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Basic Information

A serf1 was an unfree feudal tenant, having tenure of a plot of farmland in return for both rent and customary service.

Despite the etymology of the word, a serf was not the same thing as a slave - he owned his own person (and in some cases, nothing else) and was a person in law with his own rights and obligations but was legally bound to the manor on which he lived, unable to leave without the landlord's permission and obliged to undertake various forms of labour as well as paying rent for the land he worked. Note that serfdom did not necessarily imply either oppression or poverty (although at least one was often the case) since it was possible (although not easy) for a serf with a large, fertile holding, well managed to be relatively well off (by medieval working class standards at least) … often approaching or even exceeding the living standards of some members of the yeoman class, and certainly better off than a landless freeman. Added to this, in a society where land was the basis of wealth, the serf had relatively secure tenure of his plot. He was also entitled to protection and justice from his landlord if such were to be had.

However the price of a serf's tenure was typically pretty high by modern standards - he owed his landlord a share of his crop, several days a week of labour on the desmene lands and various other labour duties at specific times of year. Added to that he was required to pay assorted taxes and fees for things as diverse as the right to marry (which was often subject to his lord's veto), the right to grind grain in the lord's mill (which was often the only place he was permitted to grind grain anyway) and the right to apprentice his child (assuming a master could be found). He was also obliged to build and maintain his cottage (which often belonged to the landlord regardless) and in some places might not even own his own agricultural tools or seed grain. As an unfree man, he was also normally forbidden to own or bear arms2 - although he was normally exempt from military service as well.

Traditionally the serf with the largest holding of unfree land3 in the village would likely (but not certain) to be appointed4 reeve and thus be responsible overall for the work of the village.

Occasionally, the boundaries between serf and freeman could become blurred - when did an agreement to pay all or part of rent due as goods or service start to become an olbigation to customary service in return for land? An unscrupulous lord could - and often did - take advantage of this sort of grey area to subjugate freemen and/or make them pay a substantial relief for rights they already possessed.

Besides the entrapment of freemen, a lord could recruit more serfs either from natural growth on his manor or by enticing landless men with the prospect of available acres. The urban poor were sometimes a good prospect (something of a reversal of the runaway serf becoming free after a year and a day living in a chartered town), as were younger sons from his own (or neighbouring) manors or even existing tenants hoping to increase their holding. Where new land was being opened up, a lord might need to remit a few years of duties and obligations in order to get it properly established, and if poaching farmers from a neighbour, he might need to buy them out of their existing obligations. Famines and other disasters might also provide a source of recruits to a lord with the wherewithal to help - the desperate might well surrender their freedom in return for help, much as their ancestors might have entered themselves into slavery in earlier years.

Serfdom appears to originate in the late Roman Empire when the laws of Diocletian forbade agricultural labourers (then called coloni) from leaving the estates on which they worked - this arrangement and the estates which it supported became the basis of manorialist economics and therefore a pillar of the feudal system. The end of serfdom also seems to have been more or less linked to the end of feudalism - although in most cases there was a decline in one or the other and a falling into abeyance long before it was formally abolished: tenancies requiring customary service were only finally abolished in England and Wales in the 20th century, but by then they were very few in number and the service normally a mere formality and ceremonial in nature.

Note that the terms serf and peasant are not coterminous - although the majority of peasants are likely to be serfs in most feudal settings, this term also includes freemen and effectively describes the whole of the rural working class.


1. full source reference

Game and Story Use

  • Serfdom is probably not a good background for a PC - due to the difficulties in explaining how they learned anything besides farming and related tasks (although someone whose father bought his way from serfdom into the yeoman class might make a good character).
    • If a PC is determined to play a runaway serf, how did he leave the land - did he flee to a town and become legally free, or did he become an outlaw in the wild-wood? What happens if he returns home - will his old lord accept that he is now free or punish him as a runaway serf? How do his community feel about the punishment they suffered for his flight (typically a painfully large fine, often with other penalties attached)?
    • For an easy get-out, the PC was the youngest of several brothers in a well-established fief - neither the local lord nor his immediate neighbours had land to offer (especially if the PC appeared to be less than competent as a farmer) and so he was allowed to leave the estate as a landless freeman (and/or permitted to undertake other duties such as training as a man-at-arms, apprenticing to a trade etc.).
  • A PC who gains a fief of their own will need to learn feudal management techniques in a hurry - and will also need to get used to presiding over his manor court (remember his duty to grant his serfs protection and justice). Even the most "parfait gentell knyte" is liable to get bored of listening to people argue over pigs and ploughed up headlands after a while.
    • Conversely, a GM may find that his PC(s) get over interested in their feudal duties and bog down the campaign with the intracacies of land management. This is entirely authentic for a feudal landlord, but possibly not the sort of thing RPGs thrive on.
    • You can bury a plot hook in that sort of thing: "Stop. What did you say happened to your border markers?"
  • Colonising a new fief in the wilderness (effectively assarting it) will be even more fun - where will they get competent serfs from? Setting up a working manor in the middle of nowhere will be even less fun if their workforce consists of a mixed bag of tramps and chancers rounded up in the city.
  • The plight of the oppressed serf is a common one in medieval fantasy and historical novels - Ellis Peter's Brother Cadfael seems to run into them a lot, one way or the other, and provides some good plot examples.
  • The whole concept of serfdom may lead to player v. character values dissonance - not only for the idea that the majority of the population live in bonded labour (and this is not generally regarded to be a problem), but that a lot of serfs may see their state as something positive and aren't interested in being freemen5.
  • The whole "village elders" thing encountered in most fRPGs is anachronistic - if someone is going to hire you to do a job for the village, it will usually be the lord or his reeve, baliff or steward.
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