An unfree medieval peasant under the control of the lord whose lands he worked. As villeins or servants of a lord they represented the bottom tier of society. They were attached to the land and denied freedom of movement, freedom to marry without permission of their lord, and were obliged to work on their lord's fields, to contribute a proportion of their own produce, to surrender part of their land at death, and to submit to the justice and penalties administered by their lord in the manorial court in the case of wrongdoing. The lord had obligations to his serfs (unlike slaves), most notably to provide military protection and justice.
Serfdom originated in the 8th and 9th centuries in western Europe and subsequently became hereditary. In much of western Europe the system was undermined in the 14th century by the Black Death and starvation resulting from war, which led to acute labour shortages. Commutation of their labour for cash meant that the lord became a rentier and the serf a tenant; in the Peasants' Revolt in England (1381) the main demand was for the abolition of serfdom and the substitution of rent at 4 pence an acre for services. However, in the eastern regions of Germany and Muscovy, the increased power of the nobility led to consolidation of serfdom. It was formally abolished in France in 1789, but lingered in Austria and Hungary till 1848, and was abolished in Russia only in 1861.
Subjects: World History.