Weird History

A Detailed Breakdown Of How Much It Sucked To Be A Medieval Serf

As draining as the 40 hour work week can be, we should really count our blessings for labor laws and HR departments. Picture yourself in the daily life of a serf: You work as much as your boss insists, you live in your boss’s house, and you can’t leave your boss’s house - even if they decide to sell it to someone else. You will live there forever, and your children will, as well.

That is to say, being a serf really sucked. In the Middle Ages, it was only moderately better to be a peasant. While this line was often blurred in specific regions, there was a distinct difference between a free peasant and a serf. Serfs were bound to the land on which they lived, and they were the property of whoever owned the land. 

When the lord sold his land, the serfs were part of the purchase. Peasants were often just as poor as serfs, sometimes even poorer, but they were not bound to the land and were able to live and move freely so long as they paid their taxes in crops, money, or work.

All told, the suffering of the servant class in medieval times may put things in perspective when you lament your dead end job.

  • Lords Could Punish And Chastise Their Serfs With Or Without Cause

    In the Vaud, a canton of Switzerland, the customary law regarding serf punishment stated that lords were allowed to chastise their serfs "moderately", with or without cause, but they were theoretically forbidden from "tormenting" them. The definition of "torment" was loose: It was lawful to imprison a serf for an indefinite amount of time or seize all of their possessions. 

    In Notre Dame, it was legal to take a serf's life if they got into an argument with the tenants. Because the rules were highly variable from region to region, most lords did as they wished. This often meant skirting the technicalities of the rules. In Aragon, a lord could only take the life of a man who slayed one of his own dependents, but bloodshed was forbidden. Therefore, serfs would perish of starvation, thirst, or exposure to the cold.

  • According To Law, Any Property Owned By The Serf Was Property Of Their Lord

    While serfs were given their own personal quarters and a tiny plot of land to grow their own meager sustenance, it still belonged to the lord, and could be taken or repurposed at any time. The serfs were responsible for building their own homes and making their own clothing.

    It was generally understood that serfs did not own any of their possessions - they were property of the lord just as the serf was. As the land belonged to the lord, even the food that was harvested, even for personal consumption, also legally belonged to the lord. 

  • Serfs Were Required To Pay Taxes, Rent, And Arbitrary Payment To Their Lords As Well As Provide Free Labor

    The main difference between a regular peasant and serf was a difference in seigneurial duty. Peasants were generally impoverished and reliant on the more affluent community members for sustenance, but serfs were legally obligated to pay rent, taxes, and other arbitrary payments to their lords. 

    The finer details of this depended on the region. Bohemians treated serfs as part of the estate, and would be transferred alongside the land, while Russian serfs were more comparable to slaves that could be sold as individuals. The financial duties and obligations were largely dependent on the serf’s relationship with the land. 

    Even serfs who managed to acquire free land were still bound to the lords. While they technically owned the land, they still had to surrender the deed to the lord so that the lord could turn a profit from the serf's labor on their own land.

  • Serfs Were Required To Fight In Their Lord's Army If They Were Needed

    Some countries felt that serfs were laborers with neither the will nor the power to fight, while others used them to boost their numbers in the military. 

    Russian forces in the Middle Ages were largely dependent on peasant and serf labor. As state-owned peasants and privately owned serfs were bound to some degree of servitude, this often meant automatic and indefinite conscription. This is how the Russian army retained its impressive numbers, over 1 million, throughout the 19th century until serfdom was formally abolished.

     In Russia, the difference between serf and peasant was scarce. A serf who was freed from service would often be turned loose onto society with no land or money, which set the stage for self-imposed state peasantry. It was better to be supported and retain some degree of freedom.