serf, under feudalism, 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 system). 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 slavery; peonage.
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 villeins), 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 II, 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 Stein 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 of).
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).