The Trends Toward Serfdom in Mediaeval England

The Trends Toward Serfdom in Mediaeval England

By  J. A. Raftis

Canadian Catholic Historical Association Report, Vol.22 (1955)

Reeve and serfs in feudal England, ca. 1310

Introduction:  Historians generally are not unacquainted with the notion of the mediaeval serf– a person in legal and economic subjection to a lord, with his social life closely circumscribed by the village, and with his main duty that of work upon the lord’s fields or demesne in that village. This serf must not be confused with the slave, for in terms of human freedom there was the breadth of a civilization between the mediaeval serf, a legal person, and the Anglo-Saxon slave, a chattel, who in Anglo-Saxon law as late as the 10th century could be stoned or hanged like a thief for running away. But it is a curious anomaly that historians have been able to isolate movements from freedom to serfdom, or from a lesser to a more subjective serfdom­ – regressions towards servitude – in a western Europe whose general ethos was a gradual abolition of slavery. We shall be concerned here only with mediaeval England where, until recently at least, three such movements have usually been depicted by historians: these are, in chronological order, the subjection of peoples with the breakdown of Anglo-Saxon tribal structure, an intensification of this subjection due to the extension of seigniorial authority from the time of the Norman conquest, and thirdly, a renewal of serfdom due to intensified cultivation by large agrarian corporations from the 13th century.

It is the purpose of this paper to deal with that detailed research upon the social and economic status of lesser men which, over the past two decades especially, has been gradually sketching out a picture which does not readily conform with the above-mentioned trends to subjection or servitude. It could not be our purpose to present a reformulation of the problem, even if time permitted, for many questions have but begun to be investigated, not the least important being the fundamental point of terminology. Serfdom, along with feudalism, and other such handy categories created by the historian for the measurement of freedom and unfreedom, have accumulated political and psychological overtones during generations and centuries of use. They are, as it were, sticks of ideological dynamite­ – and therefore ought logically to be treated first by the historian’s own clinical technique of soul searching – that is, historiography. Much work is indeed being done along these lines by legal and constitutional historians, and this properly, as they are in fact most responsible for existing theories. But it is not yet possible to bring their conclusions into the context of the matter discussed in this study. We shall be chiefly concerned to summarize in this paper, therefore, the main directions indicated by the social and economic research.

We shall spend little time on the first theory since there is an increasing argument for the suspension rather than the solution of the theory of progressive subjection during Anglo-Saxon history. Nevertheless, this theory is still given strong credence in general text books. For instance, in his Economic History of England, Lipson’s disproof of the existence of the manorial system before the conquest was no more than the precaution, “..At would be unsafe to regard the manor as the prevailing type of estate from the earliest times, on the ground that some were in existence before the Norman Conquest.” Yet he goes on to set out the historical investigation bluntly: “We have now to trace the process by which a nation of free cultivators became gradually transformed into one of dependent serfs.” Then Lipson proceeds in the manner of a 19th century Whig historian to adduce every form of human burden, be it political, social, or economic: Danegeld tax, ecclesiastical tithes, Norse attacks, harvest failures, harshness of the criminal code, private court jurisdiction, political disorder, rise of a military class, as likely causes for an increasing subjection of men.

Even a great historian of the period like Sir Frank Stenton states the case for subjection as an accepted thesis: “The central course of Old English social development may be described as the process by which a peasantry, at first composed essentially of free men, acknowledging no lord below the king, gradually lost economic and personal independence.” But when he comes to grips with the evidence, he is forced to admit that a clearly defined evidence for loss of independence is unobtainable: “The origin of private justice is one of the unsolved problems of Anglo-Saxon history,” for landlords with clear juridical authority can be found at least 400 years before the Conquest.

In fact there is no evidence to support a theory of social evolution. Neither comparative histories of law and culture, nor the accumulation of archaeological data have fulfilled the promise or predictions of the 19th century Teutonic theory which is the foundation for this notion of increasing subjection over the Anglo-Saxon era. No editor of Anglo-Saxon records will to-day claim to give a representative, much less a comprehensive picture of Anglo-Saxon society. But furthermore, the interpretation of increasing social organization over the late Anglo-Saxon period as an oppression of peoples may have been due to a Rousseauian neglect of social realities. The most recent editor of Anglo-Saxon records, Dorothy Whitelock, actually argues to an advance of human relations as the tribal system is replaced by the seignorial: “But there are many signs that in the latter part of our period (500-1042) it (i.e. the tribal kindred group) was not found adequate either to protect the individual from oppression or to produce an accused person to answer a charge. It is the latter aspect that is clearest in the laws, and it leads to the insistence that every man must have a lord who will be responsible for his actions…”

In short, the bald theory of progressive subjection during Anglo-Saxon times does not appear possible of definition; and even as a hypothesis, it would seem inadequate.

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