1902 Encyclopedia > Slavery > Disappearance of Serfdom. France. England. Italy. Germany. Spain.

(Part 12)


Disappearance of Serfdom

Whilst ancient slavery was, as we have seen, a system fitted to endure under given social conditions, and had a definite political function to fulfil, serfdom, which succeeded when that function was exhausted, was a merely transitory condition, with no other destination than that of leading the working population up to a state of entire personal freedom. How the serf in cities and towns became a free labourer for hire can be easily conceived; he doubtless in many cases purchased his liberty out of his earnings, and in others it was not the master’s interest to retain his services at the cost of his maintenance. The emancipation of this entire class was favoured by the movement (not, however, to be confounded with it) which established free industrial communities and gave them municipal jurisdiction. But it is very difficult to trace the steps by which the rural serf was transmuted into a free tenant. "The time and manner," says Adam Smith, "in which so important a revolution was brought about is one of the most obscure points in modern history." Smith himself attributes the change to two causes—(1) the greater advantage to the proprietor derived from the exertions of the cultivator when he worked entirely for himself, and (2) the encouragement which sovereigns, jealous of the great lords, gave to the villeins (under which term Smith seems to comprehend the whole mixed class of non-free tenants) to encroach on their authority. To these economic and political reasons, though doubtless real and important, Smith appears to attribute too exclusive an efficacy, neglecting the moral and religious causes which conspired to the same result, especially the personal influence of the clergy, who were natural mediators between the serfs and the proprietors. The serfs were best treated on the ecclesiastical estates, and many on private properties were liberated "pro amore Dei" and "pro remedio animae."

Let us examine more particularly the circumstances of the transition in France and in England.


M Guérard has shown that from the conquest by Caesar to the abolition of feudalism there was a steady improvement in the condition of the class originally enslaved. He distinguishes three periods—one of slavery proper, lasting till the conquest of Gaul by the barbarians ; the second, ending about the close of the reign of Charles the Bald (d. 877), in which slavery is replaced by an intermediate state which he calls by the indeterminate name of "servitude," the rights of the servus being recognized, respected, and protected, if not yet in a sufficient degree by the civil laws, at least those of the church and by social manners ; and a third in which, under the developed regime of feudalism, serfdom proper is fully established and the serf-tenant has bece he simply a tributary under various appellations (homme de corps or de pôté mainmortable, taillable, serf, vilain). The three personal conditions here described coexisted to some extent in all these periods, one of them, however, greatly preponderating in each. Towards the end of the 9th century the serf-tenants were already proprietors of their holdings ; under the third dynasty they were rather subjects than tenants, and the dues they paid were rather taxes than rents ; they were, in short, vassals occupying the lowest round of the feudal ladder. Guérard enumerates as immediate causes which led to the liberation of serfs (besides the master’s voluntary gift or bequest) their flight,—with the prescription which arose after a certain interval of absence,—ordination, redemption by themselves or others, marriages with women of higher status, and the action of law in the case of certain wrongs inflicted by the master. The church co-operated to the same result, as might be shown by many instances. Thus St Benedict of Aniane (d. 821), the reformer of the monasteries in the Carolingian territories, received a number of donations of lands from the faithful; but, whilst accepting them for his religions establishments, he enfranchised the serfs who inhabited them. All the serfs, not merely in a village, bourg, or city, but in whole districts, were liberated by charters of sovereigns or lords. Such domments are most common in the 13th century. The general edicts of Louis X. (1315) and Philip V. (1318) are little more than recognitions of a fait accompli, and were dictated, at least in part, by financial motives. Some relies of serfdom continued to exist in local customs down to the Revolution, and were not abolished till the night of the 4th August 1789. But these survivals do not affect the truth of the proposition that the work of emancipation was essentially accomplished early in the 14th century.


Guérard has observed on the difficulty created by the ambiguity of the word servus in the mediaeval authorities. In the study of English serfdom, even eminent writers like Robertson, Hallam, and Kemble have obscured the subject by the use of the term slave, sometimes in its proper sense, sometimes in relation to the serf. Dr Stubbs has avoided this equivocal nomenclature, and by attending more to social fact than to the letter of the law has placed the history of the class in a clear light. The slaves of Anglo-Saxon times were "regarded as the stock of their owner; . . . their offences; against a third person be must answer for, as for the mischief done by his cattle; ... they had no credibility, no legal rights ; wrongs done to them were regarded as wrongs done to their master." Practice, indeed, was kinder to them than legal theory; as in the case, of the Roman peculium, they were "in some unexplained way" allowed to keep their savings, and so to purchase their freedom; and "the spiritual law could enforce a penance on the master for ill-treating." There were laws of Ethelbert and Canute forbidding the sale of men to heathen masters, and the slave trade, the principal seat of which was Bristol, was put down by the preaching of St Wulfstan. The villein of Domesday Book is not a slave; he represents the Anglo-Saxon ceorl; he is an irremovable cultivator, now regarded as customary tenant of a lord. The Norman knights probably confounded with the villanus the bordarii and other tenants who stood on a less favourable footing. Whilst the free ceorl became a villein, the servus (theow) disappeared altogether. The position which the class constituted by this fusion came to occupy was one "compatible with much personal comfort and some social ambition." The villeins "were safe in the possession of their homes ; they had a remedy against the violence of their masters; they could, if they chose to renounce their holdings and take refuge in a town, become members of the guild, and there, when unclaimed for a year and a day, obtain the full rights of freemen; they could obtain manumission by the intervention of the church, which always proclaimed the liberation of the villein to be a work of merit on the part of the master.... Under a fairly good lord, under a monastery or a college, the villein enjoyed immunities and security that might be envied by his superiors; he had a ready tribunal for his wrongs, a voice in the management of his village; he might with a little contrivance redeem his children and start them in a higher state of life." Walter Map declares that in his time (12th century) the villeins were educating their ignoble offsprings in the liberal arts. In the early part of the 14th century "it was by a mere legal form that the villeins were described as less than free." In the reign of Richard II. it seems that the legal theory of their status has become hardened and sharpened so as to warrant almost wanton oppression;" but social causes, on the other hand, have ameliorated trieir actual lot. It was not their normal condition that led to the insurrection of 1381, but the enforcement of the Statute of Labourers and the attempt of the lords to reassert legal claims which were practically obsolete. Serfdom died out in England without any special legislation against it. It survived in exceptional instances, as in France; Hallam mentions as the latest deed of enfranchisement one of Elizabeth in 1574 in favour of the bondmen on some of her manors ; and it appears that in Scotland the workers in coal and salt mines were in a state of serfdom until they were liberated by Acts of the 15th and 39th years of the reign of George III.

Italy. Germany. Spain.

Essentially similar movements took place in the other countries of theWest. In Italy "the 11th and 12th centuries,’ says Hallam, "saw the number of slaves" (by which word he means serfs) "begin to decrease ; early in the 15th a writer quoted by Muratori speaks of them as no longer existing.... The greater part," he adds, "of the peasants in some countries of Germany bad acquired their liberty before the end of the 13th century; in other parts . . . they remained in a sort of villenage till the present age." The most rigorous forms of serfdom (Leibeigenschaft) existed in those German districts which were once Wendish,—as Lusatia, Pomerania, and Mecklenburg,—and in Holstein. The last remains of the system in Germany were abolished in 1832 and 1848. In Castile the serfs were slowly converted into solariegos, who cultivated the land of the lord under obligations similar to those of the colonus. Alphonso X. (El Sabio) declared that the solariego could quit his holding when he wished, though he could not alienate it or demand anything for his improvements. Alphonso XL (El Justiciero) decreed that no lord should take the solar (holding) from the tenant, nor from his sons or grandsons, so long as they paid the fixed dues. They thus became irremovable, and their tenures were hereditary.

By these gradual processes every form of servitude disappeared from the social order of western Europe, whilst at the same time was bequeathed to the modern world the inexorable problem, still but partially solved, of the definitive position of the classes whose origin is traceable to that condition.

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