1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Serfdom

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SERFDOM (from Fr. serf, Lat. servus, a servant or slave). The notion of serfdom is distinct from those of freedom and of slavery. The serf is not his own master: to perform services for other persons is the essence of his status, but he is not given over to his lord to be owned as a thing or an amimal — there are legal limits to the lord's power. Serfdom is very often conceived as a perpetual adherence to the soil of an estate owned by a lord, but this praedial character is not a necessary feature of the condition. Hereditary serfdom may sometimes assume the shape of a personal relation between servant and master. Such being the general features of serfdom, it is sure to appear in very different ages and countries. It will be formed naturally, for instance, in cases when one barbarous community conquers another, but it is not able to destroy entirely the latter or to treat its members as mere chattels. This mitigated form of appropriation of human beings by their conquerors may be brought about as well by the paucity or comparative weakness of the victors as by the difficulty for them to draw income from pure slaves. In a state of backward agriculture and natural economy it will sometimes be more profitable for the conquerors as well as for the conquered to leave the dependent population in their own households and on their own plots, at the same time taxing them heavily in the way of tribute and services. Such an arrangement clearly obtained in several of the agricultural states on ancient Greece. The Penestae of Thessaly appear as a remnant of a distinct tribe settled on the confines of Macedonia and at the same time as a class of tributary peasants serving Thessalian aristocrats. The Mnoitae, Klarotae and Aphamiotae of Crete were more or less in the same position. Their chief occupation was the cultivation of the shares (κλᾶροι) of the Dorian aristocracy, but they lived in households of their own and were considered as subjects rather of the Cretan commonwealths than of private men. The relation between both classes is well illustrated by a fragment of the Cretan poet Hybrias, who thus glories in his shield and sword: “I till the land with them, I press the wine from the grapes. On account of them I am called the lord of the Mnoa.” Even in the case of the Helots of Sparta, although their condition was very hard and they were made to perform services to any Spartiate who might require them to do so, features of a similar tributary condition are apparent. The chief work of the Helots was to provide a certain quantity of corn, wine and oil for the lords of the shares on which they were settled (roughly 82 medimni of barley a year per share); personal services to other Spartiates were exceptional. Pollux in his account of the Helots places them distinctly in an intermediate position between free men and slaves. The fact that in these instances governments had a good deal to say in the regulation of the status of such serfs is well worth noting: it explains to a great extent the legal limitations of the power of the lords. Even downright slaves belonging to the state or to some great temple corporation were treated better and carefully distinguished from private slaves by the Greeks.

We shall not be astonished to find, therefore, in the Hellenistic states of Asia a population of peasants who seem to have been in a condition of hereditary subjection and adherent to the glebe on the great estates of the Seleucid kings (see Rostowtzew in Lehmann's Beiträge zur alten Geschichte, ii.). It is not unlikely that the customs of these λαοὶ βασιλικοί went back to the epoch of the Persian monarchy. In any case these peasants (γεωργοί) were certainly not slaves, while, on the other hand, their condition was closely bound up with the cultivation of the estates where they lived. The regulation by the state of the duties and customary status of peasants on government domains turns out to be one of the roots of serfdom in the Roman world, which in this respect as in many others follows on the lines laid down by Hellenistic culture. It is important for our purpose to notice that the condition of coloni was developed as a result of historic necessity by the working of economic and social agencies in the first centuries of the Roman empire and was made the subject of regular legislation in the 4th and 5th centuries. In the enactments of Justinian, summing up the whole course of development (C.J. xi., 48, 23), two classes of coloni are distinguished — the adscripticii, representing a more complete state of serfdom, and the free coloni, with property of their own. But the whole class, apart from minor variations, was characterized by the idea that the peasants in question were serfs of the soil (servi terrae) on which they were settled, though protected by the laws in their personal and even in their praedial status. Thus the ascription to the soil, although originally a consequence of ascription to the tributes (adscriptio censibus), became the mark of the legal status of serfdom. The emperors actually tried in their legislation to prevent the landowners from evicting their coloni and from raising their rents. In this way fixity of tenure and service was aimed at and to a certain degree enforced by the state.

With the break-up of the Roman empire the legal protection in regard to serfs could not be kept up in the same way as before. The weak governments which took the place of imperial authority were not able to maintain the strict discipline and the stress of judicial power which would have been necessary to guarantee the tenure and status of the serfs. And yet serfdom became the prevailing condition for the lower orders during the middle ages. Custom and economic requirements produced checks on the sway of the masters which proved effectual even when legal protection was insufficient. The direction of events towards the formation of serfdom is already clearly noticeable in Celtic communities. In Wales and Ireland the greater part of the rural working classes was reduced not to a state of slavery, but to serfdom. The male slave (W. cæth) does not play an important part in Celtic economic arrangements: there is not much room for his activity as a completely dependent tool of the master. The female slave (cumal) was evidently much more prominent in the household. Prices are reckoned out in numbers of such slaves and there must have been a constant call for them both as concubines and as household servants. As for male workmen they are chiefly tæogs in Wales, that is half-free bondmen with a certain though base standing in law. Even these, however, could not be said to form the social basis for the existence of an upper free class. The latter was numerous, not wealthy as a rule, and had to undertake directly a great part of the common work; as may be seen from the extent of the free and servile tenures on the estates carved out for English conquerors in Wales and Ireland. Anyhow, the tæog class of half-free peasants stands by the side of the smaller tribesmen as subjected to heavier burdens in the way of taxation and services in kind. In Wales they are distributed into gavells and gwelys, like the free tribesmen themselves and thus connected with the land, but there is nothing to show that this connexion was deemed a servitude of the glebe. The tie with the lord is after all a personal one.

The Germanic tribes moved on similar lines. Slavery was not a natural institution with them, although it did occur. In the eyes of a Roman observer, however, even downright slavery was turned into serfdom by the force of circumstances. As Tacitus tells us, the ancient Germans made use of their slaves in a different way from the Romans. These slaves had their separate households, while the masters exacted tribute from them in the shape of corn, cattle or clothes, and the serfs had to obey to the extent of rendering such tribute (Tacitus, Germania, 21). This means, of course, that it was in the interest of the master to levy tribute and not to organize slave labour. After the conquest of the provinces by the Germanic invaders the Roman stock of coloni naturally combined with German tributary peasants to form medieval serfdom. A half-free group is marked off in the early laws under the designation of liti, lazzi, aldiones. But in process of time this group was merged with freedmen, settled slaves (servi casali) and small freedmen into the numerous class of serfs (servi, rustici, villani) which appears under different names in all western European countries. The customary regulations of the duties of an important group of this class in regard to their lords are clearly expressed in the Bavarian law (7th century): serfs settled on the estates of the church have to work, as a rule, three days in the week for their masters and are subject to divers rents and payments in kind. The regulations in question, although entered in a legal text, are not a legislative enactment but the result of a slow process of adjustment of claims between the ecclesiastical landowners and masters on one side and their rural dependents on the other. There can be no doubt that they were largely representative of the condi- tions prevailing on Bavarian estates belonging not only to the church but also to the duke and to lay lords. The old English Rectitudines singularum personarum (11th century) present other variations of the same customary arrangements. The rustic class appears in them to be differentiated into several subdivisions — the geneats performing riding duties and occasional services, the gebúrs burdened with week work and the cotsets holding cottages and performing light work in the shape of one day in the week and services to match (see Villenage). Of these various groups that of the gebúrs corresponds more closely to the continental serfs (coloni, Hörige, unfreie Hintersassen) .

The dualism characteristic of medieval serfdom, its formation out of debased freedom and rising servitude, may be traced all through the history of the middle ages. French jurists of the 13th century, e.g., lay stress on a fundamental difference in law between the complete serf whose very body belongs to his lord (cf. the German Leibeigenschaft) and the villein or roturier, who is only bound to perform certain duties and ought not to be further oppressed by the landowners on whose soil he is settled (Beaumanoir, Coutume de Beauvaisis) . But the same texts which draw the line between the two classes make it clear that there were no other guarantees to the maintenance of the rights of the superior rustics than the moral sense and the self-interest of their masters. Should the lords infringe the well-established rights of their subjects, the latter had no court to appeal to and only God could inflict punishment on the oppressors. It must be added, however, that even in the darkest times of feudal sway, economic forces provided some protection for the peasants who had lost the means of appealing to legal remedies. A certain balance had to be struck in most cases between the greed and selfishness of the class of landowners and the necessary requirements and human aspirations of the subjects. Feudal masters could not afford to act with the ruthless cruelty of slaveholders relying on government and civilization to back their claims to a complete sway over their human chattels. Lords who did not wish to see their estates deserted had to submit to the rule of custom in respect of exactions. And the screen of rural custom proved sufficient to allow of the growth of some property in the hands of the toiling class, a result which in itself rendered possible further emancipation.

A very instructive example of the formation of serfdom is presented by the history of Russia. Personal slavery in the sense in which it existed in the West was practised in ancient Russia (kholopi) and arose chiefly from conquest, but also from voluntary subjection in cases of great hardship and from the redemption of fines and debts (cf. the O. Eng. wite-theow). But the number of personal serfs was not large and they were principally to be met in the households of great people. The great mass of the peasantry was originally free. Even when in the course of time landownership was appropriated by the crown, the ecclesiastical corporations and the nobles, the tillers of the land retained their personal freedom and were considered to be farmers holding their plots under contracts. They were free to leave their farms provided they were able to effect a settlement in regard to all outstanding rent arrears and debts. Members of the household who were not directly responsible for the farms could look out for their livelihood as they pleased. The custom of the country gradually took the shape of a simultaneous resettlement of all conditions of rural occupation about St George's day (November 24), that is after the gathering of the harvest and the practical winding up of rural work. Such was the legal state of affairs up to the end of the 16th century. A great change supervened, however, through the slow working of economic and political causes. The peasants settled under the sway of nobles and churches could very seldom produce a clean bill in regard to their money relations with the landlords. They generally had to account for arrears and got into debt from the very start by taking over stock with the farm. The longer they remained on the same plot, the more entangled became the ties of their economic dependence. Thus, as in the case of many Roman coloni, thoroughly free settlers gradually lapsed into a state of perpetual subjection from which they could not emancipate themselves by legal means. On the other hand, the growth of the Muscovite state with its fiscal and governmental requirements involved a watchful repartition of burdens among the population and led ultimately to a system of collective liability in which the farms were considered chiefly as the sources of taxable income. The government was directly interested in maintaining their efficiency and in preventing migrations and desertions which led to a weakening of the taxpaying communities. A third aspect of the question must also not be desregarded, namely, the keen competition between landowners trying to attract settlers to their estates at the expense of their needy or less powerful neighbours. The first legislative measures of the Moscow rulers directed towards the establishment of a servile class similar to the Roman coloni fall into the first years of the 17th century (A.D. 1601, 1606) and consist in enactments against landowners depriving their neighbours of the tillers of their estates. But matters were clearly ripe for a wider application of the view that the peasant ought to stick to the soil, and the restoration of the Muscovite empire under the Romanovs brought with it the consolidation of alj rural arrangements around this principle. Peter the Great regularized and completed this evolution by effecting a comprehensive cadastre and census of the rural population. The ultimate result was, however, not only the fixity of peasant tenures, but the subjection of the entire peasant population as a separate class (Krepostrie) to the personal sway of the landowners. The state insisted to a certain extent on the public character of this subjection and drew distinctions between personal slavery and serfdom. In the midst of the peasants themselves there lived a consciousness of their special claims as to tenant right, claims which sometimes assumed the shape of the quaint saying, “The land is ours, though we are yours.” But, in fact, serfdom naturally took the form of an ugly ownership of live chattels on the part of a privileged class, and all sorts of excesses, of cruelty, ruthless exploitation and wanton caprice, followed as a matter of course. Emancipation was brought about in the 19th century by economic causes as well as by humanitarian considerations. The fabric of a state built up on the basis of serfdom proved inadequate to meet the tasks of modern times. Private enterprise and the free application of capital and labour were hindered in every way by the bondage of the peasant class. Even such a necessary measure as that of moving cultivators to the rich soil of the south was thwarted by the adherence of the northern peasantry to the glebe. On the humanitarian and liberal ideas making for emancipation we need not dwell, as they are self-evident. After several half-hearted attempts directed in the course of Nicholas I.'s reign to face the question while safeguarding at the same time the rights and privileges of the old aristocracy, the moral collapse of the ancien régime during the Crimean war brought about the Emancipation Act of the 19th of February 1861, by which some 15 millions of serfs were freed from bondage. The most characteristic feature of this act was that the peasants, as distinct from household servants, received not only personal freedom but allotments in land in certain proportions to their former holdings. The state indemnified the former landowners, and the peasants had to redeem the loan by yearly payments extending over a number of years.

If we turn back from this course of development to the history of serfdom and emancipation in the West striking contrasts appear. As we have already noticed, medieval serfdom in the West was the result of a process of customary feudal growth hardly interfered with by central governments. The loosening of bondage is also, to a great extent, prepared by the working of local economic agencies. Villeins and serfs in France rise gradually in the social scale, redeem many of the onerous services of feudalism and practically acquire tenant-right on most of the plots occupied by them. Tocqueville has pointed out that already before the revolution of 1789 the greater part of the territory of France was in the hands of small peasant owners, and modern researches have confirmed Tocqueville's estimate. Thus feudal overlordship in France had resolved itself into a superficial dominion undermined in all directions by economic realities. The fact that there still existed all kinds of survivals of harsh forms of dependence, e.g. the bondage of the serfs in the Jura Mountains, only rendered the contrast between legal conditions and social realities more pointed. The night of the 4th of August 1789 put an end to this contrast at one stroke and the further history of rural population came to depend entirely on the play of free competition and free contract.

The evolution of serfdom in Germany was effected by the working of somewhat more complicated causes. The regulating influence of government made itself felt to a greater extent, especially in the east. The colonization of the eastern provinces and the struggle against the Slavs necessitated a stronger concentration of aristocratic power, and the reception of Roman law during the 15th and 16th centuries hardened the forms of subjection originated by customary conditions. It may be said in a general way that Germany occupied in this respect, as in many others, an intermediate position between the west of Europe and Russia. Emancipation followed also a middle course. It was brought about chiefly by governmental measures, although the ground was to a great extent prepared by social evolution. The reforms of Stein and Hardenberg in Prussia, of the French and of their clients in South Germany, opened the way for a gradual redemption of the peasantry. Personal serfdom (Leibeigenschaft) was abolished first, hereditary subjection (Erbunterthanigkeit) followed next. Emancipation in this case was not connected with a recognition of the full tenant-right of the peasants; they had to part with a good deal of their land. To the last the landowners were not disturbed in their economic predominance, and succeeded very well in working their estates by the help of agricultural labourers and farmers. In the west, the small peasant proprietorship had a better chance, but it arose in the course of economic competition rather than through any general recognition of tenant-right. On the whole serfdom appears as a characteristic corollary of feudalism. It grew up as a consequence of customary subjection and natural husbandry; it melted away with the coming in of an industrial and commercial age.

Authorities. — Wallon, Histoire de l'esclavage dans l'antiquité; Pauly-Wissowa, Realencyklopädie des klassischen Altertums, s.v. “Coloni”; Fustel de Coulanges, Recherches sur quelques problèmes d'histoire; Institutions politiques de la France (L'alleu et le domaine rural); F. Seebohm, English Village Community (1883); P. Vinogradoff, The Growth of the Manor (1905); G. Waitz, Deutsche Verfassungsgeschichte (1844, ff.); P. Viollet, Histoire du droit français (3rd ed., 1905); Engelmann, Geschichte der Leibeigenschaft in Russland; Kluchevsky, Lectures on the History of Russia (in Russian), ii. (1906); G. Hansen, Die Aufhebung der Leibeigenschaft in Schleswig und Holstein (1861); G. F. Knapp, Die Bauernbefreiung in Preussen (1887); Handwörterbuch der Staatswissenschaften, ed. by Conrad and Lexis, s.vv. “Bauernbefreiung,” “Unfreiheit,” “Grundherrschaft.” (P. Vi.)