As villeins or servants of a medieval lord serfs were not actually slaves, though many writers of historical novels would have them so. Peasants they were, and by no means free. They were there to work the land of the lord (from which comes the more modern expression ‘landlord’). Serfs represented the lowest possible level of society.
They were as much a part of the land as the trees that grew on it. Like trees they were denied movement; they could not contemplate marriage without permission, nor could they move about the district where they live and worked, unless they were men and in soldiers’ uniform, about to die for their lord. The only reason for their existence was to work the lord’s land in the fields.
The produce of this labour did not belong to them either; they had to contribute a portion of it to the boss, and they must surrender the land they worked on their death. In addition, if they behaved badly they must submit to the decision of their lords (in the latter’s position as justice of the peace), which might have been a flogging or even beheading. This was called ‘the manorial court for wrongdoers’.
In actual fact, the lord had obligations to his serfs; slaves could expect nothing from their master except punishment or starvation until death came to bring happy relief. The serf’s lord was obliged to provide military protection and justice. Not all lords felt this obligation strongly, however.
Serfs originated in western Europe in the 8th century, and serfdom became hereditary like the bloodlines of the lords. Few if any serfs were able to escape their condition.
Of course the situation changed in the 14th century because the Plague or Black Death decimated the population, and if the plagues did not get you having to fight in your lord’s wars almost certainly did. As a result labour became scarce and the rich realized at last that they might have to pay wages for it. Thus, in modern Marxist terms the lord became a ‘rentier’ (living off his rents and capital) and the serf became (at last) a ‘tenant’. Laws protecting the rights of tenants sprang up and were sometimes observed.
It was in England that the poorer agricultural classes first became revolutionaries: In 1381 the ‘Peasants’ Revolt’ demanded the abolition of serfdom, and its substitution by means of a small rent system to be paid by workers of the land – at the heady price of four pennies an acre. This could in general terms be paid in cash, if the tenant had it, or kind – in the form of livestock, eggs, a portion of crops etc.
In Russia and most of the eastern regions of Germany the lords were having none of it, notwithstanding, and were insisting on the consolidation of serfdom. The French Revolution abolished it in a state of violence in 1789, but the infamous system lingered on in Austria/Hungary until 1848, and serfdom was only abolished in Russia in 1861, some sixty years before the Communist revolution.
It is a sad reflection on our times that serfdom still exists, in various forms and pseudonyms in several African states and Arab countries. This cannot be a surprise, especialy in those states where the owners of oil rights earn several million dollars every minute, but where the ‘serfs’ are expected to fend for themselves without schools, hospitals, food chains, tapwater or social security. Oddly enough, modern serfs all have cellphones.