A serf is a laborer who is bound to the land. Serfs differ from slaves in that serfs cannot be sold apart from the land which they work. Typically, when serfdom prevailed, the land itself could not be sold because it was associated with political powers (just as the Queen of Great Britain cannot sell Great Britain). Instead, the land was transferred via war, marriage, and the like.
History of serfdom
Both in the eastern part of the empire, and in the west, where the invading Germanic peoples for the most part displaced wealthy Romans as the landlords, but left the system itself intact, this arrangement provided most of the agricultural labor throughout the Middle Ages. In the west, the rise of powerful monarchs, towns, and an improving economy weakened the manorial system through the 13th and 14th centuries, and serfdom was rare following the Renaissance. However, in eastern European countries like Prussia, Austria, Poland and Russia, rulers strengthened serfdom in the seventeenth century, so that noble estates could produce more grain for the newly profitable export market. In many of these countries, serfdom was abolished during the Napoleonic invasions of the early nineteenth century. But Russia retained the practice until February 19, 1861. Parts of Europe, including much of Scandinavia, never adopted feudal institutions, including serfdom.
Last updated: 08-29-2005 16:38:19