Feudalism: Serfs being bound to land - how was this enforced?

This is inspired by a recent thread involving the transition from feudalism to industrial republics.

It is commonly accepted that, under many feudal systems, serfs were “bound to the land”. How was this enforced in real life? For example, if it was the year 1250 in England and a serf bound to land in the West Country “runs away” and attempts to settle in London, has he committed a criminal offense for which he can be arrested (e.g. “Escape from serfdom in the first degree, misdemeanor”)? Can his master use a lawsuit or other type of legal process to force the serf to return (e.g. “It is the judgment of this court that the defendant is a serf bound to Baron Jones’ land and shall return at once or be held in contempt of this court.”)? Can the master just up and “kidnap” the serf off the street like a slave?

I was under the impression that it worked the other way - a new owner of the land in question could not evict the serfs. I thought the serfs could abandon the land if they chose (and were free to choose to starve to death in consequence).
Stadtluft macht frei would not be a principle if landowners could drag unwiling serfs back.

(I welcome corrections and clarifications to my impression and faulty memory.)

IANAH (but I read a lot :))

It is my impression that:

Yes, he has committed a criminal offence
A lawsuit, as such, was probably unlikely. I’m not sure if the law was quite developed enough for there to be a procedure for this.
Baron Jones hunting down the serf and kidnapping him back was very likely, and probably the expected outcome.
There was, however, an “out” clause - or maybe we could say a statute of limitations. If you (the serf) made it to a town (defined as “somewhere with a proper town charter”) and managed to live there over a year without being dragged back, you were now officially free. As a matter of practicality, however, it would probably be wise to still stay away from Baron Jones’ land, and within reach of some of your fellow townsfolk who could verify the length of your residence.

Cultural norms plus the lack of transport I suppose. If you left the village where you were born, where would you go? The whole world seemed to be just about the same, poor, stagnant and unwelcoming to outsiders. Only when America opened up did the working class gain a means to escape.

IAN anything, but my impression is that it really wasn’t a problem.

It simply wouldn’t occur to someone brought up in that system that there was any other way it should be. The notion that they could be free, or leave just wasn’t present. I doubt the Baron really cared either, and if Fred just wasn’t there one day, he could really care less.

Which is exactly why Spain got whole swaths of land which got populated by the method of declaring them Villas Francas (free villages), because it was all Doom and Gloom and all of the world was the same… or why conditions were very different in Freiburgs (free towns) and in villages under personal domain… or…

Seriously, people: long-time posters who still think that all of Europe, during all of the Middle Ages, was made in the same exact mold?

Not every domain had the same laws, and people knew it, and yes, many did vote with their feet. It was easier to do where doing it wasn’t illegal, of course, or where the border was close.
And a lord could not kidnap his serf any more than a custodian parent can kidnap his child: the term does not apply.

If that was true, there wouldn’t have been serf rebellions, or freed serfs for that matter.

Yes, it does regardless of the lord’s or the law’s opinion on the matter. Just as kidnapping people for slavery was still kidnapping regardless of its legality.

I also was considering social pressure and how it could serve as a means of enforcement.

But, say, suppose there was a dispute between John the farm laborer and Baron William Jones III. John works in Baron Jones’ field. John claims he is a free laborer and entitled to quit and go work for Earl Cornelius Fitzgerald (perhaps Earl Fitzgerald pays more, maybe the Fitzgerald estate is closer to John’s friends, John likes the view better, John enjoys working with barley the most but Baron Jones is planing nothing but peas these days, etc.), Baron Jones says, “No, you are a serf and not entitled to leave, get back in my fields.” Was there a court where the matter could be adjudicated, or was it a matter mostly of power politics and who has the nastiest looking sword and the most support in the community?

Earl Fitzgerald probably isn’t paying more, because prices of everything were pretty much fixed (sometimes by royal decree). In fact, after the first couple of rounds of Black Plague (a while after your hypothetical) this was a big social problem - there was a big demand for labour, not enough workers to fill it, and some lords did start offering higher wages - while the rest of their peers were decrying them as class traitors and the King was frantically enacting laws to make it damn well illegal for laborers to demand or be offered anything higher than their “proper” traditional wages.

Anyway. Say John’s free, and - for whatever reason - he wants to work for Earl Fitzgerald, and Earl Fitzgerald is willing to have him. For starters, if he’s really free, then all his neighbors will know this. So if it comes to law, he has witnesses on his side. One big snag however, is that the law on the Jones estate is administered by Baron Jones. In fact, at this point (I think) all law is administered or at least overseen by feudal lords of one sort or another. So to do an end run around Baron Jones’ court, you have to go to his feudal overlord. He will have a feudal overlord - everyone had one. Even kings had one. If your dispute is with the Holy Roman Emperor you’re probably SOL, however.

If you can appeal to the overlord (in person, since you almost certainly can’t read and write) and if he’s willing to hear your case, then that’s one possible avenue, but if Baron Jones is more useful to him than you are then you may not get much luck there either. Probably your best bet is to get to Earl Fitzgerald and ask his protection. If he goes in to bat for you, you’re pretty much okay because an Earl outranks a Baron.

IOW - yes, it’s who has the nastiest looking sword, most of the time.

From Wikipedia:

Villeins were generally relatively well off - the lowest band were actual slaves, and had hardly any rights at all.

In most times and places in the era, the lord was the court. All disputes were brought to him to settle.

It would depend. For instance, following the Black Death, there was a huge shortage of labour, and the Baron would certainly have cared a lot. There has also been nobles offering plots of land, or creating chartered town (rather, chartered villages) ex-nihilo. Those people were obviously coming from somewhere.
Otherwise, as noted previously, being a serf still meant that you had some land to cultivate , a roof above your head and hopefully food on the table (*). There were precious few better alternatives. Fleeing would probably have been a very poor choice in most cases (except of course the kind of situations I mentioned in the previous paragraph).

(*) Nitpick prevention : I know they didn’t use tables at the time.

(bolding mine)

Nitpick : kings didn’t have one, generally speaking. At least in France and England there was the legal theory that “the king is emperor in his kingdom”. Which means that he had no overlord, and the Holy Roman Emperor didn’t have any particular authority outside the HRE. Just a fancy title.

For instance, the king of England had the king of France as overlord for his possessions in France. Because, besides being king, he was also duke of Normandy and Aquitaine. But for his possessions in England, he didn’t have any. Neither the king of France nor the HRE.
Also, some lords were pretty much independant in everything but name. Like the dukes of Britanny or the counts of Flanders. So, even though they did have an overlord, I doubt it would have made much a lot of a difference. At least for a serf. A baron or such might have a better luck because it could create political opportunities for said overlord.

You think they squabbled around on a muddy floor? Sweet jesus, people are people throughout history. Just because someone is a peasant with few available resources for anything, they could and did make or trade for furniture and other household goods.:rolleyes: There was a whole intricate set of laws for what a peasant could and could not do with respect to natural resources such as clay banks, woods, and fish/animals/wild birds. Peasants could and did make pottery, pick p squaw-wood for heating, cooking and craftsmaking purposes, and could depending on the laws at the time fish, trap birds and trap or hunt certain small game. In general large huntable game was reserved to the nobility but that could even vary. Sheep were kept for the wool, and flax and hemp were grown for the fibers which were turned into thread, yarn and cording for various purposes.

You have got to stop watching Monty Python for historical information.

And in Britain frex a younger son could actually leave the household and become a man at arms, or apprentice himself to a craftsnam, or hoik out into the woods and turn to crime. It was only the ‘man of the house’ that had an assigned plot of land that owned courvee service and was effectively in the same condition as an american sharecropper [trade a certain amount of produce and a certain number of days of labor in exchange for the use of a house and land]

Nothing to do with being poor. Wealthy people didn’t have tables, either. The table as a permanent furniture only appears with the Renaissance. Before that, people ate on a plank put on sawhorses, and removed it after the meal.
Next time, look up for historical information before using :rolleyes:

Being a craftman was mostly hereditary. The apprentice was probably one’s son or a fellow craftman’s son. I doubt there were many man at arms positions open, either. The overwhelming majority of the population was tilling the soil.

Nava makes an extremely good point: Europe was not homogenous in cultural customs or laws during the period in which serfdom was practiced (starting around 900 AD and ending around 1850 in Russia…however serf-like conditions date back to the end of the Roman Empire.)

Throughout this period you had genuine chattel slavery and then various different levels of serfdom, with differing treatment for serfs who broke the rules across Europe. In Russia the state of serfs there was essentially synonymous with everything you would think of when you think of the term “slavery”, even to the point that Russian boyars could buy and sell serfs just like true chattel slaves (and they were true chattel slaves.)

For various historical reasons England had serfdom in the least numbers and serfdom ended the earliest, and serfs had greater redress for grievances earlier than in other places. By the 1500s serfdom was virtually unknown in England, only being de jure banned in the late 16th century but it had been de facto extremely rare for the two hundred years following the Black Death. Of course the system that replaced it wasn’t great, it was a form of tenant farming in which you may not have been legally bound to the land but the bands of practicality are just as strong. When farming is your only skill and you live in a society that will let you starve if you don’t have some way to provide for yourself you can expect you’ll be doing a lot of farming, if you aren’t a big land owner you can expect to be a tenant farmer. If you’re a tenant farmer you can expect that the big land owner, even if he doesn’t have legal ownership of you or legal power to prohibit you from leaving, has a lot of control over your life and a lot of advantages in society in any disputes arising between you and him.

In England runaway serfs were rarely pursued or punished because it just wasn’t a big issue in England, England never practice serfdom as much as continental Europe for a variety of historical reasons. In the Eastern and Central parts of Europe things were different. In the Germanic states in the eastern half of the Holy Roman Empire and Austria proper manor courts remained the norm in many places until the 1700s (in Prussia it wasn’t until Frederick the Great that manor courts were substantially reduced in power.) The manor courts were administered by the local noble and thus meant there could be very real punishments for angering the local feudal lord, and little redress for any abuses. Serf catchers were also not uncommon, and men made a trade in that part of Europe hunting down runaways.

This was primarily because Eastern Europe had vast tracts of comparatively sparsely populated land. As serfdom died out in Western Europe, farming became more and more profitable for Eastern European rulers as Western Europe’s population growth started to demand larger grain imports. This increased chance for profit lead to many Eastern and Central European monarchs passing laws which essentially reversed the waning tide of serfdom in those countries and made serfdom more repressive and escaping serfdom more difficult. While not often mentioned, some of this didn’t end until Napoleon rolled through in the 19th century and put an end to it.

Yup, up until the agricultural revolution (an underappreciated revolution just as important as the industrial revolution in many ways) it seems most historians writing about most societies estimate around 80-90% of the population were kept busy providing enough food for themselves and the 10-20% that did everything that wasn’t farming.

For every craftsman, priest, noble, or professional soldier there were vast numbers of farmers.

I recently started a thread about Hilaire’ Belloc’s The Servile State, and it starts with a historical overview from late-Roman times to the modern era. Belloc argues that as the Roman state collapsed, the Roman plantation owners had to restyle themselves as self-sufficient feudal lords. Because they no longer had a central state to support their property rights to their slaves, the land owners had to basically offer the slaves a deal: some minimal rights, in particular guarantees that would offer some security, in exchange for agreeing to stay on the land and work it. In chaotic times this often was not so bad a deal.

Link to a Roman dining table, image painted on a tomb wall just outside Pompeii. Oddly enough they seem to have a word for table.

We do have a break with very minimal extant wooden artifacts for Anglo-Saxon and Viking Britain, however in the kjanesinga saga [iceland] we have

which does seem to mention tables. We have King Arthur’s round table first described in about 1100, and it was a permanent feature of his hall [and then a series of rather interesting forgeries, somewhere I have the tudor forgery picture I snapped years ago which had the wood dated to the late 1200s.] The Winchester Table was originally fixed onto a pedestal but was removed so it could be hung. Seriously ugly piece if you ask me.

<I will mention that the typical reason for furniture being discarded or repurposed to something else or becoming firewood is one of the bugbears for my Mom’s furniture collection. The legs and lower parts tend to get fairly badly damaged between being kicked by the people using the furniture, water damage from washing the floors, spilling stuff onto the floors, rain or snow melt from roofs or windows, or even floods and the furniture going out of style and being discarded. One of the main reasons you rarely find perfect ‘feet’ remaining on much furniture over 150 years old. Frequently people just sort of sawed off the damaged part and shoved it into the servants or kids rooms.>
14th century book of hours, with Alexander at the table busily being poisoned.

Similar vintage romance illustration of King Arthur and his round table.

And a whole page of links of similar vintage - I actually have it for the vessels, but there are illustrations done in period that are showing people at table.

[here is more than most people ever want to know about the Anglo-Saxons in Britain. We do have beds and chairs as they were occasionally used in burials, but tables not =)]

Yes they did… not everybody but yes they did. What was rarer but certainly not unknown was chairs, banks were more common for a long time (and often doubled as storage, if in a private home).

There are some truly lovely Greek, Roman, Goth and medieval tables around Spain (I’m remembering a huge one whose top is a single chestnut plank - definitely not very common, a tree that size), maybe in Parts Further North the assemble and de-assemble approach was more popular. Often, the table used for eating was the same one used for working on, cleaned.

Between that other thread where it was claimed that spoons were a Renaissance invention and this, I’m wondering how long will it take until we get a claim that beds were one too. Or buckles. Buckles will be a good one…