Sociology Index


Serf refers to an unfree social status associated with agrarian economies dominated by feudalism. The serfs had a feudal contract much in the same fashion as a baron or a knight. A serf's feudal contract was that, in return for protection, he would reside upon and work a parcel of land held by his Lord. Serfdom evolved from agricultural slavery of late Roman Empire and spread through Europe around the 10th century. A serf "paid" his fees and taxes in the form of seasonally appropriate labor, usually a couple of days a week plowing his lord's fields. He was allowed time tend to his own fields, crops and animals. Serfdom flourished in Europe from the Middle Ages till the 19th century.

Serfs were laborers bound to the land and to service to a landlord but differing from slaves and slavery in that they possessed security of the person, the right to personal property and customary rights to use land and other resources. Though a serf had to live with the fact that his work for his lord coincided and took precedence over the work he had to perform on his own lands.

The term "serfdom" was coined in 1850. Serfdom has occurred in many world societies including England, France, Russia, China and Japan. While serfdom was first extinguished in England in the 16th century it persisted in Russia until the general emancipation ordered by Tsar Alexander II in 1861. In Finland, Norway and Sweden feudalism was not established and therefore serfdom never existed in these countries.

A modified form of serfdom, based on indentured or bonded labour, is still widespread in world societies. The restraints of serfdom on personal and economic choice were enforced through various forms of manorial common law and the manorial administration and court.

Serfdom's Legacy: An Ethnic Continuum - Carmi Schooler.
Abstract: The effects of ethnicity appear to occur along a historically determined continuum which reflects the social, legal, economic, and occupational conditions of the European countries from which American ethnic groups emigrated.

Ethnic groups with a recent history of serfdom show the intellectual inflexibility, authoritarianism, and pragmatic legalistic morality previously found characteristic of American men working under occupational conditions limiting the individual's opportunity for self-direction.

Although it is impossible to confirm each link in the causal chain, a model emphasizing the effects on ethnic groups' culture of historial conditions restricting the individual's autonomy seems a probable and parsimonious explanation of contemporary ethnic differences.