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under feudalismfeudalism
, form of political and social organization typical of Western Europe from the dissolution of Charlemagne's empire to the rise of the absolute monarchies. The term feudalism is derived from the Latin feodum,
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, peasant laborer who can be generally characterized as hereditarily attached to the manor in a state of semibondage, performing the servile duties of the lord (see also manorial systemmanorial system
or seignorial system
, economic and social system of medieval Europe under which peasants' land tenure and production were regulated, and local justice and taxation were administered.
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). Although serfs were usually bound to the land, many exceptions are found in the medieval economy of Western Europe, and, serfdom, as an institution, assumed a number of different forms in Western Europe and Eastern Europe. Serfdom also appeared with feudalism in China, Japan, India, pre-Columbian Mexico, and elsewhere.

Serfdom is distinguished from slavery chiefly by the body of rights the serfs held by a custom generally recognized as inviolable, by the strict arrangement that made the peasants servile in a group rather than individually, and by the fact that they could usually pass the right to work their land on to a son. In Western Europe during the Middle Ages the status of manorial peasants was regulated by local custom, and a wide diversity of names was applied to the various types of tenancy, which extended from the completely servile tenant to the freeholder who paid only a form of rent. Many serfs were theoretically subject to labor service at the will of the lord and in many cases the lord had the right to arrange the marriage of his serfs, but all such matters came to be governed by set customs. In legal theory the serf's holding was granted at the will of the lord, but in practice the right to hold came to be hereditary.

Serfdom sometimes arose from the conquest of a people by victors who did not reduce the natives to slavery but only depressed them to tributaries; these tributaries held their lands as of old, but paid dues (especially labor dues) to the conquerors. Thus serfdom was established in some Aegean regions by Greek conquests. More generally it may be said that serfdom arose only under a local agricultural economy, connected with a political system based on personal contract—some form of feudalism.

See also slaveryslavery,
historicially, an institution based on a relationship of dominance and submission, whereby one person owns another and can exact from that person labor or other services.
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; peonagepeonage
, system of involuntary servitude based on the indebtedness of the laborer (the peon) to his creditor. It was prevalent in Spanish America, especially in Mexico, Guatemala, Ecuador, and Peru.
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Serfdom was known in the Hellenistic civilization, and in the Roman Empire economic maladjustment led to the appearance of the servile class, the coloni. In the Middle Ages, serfdom developed in France, Italy, and Spain, later spread to Germany, and in the 15th cent. was carried to Slavic countries. It developed separately in England (where serfs were more commonly referred to as villeinsvillein
[O.Fr.,=village dweller], peasant under the manorial system of medieval Western Europe. The term applies especially to serfs in England, where by the 13th cent. the entire unfree peasant population came to be called villein.
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), and became widespread by the end of the 10th cent. While the majority of peasants were serfs during the Middle Ages, free peasants continued to exist and in some regions whole villages did not come under the rule of a lord. In Western Europe the breakdown of the manorial system allowed peasants to obtain more freedom in the 14th and 15th cent.

Serfdom disappeared in England before the end of the Middle Ages. In the Hapsburg monarchy, it was ended (1781) by Emperor Joseph IIJoseph II,
1741–90, Holy Roman emperor (1765–90), king of Bohemia and Hungary (1780–90), son of Maria Theresa and Holy Roman Emperor Francis I, whom he succeeded. He was the first emperor of the house of Hapsburg-Lorraine (see Hapsburg).
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, but feudal labor service (robot) continued in some provinces until 1848. In France, where it survived in outlying provinces, serfdom was swept away by the French Revolution. The repercussions of the Napoleonic Wars helped to destroy it elsewhere, the most notable example being the reforms of Karl vom und zum SteinStein, Karl, Freiherr vom und zum
, 1757–1831, Prussian statesman and reformer. Rising through the Prussian bureaucracy, he became minister of commerce (1804–7) but was dismissed by King Frederick William III for his attempts to increase the power of the heads of the
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 in Prussia. In Russia and the other Slavic countries serfdom took different forms and persisted in some cases as late as the 19th cent.

In Russia serfdom originated during the 16th cent. when Ivan IV created a new landholding aristocracy, the pomiestchiks, whose tenure was based on service to the czar. Beginning in 1581, laws were passed inhibiting the free movement of the peasant tenants of the pomiestchiks; however, at this time the peasants still retained their civil rights. In the reign of Peter I the peasants were definitely bound to the landowner rather than to the land; their condition became virtual slavery. There were also real slaves in the Muscovite state, and in the 18th cent. all real distinction between slaves and serfs was abolished. As can be seen, the institution was more akin to slavery in the United States than to serfdom under feudalism.

Serfdom reached its peak in the late 18th cent. under Catherine II but was somewhat limited by reforms under Alexander I and Nicholas I. It was regarded by the majority of Russians as the major defect in the Russian state and as contrary to the interests of the rising industrial class and of the great landowners. It was the small landowners who risked losing everything if serfdom were abolished, and it was that class that most stubbornly resisted reform. The serfs were freed only in 1861 by Alexander II (see Emancipation, Edict ofEmancipation, Edict of,
1861, the mechanism by which Czar Alexander II freed all Russian serfs (one third of the total population). All personal serfdom was abolished, and the peasants were to receive land from the landlords and pay them for it.
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See M. Bloch, Feudal Society (2 vol., 1961); J. Blum, Lord and Peasant in Russia From the Ninth to the Nineteenth Century (1961); R. H. Hilton, Decline of Serfdom in Medieval England (1969); G. A. J. Hodgett, A Social and Economic History of Medieval Europe (1972).


(esp in medieval Europe) an unfree person, esp one bound to the land. If his lord sold the land, the serf was passed on to the new landlord
References in classic literature ?
Nay, I can tell you more,'' said Wamba, in the same tone; ``there is old Alderman Ox continues to hold his Saxon epithet, while he is under the charge of serfs and bondsmen such as thou, but becomes Beef, a fiery French gallant, when he arrives before the worshipful jaws that are destined to consume him.
The serf, in the period of serfdom, raised himself to membership in the commune, just as the petty bourgeois, under the yoke of feudal absolutism, managed to develop into a bourgeois.
In the good old days, this man, whom we will call P--, owned four thousand souls as serfs (souls as serfs
Here birth caused no distinctions; the escaped serf, with the gall marks of his brass collar still visible about his neck, rode shoulder to shoulder with the outlawed scion of a noble house.
I give not the pip of an apple for king or for noble," cried the serf passionately.
Still bound, most of them, to the soil, as serfs of the land or tenants with definite and heavy obligations of service, living in dark and filthy hovels under indescribably unhealthy conditions, earning a wretched subsistence by ceaseless labor, and almost altogether at the mercy of masters who regarded them as scarcely better than beasts, their lot was indeed pitiable.
Then, I said, we shall have to obliterate many obnoxious passages, beginning with the verses, I would rather he a serf on the land of a poor and portionless man than rule over all the dead who have come to nought.
And during all these years how much nearer have the serf and the aristocrat come together?
But I will tell you what: my mother's grandfather was a peasant-- a serf.
His health being drunk with acclamations, he was not so baronial after all but that in trying to return thanks he broke down, in the manner of a mere serf with a heart in his breast, and wept before them all.
Aniska was a dressmaker in the country, one of our former serf girls who had been trained in Moscow, a pretty wench.
What are the sinews and souls of Russian serfs and Republican slaves but Fast-Fish, whereof possession is the whole of the law?