Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction

Dr. Helena P. Schrader is the author of 24 historical fiction and non-fiction works and the winner of more than 53 literary accolades. More than 34,000 copies of her books have been sold. For a complete list of her books and awards see: http://helenapschrader.com

For readers tired of clichés and cartoons, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader offers nuanced insight into historical events and figures based on sound research and an understanding of human nature. Her complex and engaging characters bring history back to life as a means to better understand ourselves.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Myths of the Middle Ages 3: Serfs like Slaves

I continue with my series debunking common misconceptions about the Middle Ages with a look at the notion that serfs were little better off than slaves.

The 20th century popular image of serfs was expressed in the Hollywood film “The Kingdom of Heaven” when the lead character (I hate to call him Balian d’Ibelin because he bore so little resemblance to the historical figure) says to the Hollywood Imad ad-Din that he “had been a slave ― or very like” meaning (inaccurately) that he had been a serf before coming to the Holy Land. 

The conflation of slavery and serfdom is not only inaccurate, it fundamentally inhibits our understanding of feudal society. As I noted in the opening essay on kings and subjects, feudal society was based on the concept of mutual contracts ― a fact that made medieval Europe very litigious by the way.  The fundamental difference between slaves and serfs was that the former (slaves) had no rights, while the latter (serfs) had very clear rights.

Let us start by looking at slavery. Slaves own nothing ― not even their own bodies. They can be mutilated, tortured, raped and killed by their masters without the latter committing a crime. Anything slaves produce, even their own children, do not belong to them. Their children belong to their master, who can choose to kill or sell them. As a result, slaves cannot and do not have families. They rarely even know who their parents, siblings, and children are. The products of their hands, from crops to works of art, also belong to their masters. The magnificent pottery of ancient Athens, for example, was the work of slaves who might have been from any part of the ancient world.  

From the Duke of Berry's Book of Hours

Serfs historically derived from Roman slaves. With the spread of Christianity in the 4th century AD, however, slavery became increasingly unacceptable because Christianity viewed each human as a soul loved by God. Within a few hundred years it was universally accepted in the Latin Church that no Christian could be held as a slave. But the economy of the period was still utterly dependent on the labor of those former slaves to plant and harvest the food needed by all. So the status of slaves was altered and became one of serfdom in which the former slave was still required to till the land and was not free to leave it, but was granted control over his person and with it the right to marry, have a family, and above all retain 50% or more of his produce depending on locality. Compared to slaves, serfs lived a very privileged life!

From the Duke of Berry's Book of Hours

Furthermore, at the time this status evolved, the concept of being “tied to the land” was not seen as a brutal violation of “human rights.” On the contrary, the contract between serf and lord gave the serf both physical and economic security. The lord was responsible for providing armed protection against outlaws and raiders, and the serf not be thrown off the land any more than he could walk away from it; he was guaranteed his share of the harvest not just one year at a time but for as long as he and his children and his grandchildren and their children etc. lived.

Renowned French historian Regine Pernoud points out in her book Those Terrible Middle Ages: Debunking the Myths (Ignatius, 1977, p.88):

It was this intimate connection between man and the soil on which he lived that constituted serfdom, for, in all other respects, the serf had all the rights of a free man: he could marry, establish a family, his land, as well as the goods he was able to acquire, would pass to his children at his death. The lord, let us note, had, although on a totally different scale, the same obligations as the serf, for he could neither sell nor give up his land nor desert it.

Furthermore, archaeology increasingly provides evidence of the very high standard of living serfs could attain. Clever peasants, like clever lords, made judicious marriages. Through good marriages and careful husbandry, peasants could accumulate more and more hereditary plots of land. It mattered little that they did not “own” the land in the modern, capitalist sense of the word; feudal lords didn’t own it either. The point was that some serfs accumulated the right to use the land and harvest its produce. Peasants that accumulated more land than they could themselves cultivate, hired laborers to work it for them. A wealthy serf could build a large house, purchase furnishings, and other luxuries, and live like a lord ― just as long as he didn’t try to leave his land.

From the Duke of Berry's Book of Hours

The standard of living among peasants increased as Europe became more prosperous and new technologies, from the horse collar and horseshoe to axles that swiveled and plows that could turn the soil, were introduced. These new technologies increased farm productivity dramatically. By using horses rather than oxen, for example, the amount of land one farmer could cultivate doubled. These technologies also enabled land that had previously been considered marginal to be brought under cultivation. With more land under cultivation, it was possible to introduce (in the eighth century) the three field system, which left one-third of the land fallow each year.  This enabled the soil to regenerate and so the sustainability of agriculture increased. As a result of these innovations, European serfs “began to eat far better than common people anywhere, ever. Indeed, medieval Europeans may have been the first human group whose genetic potential was not badly stunted by a poor diet, with the result they were, on average, bigger, healthier, and more energetic than ordinary people elsewhere.” (Rodney Stark. God’s Battalions. HarperCollins, 2009, p. 70.)

From the Duke of Berry's Book of Hours

As prosperity increased, so did the demand for goods, spawning an increase in industry and trade.  This, in turn, led to greater urbanization, and with improvements in transportation technology (think of the splendid naval architecture of the Vikings), trade started to spread farther and farther afield. The First Crusade (1097-1099) re-established regular contact with the Byzantine Empire and the Near East, and for the next three hundred years, Europeans dominated the sea lanes of the Mediterranean. Pilgrim traffic, crusades, and trade with the Levant produced a great economic boom that financed the great palaces and cathedrals, monasteries and guild halls, and many more humble dwellings as well.

Yet, urbanization also made serfdom increasingly burdensome. Serfs no longer feared losing their land but longed for the greater opportunities in crafts, industry, and trade that beckoned from the cities. Thus by the twelfth century, serfs were demanding their freedom and more and more mechanisms for emancipation evolved. By the end of the Middle Ages, there were, in fact, many more free peasants than serfs in Western Europe. 

The crusader states were an exception to the overall feudal model. Founded centuries after slavery had disappeared from Western Europe and settled by free men (since serfs could not leave the land to pilgrim to the Holy Land), there were no serfs at all in the crusader states. 

For readers tired of clichés and cartoons, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader offers nuanced insight into historical events and figures based on sound research and an understanding of human nature. Her complex and engaging characters bring history back to life as a means to better understand ourselves.

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  1. As enlightening and educational as ever. Thanks!

  2. Thank you, very well written and engaging.