History of serfdom

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Like slavery, serfdom has a long history that dates to ancient times.



Social institutions similar to serfdom occurred in the ancient world. The status of the helots in the ancient Greek city-state of Sparta resembled that of medieval serfs. By the 3rd century AD, the Roman Empire faced a labour shortage. Large Roman landowners increasingly relied on Roman freemen, acting as tenant farmers, (instead of on slaves) to provide labour. [1] The status of these tenant farmers, eventually known as coloni, steadily eroded. Because the tax system implemented by Diocletian (reigned 284-305) assessed taxes based both on land and on the inhabitants of that land, it became administratively inconvenient for peasants to leave the land where the census counted them. [1] In 332 AD Emperor Constantine issued legislation that greatly restricted the rights of the coloni and tied them to the land. Some[ quantify ] see these laws as the beginning of medieval serfdom in Europe.

However, medieval serfdom really began with the breakup of the Carolingian Empire [ citation needed ] around the 10th century. The demise of this empire, which had ruled much of western Europe for more than 200 years, ushered in a long period during which no strong central government existed in most of Europe. During this period, powerful feudal lords encouraged the establishment of serfdom as a source of agricultural labor. Serfdom, indeed, was an institution that reflected a fairly common practice whereby great landlords ensured that others worked to feed them and were held down, legally and economically, while doing so.


Serfdom as a system provided most of the agricultural labour throughout the Middle Ages. Slavery persisted right through the Middle Ages, [2] but it was rare, diminishing and largely confined to the use of household slaves. Parts of Europe, including much of Scandinavia, never adopted serfdom.[ why? ]

In the later Middle Ages serfdom began to disappear west of the Rhine even as it spread through much of the rest of Europe. This was one important cause for the deep differences[ which? ] between the societies and economies of eastern and western Europe.[ where? ] In Western Europe, the rise of powerful monarchs, towns, and an improving economy weakened the manorial system through the 13th and 14th centuries; serfdom had become rare by 1400.

Serfdom in Western Europe came largely to an end in the 15th and 16th centuries, because of changes in the economy, population, and laws governing lord-tenant relations in Western European nations. The enclosure of manor fields for livestock grazing and for larger arable plots made the economy of serfs' small strips of land in open fields less attractive to landowners. Furthermore, the increasing use of money made tenant farming by serfs less profitable; for much less than it cost to support a serf, a lord could now hire workers who were more skilled and pay them in cash. Paid labour was also more flexible, since workers could be hired only when they were needed.

At the same time, increasing unrest and uprisings by serfs and peasants, like Tyler’s Rebellion in England in 1381, put pressure on the nobility and the clergy to reform the system. As a result, the gradual establishment of new forms of land leases and increased personal liberties accommodated serf and peasant demands to some extent.

An important factor in the decline of serfdom was industrial development—especially the Industrial Revolution. With the growing profitability of industry, farmers wanted to move to towns to receive higher wages than those they could earn working in the fields,[ citation needed ] while landowners also invested in the more profitable industry. This also led to the growing process of urbanization.

Zboze Placi.jpg
Grain pays
Zboze Nie Placi.jpg
Grain doesn't pay.
Those two pictures illustrate the notion that agriculture, once extremely profitable to the nobles (szlachta) in the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, became much less profitable from the second half of seventeenth century onwards

Serfdom reached Eastern Europe centuries later than Western Europe—it became dominant around the 15th century. Before that time, Eastern Europe had been much more sparsely populated than Western Europe, and the lords of Eastern Europe created a peasantry-friendly environment to encourage migration east.[ citation needed ] Serfdom developed in Eastern Europe after the Black Death epidemics of the mid-14th century, which stopped the eastward migration. The resulting high land-to-labour ratio - combined with Eastern Europe's vast, sparsely populated areas - gave the lords an incentive to bind the remaining peasantry to their land. With increased demand for agricultural produce in Western Europe during the later era when Western Europe limited and eventually abolished serfdom, serfdom remained in force throughout Eastern Europe during the 17th century so that nobility-owned estates could produce more agricultural products (especially grain) for the profitable export market.

This pattern applied in Central and Eastern European countries, including Prussia (Prussian Ordinances of 1525), Austria, Hungary (laws of the late 15th and early 16th centuries), the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth (szlachta privileges of the early 16th century) and the Russian Empire (laws of the late 16th and first half of the 17th century). This also led to the slower industrial development and urbanisation of those regions. Generally, this process, referred to[ by whom? ] as "second serfdom" or "export-led serfdom", persisted until the mid-19th century and became very repressive and substantially limited serfs' rights. Before the 1861 abolition of serfdom in Russia, a landowner's estate was often measured by the number of "souls" he owned, a practice made famous by Gogol's 1842 novel Dead Souls .

Many of these countries abolished serfdom during the Napoleonic invasions of the early 19th century. Serfdom remained in force in most of Russia until the Emancipation reform of 1861, enacted on February 19, 1861, though in the Russian-controlled Baltic provinces it had been abolished at the beginning of the 19th century. According to the Russian census of 1857, Russia had 23.1 million private serfs. [3] Russian serfdom was perhaps the most notable Eastern European institution, as it was never influenced by German law and migrations,[ citation needed ] and serfdom and the manorial system were enforced by the crown (Tsar), not by the nobility.[ citation needed ]


In Western Europe 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 Normandy, serfdom had disappeared by 1100. [4] Two possible causes of the disappearance of serfdom in Normandy have been proposed: (1) it might have been implemented to attract peasants to a Normandy depopulated by the Viking invasions or (2) it might be a result of the peasants' revolt of 996 in Normandy.

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. [5] 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 Scottish born serfs until 1799, when coal miners who were kept in serfdom gained emancipation. However, most Scottish serfs had already been freed.

Serfdom was de facto ended in France by Philip IV, Louis X (1315), and Philip V (1318). [5] [6] 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. [7]

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

Era of the French Revolution

The era of the French Revolution (1790s to 1820s) saw serfdom abolished in most of Western and Central Europe, while its practice remained common in Eastern Europe until the middle of the 19th century (1861 in Russia). In France, serfdom had been in decline for at least three centuries by the start of the Revolution, replaced by various forms of freehold tenancy.[ citation needed ] The last vestiges of serfdom were officially ended on August 4, 1789 with a decree abolishing the feudal rights of the nobility.

It removed the authority of the manorial courts, eliminated tithes and manorial dues, and freed those who still remained bound to the land. However, the decree was mostly symbolic, as widespread peasant revolts had effectively ended the feudal system beforehand; and ownership of the land still remained in the hands of the landlords, who could continue collecting rents and enforcing tenant contracts.

End of serfdom: a German ,,Freilassungsbrief" (Letter for the End of a serfdom) from 1762. Freilassungsbrief Weymann.jpg
End of serfdom: a German „Freilassungsbrief“ (Letter for the End of a serfdom) from 1762.

In German history the emancipation of the serfs came between 1770–1830, with the nobility in Schleswig being the first to agree to do so in 1797, followed by the signing of the royal and political leaders of Denmark and Germany in 1804. [8] Prussia abolished serfdom with the "October Edict" of 1807, which upgraded the personal legal status of the peasantry and gave them ownership of half or two-thirds of the lands they were working. The edict applied to all peasants whose holdings were above a certain size, and included both Crown lands and noble estates. The peasants were freed from the obligation of personal services to the lord and annual dues; in return landowners were given ownership of 1/3 to 1/2 of the land. The peasant owned and rented the lands that were deeded to the old owners. The other German states imitated Prussia after 1815. [9]

In sharp contrast to the violence that characterized land reform in the French Revolution, Germany handled it peacefully. In Schleswig the peasants, who had been influenced by the Enlightenment, played an active role; elsewhere they were largely passive. Indeed, for most peasants, customs and traditions continued largely unchanged, including the old habits of deference to the nobles whose legal authority remained quite strong over the villagers. The old paternalistic relationship in East Prussia lasted into the 20th century. What was new was that the peasant could now sell his land, enabling him to move to the city, or buy up the land of his neighbors. [9]

The land reforms in northwestern Germany were driven by progressive governments and local elites.[ citation needed ] They abolished feudal obligations and divided collectively owned common land into private parcels and thus created a more efficient market-oriented rural economy.[ citation needed ] It produced increased productivity and population growth. It strengthened the traditional social order because wealthy peasants obtained most of the former common land, while the rural proletariat was left without land; many left for the cities or America. Meanwhile, the division of the common land served as a buffer preserving social peace between nobles and peasants. [10] East of the Elbe River, the Junker class maintained large estates and monopolized political power. [11]

In the Hapsburg monarchy, Jozef II issued the Serfdom Patent that abolished serfdom in the German speaking areas in 1781. In the Kingdom of Hungary, Jozef II issued a similar decree in 1785 after the Revolt of Horea in Transylvania. These patents converted the legal standings of all serfs into those of free-holders. All feudal restrictions were abolished in 1848 when all the land property were converted to non-feudal, transferable properties, and feudalism was legally abolished.

The eradication of the feudal system marks the beginning of an era of rapid change in Europe. The change in status following the enclosure movements beginning in the later 18th century, in which various lords abandoned the open field farming of previous centuries and, essentially, took all the best land for themselves in exchange for "freeing" their serfs, may well have made serfdom seem more desirable to many peasant families.[ citation needed ]

In his book Das Kapital , in Chapter 26 entitled "The Secret of Primitive Accumulation" and Chapter 27, "Expropriation of the Agricultural Population from the Land", Marx claimed that the feudal relationships of serfdom were violently transformed into private property and free labour: free of possession and free to sell their labour force on the market. Being liberated from serfdom meant being able to sell one's land and work wherever one desired. "The so-called primitive accumulation, therefore, is nothing else than the historical process of divorcing the producer from the means of production. It appears as primitive, because it forms the pre-historic stage of capital and of the mode of production corresponding with it."

In a case history of England, Marx described how the serfs became free peasant proprietors and small farmers, who were, over time, forcibly expropriated and driven off the land, forming a property-less proletariat. He also claimed that more and more legislation was enacted by the state to control and regiment this new class of wage workers. In the meantime, the remaining farmers became capitalist farmers operating more and more on a commercial basis; and gradually, legal monopolies preventing trade and investment by entrepreneurs were broken up.

Taxes levied by the state took the place of labour dues levied by the lord. Although serfdom began its decline in Europe in the Middle Ages, it took many hundreds of years to disappear completely. In addition, the struggles of the working class during the Industrial Revolution can often be compared with the struggles of the serfs during the Middle Ages. In parts of the world today, forced labour is still used.

"Galician slaughter" 1846, by Jan Lewicki (1795-1871); "directed against manorial property (for example, the manorial prisons) and rising against serfdom; Galician, mainly Polish, peasants killed over 1000 noblemen and destroyed 500 manors in 1846." Galician slaughter in 1846.PNG
"Galician slaughter" 1846, by Jan Lewicki (1795–1871); "directed against manorial property (for example, the manorial prisons) and rising against serfdom; Galician, mainly Polish, peasants killed over 1000 noblemen and destroyed 500 manors in 1846."


Serfdom became the dominant form of relation between Russian peasants and nobility in the 17th century. Serfdom only existed in central and southern areas of the Russian Empire. It was never established in the North, in the Urals, nor in Siberia. Historian David Moon argues that serfdom was a response to military and economic factors in Russia. It was socially stable and adaptable to changing demographic and economic conditions; revolts were uncommon. Moon says it was not the cause of Russia's backwardness; instead, backwardness blocked alternative methods that were developed in Western Europe. Moon identifies some benefits for serfs, such as assurances of land and some assistance after bad harvests. Moon argues that Russia's defeat in the Crimean War was a catalyst leading to the abolition of serfdom. [13] [14]

Finally, serfdom was abolished by a decree issued by Tsar Alexander II in 1861. Scholars have proposed multiple overlapping reasons to account for the abolition, including fear of a large-scale revolt by the serfs, the financial needs of the government, evolving cultural sensibilities, the military need for soldiers, and, among Marxists, the unprofitability of serfdom. [15]

See also

Related Research Articles

Feudalism Combination of legal and military customs and form of government in medieval Europe

Feudalism, also known as the feudal system, was a combination of the lnotl, economic, military, and cultural customs that flourished in Medieval Europe between the 9th and 15th centuries. Broadly defined, it was a way of structuring society around relationships that were derived from the holding of land in exchange for service or labor. Although it is derived from the Latin word feodum or feudum (fief), which was used during the Medieval period, the term feudalism and the system which it describes were not conceived of as a formal political system by the people who lived during the Middle Ages. The classic definition, by François-Louis Ganshof (1944), describes a set of reciprocal legal and military obligations which existed among the warrior nobility and revolved around the three key concepts of lords, vassals and fiefs.

Manorialism Economic, political and judicial institution during the Middle Ages in Europe

Manorialism or seignorialism was an organizing principle of rural economies which vested legal and economic power in a lord of the manor. If the core of feudalism is defined as a set of legal and military relationships among nobles, manorialism extended this system to the legal and economic relationships between nobles and peasants. Each lord of the manor was supported economically from his own direct landholding in a manor, and from the obligatory contributions of a legally subject part of the peasant population under his jurisdiction and that of his manorial court. These obligations could be payable in several ways, in labor, in kind or in coin.

Peasant Pre-industrial agricultural laborer or farmer with limited land ownership

A peasant is a pre-industrial agricultural laborer or a farmer with limited land-ownership, especially one living in the Middle Ages under feudalism and paying rent, tax, fees, or services to a landlord. In Europe, three classes of peasants existed: slave, serf, and free tenant. Peasants may hold title to land either in fee simple or by any of several forms of land tenure, among them socage, quit-rent, leasehold, and copyhold.

Serfdom Status of peasants under feudalism

Serfdom was the status of many peasants under feudalism, specifically relating to manorialism, and similar systems. It was a condition of debt bondage and indentured servitude with similarities to and differences from slavery, which developed during the Late Antiquity and Early Middle Ages in Europe and lasted in some countries until the mid-19th century.

Emancipation reform of 1861 The first and most important of liberal reforms passed by Tsar Alexander II of Russia, which effectively abolished serfdom throughout the Russian Empire

The Emancipation Reform of 1861 in Russia, also known as the Emancipation Edict of Russia, was the first and most important of the liberal reforms passed during the reign (1855–1881) of Emperor Alexander II of Russia. The reform effectively abolished serfdom throughout the Russian Empire.

Folwark is a Polish word for a primarily serfdom-based farm and agricultural enterprise, often very large.

Serfdom in Russia Russian serfs were agrarian peasants legally bound to the land owned by nobility and who were deprived of rights and forced to provide free labor.

The term "serf", in the sense of an unfree peasant of tsarist Russia, is the usual English-language translation of krepostnoi krestyanin which meant an unfree person who, unlike a slave, historically could be sold only with the land to which he or she was "attached". Contemporary legal documents, such as Russkaya Pravda, distinguished several degrees of feudal dependency of peasants.

The Robot Patent is an English-language scholarly term for the imperial decrees (patents) in the 1700s abolishing compulsory labor (robot) of serfs, issued by Joseph II, Holy Roman Emperor, who had carried out a register of all land with a division between peasant and noble holdings. Joseph II outlawed the buying of 'rustic' land by the nobility and at the same time giving the rusticalists security of tenure. His motive was to prevent the increase in 'dominical' land, which paid fewer taxes to the government. This led to the survival of the peasantry, with rustic land still having the robot. In 1789 it was abolished by Joseph II, but Leopold II restored it when his brother Joseph II died in 1790. The abolition of the Robot during the Revolutions of 1848 broke the last legal tie which held the peasants to the land, and was seen as a great victory by the peasants.

The Serfdom Patent of 1 November 1781 aimed to abolish aspects of the traditional serfdom system of the Habsburg Monarchy through the establishment of basic civil liberties for the serfs.

18th-century history of Germany

From the 1680s to 1789, Germany comprised many small territories which were parts of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation. Prussia finally emerged as dominant. Meanwhile, the states developed a classical culture that found its greatest expression in the Enlightenment, with world class leaders such as philosophers Leibniz and Kant, writers such as Goethe and Schiller, and musicians Bach and Beethoven.

Russian Empire Former empire in Eurasia (1721–1917) and North America (1721–1867)

The Russian Empire was a historical empire that extended across Eurasia and North America from 1721, following the end of the Great Northern War, until the Republic was proclaimed by the Provisional Government that took power after the February Revolution of 1917. The third-largest empire in history, at its greatest extent stretching over three continents, Europe, Asia, and North America, the Russian Empire was surpassed in size only by the British and Mongol empires, leaving the empire lasting 196 years. The rise of the Russian Empire coincided with the decline of neighboring rival powers: the Swedish Empire, the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, Persia and the Ottoman Empire. It played a major role in 1812–1814 in defeating Napoleon's ambitions to control Europe and expanded to the west and south, becoming one of the most powerful European empires of all time.

Abolition of serfdom in Poland occurred over a period of time. At the end of 18th century a reform movement in Poland resulted in the Constitution of May 3, 1791 which took the peasantry under protection of state. Full abolishment of serfdom was enacted by the Proclamation of Połaniec on 7 May 1794, but it was also short-lived as Poland got partitioned by her neighbours in 1795, beginning first 12 years of Polish inexistence as an independent state and later another 103 years. In the 19th century various reforms on Polish territories were taking place. Namely in all three of the Austrian partition, Prussian partition and the Russian partition. Serfdom was abolished in Prussia in 1807, in Austria in 1848, in Russia in 1861. Despite these facts 7th May 1794 remains the date serfdom was abolished in Poland.

Serfdom in Poland

Serfdom in Poland became the dominant form of relationship between peasants and nobility in the 17th century, and was a major feature of the economy of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, although its origins can be traced back to the 12th century.

The Sejm of the Grand Duchy of Posen was the parliament in the 19th century Grand Duchy of Posen and the Province of Posen, seated in Poznań/Posen. It existed from 1823 to 1918. In the history of the Polish parliament, it succeeded the general sejm and local sejmik on part of the territories of the Prussian partition. Originally retaining a Polish character, it acquired a more German character in the second half of the 19th century.

State serfs or state peasants were a special social estate (class) of peasantry in 18th–19th century Russia, the number of which in some periods reached half of the agricultural population. In contrast to private serfs, state serfs were considered personally free, although attached to the land. They were liberated in 1866.

The Central Agricultural Zone is a traditional region of Russia. Historically it was the centre of agriculture and colonisation in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and was the most densely populated area of the Russian Empire. It was also the poorest. Before the emancipation of serfs, it was home to most of the Russian serf population, and later it was also the centre of the communal system, which contributed to the areas relative poverty compared to the rest of Russia.

Fugitive peasants are peasants who left their land without permission, violating serfdom laws. Under serfdom, peasants usually required permission to leave the land they lived on.

The Government reforms imposed by Tsar Alexander II of Russia, often called the Great Reforms by historians, were a series of major social, political, legal and governmental reforms in the Russian Empire carried out in the 1860s. By far the most important was the Emancipation reform of 1861 which freed the 23 million serfs from an inferior legal and social status, and helped them buy a farm. Many other reforms took place, including the:

In the second half of the nineteenth century, it became clear that the preservation of the power and political influence of the Russian Empire is impossible without reform and transformation of the entire political system. Among the economic prerequisites, it should be noted the crisis of the landlord economy, the poverty of the peasants, the low purchasing power of the population, from which the underdevelopment of the domestic market ensued. Serfdom held back the development of the wage labor market and created a shortage of labor for industry. Therefore, the reign of Alexander II became a period of fundamental transformations of Russian society.

Livonian Peasants' Laws were laws introduced in the 19th century for Governorate of Livonia of the Russian Empire. About the same time similar laws has been enacted in all Baltic governorates and Duchy of Courland and Semigallia. These laws changed and clarified peasants rights and obligations, who ethically were mainly Estonians and Latvians. This development culminated in Peasant Community Code of 1866 which codified peasants self-governance.


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  2. Ways of ending slavery
  3. Russia by Donald Mackenzie Wallace
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  9. 1 2 Ewa Sagarra, A social history of Germany, pp 341-45
  10. Brakensiek, Stefan (1994). "Agrarian Individualism in North-Western Germany, 1770–1870". German History. 12 (2): 137–179. doi:10.1093/gh/12.2.137.
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  14. David Moon, The Russian peasantry 1600–1930: the world the peasants made (Routledge, 2014).
  15. Evsey D. Domar, and Mark J. Machina, "On the profitability of Russian serfdom." Journal of Economic History (1984) 44#4 pp: 919-955. online

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