Serfdom is the term used to describe the social status of most peasants under feudalism in the Middle Ages. Furthermore, serfdom is an important concept in relation to the Manor System in western Europe during the same timeframe. More specifically, it occurred from the High Middle Ages until the mid-19th century. With that said, serfdom became increasingly rarer as a social system through both the Black Death and Renaissance in the 14th and 15th centuries.
In general, serfdom was a form of debt-bondage (a type of slavery) meaning the serfs (peasants) were forced to live and work for a lord of the manor under the Manor System. As such, the serfs often spent their time working in the fields of the lord’s lands. This was to produce agricultural products for the lord of the manor, while also producing food for their own subsistence. Serfs were also required to do other work as needed, including: constructing roads, working in mines and completing tasks in the forests.
The Manor System during the Middle Ages formed the basic unit of European society at the time. It caused the lord of the manor and the serfs within the lands of the manor to be bound together socially and economically. For instance, in exchange for living and working on the lands of the manor, serfs received protection and justice from the lord. This highlights the ‘bondage’ portion of serfdom. For example, the essence of serfdom what the connection between the serf and the lord. For example, each owed the other a debt (work, land, protection, etc.) and the relationship created a social cohesion in Europe society.
To be clear, serfs did not own or have title to the lands on which they lived and worked. Instead, they were bound to the lands that were controlled by the lord of the manor. If the lord decided to sell or exchange the land to another lord, the serf remained on the land and instead served a new lord. While a serf in Medieval Europe was not necessarily considered a slave, they lacked certain protections and freedoms that most people today enjoy. Still serfs could not be bought and sold by the lords but were essentially tied to the land on which they worked.
Serfdom was one of several classes in Medieval European society, which included others, such as: lord of the manor, freemen, villein, knight, and slave. Serfs were only above slaves on this system and often lacked prestige or power in European society at the time. As a result, the standard of living for serfs was low and they experienced difficult and tiring lives. Serfs were considered peasants in medieval society. Another type of peasant at the time was freemen. Freemen were peasants who lived and worked on the land of a lord but were not bound by the same rules or obligations as a serf. For instance, freemen were known to pay rent to the lord instead of owing a debt of service.
A person became a serf in medieval society usually through force or out of economic necessity. More specifically, sometimes lords pressured local people into serfdom in order to gain control over a specific region. Other times, people gave up their status as freemen to become serfs due to economic hardship. For instance, if a freemen in the Middle Ages experienced several years of poor harvests it could potentially force them into serfdom with a local lord. Regardless, some people sought out the status as a serf because the lord offered his serfs protection against attack.
There were several different types of serfs in the Middle Ages, including: villein, bordars, cottagers, and slaves. Villeins were the most common type of serfs in western Europe during the Middle Ages. They generally had more rights and privilege than other forms of serfdom at the time. Essentially, villein serfs rented homes from the lord of the manor (with or without attached lands) and were required to assist by completing service in the fields of the manor. The work required of the villein serfs was generally seasonal and focused around harvest in the fall and seeding in the spring. The remainder of their time was generally spent working on the lands set aside for them by the lord such that they could generate food for themselves.
Below villein were ‘bordars’ and ‘cottagers’. The terms were sometimes interchangeably and were most commonly used in medieval England. These serfs were generally similar to the villein in that they lived and worked on the lands of the lord of the manor but bordars and cottagers were given much smaller sections of land in which to work. For example, the cottages on the manor were usually built on 1 to 5 acres of land, which was only enough land to feed a family.
Below the bordars and cottagers in the social hierarchy of the Middle Ages were slaves. Because of their status, slaves had the least amount of rights and privileges in the Manor System. In general, slaves were treated poor by the lord of the manor and lacked the rights to the land of the other serfs. With that said, slavery was rare throughout the Middle Ages.
Serfdom as a system, was prevalent throughout much of Europe in the Middle Ages. It combined with the Manor System and Feudalism to create a social hierarchy in medieval European society. It was closely linked to the agricultural output of the time while also creating a class system in which each person had a specific role to complete. Serfdom remained in western Europe only until about the 15th century. At the time, both the Black Death and the advent of the Renaissance caused serfdom to decline. More specifically, the Black Death led to the end of serfdom because it caused people to abandon their traditional lands as they sought to escape the spread of the plague. This caused upheaval and unrest in medieval society and torn apart the traditional social frameworks of the Middle Ages. The Renaissance furthered the decline of serfdom in western Europe because it promoted humanist values which challenged the traditional ideas and views of society. With that said, serfdom spread and remained in eastern Europe until much later in history. For example, serfdom remained in Russia until the 19th century and its lingering effects played a significant role in the outbreak of the Russian Revolution at the start of the 20th century.