granting of franchises; and
  • changes in mentality.

Of these causes, the last three still need discussion in this article.

Changes in agricultural practices altered the way the village community functioned and transformed the place of the peasants within it. The most important changes in agricultural practice were the introduction of the heavy plow triennial rotation, improved husbandry, and what is known as open field farming sometime between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries. These contributed to a rise in crop yields from the measly 2.5 to 1 in the sixth and seventh centuries to 4 to 1 on the poorest soils and 10 to 1 on the best by the thirteenth century, allowing a significant rise in population. The western European population tripled between 1000 and 1300, growing from about 15 million to 45 million. In England, where the Domesday Book (1086) provides information for the eleventh century, estimates are that the population quadrupled between 1086 and 1348, the year of the Black Death.

The new plow allowed the tillage of heavy northern soils, best suited to cereals, where the light Roman plow had been next to useless. These improved plows were pulled by oxen and, in the richest areas, by horses, who were more effective but also more expensive. Given the expense of the plow and especially of the team of oxen or horses, only the richest peasants, free and unfree, could afford them. They owed more labor services than the poor as lords demanded that they plow their demesnes. In villages the distinction between rich and poor peasants became more important than that between the freeborn and serfs.

Another innovation was triennial rotation. Given the lack of adequate fertilizer, soils were exhausted quickly. To allow the land to rest and recover some of its fertility, farmland was usually divided into two rotations. Half of the land was planted while the other half remained fallow, and the following year the order was reversed. The introduction sometime in the twelfth century of triennial rotation complicated this arrangement. A third rather than half of the land lay fallow, one-third was sown in the fall with the main cereal crop, usually wheat, and another third was sown in spring with oats to feed horses and cattle. This system increased crop yield, and it also led to a realignment of the fields. Although no one knows when the system emerged exactly or why, by the thirteenth century most villages had switched to open field farming. The entire village arable was divided into three sections rather than each farm, and peasants owned segments in each of the sections. This arrangement required the cooperation of all villagers. Dates for sowing, plowing, and harvesting had to be set so one peasant would not trample another's crop entering the fields. The lord's ban often regulated this communal farming, setting the dates and policing the fields to make sure no one contravened them. This merger of plots was yet another element that diluted the difference between serfs and freeman.

The third factor in transforming the status of serf and peasant was the reclamation of land and the extension of the arable that began in the eleventh century. In some cases peasants just cleared bits of the forest to extend their own plots and to settle their children. This was done with or without the consent of the lord. More important were the colonization schemes undertaken by lords, who sought to increase the number of dues-paying tenants. Opening up land was costly. Trees had to be felled and marshes drained. Lords invested heavily in such enterprises, providing tools and materials, sometimes in association with other lords. Attracting settlers became so important to the future income of lords that they were willing both to pay the initial price and to grant these new settlers, known in French as hôtes or guests, advantageous terms, such as personal freedom and fixed rents. Some scholars have argued that extending their banal authority was sufficiently lucrative for lords to offset the loss of servile duties. Lords were coming to rely on monetary rents and on the casualties of the ban for their income. Release from serfdom was granted to new settlers on old manors or to new settlements, and these franchises were gradually extended to older peasant communities lest all the tenants flee.

Given these developments and the importance of the peasant community in regulating economic life and in creating new solidarities, some historians have minimized the importance of legal categories such as free and unfree in defining peasants, focusing instead on their economic status and on the internal functioning of the community. Yet, as other scholars point out, serfs were eager to buy their freedom and found the taint of servitude humiliating, even where it was not onerous in practice.


Granting that serfdom arose out of the debris of the Roman Empire and disappeared from most of western Europe in the sixteenth century yields about seven hundred years during which serfdom was not only practiced but also theorized. Christian theology made its peace with the physical bondage of slavery and serfdom by stressing the freedom of the soul. Yet, as Paul Freedman's 1999 study shows, the issue was not clear-cut, and debates about serfdom abounded in the Middle Ages. Although medieval thought accepted inequality as a matter of course, ancient justifications of slavery were difficult to transpose because serfs, unlike slaves, were Christian and native-born. Instead, servitude was treated as the consequence of sin. A life of toil was Adam's curse but also his means of redemption. Serfdom was considered the product of another sin. Noah's son Ham laughed at his father's nakedness and was condemned along with his descendants to serve his brothers. This biblical explanation for the origin of serfdom was especially popular in Germany. In France and Spain another legend served the same purpose. Serfs were said to be the descendants of those cowards who had refused to follow Charlemagne into battle against the Saracens in the eighth century, choosing bondage or the payment of a servile tax instead. In England serfdom was attributed to the Norman conquest, before which all Englishmen had supposedly been free. Hence serfs in the fourteenth century believed that records existed that might prove their original liberty.

Everywhere rustics were mocked, reviled, and depicted as no better than beasts. Be they wealthy or poor, medieval characterizations reduced all peasants to the level of serfs. Although nobles and ecclesiastics depended on peasant labor, agricultural work was consistently debased. The struggle against serfdom, from the peasants' perspective, involved fighting its arbitrariness and burdensome payments and asserting their humanity and the dignity of labor. Stories like that of the Swiss peasant-hero William Tell challenged the notion of the cowardly peasant. Parts of the scriptures and classical authors such as Virgil and Horace showed that peasant labor could be associated with rustic virtue. More importantly, peasants argued that Christ had liberated all human beings from sin, including from Ham's curse.

During the Middle Ages, in the words of Freedman, "freedom was understood not as a release from all bonds to others but as immunity from the arbitrary will of others." Peasants denounced lordship, which consisted in this power, as unjust, capricious, and degrading. By the fourteenth century in France, the fifteenth century in England and Spain, and the sixteenth century in western Germany, territorial rulers were ready to heed those complaints and to liberate the peasants from this thrall. The most demeaning aspects of bondage were eliminated seigneurie by seigneurie. Peasants became free to move, to marry as they pleased, and to sell their plots without the lord's intervention. Rents, fixed dues, and obligations took the place of serfdom. The days of the lords and the economic system that bolstered their authority had passed.

See alsoThe Medieval Heritage (volume 1);Peasants and Rural Laborers; Slaves; Rural Revolts (volume 3); and other articles in this section.


Barthélemy, Dominique. La mutation de l'an mil, a-t-elle eu lieu? Paris, 1997.

Bloch, Marc. Feudal Society. Translated by L. A. Manyon. Chicago, 1961.

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

Bourin, Monique, and Michel Parisse. L'Europe au siècle de l'an mil. Paris, 1999.

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