Did the Catholic Church ever own serfs?

I know the investiture controversy and a lot of other Church-state political struggles in the Middle Ages were rooted in the fact that the Church was Europe’s biggest non-state landlord – every parish and diocese and abbey had its estate; and the kings wanted all lands within their kingdoms under their own rule, not Rome’s, and so on. Of course, the reason for owning land, and the source of the political power of landownership, was food production – meaning someone had to work it, and I don’t think there can ever have been enough monks to do it all. There must have been resident peasants on Church lands, just like everywhere else – but of what status? Were they serfs of the Church?

The Church most certainly didn’t own serfs, but only because it’s not possible to own serfs. Serfs, by definition, were peasants bonded to the land, not to the land owner, and could not be bought and sold as slaves were. If a feudal owner transferred his land, the serfs went along with it.

That said, it’s certainly conceivable that higher-ranking clergy within the Church, chief among them the pope, could have had serfs working on their own lands. The popes were powerful land owners and temporal monarchs in their own right for several centuries, administering the Papal States.

Nonsense. Who owns the land owns the serf.

Just there? Like I said, the Church had vast landholdings in every Catholic country. Rich people often willed their estates to the Church in hopes of earning salvation points, and as the Church (so I’ve read) had a policy against ever selling or alienating its land, it just grew bigger and bigger as a landlord.

The Catholic church levied its own taxes on the local peasantry, even on land it did not own. In France, this was called the “dîme”, bastard Latin for “one tenth” (I believe “tithe” has the same root). As in, you give one tenth of whatever you produced this year to the local priest. It could be paid either in cash, or in nature (poultry, grain, sausages etc…), or you could opt to work for the monks part-time instead.

All serfs were also required to donate some of their time for chores as dictated by the local lord. Most of these chores took the form of community work (like digging moats for the castle, or building the village’s granaries, etc…) but if the lord wanted to get in the graces of the local abbot he could absolutely tell his peasants to toil the monastery’s fields free of charge.

I have no expertise on the Middle Ages, but i can tell you that, at my Catholic high school, one of my history teachers was a priest who had done his doctoral dissertation on slaves owned by the Jesuit order in Maryland in the 18th and 17th centuries.

As someone has already noted, the question would less likely stray into the weeds if you had said slaves, instead of serfs.

And the Bible condones slavery, so why not?

In that case, why are you bothering to make any distinction between serfs and slaves, or for that matter between those two and employees?

The Catholic Church didn’t just control the land where churches were on, but actually ruled territory. This included the Papal States in central Italy and Bishoprics located throughout Europe. In these Bishropics, the Prince-Bishop ruled much like a duke or a lord.

Many monasteries also controlled large tracks of land to help support the monastery itself. These lands had serfs that grew the food and wool that supplied the monastery.

The Church definitely controlled land that had serfs bound to it.

That’s not a useful approach to any question involving serfdom, or the entire feudal system for that matter. The feudal system was based and focussed on land. The source of a feudal lord’s power was the land he controlled, not any sort of property over other people as in slavery. In fact, property in that sense - a right in rem over an asset which can be freely transferred - is a concept that is central to our modern way of thinking, but it was of secondary importance to medieval feudal societies, so thinking in these terms for the Middle Ages is an anachronism. Of course eventually the feudal lord who controls land controls the serfs on it, but that approach is already an attempt to explain a phenomenon by reference to a way of thinking that’s alien to the time you consider. Medieval observers would not have thought of a feudal lord as owning the serfs on it; they would not even have thought of the feudal lord owning the land, since the Roman concept of property (dominium) was applied to chattel but not to land - a feudal title was, and in the strict legal terminology of the law of England still is to this day, not the same thing as “property”. A medieval observer would have regarded the feudal overlord of having powers over the land he controlled that included, e.g., jurisdiction over the tenants and the power to tax them, and the tenants were simply attached to the land. If you cover up these differences between property and feudal titles or between slavery and serfdom, you won’t get meaningful answers to your question.

Whomever owns the factory owns the workers? No.

The serfs were bound to the land, but they had different rights than slaves, and the owners or stewards of the land had differen duties and rights toward them. Serfs were not property.

Rules may have been different in Russia, but there was a famous painting by Shevchenko showing one Russian aristocrat trading his serfs for some hunting dogs.

And in Gogol’s great story “Dead Souls,” a con artist was going around buying ownership rights to serfs who just happpened to be dead.

So, even if Russian serfs were technically tied to the land and not technically property of their local landowner, in reality it appears they WERE bought, sold and traded regularly as if they were plain old slaves.

Was it truly wholly different in Western Europe?

An important difference between slavery and feudal serfdom lies in the fact that serfdom is not just one person’s right over another person; it’s a relationship of mutual obligations. In classical feudalism, the tenant was bound to the land in the sense that he could not freely leave, subject to the lord’s jurisdiction, and bound to pay taxes (often in the form of labour) to the lord (the jus primae noctis, by the way, is a modern myth and was not actually part of the lord’s powers - whereas in full slavery, there was nothing to prevent a slave owner from forcing a slave to have sex with him). On the other hand, the tenant was entitled to work the lord’s land for his own sustenance and to protection by the lord. He could also have property on his own.

Of course, the degrees to which land owners actually lived up to these duties varied, and no doubt many of them exploited their serfs in a manner very close to slavery. But conceptually and legally, serfdom and slavery were very distinct.

The legend of Comte Arnau states that he would hunt his serfs and freemen, and that after anybody who could had escaped his lands, he’d hunt travelers: that doesn’t mean it was normal for a landowner to do so; it’s specifically pointed out as a way to say what a horrible lord he was and why would not only the men in his lands (whether freemen or serfs) leave, but other lords welcome these men in.

The history of Russian serfdom does seem rather different. Lots of interesting details here, of course. For one thing, the status of Russian serfs was getting worse as the institution was being phased out in Western Europe.

The Catholic Encyclopedia speaks to early medieval serfdom on Church lands here. It leaves no doubt, if anyone had any, that Church princes did administer, and reap the produce of, serf labor. But they manage to put a pretty good spin on it.

“Buying”? Not “selling”? How did he figure to make any money out of that?

We’re talking about something that existed for a thousand years and was spread across a continent, exact practices and laws no doubt varied a lot, if you want accurate details you’re going to have to specify a time and a place.

Yes, buying. The protagnist spent the first part of the novel going around to Russian landowners, charming them, and then asking to buy up all their dead serfs (who still showed up as alive on all the government’s census records) for a pittance. Before long, he had legal, valid documentation showing that he “owned” thousands of serfs.

Gogol became something of a religious fanatic and destroyed much of what he’d written BEFORE he finished the second half of the novel. So, I’m not at all sure how the con man was planning to profit from all the dead souls he’d purchased. I’m not even sure if Gogol himself had that part worked out.

Back to my earlier hijack- the Jesuit order of Catholic priests apparent owned 300+ slaves, mostly in Maryland, and continued to do so until the 1850s.

There are some indications that they held slaves in South America even later than that.

I haven’t read the novel, but the Wikipedia plot summary of it seems to imply, or maybe that’s just my interpretation of it, that the idea was to borrow large amounts of money against these non-existent serfs as a security.