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an arrangement whereby unfree PEASANTS hold land on condition of payment of rent in labour, in kind or in cash. The practice is commonly associated with that of FEUDALISM in Europe, and for many analyses is one of the core features.

Unlike SLAVES, serfs normally possessed and owned some means of production such as agricultural equipment, but were usually tenants of the land. They had limited legal and judicial freedom, and were typically not free to buy and sell land, move, or even to marry without a landlord's consent. There were important regional variations, partly dependent on the power of the landlord to enforce restrictions. Serfs often had access to common land which gave them potential economic activities outside of the control of the landlord; the extent of this independence was often a source of conflict between the two groups. In some areas in Europe, although not in England after the Norman Conquest, not all land was claimed by a landlord, and this allodial land could be occupied by serfs who had escaped from a landlord's control. Serfdom changed over time so that by the end of the feudal period in Western Europe, rent was more likely to be in cash, the extent of a landlord's control less, and in England during the 14th century freehold rather than leasehold arrangements were more common. Hilton (1973) provides one of the most revealing analyses of the English experience. In Western Europe serfdom had largely disappeared by the end of the 15th century, but persisted in Eastern Europe for far longer; in Russia serfdom was not legally abolished until 1861. The reasons for its decline, and the differing experiences of East and West, are still subjects of intense debate and central to the analysis of the TRANSITION FROM FEUDALISM TO CAPITALISM. Amongst the possible explanations are:

  1. demographic changes whereby the decline of European population in the 14th century meant that landlords had to allow freedom to peasants in order to retain a labour force;
  2. class conflict between landlords and serfs within which serfs won their status of independent peasants through legal action and rebellion; the inherent political contradictions of feudalism meaning that in some countries, such as France, the crown supported peasant demands for freedom as a part of its conflict with powerful landlords;
  3. the emergence of overseas trade, especially with the discovery of the Americas, which fostered a money economy in Europe, enabling some peasants to buy out of feudal obligations. In Eastern Europe, it has been variously argued that either the less cohesive structure of peasant communities, or the greater cohesiveness of the feudal landlords, enabled the survival of feudal ties and serfdom for a longer period (see Holton, 1985, and Aston and Philipin (eds.),1985).
Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



the totality of legal norms of the feudal state, establishing the most complete and severe form of peasant dependence. Serfdom included the prohibition of peasants’ departure from their holdings (the binding of peasants to the soil, with fugitives subject to compulsory return), hereditary subordination to the administrative and judicial authority of a particular feudal lord, the loss of peasants’ right to alienate holdings and acquire immovable property, and, sometimes, the right of the feudal lord to alienate peasants without land. “The chief distinguishing feature of serfdom was that the peasants … were considered bound to the land—this is the very basis of ‘serfdom’” (V. I. Lenin, Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 39, pp. 75–76).

In Russian historical writings the terms “serfdom” (krepostni-chestvo) and “serf society” (krepostnicheskoe, krepostnoe ob-shchestvo) are sometimes used in the broad sense to designate feudalism and feudal society as a whole, and the term “serf dependence” (krepostnaia zavisimost’) is used to denote feudal dependence in general.

Serfdom presupposes the existence of a state authority strong enough to implement its basic norms. Thus, one of the conditions for the emergence of complete serfdom was the existence of a centralized government, either on a countrywide scale or in principalities. Most frequently, serfdom arose through the expansion of manorial farms and corvée, oriented toward the production of agricultural products for the market. Peasants performing labor service were bound to the land in order to prevent their flight. In some cases a precondition of serfdom was the striving of the feudal state to bind peasants to a particular place for the payment of either state taxes or dues in kind or money for the benefit of a feudal lord.

In Western and Central Europe from the seventh to the ninth century, peasants were by birth personally or legally and administratively dependent on seigniors. With the exception of manor serfs and slaves settled on holdings, however, they were not bound to the soil or to the person of the seignior by law and were not subject to the other restrictions of serfdom. Only under Charlemagne, during the short-lived ascendancy of the Frankish state, were attempts made, generally without success, to bind a larger segment of the peasantry to the soil. At that time peasants were legally attached to the land only in southwestern Europe, on the territory of the former Roman Empire.

Between the tenth and 15th centuries, in the period of developed feudalism, such elements of serfdom as the prohibition on moving, hereditary personal subordination to the seignior, the limitation of civil rights, or all of these emerged in Western Europe with respect to various categories of the peasantry of several regions, for example, the villeins of central England, the remensi of Catalonia, the servi of France and southern Italy, the coloni and massari of central and northern Italy, and the Leibei-gene of southern Germany. The distinctive features of the serfdom of this period may be found not only in its specific manifestations, particularly in the absence of certain of its most confining norms (the prohibition on acquiring immovable property and the alienation of peasants without land), but also in its limited scope (much of the rural population was not affected by serfdom). In all the regions mentioned above, except central England, there was no direct connection between the spread of serfdom and the predominance of corvée; the norms of serfdom evolved under a system of rent in kind or money. Moreover, in the 13th through 15th centuries the majority of peasants were gradually liberated from all norms of serfdom. Between the 16th and 18th centuries serfdom disappeared entirely in Western Europe.

In contrast, in Central and Eastern Europe, serfdom became an extremely important element in agrarian social relations during these centuries. The development of entrepreneurial landlord farms for the production of agricultural produce for the market, the rapid increase of corvée, and the political ascendancy of a nobility interested in ensuring unrestrained exploitation of the peasants resulted in the spread of the “second serfdom” in eastern Germany, the region along the Baltic, Poland, Bohemia, and Hungary.

In eastern (Trans-Elbian) Germany, serfdom began to evolve after the Peasant War of 1524–26, and it was fully developed after the Thirty Years’ War (1618-48), assuming its most onerous forms in Mecklenburg, Pomerania, and East Prussia. It was at this time that serfdom spread throughout Bohemia. In Hungary serfdom was consolidated in the Code of 1514, issued after the suppression of the Dózsa Rebellion of 1514. In Poland the norms of serfdom, which had been taking shape as early as the mid-15th century, became part of the Piotrków Statute of 1496.

In these countries serfdom encompassed the bulk of the peasantry and was based on labor service of up to six days a week and the loss of most of the peasants’ property, civil, and personal rights. It was also accompanied by a decrease in the peasants’ allotment of arable land and, sometimes, in the loss of land by some peasants, who became bondmen without rights or temporary owners of the land. Other causes led to the expansion of serfdom during the 17th century in the Balkan countries annexed by the Ottoman Empire. Here, the primary aim of serfdom was to ensure the payment of crushing state taxes.

During the late medieval period the dominance of serfdom was one of the manifestations of the victory of feudal reaction, which for a long time hindered the capitalist development of the nations of Central and Eastern Europe. In these countries serfdom was abolished by reforms in the late 18th and the 19th centuries (Bohemia, 1781; Hungary, 1785; Prussia, 1807; Bavaria, 1808; Mecklenburg, 1820), although vestiges of serfdom survived after the reforms.

Serfdom did not become widespread in most of the countries of the East. Nevertheless, during various periods peasants were attached to the place where they paid taxes in some countries, engendering the right of search and forcible return of fugitive peasants, as was the case in Iran and neighboring countries during the 13th and 14th centuries.


Skazkin, S. D. Izbrannye trudy po istorii. Moscow, 1973.
Bessmertnyi, lu. L. “Severo-frantsuzskii servazh (K izucheniiu ob-shchego i osobennogo ν formakh feodal’noi zavisimosti krest’ian).” In the collection Srednie veka. Moscow, 1971. Issue 33.
Knapp, G. Osvobozhdenie krest’ian i proiskhozhdenie sel’skokhoziaistven-nykh rabochikh ν starykh provintsiiakh Prusskoi monarkhii. St. Petersburg, 1900. (Translated from German.)
Le Deuxième Servage en Europe Centrale et Orientale. Paris, 1971.
Heitz, G. “Zum Charakter der ‘zweiten Leibeigenschaft’.” Zeitschrift für Geschichtswissenschaft, 1972, no. 1.
Serfdom in Russia It is customary to distinguish serfdom as a system of social relations (krepostnichestvo) from serfdom as the legal form in which these relations were expressed (krepostnoe pravo). The origin of the type of dependence known as krepostnichestvo may be traced in Rus’ from about the 11th century, although down to the late 16th century the serf form of exploitation, the most complete form of feudal dependence, applied only to certain categories of the rural population. In the 12th century the exploitation of the roleinye zakupy (debtors in feudal bondage) and smerdy (corvée peasants) was similar to that of serfdom. Under the Russkaia Pravda (law code), restrictions were placed on the property and personal rights of a prince’s smerd; his escheat was to revert to the prince, and the value of his life was made equivalent to that of a kholop (slave)—the same fine of five grivnas was set for murdering either. Between the 13th and 15th centuries feudal dependence spread to encompass a considerable number of peasants, but serfdom was as yet not highly developed. From the mid-15th century some categories of peasants on votchinas (patrimonial estates) were permitted to leave their landlords only during the weeks before and after St. George’s Day in the autumn. The period for departure indicated in documents from the mid-15th century was established as the norm throughout the land by the Sudebnik (code) of 1497, which also specified the amount of the pozhiloe (exit fee). The Sudebnik of 1550 increased the pozhiloe and established an additional fee for transport obligations (za povoz). Temporary bans, known as the forbidden years (zapovednye leta), and later permanent bans on peasant departures were confirmed by the ukase of 1597, which established a five-year limit for the recovery of fugitive serfs (urochnye leta). In 1607 a ukase was issued imposing sanctions for harboring fugitives; a fine was to be paid to the state and a pozhiloe to the former owner of the fugitive. Although the bulk of the dvorianstvo (nobility) set long terms for the recovery of runaway peasants, the country’s large landowners and the dvo-riane (nobles) of the southern borderlands, where there was a large influx of runaways, preferred short limits. Throughout the first half of the 17th century the dvoriane submitted collective petitions for extending the urochnye leta. In 1642 a ten-year limit was stipulated for recovering fugitives, and a 15-year limit was established for recovering peasants taken from one landlord by another. The Sobornoe Ulozhenie (law code) of 1649 completely abolished the time limit for recovery; that is, all peasants who had fled from their owners after the compilation of the tax registers of 1626 or the census books of 1646–47 were subject to return. But even after 1649 new time limits and grounds for recovery were established for peasants who had fled to the borderlands—to the regions along the abatis line (ukases of 1653 and 1656), to Siberia (ukases of 1671, 1683, and 1700), and to the Don (decision of 1698). The dvorianstvo, moreover, repeatedly demanded that the search for runaway serfs be carried out at the expense of the state. The legislation of the second half of the 17th century devoted much attention to punishments for taking in runaways.
The differences between various strata of the peasantry gradually disappeared in Russia in the 17th and first half of the 18th centuries. There was a merging of the kabal’nye kholopy (peasants who became slaves through indebtedness) and polnye kholopy (“full” slaves); the legal boundaries between kholopy and peasants were effaced by making both “census souls”; and the institution of slavery (kholopstvo) was gradually abolished (by the late 17th century, the right of the lords to take peasant children as manorial serfs had already been recognized). Restrictions on the property rights of peasants increased; they were prohibited from acquiring real estate in the cities and rural districts. Their search for supplementary sources of livelihood and income was also restricted, and they were no longer permitted to leave the landlord for short periods of time to work at a trade. The lord’s rights over the person of the worker were expanded, and gradually serfs were deprived of nearly all civil rights. The sale of peasants without land, which had begun in practice in the first half of the 17th century, was sanctioned by law by the last quarter of the century (the ukases of 1675, 1682, and 1688). An average price was set for a peasant, independent of the price of land, and in the second half of the 17th century, corporal punishment was instituted for peasants who did not obey the landowner.
From 1741 peasants belonging to noble landlords were not permitted to give evidence in court, and ownership of serfs was monopolized by the dvorianstvo. Serfdom was extended to all categories of the taxed population. The second half of the 18th century saw the final stage in the development of state legislation aimed at strengthening serfdom in Russia. Ukases were issued giving landlords the right to banish unsatisfactory manorial serfs and peasants to Siberia (1760), to condemn them to hard labor (1765), or to imprison them (1775). The sale and purchase of serfs without land was now completely unrestricted, with the exception of a prohibition on selling serfs during the three months prior to a levy of recruits (1766; old people and minors were not affected) or in cases where an estate was confiscated or sold at a public auction (1771). The separation of parents and children was permitted (1760). The law provided punishment only for the death of a serf resulting from torture by a landlord. Censuses, particularly the first one, taken in 1719, were of great importance in the development of serfdom. The area in which serfdom prevailed also expanded in the late 18th century, when serfdom was extended to the Ukraine.
Gradually, with the development of capitalist relations within feudalism, the feudal-serf system in Russia moved toward a crisis. In the 18th century serfdom became the main obstacle to the development of the country’s productive forces. It hindered cultural and social progress. Thus, in the first half of the 19th century all social questions were ultimately reduced to the problem of the abolition of serfdom. Despite all the restrictions, the dvorianstvo’s monopoly on the ownership of serfs was being undermined. By the ukase of 1841 only individuals who owned populated estates were permitted to own serfs. Nevertheless, rich serfs were themselves serf owners and had the means to buy their freedom; whether they could, however, depended entirely on the landlord. In Russia plans to restrict and abolish serfdom were introduced in the first half of the 19th century. In 1808 the selling of serfs at fairs was prohibited, and in 1833 it was forbidden to separate the members of a family by sale. Small numbers of peasants were partially emancipated by the laws on “free tillers” (1803) and “temporarily obligated peasants” (1842). In response to peasant disturbances, the government abolished serfdom in 1861. However, such vestiges of serfdom as landholding by the nobility, working off rents and debts, and the strip system survived in Russia up to the Great October Socialist Revolution.


Lenin, V. I. “Razvitie kapitalizma ν Rossii.” Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 3.
Lenin, V. I. “Krepostnoe khoziaistvo ν derevne.” Ibid., vol. 25.
Grekov, B. D. Krest’iane na Rusi s drevneishikh vremen do XVII v., 2nd ed., books 1–2. Moscow, 1952–54.
Man’kov, A. G. Razvitie krepostnogo prava ν Rossii vo 2-i pol. XVII v. Moscow-Leningrad, 1962.
Koretskii, V. I. Zakreposhchenie krest’ian i klassovaia bor’ba ν Rossii vo vtoroi pol. XVI v. Moscow, 1970.
Pokhilevich, D. A. Krest’iane Belorussii i Litvy ν XVI-XVIII vv. L’vov, 1957.
Doroshenko, V. V. Ocherki agrarnoi istorii Latvii XVI v. Riga, 1960. Semevskii, V. I. Krest’iane ν tsarstvovanie imp. Ekateriny II, vols. 1–2. St. Petersburg, 1881–1901.
Semevskii, V. I. Krest’ianskii vopros ν Rossii ν XVIII ipervoi pol. XIX vv. vols. 1–2. St. Petersburg, 1888.
Ignatovich, I. I. Pomeshchich’i krest’iane nakanune osvobozhdeniia. Moscow, 1910.




a form of feudal dependence characteristic of the peasantry in Western European countries during the Middle Ages. Serfdom was distinguished by the severely limited civil and economic rights of the peasants. Although it was not a form of peasant law, which was virtually unknown in medieval Western Europe, serfdom entailed certain analogous elements: serfs were restricted in their right to leave one manor for another, to dispose of landholdings, and to choose a spouse. Their rights of inheritance were also circumscribed. In most cases serfs were judged solely by their seignior. Although serfdom was most widespread as a fully developed institution during the period of feudal fragmentation, in every Western European country except England it was not a state institution. Rather, it was a private legal institution, the specific details of which were characterized by local diversity.

Serfdom existed alongside other, less harsh forms of feudal dependence and affected only part of the feudal dependent peasantry. In most Western European countries except England, the practice of serfdom was not associated with any particular form of land rent. Serfdom developed not only where the corvée prevailed but also where the payment of rent in kind or money was preferred. In France, Italy, and Spain the corvée was replaced by quitrent when serfdom reached its highest stage of development.

Early serfdom, which prevailed in the early Middle Ages, persisted in Italy until the eighth century, in France until the tenth century, in Germany until the 11th century, and in England until the 12th century, and remained similar to the slavery of the late classical period. In the early Middle Ages some of the serfs were landless house servants, and some worked on the land. During the period of developed feudalism, serfdom was extended to freeholders. There were two forms of serfdom: hereditary personal serfdom and serfdom based on landholdings. Hereditary personal serfdom involved the hereditary personal subordination of a peasant to a particular seignior’s judicial and administrative power, which was exercised to impose personal demands on the peasant, usually head taxes and duties restricting freedom of inheritance (mainmorte), and freedom to marry, as well as an arbitrary taille. Because of the hereditary, personal character of these exactions, the serfs, regardless of their dwelling place, had to make payments over and above the levies for landholdings. If a serf continued to pay the personal levies and respect the judicial and administrative authority of his hereditary seignior, he could move to another manor.

With the so-called liberation of the peasants between the 12th and 14th centuries, many serfs tried to do away with their hereditary, personal dependence. In a number of Western European countries, however, a new form of serfdom, based on landholding, originated at this time. It was imposed on peasants for the period of time that they owned special “servile” lands. In return for the use of these lands, the holder had to meet almost all the obligations demanded of the serfs, with one difference: the holder of servile land could obtain his freedom by relinquishing the land.

A manifestation of the feudal reaction, the new type of serfdom mostly affected small-scale peasant landholders forced by the shortage of land to accept the very harsh conditions attached to servile holdings. The disappearance of land-based serfdom in the 15th century was accelerated by the dramatic growth of commodity-money relations. The mass popular uprisings in many Western European countries from the second half of the 14th century through the 15th dealt a powerful blow to serfdom. From the 16th through 18th centuries serfdom survived only in isolated backward regions.


Bessmertnyi, Iu. L. “Severo-frantsuzskii servazh.” In the collection Srednie veka, vol. 33. Moscow, 1971.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
References in periodicals archive ?
Villien notes that the issue may have been "antecedent impotence" on the wife's part, in which case "the text does not pose any difficulty." (35)
Villien points out that various councils, including Chalon (813), made pronouncements against these penitentials precisely because they did not uphold marital indissolubility.
Other types of land were controlled by freeholders who paid rent to the lord, and by the villiens who provided labor to the lords.