Monday, January 11, 2016

The Serf, the Land and Royalty in the Middle Ages


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”.


12 comments:

  1. William, I find this series fascinating. I've always been intrigued and often appalled at the class system in Britain and I've read many books where the Lord of the Manor really used the serfs as slaves - cruelty abounded. Of course, there were always good Lords of the Manor who dealt fairly with the serfs and really did look out for them. In those cases it seemed everyone had a better chance of prospering.
    Look forward to next week's post.

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  2. Good insight into the beginnings of the still entrenched class system in England. When you look at it in those terms and how far back it goes, its not surprising its alive and well in the 21st C!

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  3. Interesting interpretation, William. Personally am of the opinion that the world today has a lot in common with how it has worked throughout history. There will always be a class system of some sort it's just a question of what words are used to discribe the different groups. And wars will always exist, unfortunately. Have a look at how the class system has changed in your country the last one hundred years or so and you will note rapid changes that have spread all over the world. Maybe it would be a good idea if it was still possible for the Vikings to make a difference? Most Americans would get a better life with a Scandinavian system:-)

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  4. So we have now progressed to the point where you can work your restaurant or store and keep enough of your profits to survive while giving the rest to the landlord. Sounds a little serf=like.

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  5. Keep it coming, William. This was a time period of history I always enjoyed in college, so your refresher course is fantastic!

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  6. I love it when I read your posts and can't help but think about how they would make great supplemental background information for teaching an Arthurian Lore unit, and then I remember I don't teach anymore... still great info that even adds to my knowledge because I admittedly scratched just the surface of feudalism when I explained it in my unit.

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  7. I always enjoy the bits of history you share William but I think this is definitely one of my favorites. I've been to England several times and while I could never live there I really do enjoy visiting, so this has really served to fill some of my knowledge gaps. Thanks!

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  8. Have you watched Downton Abbey? It takes place around 1924 and things didn't change much from middle ages except the servants are treated better than slaves

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    1. It is a funny situation when you are speaking of slaves, and others. In the US before the civil war, as horrible as slaves were treated, they treated immigrants worse. (This is no way of me approving, or in any way or lessoning the horrible establishment of slavery). When there was a very dangerous job, they would hire immigrants, and not let the slaves do it. This was the slave owner had an investment in their slaves, they had feed them, housed them etc. If they were killed, they lost this past investment. However, if an immigrant was killed, they simply hired another immigrant.

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  9. Not so long ago there were farmers on my mother's side of my family, and I can vouch that the life of a farmer is not an easy one. That said, it sounds as though being a serf was not so bad in relative terms IF the landowner really did protect you and shield you from the warfare and raids business, and to my understanding - correct me if I'm wrong - common people were in fact kept out of wars (by and large) prior to World War I.

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    1. You might think so, but the answer is no. The knights sometimes would pillage and burn whole communities.
      Later, any men would be forced into the military, of course these men had not the same rights as the nobles or knights. In some instances a commoner who killed an opposing knight, he himself was put to death by his own king for killing someone who ranked higher than him in society.

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  10. This is a really interesting journey into history. This is such a different system than what we have in Westernized countries today. But I can see how it really aided everyone's survival. Though I wonder what it was like to be a serf traded to a different kingdom. I imagine that is like if the land I'm living on was all of a sudden sold to Mexico, and now I'm Mexican instead of from the U.S. Really fascinating

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