Serfdom refers to the practice of common people becoming beholden to a feudal lord and necessitated to pay him in labour or cash in return for his protection and land. Such people effectively became the serfs of that lord. In medieval times, feudalism was a common social system all over Europe and it came with the practice of serfdom everywhere. Although serfs were better than slaves, they were still highly dependent on their lords. It was believed that all aspects of a serf’s life were subordinate to the lord’s wishes. A serf usually divided his life between working on his lord’s land and working on his own land as provided by the lord.
Serfdom was considered a service rendered by a person to the lord in exchange for lord’s protection and favours. In effect, the serf essentially became the property of the lord and the lord practised great control over his life. Commonplace medieval philosophy was that everyone in a society had their role. The knight fought for all and likewise, a serf worked for all. The serf was also forbidden from abandoning his land without permission, which tied him indefinitely to his lord.
Although serfdom had existed even before the medieval times, it became rife in Europe only after the Carolingian Empire broke up in the 10th century. The break-up of the Empire led to the decentralisation of power. Landowning nobility in different parts of Europe used this opportunity to carve their independent estates. This was done by promoting the establishment of serfdom which instantly made agriculture a very profitable enterprise for the landowning classes.
There was a very prominent difference between the development of serfdom in Eastern and Western Empire. The social and political development of Western Europe led to improved economies, centralised governments under powerful monarchs and prosperous urban centres by the 13th and 14th centuries. Such shift from largely agrarian economy to non-agrarian economy meant that the need for serfdom diminished significantly. Consequently, the practice of serfdom steadily declined in Western Europe and had nearly ended by the 15th century. The situation in Eastern Europe, though, was quite different.
The decline of the serfdom in England began with the onset of the Black Death plague. The huge number of deaths in Black Plague left England with little manpower. So the surviving serfs had a greater bargaining power regarding their rights and wages. The practice rapidly declined from 14th century onwards and by 16th century, serfdom had all but ended in England. In Normandy, there was no serfdom by the beginning of 12th century, which was partly a result of the peasant revolt at the end of 10th century.
A person in medieval ages usually became a serf because of poor circumstances. Becoming a serf provided a certain financial security because it came with the surety of having a land to work on and a lord to serve, who would in turn protect the serf. So many people who fell on hard times became serfs under such necessities. The formal method of attaining serfdom was in a ceremony where a lord held the serf’s head in his hands and thus confirmed the bondage of the serf. In essence, the serf agreed to submit himself to the will of the lord in this ceremony. All children of a serf were automatically became serfs as well.
Serfs were required to provide labour or service to their lord in return for his land and protection. This typically comprised of a certain number of days per week. On these days, the serf was required to work on the lord’s agricultural lands or render other services to him. The exact number of days a serf was required to serve varied, between different regions and through different periods. Although the serf was free to work on his own land during the rest of the week, he had to pay substantial taxes to the lord in the form of a sizable portion of his agricultural produce. A serf was also required to make other payments in the form of fowl, eggs and honey.
The serfs during medieval times could be identified easily by their dress. They typically dressed up in a simple and practical manner. The most common dress of the serfs was a simple, white blouse of cloth held fast around the waist on top of which an overcoat or mantle was often worn. Under it, the serfs wore woollen trousers and large, rough boots. Serfs also used woollen hats in cold weather although they weren’t very common.
In early Middle Ages, serfs were well off and were often able to become affluent over time. In High Middle Ages, the worst time of the serfdom came when serfs were required to offer more labour to their lords in return for little favours. In this period, it became very hard for serfs to rise above their station or gain emancipation by becoming rich enough. This changed as the Black Death plagued Europe and manpower diminished all over the Continent and in England. This led to a rise in the bargaining power of the serfs and ultimately, helped emancipate them altogether. By 15th century, serfdom had effectively ended in most of Western Europe.
In medieval times, a person could voluntarily decide to engage himself to a lord in return for a piece of land and the lord’s protection. Such a person effectively became that lord’s serf in a bondage ceremony, and was then required to serve the lord as the lord willed. This involved working a certain number of days on the lord’s lands, tilling his land, paying him taxes in the form of agricultural produce and rendering him any other service that the lord required. For serfs, this meant a hard life but such a life was preferable to many people who had fallen on hard times. The end of serfdom in Europe began towards the 13th and 14th centuries. By 15th century, serfdom had ended in most of Europe although it resurged in Eastern Europe in later centuries.