What Were A Medieval Serf’s Feudal Obligations?

Sometimes I think historians have exaggerated the misery of the medieval serf in Europe.  I would not want to exchange my lot for his, of course, but it is a useful exercise to examine in detail just what his feudal obligations were.  There is no strict definition of “feudalism,” as it varied in time and place; but it found its fullest expression in medieval France.  To understand why it developed, we must appreciate the profound insecurity and chaos that most of Europe was plunged into after the fall of the western Roman Empire.  At that time, security and peace mattered more to the common man than his freedom; and the system worked well considering the environment of the times.

A serf had the right to work the lands of his lord, and in return he was given protection and tenancy.  According to historian Will Durant’s The Age of Faith, these were the basic feudal obligations:

1.  Three annual monetary taxes:  (a) a small head tax payable through the baron; (b) a nominal rent; and (c) an additional nominal tax imposed by the owner of the land on the serf on an annual basis.

2.  A 1/10 share of the serf’s crops or livestock, payable to the lord or baron.

3.  A period of conscription for unpaid labor (called the corvee in French) that would be used to conduct public works projects.

4.  The serf had to prepare his food on his lord’s mill, press, oven, or house, and pay a small fee for such use.

5.  The serf had to pay a small fee for the right to hunt or fish on the lord’s lands.

6.  Any legal actions the serf undertook had to take place in the “baronial court,” or the courts controlled by the baron.

7.  If war was declared, the serf had to serve alongside his lord.

8.  If the baron was captured in war, the serf was expected to help raise the ransom for his release (ransoming of noble prisoners was a common occurrence in the medieval period).

9.  If the baron’s son was knighted, the serf had to contribute to a collective gift to the son.

10.  Any goods that the serf sold at a market were taxable, with the small sales tax being paid to the baron.

11.  The serf could not sell his own beer or wine until his lord had exercised his own right of first refusal.

12.  The serf was usually expected to buy a certain amount of the lord’s products (usually wine) each year.

13.  If a serf’s son entered the Church or left the manor, the serf had to pay a fine as compensation for the loss of one of the lord’s men.

14.  The serf would also have to pay a tax to the lord if one of his family married someone outside the manor.

15.  On paper at least, there is evidence of a ius primae noctis, or the right of the first night, whereby the lord had the right to deflower a serf’s new bride on the event of their wedding.  We do not know how often this custom was actually enforced; in practice, a serf could “purchase” the right from the lord by paying a small fee, and this is probably how such things were handled in practice.

16.  If the serf died childless, his property rights passed back to the lord, rather than to any other family members.  Sometimes the lord was entitled, as a form of inheritance tax, to take one of the serf’s domesticated animals as payment.

These were the basic feudal obligations owed by a serf to his baron, according to Durant.  If the financial burden seems crushing, we must remember that in practice, each of the fees described were small.  People still had to work, to eat, and to live their lives.  Feudalism would not have lasted as long as it did had it been unreasonably burdensome. We should remember that one person, or one family, never paid all of these dues.  In addition, inflation was not a problem in those days; these dues remained the same for a very long time, sometimes for centuries.  Lords were also known to waive or overlook many fees that they were due, simply to preserve manorial tranquility.  As Durant says:

The [feudal] dues exacted of [the serf] were largely in lieu of a money rent to the owner, and taxes to the community, to maintain public services and public works; probably they bore a smaller proportion to his income than our federal, state, county, and school taxes bear to our income today.  The average peasant of the twelfth century was as least as well off as some sharecroppers in modern states, and better off than a Roman proletaire in Augustus’s reign.

This has the ring of truth.  We like to think, in our modern era, that our lives are light-years ahead in improvement on the lives of our forefathers in past centuries.  And in general this is so:  no serious person can argue that the lot of the medieval serf is to be preferred to the lot of the average man in the United States of the 21st century.  My purpose here is not to argue that the medieval serf’s life was an ideal one.  And yet there is still some lesson to be learned here.  Does it not often seem true that the more “labor-saving” devices we invent, the harder we work?  Does it not seem true that technology and gadgets look more like trade-offs, rather than panaceas?

The reader will have to reflect on these matters for himself.  It may be disconcerting for readers to discover, when he adds up all his federal, state, and local taxes, that they may actually be paying more (on a percentage basis) than the serf of medieval times.  Or he may be startled to find out that, when the hours are tallied up, he actually works longer and harder than any of his predecessors in recorded history.  This knowledge, of course, might prompt uncomfortable questions.

Perhaps the most we can say is that we should cultivate a healthy respect for the past.  We should learn to be wary of simple answers, stereotypes, and easy solutions.  Ancient and medieval man was not a fool; his social structures developed for specific reasons, and they served him well considering the challenges he was facing.  One of the first lessons of history is that we should check our arrogance at the door; a healthy dose of humility does wonders for our understanding of the past.


Read Stoic Paradoxes today.

13 thoughts on “What Were A Medieval Serf’s Feudal Obligations?

  1. Very interesting article and ideas discussed. I am curious, does Durant mention anything along the lines of total “taxes” as a percentage of “income”?

    One point many people don’t consider about the industrial age, especially in the beginning before modern labor laws, was the increase in the amount hours worked. You couldn’t farm 24/7 but you could work a factory 24/7. And, for many people, farm work involved more natural, seasonal cycles. Search “Pre-industrial workers had a shorter workweek than today’s” and “The history of European working time laws 1784-2015”

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  2. I will say because of the influence of the church that the idea of prima nocta is almost certainly myth, albeit a very old one. The evidence for it is usually a polemic against the people next door “so evil they used to do droit de seigneur”, so pretty suspect to start.

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  3. “Longer and harder” might be relative though. More hours worked perhaps due to changes in daylight hours not being a factor in an industrial setting as compared to an agricultural one, but the type of labor performed is far less backbreaking now.

    The percent of taxes paid doesn’t surprise me, but what was the money going for? Knighting ceremonies, among others, I would imagine. The lords probably didn’t provide the safety net that we would expect today.

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  4. There are also two important things that separe us from the man of feudal times and which, in a way, protected him : the ability to measure time and artificial lights. The first disconnected man from the rhythm of nature while the second allowed him to work no matter what time it was. Of course, I’m not saying that these were bad things, but put in the hands of the first industrialists, they led to horrifying abuse against the working masses (especially in Japan, for some reason. Paganism? The rests of a rigid, warrior society? I don’t think a simple answer can be given). Thankfully, things got better today, but this oddity of “Progress” will never be recognized by futurists and other techno-utopians, who will go to great lengths to claim yesterday was always worse than today, no matter what. They keep giving this twisted version of History plagued by superstition and endless violence, where every inch of the continent was controlled by the Church, and where every wise man was (exclusively) an astronomer or a mathematician. Who cares about the men of law, the poets, or the philosophers, especially in an age where the ideal wisdom encompassed every ounce of both the material and spiritual worlds and where specialization wasn’t a thing yet.

    As for the peasants, they kept living under their lords because of the military protection they provided. The slaughtering grounds where peasants would be forced to fight each other under the supervision of idle knights is a myth propaged by popular pseudo-medieval TV series, especially THAT one which, fortunately, will finally end. When the feudal lords couldn’t keep them protected, as it was the case during the Hundred Years War, large-scale revolts became common and uncontrollable. But they also were doomed to failure since illiterate peasants had no way to imagine an alternative order. We may pay way more taxes, but we should not forget that nowadays, many things are now free or relatively costless. Even beyond obvious things like communications or social security, the ability to read or the accessibility of water save us from many troubles our ancestors had to go through.

    I learnt most of what I know from easily accessible academic sources. There is a gap between pop culture and educated, rigorous sources, and I don’t understand how a bunch of random people are allowed to talk in media about the past times even though they have a degree in biology, physics or astronomy. The most egregious example I can remember is one paragraph of Michio Kaku, who mentioned Columbus’ search from spices was because before the invention of the refrigerator, “even kings and emperors had to eat rotting food” and thus had to hide the taste through spices. I know that around the 17th century, meat was prefered with a strong taste and I wonder if this is not the fact that got twisted to fit this narrative. You can also mention the myth of the popularity of well-endowed women in the 19th century as a sign of wealth even though Maupassant’s literature for instance had chubby maids and prostitutes, hardly high society.

    Anyway, culture must be protected from the harm of pop conmen.


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  5. I have read estimates that put the tax burden under monarchy as low as 3% of GDP – mind you, these were from the 18th Century, and even back then metrics like “GDP” don’t fully apply – but simply watching the massive growth of the Welfare State under Democracy over the past century suggests that the 3% tax rate might be a good estimate.

    What many modern people fail to account for is the “Apples to Oranges” nature of trying to compare the Medieval era to the present one. Live was so vastly different (not to mention varied from region to region) that a like-to-like comparison is impossible.

    It’s also worth considering that the rise of corporations is beginning to mimic feudal tenancy. The corporate employee is provided with a campus, housing, a foodcourt, daycare – but instead of paying a tax, and being subject to a military draft, their entire way of being is prescribed to them by the HR department. Asking “Which is worse?” is an impossible question – but it’s a case of History rhyming.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Absolutely true, Davis. You got exactly what I was hinting at. People don’t want to hear this, of course, because it upsets the narrative how how “free” and “great” everything is in our supposedly enlightened age.
      And yes, the lot of many people today is beginning to look uncomfortably similar to the lot of the medieval serf.


  6. In Austria, the last remnants of serfdom were abandoned after the revolution of 1848 over a period of three years, during which peasants had to apply for liberation (this was necessary, since the lord could apply for a certain compensation). Most peasants waited as long as possible, until the last month, because the lord had to care for his serfs in case of urgent need, severe illness etc. 30 years later, the same happened in formerly Turkish Bosnia. Thus, the serfs obviously did not feel really suppressed or exploited.

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