Serf (Lat. servus, a servant or slave), a term descriptive of the condition of a large portion of the people of Europe in the middle ages and in later times. Slavery and various forms of bondage prevailed throughout the whole of the Roman empire, and slavery was known to some of the races by whom that empire was overthrown; and out of the social and political conflicts produced by the barbarian invasions of the empire arose the feudal system. (See Feudal System.) The invaders found a portion of the agricultural populations of the countries they acquired in a condition between servitude and freedom. These were the coloni, or bond laborers, who were attached to estates. Under the German conquerors of Gaul, where the feudal system experienced its greatest development, and where serfdom became the most extensive and severe in its application to the masses of the people, labor was almost entirely servile and compulsory. Some lords possessed more than 20,000 slaves each. The capitulary de Villis shows that the royal farms were cultivated by slaves, and it is estimated that they embraced a fourth part of the land. In time the benefices that were granted became heritable, so that the beneficiary exercised over the slaves not merely the power of an owner, but also that of a magistrate.
Montesquieu asserts that at the beginning of the ascendancy of the third dynasty, in the 10th century, nearly all the people of France were serfs. The extreme sufferings of the people from famine compelled many of them to sell themselves into slavery; others exchanged liberty for the protection of powerful men. Offenders against the laws, who could not pay the compositions demanded of them, and persons who had failed to perform their military duties, were made serfs, or were liable to be so made. Some men voluntarily became the property of churches and monasteries. The effect of the barbarian conquests had been on the whole advantageous to the slaves found in the conquered countries, though it had considerably depressed the coloni. The two classes of forced laborers had been brought nearer together, the more favored class suffering somewhat from the change, while the less favored class gained a little therefrom. For several centuries this state of things lasted, to the detriment of the coloni, or villeins, as they were called by the jurisconsults. The effect of the establishment of the feudal system, on the other hand, was beneficial to both the serfs and villeins. Chattel slavery ceased to exist, and they could no longer be bought and sold.
This was principally owing to the influence of the church, which denounced traffic in Christians. The serfs became hereditary bondmen, and were employed on the soil, with which they were transferred. The difference between the serfs and the villeins, however, was so faint in many respects that they are generally spoken of as forming one and the same class, even by the highest authorities. But the distinction was real, the villeins holding a medium position between the serfs and the ingenuous classes, or freemen. The serfs, who are sometimes spoken of as a lower class of villeins, were in theory in the most abject state, and practically they often were so. Beaumanoir, after pointing out the two conditions of gentlemen and freemen, says: "The third estate of men is that of such as are not free; and these are not all of one condition, for some are so subject to their lord that he may take all they have, alive or dead, and imprison them whenever he pleases, being accountable to none but God; while others are treated more gently, from whom the lord can take nothing but customary payments, though at their death all they have escheats to him." The former were serfs, the latter villeins. The villein was obliged to remain upon his lord's estate.
He could not sell his lands, and his person was bound, and he could be reclaimed and brought back if he left his superior. This was the condition of both serfs and villeins; but the former were bound to the performance of ignoble services, from which the latter were exempt. It was only against his lord that the villein was without rights, at least in England; and "he might inherit, purchase, sue in the courts of law, though, as defendant in a real action or suit wherein land was claimed, he might shelter himself under the plea of villenage." Children generally followed the condition of their mother, but in England the state of the father determined that of the children as far back as the reign of Henry I., the first third of the 12th century. There the law presumed that the fathers of the bastards of female villeins were free, or that bastards were the sons of nobody, and therefore could not be the sons of slaves. In France, the free woman who married a serf was treated as being of her husband's condition; and in Flanders, if a free man married a villein, he became a villein himself after living with her a year.
Before the establishment of the feudal system, and under the Carlovingian rule, it had been provided that a free man who had taken a villein to wife could divorce her if he had been deceived as to her condition. Villeins could not marry without their lord's consent, or they forfeited their property, or were fined. The treatment of the servile classes differed much in different countries, and villenage literally disappeared from England long before it was broken up in France. It was never abolished by statute. - In France, the rise of men from a servile condition began very early and continued until great changes were effected. Many of the coloni aspired to freedom at the time when the feudal system was in its most flourishing state, and not a few of them were successful in throwing off their bonds. Those on the estates of kings and churchmen were soonest enabled to do this, for obvious reasons. By the middle of the 13th century so many villeins had become possessed of fiefs, that even St. Louis, who favored the rise of the people, became alarmed, and sought to put a stop to the practice. But he did not take from them the fiefs they had acquired, which has justly been held to prove that the number of such fiefs, was large, and the class of emancipated coloni too numerous to be assailed.
Louis X., in 1315, emancipated all persons in the royal domains upon their paying a fair composition, his object being to set an example to all seigneurs; but his example was not extensively followed. Philip the Fair had emancipated the villeins on the royal domains in Languedoc, but the number of freemen was always greater in southern France than in the north, except in Normandy. One of the chief effects of the crusades was to favor emancipation. Previously the obstacles in the way to emancipation were almost insurmountable. The labor of the villeins was very valuable to their lords, and a lay noble "was unable to enfranchise the serf without the concurrence of each in turn of the various other lords who, in the long chain of feudal dependence, might have an interest, mediate or immediate, or more or less remote, in the fief to which the serf belonged." To emancipate a serf on an ecclesiastical estate would have been to alienate a part of the church's property, and that property was inalienable according to the canon law. The crusades operated to change this, as military service was incompatible with the servile condition.
The serf who took the cross became free, not through the force of positive law, but because opinion was so strong in his favor that his owner durst not reclaim him, either while in service or after his return. The crusades, too, by introducing unwonted habits of change of place, greatly increased the numbers of those vagrants whom the law had previously presumed to be serfs, and assigned to the lord on whose property they remained beyond a year and a day, unless they acknowledged themselves to be the property of some other lord. The crusaders were soldiers of the cross, and it would not answer to deal with them as slaves. It was allowed to vagrants to declare themselves the king's vassals, and such vassals were free. Further, this movement of the people caused great additions to be made to the populations of the communes, and the gates of the communes stood constantly open to refugees; and whoever resided therein for a year and a day, being a serf at the beginning of that term, became a free man. No serf could be a bourgeois, for in the citizens of a bourg resided, collectively, its seigneury; and a serf could not hold seigneurial rights. But when the serf who had taken refuge in a bourg had acquired freedom, he became a citizen on easy terms.
Before the crusades these bourgs had become so many places of refuge to men of servile condition; and the crusades led to the great increase of the number of such fugitives, promoted commerce, and created new sources of wealth, which things were favorable to freedom. Nevertheless, serfdom was not abolished throughout France until the French revolution, and serfs could not be manumitted without letters patent from the king. It was a French rule of law, and as such put in practice concerning foreigners as early as the 13th century, that whoever entered France, being a slave, became free; but the practice of the country was very different toward the masses of the natives. That terrible insurrection known as the Jacquerie, which occurred in 1358, shortly after the battle of Poitiers, was caused by the sufferings of the people at the hands of the seigneurs, though its immediate occasion was the additional suffering created by the English wars. The fierceness of the peasants afforded an excuse for keeping them in a subordinate condition; and from that time the progress of emancipation became slow. The triumph of the central power, too, was injurious to the servile classes, as the kings no longer had occasion to favor the people at the expense of the nobles.
From the closing years of the 14th century, therefore, the condition of the French people ceased to be directly affected by those causes which previously had tended to their elevation; but general causes to that end still remained in operation, and at least prevented their condition from becoming worse. - In Italy the people had become free by the 13th century; and in some of the German countries the peasants acquired their freedom before the close of the 18th, but in other parts of the country they remained in a condition of modified villenage until the present century. - In England the state of most of the laboring people was on the whole, and comparatively speaking, mild down to the time of Henry II. (1154-'89). The villani of Domesday Book were the ceorls of Anglo-Saxon law; and in the second generation after the Norman conquest the villein was mentioned as a freeman. But in the next generation he became completely dependent upon the lord, and his general condition was very harsh, though somewhat mitigated by the existence of legal fictions, and by opinion. "This class," says Hallam, "was distinguished into villeins regardant, who had been attached from time immemorial to a certain manor, and villeins in gross, where such territorial prescription had never existed, or had been broken.
In the condition of these, whatever has been said by some writers, I can find no manner of difference; the distinction was merely technical, and affected only the mode of pleading." Gradually the condition of the English villeins was improved, until the system silently disappeared. By the middle of the 14th century there were many peasants who had become free laborers, and who worked for wages. The English villeins of that time shared in that general aversion to servitude which led the Jacques to rise in France, and the rebellion that takes its name from Wat Tyler was of substantially the same nature as that in which Guillaume Callet figured, though the English revolt was a quarter of a century later than the French. From the close of the 14th century the tendency to the abolition of English villenage was very strong. The last unequivocal evidence as to its existence is believed to be a commission of Elizabeth, dated 1574, directing the enfranchisement of her bondmen and bondwomen on certain manors, upon payment of a fine; but no doubt it existed somewhat later than that period. - The Polish peasantry were enslaved by the nobles, though they were never chattel slaves; and among the causes of the fall of Poland was the serfdom that there existed.
After its last partition the condition of the Polish peasants underwent various modifications under the Prussian, Austrian, and Russian governments, until emancipation, though at different periods, was decreed in each division. In Hungary, the last remnants of serfdom were abolished by the laws of 1848. In Russia, serfdom was unknown till the end of the 16th century, though chattel slavery had long existed there. Serfdom was introduced by Boris Godunoff, and in a few years all the rural populations were subject to it, with the exception of those persons who resided in the free communes constituting the crown domains. The legislation of Peter the Great transformed the serfs on private estates into a condition of chattelhood, while those on the royal domains enjoyed comparative freedom; but as great grants of land and serfs were made by the Russian sovereigns to individuals, myriads of peasants were thus converted into serfs of the lowest grade. Alexander I. and Nicholas were friendly to the liberation of the peasants; and Alexander II. soon after his accession began his labors in the cause of emancipation, proposing to free all the serfs, but gradually.
He encountered considerable opposition, and long preparations were unavoidable; but on March 3 (Feb. 19, O. S.), 1861, the "imperial manifesto" emancipating the serfs was published, to take effect at the end of two years. Serious difficulties were anticipated from the opposition of the nobles and the ignorance of the serfs.; but the manifesto was carried out with little disturbance. (See Russia).