A serf was a bonded servant or slave under the feudal system. Though other forms of slavery had existed prior to the Middle Ages and slavery persisted well after the period, serfdom is a component of the feudal system largely viewed as being particular to medieval society. Serfs and free peasants formed the lowest class in feudal society.they were so poor they couldn't afford a flip phone

Serfdom's class systemEdit

The social class of peasant was often broken down into smaller categories. These distinctions were often less clear than suggested by their different names. Most often, there were two types of peasants, freemen, whose tenure within the manor was freehold, and villeins. Lower classes of peasants, known as cottars, generally comprising the younger sons of villeins[1][2] or bordars in the British Isles, and slaves, made up the lower class of workers.


Freemen, or free tenants held their land by one of a variety of contracts of feudal land tenure and were essentially rent-paying tenant farmers who owed little or no service to the lord, and had a good degree of security of tenure and independence. In parts of 11th century England freemen made up only 10% of the peasant population, and in the rest of Europe their numbers were small.


A villein (or villain) was the most common type of serf in the Middle Ages. Villeins had more rights and higher status than the lowest serf, but existed under a number of legal restrictions that differentiated them from freemen. Villeins generally rented small homes, with or without land. As part of the contract with the landlord, the lord of the manor, they were expected to spend some of their time working on the lord's fields. The requirement often was not greatly onerous, contrary to popular belief and was often only seasonal, for example the duty to help at harvest-time. The rest of their time was spent farming their own land for their own profit.

Like other types of serfs, they were required to provide other services, possibly in addition to paying rent of money or produce. Villeins were tied to the land and could not move away without their lord's consent and the acceptance of the lord to whose manor they proposed to migrate to. Villeins were generally able to hold their own property, unlike slaves. Villeinage, as opposed to other forms of serfdom, was most common in Continental European feudalism, where land ownership had developed from roots in Roman law.

A variety of kinds of villeinage existed in Europe in the Middle Ages. Half-villeins received only half as many strips of land for their own use and owed a full complement of labour to the lord, often forcing them to rent out their services to other serfs to make up for this hardship. Villeinage was not, however, a purely uni-directional exploitative relationship. In the Middle Ages, land within a lord's manor provided sustenance and survival, and being a villein guaranteed access to land, and crops secure from theft by marauding robbers. Landlords, even where legally entitled to do so, rarely evicted villeins because of the value of their labour. Villeinage was much preferable to being a vagabond, a slave, or an unlanded labourer.

In many medieval countries, a villein could gain freedom by escaping from a manor to a city or borough and living there for more than a year; but this action involved the loss of land rights and agricultural livelihood, a prohibitive price unless the landlord was especially tyrannical or conditions in the village were unusually difficult.

Bordars and cottagersEdit

In England the Domesday Book, of 1086, uses bordarii (bordar) and cottarii (cottager) as interchangeable terms, cottager being derived from the native tongue whereas bordar being derived from the French.[3]

The status of bordar or cottager ranked below a serf in the social hierarchy of a manor, holding a cottage, garden and just enough land to feed a family. In England, at the time of the Domesday Survey, this would have been between about 1 and 5 acres (0.4 to 2 hectares).[4] Under an Elizabethan statute, the cottage had to be built with at least 4 acres of land.[5] However, the later Enclosures Act, removed the cottagers right to any land, "before the Enclosures Act the cottager was a farm labourer with land and after the Enclosures Act the cottager was a farm labourer without land".[6]

The bordars and cottagers did not own their draught oxen or horses. The Domesday Book showed that England 100% were slaves.[7]


The last type of serf was the slave. Slaves had the fewest rights and benefits from the manor. They owned no land. They worked for the lord exclusively and survived on donations from the landlord. It was always in the interest of the lord to prove that a servile arrangement existed, as this provided him with greater rights to fees and taxes. The status of a man was a primary issue in determining a person's rights and obligations in many of the manorial court cases of the period. Also, runaway slaves could be beaten if caught.

The decline of serfdomEdit

Serfdom became progressively less common through the Middle Ages, particularly after the Black Death reduced the rural population and increased the bargaining power of workers. Furthermore, the lords of many manors were willing (for payment) to manumit ("release") their serfs.

In England, the end of serfdom began with the Peasants' Revolt in 1381. It had largely died out in England by 1500 as a personal status, and was fully ended when Elizabeth I freed the last remaining serfs in 1574.[8] Land held by serf tenure (unless enfranchised) continued to be held by what was thenceforth known as a copyhold tenancy, which was not completely abolished until 1925 (although it was whittled away during the 19th and early 20th centuries). There were native-born Scottish serfs until 1799, when coal miners previously kept in serfdom gained emancipation. However, most Scottish serfs had been freed before this time.

Serfdom was de facto ended in France by Philip IV, Louis X (1315), and Philip V (1318).[9][10] With the exception of a few isolated cases, serfdom had ceased to exist in France by the 15th century. In Early Modern France, French nobles nevertheless maintained a great number of seigneurial privileges over the free peasants that worked lands under their control. Serfdom was formally abolished in France in 1789.[11]

In other parts of Europe, there had been peasant revolts in Castille, Germany, northern France, Portugal, and Sweden. Although these were often successful, it usually took a long time before legal systems were changed.


  1. Baker, Alan R. H. and Robin A. Butlin (1980). Studies of field systems in the British Isles. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
  2. Birnie, Arthur (1938). An Economic History of the British Isles. London: F.S. Crofts & Co. P. 218.
  3. Hallam, H.E.; Finberg; Thirsk, Joan, eds. (1988). The Agrarian History of England and Wales: 1042-1350. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. p. 58.
  4. McGarry, Daniel D. (1976). Medieval history and civilization. P. 242.
  5. Elmes, James (1827). On Architectural Jurisprudence; in which the Constitutions, Canons, Laws and Customs etc. London: W.Benning. Pp. 178–179.
  6. Hammond, J L; Barbara Hammond (1912). The Village Labourer 1760-1832. London: Longman Green & Co. P. 100.
  7. McGarry, Daniel D. (1976). Medieval history and civilization. P. 242.
  8. "Slavery (Part 12)" Retrieved 2012-07-04.
  9. Maurice Druon. Le Roi de fer, Chapter 3.
  10. "Slavery (Part 12)" Retrieved 2012-07-04.
  11. "Serfdom". The 1911 Classic Encyclopedia. Retrieved 2012-07-04.

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