Serf: Definition, System & Life

Instructor: Christopher Prokes

Chris is an instructional designer and college faculty member. He has a Master's Degree in Education and also umpires baseball.

Serfs were the lowest level on the feudal pyramid in the Middle Ages. This lesson will cover the definition of a serf, their role in the bigger picture, and daily life for those in this position.

Introduction: Context and Definition of a Serf

A serf is a worker bound to a certain piece of land (called a fief) who is loyal to a vassal (lord or noble) above him, usually called a lord. Serfs are tied to the land they work, perform the same menial tasks each day, and receive little or no benefit for their labors. Serfs were part of the feudal system that existed in the European Dark Ages, ca 500-1450 CE.

After the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 CE, Europe was a dark and scary place. Life was unpredictable, attacks from outsiders common, and nothing was certain. In fact, many historians refer to this era as the Dark Ages. Over time, and through the intercessions of leaders, such as William the Conqueror in England, a system of social order developed called feudalism. In this system, people were ranked on a pyramid-shaped hierarchical system, bound to the person above them. Here is a simple visual:

The Feudal Pyramid
Feudal Pyramid

Role of Serfs in the Feudal System

In the feudal system, serfs were at the bottom of the social order. As feudalism follows a hierarchical form, there were more serfs than any other role. Above serfs were peasants, who shared similar responsibilities and reported to the vassal. The main difference between serf and peasant is that peasants were free to move from fief to fief or manor to manor to look for work. Serfs, on the other hand, were like slaves except that they could not be bought or sold.

Above peasants were knights whose job it was to be the police force of the manor. After several years and stages of training, these armor-wearing, sword-carrying protectors of all traveled from manor to manor. They would swear loyalty to the feudal role above them as well as protection, and in return, the lord, the next feudal role, would allow them to live on the manor as well as provide them with food. Lords also dictated what serfs did for the manor.

At the top of the feudal pyramid were monarchs, more commonly known as a king or queen. They over saw everything on the manor and were the undisputed leaders of all. They were given loyalty by the lords/nobles in exchange for the power to control day-to-day aspects of the manor.

Life for Serfs

Serf life was dull, boring, and downright difficult. Clothes were ragged, housing substandard, and food scarce. Each day was spent working hard on the land they were bound to. They did not receive this land for free, though. They had to pay taxes called tallage to the lord. This tax could be actual money or, more commonly, providing services to the lord. An additional aspect of the tallage consisted of giving a part of their sowed crops to the manor.

All this was done in exchange for the ability to work land on the fief. It seems unusual that a serf would have to pay something to work land to which they were bound, yet this system existed for hundreds of years. Such a requirement was a larger part of the system of near-slavery to which they were tied. It contributed to the oppressed nature of serfs in Europe.

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