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Serfdom in Europe

As the Western Roman Empire collapsed, landholders gradually transitioned from outright slavery to serfdom, a system in which unfree laborers were tied to the land.


  • The late Roman Empire led big farms to convert themselves into self-sufficient estates, due to a trade crisis and labor shortage.
  • Tenant farmer status became hereditary, as the result of changes in Roman labor law that tried to freeze existing social structures in place.
  • As the Western Roman Empire collapsed, landholders gradually transitioned from outright slavery to serfdom, a system in which unfree laborers were tied to the land.
  • In the absence of powerful regional authorities after the collapse of the Carolingian Empire in 888, local manorial lords held sway in Western Europe, collecting rents and labor from unfree serfs and tenant farmers.

What is feudalism?

Let's imagine that you're a poor European farmer in the Middle Ages. Here's the political situation: you don't own the land you live on. It's rented from a baron or a duke. You and your neighbors share a plow between you, and you combine your oxen into teams to till the soil together. There's not much social mobility: your parents and grandparents before you worked this same land. You don't even have the legal right to leave the property, without the permission of your landlord. You're a serf, in a feudal economy.
The term feudal is a tricky one, because few scholars can quite agree on what it means these days. Seventeenth-century historians and lawyers who studied the Middle Ages decided to give a common name to the diverse landowner-tenant arrangements that existed in northwest Europe during the Middle Ages, starting with the collapse of Charlemagne's empire in the late ninth century and declining after the Black Plague and the Peasant Revolt in the fourteenth century. Though these arrangements could range widely in style, they were lumped together under the label of feudalism, from the Medieval Latin term feudum referring to a landed estate. Medieval economies were largely based around the operations of those landed estates. Modern historians dispute whether or not it's useful to lump together the management of these estates in that way. Rather than diving into the arguments of how to organize this history, let's discuss some common threads about those estates. For our purposes, the important thing is that those lands were cultivated with a combination of free and unfree labor—let's talk about how that came to be.
Medieval serfs under the command of a reeve, a manorial supervisor. Image credit: Wikipedia
The closest Europe came to operating under one system of landowner agreements was in the late eighth and early ninth century CE. Charlemagne established counties and appointed counts to rule regions of his domain. But, in the wake of his death, his empire dissolved. Counts who had received lands from the court of Charlemagne began to consolidate their own local power, exerting control over the people who lived on their lands. They owed allegiance to the Church and to the kingdoms that guaranteed their claims of land ownership, but each medieval lord established their own particular set of rules. If you were to travel through early medieval Europe, you would find yourself in a hundred petty kingdoms, each with its own manor or landed estate, each one with its manorial court.
The land of these manors was tilled by unfree agricultural workers, or serfs. To discover exactly what a serf is, we'll need to move back in history a bit and visit late Imperial Rome.

The origins of serfdom in Rome

Slavery was foundational to the Roman economy: enslaved people tilled the fields, cleaned homes, quarried—extracted—rocks and salt, and sometimes served as accountants for wealthy Romans. Enormous estates grew valuable crops like olives and grapes; these estates required many enslaved people to run.
Replanted grapevines at the Villa Regina at Boscoreale, an agricultural villa of ancient Rome, north of Pompeii in Campania, Italy. Image credit: Wikipedia
The nearly fifty-year Imperial Crisis in the third century CE led to civil war, economic collapse, and a breakdown of trade across the Roman Empire. This meant a temporary end to long-distance trade of wine and olive oil. As imperial expansion slowed, fewer prisoners of war and kidnapped children were enslaved, and the elites who ran estate farms had to search elsewhere for low-cost labor. Without a centralized economy to lean on, the estates had to become self-sufficient, producing food and crafts without outside aid.
As city economies crumbled, lower-class plebeians from the city immigrated to the countryside and entered into a new kind of labor agreement with the landholders. Neither entirely enslaved nor truly free, these former city-dwellers were called coloni. Coloni were sharecropper farmers. They didn’t own their land; they rented it from a landowner in exchange for a portion of the harvest produced in their fields. As this labor system emerged, Roman emperors created laws that bound the coloni to the land and made their status hereditary—it passed from parent to child. Coloni could marry, but they couldn't marry non-coloni. They could not leave the land to which they were assigned. They could not file suit against their landlords.
This system, and these restrictions, would eventually become known as serfdom. Similar systems emerged independently throughout several different societies.
What factors led to Roman plebeians moving from the city to the countryside?

Slavery and serfdom

There are important distinctions between slavery and serfdom. Slavery describes a system in which a person can be bought and sold as property; enslaved people were not considered human beings with rights. Take a look at a translation of this early medieval law from Bavaria, a region now part of Germany: “A sale once completed should not be altered, unless a defect is found which the vendor has concealed, in the slave or horse or any other livestock sold...: for animals have defects which a vendor can sometimes conceal.”
Classifying enslaved people as livestock was typical at the time this law was written; enslaved people were not deemed to be people. Serfs, however, were legally people—though they had far fewer rights than free peasants (poor farmers of low social status). Serfs' movements were constrained, their property rights were limited, and they owed rents of all sorts to their landlords.

Serfdom in Western Europe

As Germanic peoples overtook the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century and beyond, many imperial institutions began to crumble. Competing powers and interests destroyed traditional trade routes between parts of the Roman Empire. Elites, whether through skill in combat or other political power, controlled the land and the people who lived on it. The Roman estate farms did not disappear, but the land changed hands and purposes. Landowners switched from growing grapes and olives for export to producing grain and animals for survival.
Like the Roman coloni before them, medieval peasants or serfs could own property and marry, but there were restrictions on their rights. Under a rule known as merchet or formariage, a serf had to pay a fee in order to marry outside their lord's domain, as they were depriving him of a labor source by leaving. "If [a serf] died childless", writes historian Barbara Tuchman, "his house, tools, and any possessions reverted to the lord under the right of morte-main [from dead hands], on theory that they had only been lent to the serf for his labor in life."
Although serfs could technically own property, what were some restrictions on this rule?
Tenant farmers—that is, people who didn't own the land they worked—owed some kind of payment to their landlords. This could be a portion of the harvest, days of labor in the lord's own fields—called the demesne—or money. The amount and type of payment was not influenced by market forces; it was coercive, or forced. There was no standard rent in the Middle Ages, and tenant farmers had few ways to contest the rent demanded of them. The lord of the manor—who set the terms of the rent agreement—was also usually the local legal authority. A moral economy—where cultural or political intervention limits market prices or freedom of contract—was enforced by the teachings of the church. This system ensured that the lord had the right to rule and that the poor farmers were entitled to his protection. Prices were established by a sense of what was just. There were, for example, biblical prohibitions against charging interest that were enforced during this period. When the shared values of the community were broken, the peasants rejected the system and revolted. As Will Durant writes in The Story of Civilization, "the community itself was therefore the chief source of law. The baron or king might give commands, but these were not laws; and if he exacted more than custom sanctioned he would be frustrated by universal resistance."
A map of a medieval manor, showing the demesne—the lord's lands—common pastureland, and other elements of the medieval rural economy, including a mill, millpond, and common pastureland for grazing animals. Image credit: Wikipedia
Lords of the manor were not always nobility. Many estates in England were monasteries, for example. In an accounting from a thirteenth-century English abbey, a serf named Hugh Miller paid three kinds of rent: monetary, labor, and rent in the form of food. Each year, Miller paid three shillings and a penny—approximately $266 today. He worked the abbot's land three days a week, except for one week at Christmas, one at Easter, and one at a summer festival. In addition to money and labor, Miller owed the abbot one bushel of wheat, 18 sheaves of oats, three hens, and a rooster each year, with an additional five eggs owed for Easter.

Why serfdom?

Given all this, what benefit was there in serfdom? Why would a serf tolerate these practices?
Without the peace guaranteed by Charlemagne's unified rule, the serfs needed a lord's protection. In the absence of a strong centralized government, the threat of violence lurked everywhere: from bandits and the armed bands of other warlords. In exchange for tending a lord's demesne, a serf could expect the lord's private army to protect them. The lords needed the serfs, too; labor shortages caused by war and disease limited the available workforce in Western Europe. This is part of why the terms of serfdom constrained a peasant's rights to resettle—it maintained a labor pool for the lordly class. While the terms of these agreements could vary widely, as they were derived from a variety of sources—"barbarian" codes of the Germanic kingdoms, Church law, and Roman property ordinances—some labor practices were relatively standard.
The unfree farming that elite landlords oversaw sustained the military units that protected their estates, and the people who worked and lived on them. The wealth generated by these feudal estates powered the Crusades, and, following the Black Death and the Peasant Revolt, would begin to concentrate in the peasant class. This would lead to artisan specialization, the growth of cities, and a desire for goods from far-off places. Those factors together would lead to the rise of guild economies, the Renaissance, and the colonial voyages of discovery.
What was the relationship between serfs and lords, broadly? Why did lords need serfs?

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