Slaves And Serfs, A False Distinction

Everybody knows that the Romans had “slaves” while the medievals had “serfs”, and that this was an important distinction. Unfortunately, it is not certain that the medievals themselves were aware of it; for the Middle French word “serf” is simply the Classical Latin servus. For this reason, the modern English adjectives meaning “pertaining to a slave” and “pertaining to a serf” are identical, namely “servile”. And of course this is also the origin of “servant”. When a medieval writer uses the word “serf”, it is arguably a mistranslation to render it as other than “slave”, with all the continuity between Roman past and medieval present that the author was taking for granted. When Henry I of England told his archbishop; “I will not …. tolerate in my realm any man who is not mine”, he is conventionally held to have meant any magnate who did not do him homage; but it also sounds like a slaveowner’s manifesto.

This is not to say that the medieval serf and the Roman slave shared the same conditions of bondage. Serfs could not be sold as chattels, but merely followed any transfer of land; they had rights against their lord under contract; and they enjoyed a normal family life.

One way of looking at the serf is therefore that he was a slave, but on better terms; contrariwise, the slave can be regarded as a serf with worse terms. On the other hand, the medieval Latin term for serf, colonus, had originally denoted free labour, so we could equally well regard the serf as having gone down in the world. At the same time as the formal chattel slavery of Antiquity, with its absolute property and rightless slaves, was disappearing in early medieval Europe, the free peasantry were being depressed into a status almost, but not quite, like that of the slave. The Roman plantation slave and the free landholder of the Dark Ages become more or less merged into something half way in between, although outside the neat schemata of the books of popular history things were vastly more complicated, with surviving allodialists, various sub-grades of the unfree, and endless litigation over everybody’s status, rights and obligations. Together with the continuity of the terminology, this might suggest to us that, just as Nature abhors a vacuum, so do does human society abhor the yeoman.

It should not be thought that the Roman latifundia died altogether with the great migrations and their re-invention of the village. The Cistercian model, for example, which is often cited as the ancestor of modern factory methods, involved depopulation of villages to create “granges” run by lay-brother labour, slaves by another name. And how should this not be? A production model that offers a labour force with few needs, no free social community to be nurtured, indeed no life of its own, will always appeal to a certain kind of mind, and to that mind’s pockets.

Posted on May 11, 2012 at 10:37 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: THE ENSLAVING MAMMAL, The Universal Template

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