History of serfdom
Social institutions similar to serfdom were known in ancient times. The status of the helots in the ancient Greek city-state of Sparta resembled that of the 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 slaves to provide labour.
These tenant farmers, eventually known as coloni, saw their condition steadily erode. Because the tax system implemented by Diocletian assessed taxes based on both land and the inhabitants of that land, it became administratively inconvenient for peasants to leave the land where they were counted in the census. In 332 AD Emperor Constantine issued legislation that greatly restricted the rights of the coloni and tied them to the land. Some see these laws as the beginning of medieval serfdom in Europe.
However, medieval serfdom really began with the breakup of the Carolingian Empire around the 10th century. The demise of this empire, which had ruled much of western Europe for more than 200 years, was followed by 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 were assured that others worked to feed them and were held down, legally and economically, while doing so.
This arrangement provided most of the agricultural labour throughout the Middle Ages. Slavery persisted right through the Middle Ages, but it was rare, diminishing and largely confined to the use of household slaves. Parts of Europe, including much of Scandinavia, never adopted many feudal institutions, including serfdom.
In the later Middle Ages serfdom began to disappear west of the Rhine even as it spread through eastern Europe. This was one important cause for the deep differences between the societies and economies of eastern and western Europe.
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 the 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 serf and peasant demands were accommodated to some extent by the gradual establishment of new forms of land leases and increased personal liberties.
Another 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, while landowners also invested in the more profitable industry. This also led to the growing process of urbanization.
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. Serfdom developed in Eastern Europe after the Black Death epidemics, which not only stopped the migration but depopulated Western Europe.
The resulting large 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.
Such Eastern European countries included 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 as 'second serfdom' or 'export-led serfdom', which persisted until the mid-19th century, 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.
In many of these countries serfdom was abolished 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 Russian Baltic provinces it had been abolished at the beginning of the 19th century. According to the Russian census of 1857, the number of private serfs in Russia was 23.1 million. Russian serfdom was perhaps the most notable Eastern European institution, as it was never influenced by German law and migrations, and serfdom and the manorial system were enforced by the crown (Tsar), not the nobility.
The decline of serfdom
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 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. 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). 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.
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.
Era of the French Revolution
The era of the French Revolution (1790s to 1820s) saw serfdom abolished in most of Western Europe, while its practice remained common in Eastern Europe for another century or more. 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. 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.
In German history the emancipation of the serfs came in 1770-1830, beginning with Schleswig in 1780. 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.
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.
The land reforms in northwestern Germany were driven by progressive governments and local elites. They abolished feudal obligations and divided collectively owned common land into private parcels and thus created a more efficient market-oriented rural economy. 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. East of the Elbe River, the Junker class maintained large estates and monopolized political power.
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.
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. Serfdom is an institution that has always been commonplace for human society; however, it has not always been of the same nature.
- Robert Bideleux and Ian Jeffries, A History of Eastern Europe: Crisis and Change, Routledge, 1998. ISBN 0-415-16111-8. p. 295 – 296.
- Mackay, Christopher (2004). Ancient Rome: A Military and Political History. New York: Cambridge University Press. p. 298. ISBN 0521809185.
- Ways of ending slavery
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