What Is Serfdom and How Did it Operate?

(Last Updated On: July 16, 2019)

What Is Serfdom and How Did it Operate?

What Is Serfdom?

You may have heard the term “serfdom” used in discussion regarding medieval or feudal culture. If you’re curious as to what exactly serfdom is, you’ve come to the right place. So let’s get to “what is serfdom” and break things down a bit.

If you get to the heart of serfdom, it’s basically another coat worn by slavery. Instead, though, serfdom is based more on land (given that serfdoms existed mostly in feudal societies). Since pretty much every society went through a feudal phase at some point, serfdom has been observed all over the world.

The UN Supplementary Convention of the Abolition of Slavery (1956) denounces serfdom as a form of slavery.

What Rights Did a Serfdom Provide?

Rights afforded to serfs were actually pretty varied, since there was a serf hierarchy. Some standings existed only in some countries but not others too.

Regardless, unlike slaves, most serfs could not be traded or sold a la carte. Remember during the time in which serfdom existed, land was paramount. So a serf was a peasant who was afforded a little plot of land, and serfs were traded indirectly by trading that land (rather than the serfs themselves). 

A person would go from being free to being a serf as a form of debt bondage. Serfs were basically indebted to their landlords, though there was no real intention of the landlord ever calling the debt paid (so they could have the serfs in perpetuity). Serfs were bound to their land, and could not make long-term movements/transfers from their plot without permission from their landlord. So a serf would either be born into their land because they come from a long line of serfs, or they would surrender their land in a bargain with some landlord so they could continue existing at the cost of freedom. That bargain would basically seal their bloodline forever as well.

In terms of the small plots of land serfs were afforded, the land was still technically owned by the landlord. The land serfs used was more the lord saying “here use this to keep yourself alive while you serve me.” On top of the land, serfs were afforded protection from their lords and the ability to sell stuff they cultivated on their little plot.

What Did Serfs Do?

Serfs had to tend to not only the land of their lord, but their own as well. Generally speaking, the work on their landlord’s property took precedence over theirs; because remember, serfdom is basically slavery. This created a few issues, chiefly harvest–since the serf’s crops being ready for harvest also meant their lord’s were as well. 

By tending to their lord’s land, serfs may do the harvesting, planting, or general upkeep. There was also work to be done inside their landlord’s manor, which was also handled by serfs.

Because they sort of owned land, serfs did have to pay taxes (sort of). Instead of using money, serfs often paid taxes in crops. Anything left over an individual serf could either sell at a market or keep for themselves. Because serfs had an avenue of making their own money, a serf could actually accumulate wealth. In theory (and very rarely in practice) a serf might end up wealthier than a free person. This may also help a serf buy their own freedom. 

Serfs weren’t necessarily required to fight for their landlords (sometimes they were). However, should their lord fall, they may end up dying as well (or end up becoming slaves). So as a very big generalization, serfs tended to see standing by their lord as a better interest than not. 

Serf Types

Villein

These were the most common type of serf, they had their own little plot of land and the labor their lords made them do wasn’t too arduous. Most of the time it was simply seasonal (they only had to help out during harvest time, for example). A villein could also be free if they were to escape their landlord to a different location for a year or more. If their lord was a particularly terrible person, this could have other unintended consequences. A particularly petty lord may use their large supply of resources to hunt down a freed villein.

Half-Villein

Half-Villeins were basically villeins with half the rights and privileges of villeins. So the leash is a lot tighter, basically. 

Bordar / Cottager

Bordars and cottagers (they’re synonymous, one is derived from French, the other early-English) made up the lowest type of serf. They would be barely afforded enough resources to sustain their families.

Kholop

Kholops were the lowest class of serf in the Russian serfdom. They were basically slaves with land, as they could be freely traded (independent of their land).


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Kyler
About Kyler 67 Articles
Kyler is a content writer at Sporcle. He currently spends most of his time hitting the university grind while drinking black coffee like water.