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Serfs in Medieval European Society : England and France

Korean Minjok Leadership Academy
International Program
Yang, Eun Sung
Term Paper, AP European History Class, July 2008

Table of Contents
I. Introduction
II. Definition of Serfdom
II.1 General Definition
II.2 Differentiating "Serfs" and "Slaves"
II.3 Differentiating "Serfs" and "Freemen"
III. Life of a Serf in Medieval Society
III.1 Duties
III.2 Benefits
IV. Peasant Revolts in 14th Century England and France
IV.1 France : the Jacquerie of 1358
IV.2 England : Peasants' Revolt of 1381
V. Conclusion

I. Introduction
            The feudal medieval society consisted of three orders: those who pray, those who fight, and those who work. Serfs belonged to the last category (1). This paper covers the definition of serfdom, the lives they led in the medieval societies, along with their struggles in society to escape from exploitation.

II. Definition of Serfdom

II.1 General Definition
            A serf is an unfree peasant, similar but superior to slavery, associated with feudalism in medieval European societies. Originating in the 8th and 9th centuries in Western Europe, serfdom was a hereditary system that tied tenants and their heirs to landlord masters for a lifetime (2). A serf was adscriptus glebae (Lat: registered with the field) to the land of an estate or manor; his lord was the owner of the land. A serf performed menial service to the lord, mostly in the form of labor and tax dues (3). Serfs were denied the freedom of movement or the freedom to marry without permission of their lord. In return for the work that serfs did for them, the lords provided military protection and justice. The system was destabilized by the Black Death and starvation that came as a result of war, both causing labor shortages (4).

II.2 Differentiating "Serfs" and "Slaves"
            Because serfs can be located between freemen and slaves, it is crucial to understand the difference between serfs and slaves. First, the terms should be separated. The word "serf," in fact, originates from the Latin word "servus," which means "slave." In Late Antiquity and most of the Middle Ages, serfs were called by the Latin name "coloni." The term only came to change into its modern form as slavery slowly disappeared and slaves were given almost an identical social status to serfs (5).
            An essential feature differentiating serfs from slaves was the reference to a plot of land, which means that serfs, unlike slaves, were bound to his designated plot of land and could be transferred along with that land to a new lord. A vast majority of serfs in medieval Europe sustained their lives by cultivating a plot of land that was owned by a lord. As a serf was more of a part of the land than the lord¡¯s property (for instance, slaves), the lords had no obligation to sustain his life; a serf provided his own food and clothing from his own productive efforts (6).

II.3 Differentiating "Serfs" and "Freemen"
            After understanding the difference between serfs and slaves, the next step to take is to understand the difference between serfs and freemen. An essential symbol of serfdom was the lack of many individual freedom enjoyed by the freemen. One of the major freedoms that serfs were unable to enjoy was the freedom of movement: he could make no permanent moves out of his village and allotted plot of land without the permission of his lord. In addition to the lack of freedom of movement, a serf was restricted in marriage, vocational change, and even simple property disposal; all of these activities required the permission of the lord (7). In case of marriage, the lords often called for ius prim©¡ noctis, the first night, as droit de seigneur, the lord's right, requesting the virginity of the bride on the first night of marriage (8).

III. Life of a Serf in Medieval Society

III.1 Duties
            A serf's duties can be divided into labor and taxes. This section will elaborate on the duties serfs had in medieval English and French society.
            For a portion of the week, a serf was obligated to perform various tasks for his lord. In his book Montaillou, Le Roy Ladurie states that they were "entrusted with every kind of task. He could be postman as well as baker." (9) The major duty was to plow his lord's fields (demesne), but he also had to harvest crops, dig ditches, repair fences, and often work in the manor house. The demesne included fields, as well as forest produce and fish from the streams. Everything in the land belonged to the lord, and it was the duty of a serf to take care of almost all of them. The rest of week, a serf would spend on individual produce in order to provide for his family.
            The greatest hardship serfs faced was that they always had to put their duties over their personal interests. This was especially evident in the harvest season, when the lord's as well as the serfs' crops were ready to be harvested. In harvest seasons, all the family members of a serf were mandated to work on the lord's field. After the harvest season, as a reward for the hard work done, the serf was given certain privileges. They were given access to the deadwood from the lord's forests and the manor's mills and ovens - which were called banalities in France during this time.
            After the physical service had been done, a serf had to pay taxes and fees. Taxes, similar to the modern system, were based on an assessment of the value of the plot of land that he was assigned as well as his personal property. Serfs usually made their payments in the form of foodstuff. The best produce from the serf's harvest was always given to the lord. Serfs were also required to pay taxes on special occasions: they owed an extra dozen eggs on Easter Sunday and a goose on Christmas; in case of the death of a family member, extra taxes had to be paid for the lost labor supply; and marriage between different manors also required extra taxes as labor was being transferred to another lord, and therefore, lost. There were also arbitrary tests to judge the value of the tax that had been paid. For instance, a chicken had to be able to jump over a fence of a given height to be adequate for tax payment.
            These duties, along with other restraints of serfdom, were enforced through various forms of manorial common law and the manorial administration and court (10).

III.2 Benefits
            There were many restrictions, but serfs also enjoyed certain freedom: property. Unlike the common belief that a serf had nothing to call his own, serfs were in fact allowed to accumulate personal property and wealth through the individual produce. In exceptional cases, some serfs even became wealthier than the freemen - wealthy enough to buy even his freedom. Serfs were given the freedom to choose what to grow on their land and sell the surplus. This personal property was handed down to their heirs as an inheritance. There were also measures?though rather poor - to ensure the protection of serfs from their lords: a lord could not unreasonably dispossess his serfs. A lord was actually required to protect his serfs from crime or other lords. In famine, charity to support the serfs was expected and natural (11).

IV. Peasant Revolts in 14th Century England and France
            The system of serfdom was generally similar in France and England, but there were differences as well. These differences become evident with the revolts that took place first in France, and 25 years later in England - both of which took place during the Hundred Years War (1337-1453).

IV.1 France : The Jacquerie of 1358
            The Jacquerie, which took place from May to June in 1358, was a short-lived rebellion of French peasants in northeastern France. The revolt was named after "Jacques Bonhomme," the nickname for peasants given by the French aristocrats (12). Though it is usually considered a forerunner of the Peasants' Revolt, which will be explained in the next section, it is also considered worse in every way in comparison to the English version. The peasants in France were in a worse condition than those in England. If the English peasants were protected to some extent by custom and law, the French peasant was little better than a slave.
            To make situations worse, King John II the Good was captured by the English, bringing discredit to the French aristocracy (13). French peasants were taxed mercilessly for a quarter of a century, an aristocratic effort to secure their own rights; preyed on and looted by roving bands of unemployed mercenaries, the Free Companies or the "Great Companies"; and stricken by a dramatic increase of labor duties as fellow peasants died from Black Death. They were not offered the lordly protection that was their rightful share, but were constantly required to pay even more tax to raise ransoms for the irresponsible lord who has been held hostage. All these factors accumulated into a violent protest of the rural population against "both royal taxation and the exactions of nobility which had proved itself incapable of protecting its dependants against marauding bands of soldiers (14)."
            In comparison to the Peasants' Revolt in England, the Jacquerie is considered a rather aimless uproar. Bands of enraged peasants shed blood over northern France, setting fire on every manor and brutally killing every lord and lady that they met. In his chronicles, Froissart mentions that ladies who fell into the peasant's hands were even forced to eat the flesh of knights after they had seen him being roasted in fire. The revolt is considered to be mostly of savagery; it produced no notable leaders except for Guillame Cale, the only one mentioned in the Chronicles of Froissart (15), (16).
            The revolt resulted in a rather sad ending for the peasants. The savage revolt only led to uniting the nobles under a common cause. French nobles, led by Charles the Bad of Navarre, suppressed the revolt, cutting down and hanging all the responsible peasants. Charles of Navarre seizes Guillaume Cale, the rebel leader, by fooling him through an invitation for truce talks on June 10, 1358, in the middle of the Battle of Mello (17). The leaderless peasant army was easily defeated, and the battle was followed by a massacre of the insurgents throughout the Beauvais region (18).

IV.2 England : the Peasants¡¯ Revolt of 1381
            Peasants¡¯ Revolt, also known as Wat Tyler's Rebellion or the Great Rising, was the first major social uprising in English history. It took place in 1381, the major causes of the revolt being King Richard II and the poll tax of 1379 along with the Statute of Laborers (1351).
            King Richard II rose to his throne when he was 14-years-old. This made it possible for corrupt officials such as John of Gaunt, Simon Sudbury, and Sir Robert Hales to be in charge of administrating the nation. Among these three figures, Simon Sudbury, the Archbishop of Canterbury, was a symbol of the corrupt Church at the time and Sir Robert Hales was the Lord Treasurer, responsible for the poll tax (19). With these corrupt figures leading the nation, English peasants began to doubt the governmental policies. The poll tax of 1379 was a tax that required the same amount of payment from everyone to finance the military campaigns. This tax became a huge financial burden to the English peasants and created economic discontent. When the nobility requested for additional taxes, doubts were raised to where the tax was being used. It was widely believed that "the proceeds were being wasted or embezzled by rapacious courtiers (20)." Biblical authority was also given to the peasants as they finally decided to seek an answer to the question, "When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the Gentleman (21) ?"
            The enforcement of Statute of Laborers was a longer-term factor. After the Black Death, there was a drastic decrease in the labor force, and the few survivors were left to do all of the work on the English manors. These people began to ask for higher wages and fewer hours of work; some asked for their freedom. These demands were often granted as the labor supply was low and the demand was high. In 1351, however, King Edward III made the Statute of Laborers, which made sure that the manor lords paid laborers no more than before the Black Death. This greatly enraged the English peasants (22).
            A major difference between the Peasants¡¯ Revolt and the Jacquerie was that English peasants were carried arms and knew well how to use sword, axe, and longbow. Lords and landowners were unable to suppress the peasant army led by John Ball, Wat Tyler and Jack Straw, which marched onto the capital, London, and massacred some Flemish merchants, razed the palace of the king¡¯s uncle, and seized the Tower of London. This forced the government into negotiation: the young King himself came to meet the English peasants at Mile End. In accordance to the peasants¡¯ demands, King Richard II promised cheap land, free trade, and, most importantly, the abolition of serfdom. Both Simon Sudbury and Sir Robert Hales, the corrupted, were beheaded, and finally the English peasants were satisfied (23). However, unfortunately, the king had no intent in fulfilling the promise.
            Believing the promises would be kept, parts of the peasant army disintegrated; others remained under Wat Tyler for further negotiations to take place. However, after Wat Tyler is killed by Lord Mayor, William Walworth, in a quarrel, the King's captains such as the old mercenary Sir Robert Knollys led knights and sergeants to fight against the rebels, killing and hanging the peasants involved. The revolt was fully suppressed by the autumn of 1381 with King Richard II stating, "Villeins ye are and villeins ye remain" (24).
            The Peasants' Revolt lasted for less than a month and failed completely as a social revolution, as serfdom was not abolished then but many decades later. However, the rebellion succeeded as a "protest against the taxation of poorer classes insofar as it prevented further levying of the poll tax (25)." This is why the revolt is often regarded as the beginning of the abolition of serfdom in England (26).

V Conclusion
            The French and English systems of serfdom were similar in its fundamental characteristics. However, they also had their differences: though the promises made and the duties held between serfs and their lords were the same in both nations, the French nobles had not kept their promise, which led to a lower living standard of French serfs and peasants in comparison to England.
            With the differences, English serfdom was obsolete by the 16th century with the English lords' efforts to cut down their production costs. The system remained nominally, but most lords freed serfs due to the high costs incorporated with protecting and providing for the serfs. In France, the nobles did not want to let go of their serfs, most possibly due to the fact that the French nobles rarely kept their promise and had no need to pay high costs. Regardless of the early protests in the 14th century, the French emancipated serfdom only on November 3, 1789 - over 400 years after the Jacquerie (27).
            This paper dealt with the definition and social status of serfs in medieval societies, the lives they led, and serf revolts in the two nations of France and England. History always consists of the oppressed and the oppressing. Serfs in medieval societies could be considered the oppressed; the lords, the oppressing. History, however, also takes the form of a cycle where the oppressed and the oppressing switch positions: the oppression seemed to have worked as the fuel for peasant revolts, and consequently, the social revolutions that framed modern democracy.


(1)      Kreis, 2006.
(2)      Article: Serfdom, from A Dictionary of Sociology
(3)      Article: Serfdom or Villeinage, from The Companion to British History
(4)      Article: Serf, from Encyclopedia of World History
(5)      Article: Serfdom, from Wikipedia
(6)      Article: Serfdom, from Britannica, Micropedia Vol.10
(7)      ibid.
(8)      Article: Droit de Seigneur, from Wikipedia
(9)      Le Roy Ladurie, 1978
(10)      Article: Serfdom, from Wikipedia
(11)      ibid.
(12)      Article: Jacquerie, from Encyclopedia of World History
(13)      Article: Jacquerie, from Britannica, Micropedia Vol.6
(14)      Price, 1993
(15)      Neillands, 1991
(16)      Froissart, 1999
(17)      Article: Jacqurie, from Wikipedia
(18)      Article: Jacquerie, from Britannica, Micropedia Vol.6
(19)      Article: Peasants' Revolt, from Wikipedia
(20)      Article: Peasants' Revolt (1381), from The Companion to British History
(21)      Neillands, 1991
(22)      Article: Peasants' Revolt, from Wikipedia
(23)      Article: Peasants' Revolt from Britannica, Micropedia Vol.9
(24)      Neillands, 1991
(25)      Article: Peasants' Revolt from Britannica, Micropedia Vol.9
(26)      Article: Peasants' Revolt, from Wikipedia
(27)      Article: Serfdom, from Wikipedia


Note : websites quoted below were visited at the end of June 2008.
1.      Article: Serfdom, from Marshall, Gordon. A Dictionary of Sociology. 2nd ed. 1998
2.      Article: Serf, from Encyclopedia of World History. 1998
3.      Article: Serfdom or Villeinage, from Arnold-Baker, Charles. The Companion to British History. 2nd ed. 1996.
4.      Article: Peasants' Revolt (1381), from Arnold-Baker, Charles. The Companion to British History. 2nd ed. 1996.
5.      Article: Jacquerie, from Britannica, Micropedia Vol.6. 15th ed.
6.      Article: Peasants' Revolt, from Britannica, Micropedia Vol.9. 15th ed.
7.      Article: Serfdom, from Britannica, Micropedia Vol.10. 15th ed.
8.      Article: Droit de Seigneur, from Wikipedia. .
9.      Article: Jacquerie, from Wikipedia.
10.      Article: Peasants' Revolt, from Wikipedia.
11.      Article: Serfdom, from Wikipedia. .
12.      Froissart, Jean. "The Chronicles of Froissart." Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library. 1999. University of Virginia Library. .
13.      Kreis, Steven. "Lecture 23: Medieval Society: The Three Orders." The History Guide: Lectures on Ancient and Medieval European History. 10 May 2006.
14.      Le Roy Ladurie, Emmanuel. Montaillou: the promised land of error. New York, United States: George Braziller 1978
15.      Neillands, Robin. The Hundred Years War. Routledge, 1991
16.      Price, Roger. A Concise History of France. Cambridge University Press. 1993

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