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Serfs in the Middle Ages

The Rise and Fall of the Oppression of Serfs in the Middle Ages

Feudalism, an informal political system, prevailed in Europe in the Middle Ages. This article on serfs in the Middle Ages explores the condition of the bonded peasants under this system of governance by the warrior nobility of those times.
Ishani Chatterjee Shukla
Last Updated: Jul 22, 2017
In order to get a better grasp on the status and condition of serfs in the Middle Ages and serfdom in Europe, let's first understand the concept of Feudalism. The concept of feudalism revolves around three key factors―a lord, the vassals and fief. The lord, as the term suggests, was an aristocrat and the implied feudal superior, usually a monarch, who held ownership of the fief, the revenue generating property―agricultural land subject to inheritance. The vassals were the subjects of the lords who worked on the fief granted to them by the lord in return for any kind of homage or an oath to serve the lord whenever such an opportunity arose. An essential element of a feudal social structure was the phenomenon of Manorialism. Under this system, a landlord had a number of bonded peasants under him who worked on his land by way of discharging their legal obligations to the landlord. Feudalism and manorialism are inseparable entities and this is where the concept of serfdom makes an entrance.
What is Serfdom?
To put together a simple serfdom definition, serfdom is the term used to denote the superior-subject relationship between Middle Age landowners and bonded peasants. Serfs were the bonded labors that worked on the lands and other revenue generating properties of the landowners in exchange for being included under the political protection of the landowners and to be able to have access to a right to occupation (which primarily consisted of working on the leased fields or properties of the landowners). You can call it a kind of modified and a way milder form of slavery. Serfs in the Middle Ages earned their living by working on the landowners' properties. Such work included, besides agriculture and farming, mining, forestry, arts and crafts, transportation and many other related revenue generating activities. Medieval serfdom was a picture of legal, economic and social bondage of the serfs by the landowners and aristocracy.
Even among serfs, there existed different classes―freemen, villeins, bordars and slaves. Freemen were peasants who paid rent for the ownership of small residences along with (or without) the landowner's land and were under negligible or no obligation to offer their labor or other services to the latter. Villeins were second to freemen in their hierarchy of serfdom insomuch as besides paying some rent amount to the landlord, they were also under the obligation to spend part of their working hours working on the landowner's property. Bordars ranked above the slaves but below the villeins. They held enough land to provide for their personal requirements and were under an obligation to offer their labor for the land held by the landowner for his personal use on particular days of the week. Slaves did not own any land by any means and they were socially and legally bound to sustain solely by offering their labor to the landowner. The number and manner of rights and privileges enjoyed by the people belonging to these four consecutive manorial hierarchies existed in a descending order, with freemen being the most and the slaves being the least privileged class.
Who Abolished Serfdom?
The credit for the abolition of serfdom and feudalism in Europe cannot be attributed to a single individual as each European nation, where serfdom prevailed, has its hero. Serfdom in Russia was abolished in 1861 as a result of Tsar Alexander II's concerns over an imminent rebellion by the bonded peasants. Different regions in Russia abolished serfdom in different time periods but it can be said that serfdom faced complete extinction from Russia only in 1892. Louis IV formally abolished serfdom in France in 1315 but an actual end came only with the French Revolution in 1789. Serfdom finally came to an end in Spain in the year 1837, although many Spanish monarchs had been trying for the same since long. The concept of serfdom did not exist significantly in the then relatively new nations of Germany and Italy. Most abolitions of serfdom took place during the age of Enlightened Absolutism that engulfed much of Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Serfs then cannot exactly be called slaves, although both share the common characteristic of bonded labor and limited rights. In fact, the chief point of distinction with relation to serfdom vs slavery is the fact that while slaves were individually bound under certain obligations and had no rights or personal privilege whatsoever, serfs had access to a set of rights and were governed by certain inviolable customs and formal obligations. The latter were under bondage as a group rather than on an individual level. The serfs were also categorized under a system of sub-hierarchy which was absent in case of slaves.