Tuesday, 25 September 2012


The un-free peasants of Western Europe, the serfs, were the descendents of the dependent peasantry of Carolingian times. Their name was a bequest from the slaves of antiquity
( serf for servus ); never the less they possessed certain rights in law. In addition to the property they held from their lords they might also have a free property of their own, an allod. Their lord owed them protection and patronage, they owed him obedience and aid in the form of personal services and payments. An annual payment small sums known as ‘head-money’ set a symbolical seal on the bonds of their personal attachment. Tallage an extraordinary tax, might be demanded from serfs, and also from those who were nominally free whenever a lord was in difficulties. Special payments had to be made by a serf marrying outside his lord’s dependents and by a serfs direct heirs when he died: this ‘death duty’ entailed the surrender of the best head of cattle, or in some districts a share of the chattels.  In the twelfth century there were no longer any completely free peasants. The peasants described as ‘free’ were never the less bound to a lord in a protective relationship of some kind, just like the rest, but the greater the lord ( for example if he were the king or a great vassal, with a hundred or more estates ), and the more remote the court, the freer was the peasant. Bound to the service of one or more lords, the rural population of Europe lived in varying degrees of dependence, un-freedom or serfdom and the distinctions of grade were in practice as great as that between highly born vassals of the crown and ‘knights and noble squires’ who had virtually nothing to call their own, or between highly educated wealthy prelates and village priests bound to the soil. Our vocabulary does not possess the words necessary to distinguish clearly between the different groups, classes, and ranks of ‘free’ ‘half-free’ ‘un-free’ and ‘dependent’ peasants. The actual situation was more confusing still, for in many places a ‘free’ peasant might be more oppressed and much poorer than an ‘un-free’ peasant living only a few miles away. Some classes of peasant, and some individuals were working themselves higher up the social scale. By the twelfth and thirteenth centuries the peasantry had become a factor kings and nobles had to reckon with, even to the point of calling on their help. Those peasants who had won there freedom by invitation were known as hospites, they received a charter which promised them protection against unjust oppression, excessive dues, and arbitrary actions on the part of the landlord. Numerous new settlements originated in this way. To attract more settlers , the recruiting offices read the charters aloud at markets in other districts, like the north American railroad companies in the nineteenth century when they needed pioneers to colonize the empty lands of the west. The English nobility were among the first to turn agriculture into an industry. Peasants were bought out or expropriated to make room for sheep.