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 England cannot sell England). Instead, the land was transferred via war, marriage, and the like.
History of serfdom
The foundations for serfdom were laid during the later years of the Roman Empire. During the wars of the crisis of the third century, many small farmers sold or abandoned their lands, and land ownership become concentrated in large estates (latifundia) worked by tenant farmers (coloni). The tenants who worked these estates generally owed rent on a plot of land allotted to them for their own subsistence, and also owed the landlord unpaid labor in his private fields during the planting and harvest seasons. Between the terms of their tenantry and the deterioration of the Roman economy, the coloni tended to be unable to pay their rents and became bound to the estate by debt. In 322, an edict of Constantine established the salient features of what would become serfdom. The coloni could not leave or marry off the estate without their landlord's permission, and any children of the coloni also became coloni; however, the landlord could not evict his coloni nor arbitrarily increase their traditional rents and duties. Thus, the coloni had a somewhat secure if severely restricted existence.
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 instutions, including serfdom.
Serfs in Imperial Russia
Traditionally, the term for a peasant of the epoch of feudalism in Imperial Russia, krepostnoi krestyanin (крепостной крестьянин), is translated as serf. However, a Russian landowner eventually had gained an unlimited ownership over Russian serfs, including the right to sell and even to assign marriages, so in fact they had eventually become slaves, tied to the land by harsh policies tied to imperial rule.
The word serf re-appeared in the late 20th century to refer to a wage slave working in a capitalist business enterprise. Note one memorable coinage: the noun Microserf, which refers to employees of Microsoft Corporation, with the connotation that they become tied to that corporation, instead of the land, and work long and hard for the benefit of their masters. (See for example the novel Microserfs by Douglas Coupland.) When owners sell companies, modern serfs (or at least the jobs they perform) may get "sold" along with the companies for which they work in a sense that the price of the company may significantly depend on its "brainpower", rather than on its property (material or intellectual).
This kind of serfdom is also enforced by modern means of bondage in form of shares and stock options: it is not uncommon that the right of their realization is conditional on prolonged employment with the company.
The difference with this usage of the term serfdom and the form of serfdom from the past is that modern corporate workers have the choice to get another job or become self employed. Former serfs did not have a choice.
- Censored page
- See Ríg for the origin of the thrall/serf class in Norse mythology.