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Serfs in the Middle Ages

The word "serf" comes from the Latin word "servus" which means slave. However, during the Middle Ages, the meaning was more like "coloni" which means "peasant farmer." Despite the appearance of slavery, serfs were slightly better off as tenant farmers, but still required their lord's permission to marry.

Serfs in the Middle Ages

Life for Serfs in the Middle Ages

The words "serf" and "peasant" are often used synonymously and have many similarities. They both work the land and are considered tenants. Serfs paid the lord dues for the use of the land. They were allowed to keep any money left after paying dues to the lord. Many times the dues consisted of services, and not money. Sometimes dues were paid in produce or livestock. Serfs were bound to the land for life, were ruled by the lord, and even needed his permission to wed. The only way they could become free was to run away and not get caught for at least a year or save enough money to buy their freedom.

Serfs were responsible for all work on the farm. This included tending the crops, taking care of the livestock, cutting wood, maintaining the buildings, and making clothes. Not only the men and women, but the children also worked on the land. If someone purchased the tract of land that the serf was bound to, then that person controlled the serf.

Daily Life

A serf's daily life was hard because he had to do whatever the lord wanted. The lord of the manor had complete control and could tax his serfs as heavily as he wanted and demand any services he required. For example, if a serf had some grain, he would have to pay a fee to the lord to use the manor's mill. On the plus side, if there was land that was not farmed, the serf was allowed to cut wood for his needs from the forest. He could also harvest the hay or turn the animals out on it. Serfs had other jobs like baking and collecting taxes.

Clothing for a serf was functional and simple. There would be a blouse or shirt made of cloth or animal skin. It would be fastened around the waist with a leather belt. There was a long overcoat made of a coarse, woolen material for cold weather. Pants were made of the same woolen material, as were hats for cold or rainy weather. When performing certain tasks, padded gloves were worn to protect the hands.

Serfs lived in simple one-room houses with dirt floors. Most of the time they cooked outdoors and their diet consisted of porridge, vegetables, bread, cheese, eggs, and a small amount of meat, like chicken or pork. When they had meat, they would make a stew and serve it in trenchers. These are just hollowed out bread and when the stew was finished, they would eat the bread.

History of Serfdom

Serfs came from the practice of Roman slavery but their condition improved over the years. Sometimes a person who was a freeman agreed to become a serf to receive the protection of the lord. Serfdom is between slavery and freedom, as a serf was not owned by a lord but was not free either. The lord had absolute power to control, tax, demand work, and punish the serfs. Serfs were like slaves of the land and were sold or given with the land.

The freedom of serfs happened over time. One contributing factor to this was the Black Death. It killed around one third of the population of England. With so many people dead, there were fewer people to work the land and the balance of power shifted. This lead to the other factor in the emancipation of the serfs: the Peasant's Revolt in 1381. By the end of the Middle Ages, most serfs in Western Europe were free men.