Last week we touched upon slavery in the middle ages, today we will discuss serfdom.
We must remember what occurred to cause this class system in Europe. The Roman Empire ruled over Europe since the time of Christ. Its influence went as high as German and as far as Britain. When the Roman Empire began to recede and finally fell after the sacking of Rome in 410 A.D., it left a political and an economic void; enter the Dark Ages.
The dark ages, because of a lack of a centralized government, created the feudal system. This in its basic terms, means you have royalty (usually a king), then nobles, (also clergy) and below them commoners. This was a pyramid shaped political form of governing, where the majority of people would be the commoners, leading to the nobles, and finally to royalty themselves.
Looking at this pyramid shaped form of government, you might think it was designed to benefit the nobles with little responsibility given to the well-being of the commoners, this is not true. It was a time when attacks or raids were prevalent from other countries or regions. Of these raids, the most notable were from the Vikings, who raided England, and in Europe, and even as far south to parts of Northern Africa.
With kingdoms being established, and also the constant possibility of warfare and raids; serfdom was developed out of necessity. A serf was connected to the land; he did not own this land, but the royalty did. In exchange for the use of this land, the royalty was to provide protection for the serf.
Although the word serf is derived from the word slave, the serf had more rights. A king could sell and trade slaves, but he could not do this with a serf. The serf, although lowest among the society ladder, had some rights, most which were connected to the land. If for some reason, because of a treaty, the king dispossess his land to another kingdom, the serf was now part of that kingdom. The serf would stay with the land, and serve the new king.
The main purpose of a serf was to produce food. They worked the farms throughout Europe, giving their produce to the kingdom. They could keep enough to survive, but the rest went to the royalty as payment to stay on the land.
Initially, there was a symbiotic relationship between royalty and the serfs. The serfs would be protected by the nobles, and these nobles were fed by the food produced by the serfs; if one fell, they both did.
There were always subcategories in the commoners, even with the serfs. A villein for instance, would work on a Lord’s land for a period of time during the year, in exchange for the right to work his own. Although, this sounds like a good deal for both parties, you must consider farming to be a full time occupation, so even working part time on the lord’s land, meant you could not fully farm your own.
When kingdoms got larger, the royalty had to develop a bureaucracy to maintain control over their lands; this gave rise to the Manorialism. This is where a lord (called Lord of the Manor) is given land, and is in charge of those who work that land. The Lord of the Manor was not only responsible for the maintenance of the land, and production of the food upon it, they also later became part of the legal system. The central power of a kingdom gave local authority to enforce laws to these Lords of the Manor.
In some countries Manorialism is still prevalent. In England, is it well established in the fabric of government and society. This form of Manorlialism is based on ownership of a specific amount of property. This means a wealthy person could purchase land, and by right of ownership become a Lord of the Manor. It is this concept of a Lord and owning property where we get the word today for Landlord.
We have journeyed to view the residents of the medieval period, next time we will visit the Free Tenants.
Next time: The Medieval Free Tenant
W.A. Rusho is a professional wrestler, martial artist and actor. He is also the author of the medieval fantasy novel; “Legend of the Mystic Knights”.