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Are they serfs? A medieval dispute that lasted 47 years

By Peter Konieczny

In 1179, a dispute arose between the residents of a French village and a monastery. Were these villagers serfs and the monastery their lord? It would take nearly a half-century before the affair was finally decided.

There is perhaps no more important historian on the idea of feudalism than Marc Bloch (1886–1944). His work La Société Féodale in 1939 – translated into English as Feudal Society in 1961 – has since become a must-have on medieval historians’ bookshelves. It deals with the development of feudalism in parts of Europe, explaining the process of how we came to have fiefs, vassalage, manors, and lords. Bloch was very interested in seeing how the institution of feudalism developed from the peasants’ point of view. What did serfdom mean to them, and did they just passively accept this system? An article Bloch wrote in the same year that La Société Féodale was published offers a fascinating look at a group of peasants that really did not want to become serfs.

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The village of Rosny-sous-Bois lies about ten kilometers east of Paris. Until sometime in the mid-twelfth century, this village, home to fewer than 100 families, was part of the French royal domain. However, by the year 1163 it had been granted by the King Louis VII to the Abbey of St. Genevieve, one of the most important monasteries in Paris.

We first know of the dispute between the monastery and the people of Rosny from a royal judgment that was issued around 1179: “We have ordained that henceforth the men of Rosny be subject to the church of St. Genevieve as serfs to their lords.” So it seems that the peasants had at this time been trying to persuade the royal government that they were not serfs under the French kings, and should not be forced to be such to the monastery.

Rosny-sous-Bois as seen in an 18th century map. It is now a suburb of Paris.

The monks of St. Genevieve also sought more legal protections for their case from the Papacy, getting a charter from Pope Lucius III (1100–1185) in 1182 to confirm the judgment. This did not settle matters, as the peasants also sent letters to Rome pleading their case, leading Lucius to order that a set of judges would be sent to France to settle the issue. This decision was reversed just a few months later, no doubt because of pressure from the monastery. Pope Lucius gave this reason for the change:

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Because of the multitude of affairs that are brought before the apostolic chair, we cannot possibly remember the tenor of our letters and our other decisions. For this reason we may be tricked unawares into contradicting what we have written earlier.

The pope also included orders that the peasants of Rosny should not have their grievances taken up by judges again, but they were not deterred. As popes passed away and were replaced, they tried their luck again to get their case adjudicated. In 1219, they got some action from the Papacy through a novel argument – being serfs was leading them to violate church laws! Apparently, their status as serfs had made it impossible for them to find marriages with their neighbors. They were now being forced to take concubines or marry within the community, breaking religious laws against incestuous relationships. Pope Honorius III (1150–1227) agreed that this was a very serious problem and ordered a set of judges to investigate.

The records we do have show that the peasants of Rosny were trying to either get the original royal judgment appealed or have the Papacy overrule it, while the monks of St. Genevieve worked to keep these appeals quashed. They even got a license from the French king to build a small jail in Rosny as a way to deter these unruly farmers.

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The Abbey of St. Genevieve as seen in a map from 1618.

Gradually, the legal efforts by the monks worked to convince the peasants to give up their cause. In the mid-1220s, we see that 89 heads of families from Rosny, probably representing the entire village, had agreed to abandon their legal challenges. On July 6, 1226, Pope Honorius received word that the peasants had officially dropped the suit. It had taken 47 years of legal wrangling before the case had finally ended.

Marc Bloch writes:

The only point to be stressed here is the fact that juridical classification was often a matter of uncertainty. The history of the people of Rosny shows, once more, that it could be extremely difficult to determine the exact juridical status, not merely of an individual, but of a group of men, not merely of a few vagrants or fugitives, but of a collectivity firmly fixed to the soil. Was it true, as the peasants claimed, that their condition had worsened after they passed from the royal regime to that of the abbey? We do not know.

The story of the peasants of Rosny-sous-Bois and the Abbey of St. Genevieve does not end here, though. In August of 1246, these two sides made a new agreement: the monks would give up their status as lords over the village in return for an annual payment of 60 livres parisis. This would have been the equivalent to about the cost of 3600 rabbits, which helps to show another important aspect of this case: these peasants were not poor. They had spent decades involved in legal proceedings, which would have been costly, and once they had failed with the courts, they simply bought their way out of serfdom. As Bloch notes, being close to Paris would have given these peasants an excellent market for their goods, so it is not surprising that they acquired enough wealth to act against even a powerful monastery.

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Bloch adds, “The peasants’ long resistance does credit to more than their obstinacy. It implies some rudiments of collective organization.” While lords – royal or monastic – might have had the upper hand in legal affairs and could make use of force (such as the building of a prison), the serfs could also find ways to challenge them and at least make the imposition of vassalage a costly endeavor.

Marc Bloch’s original article appeared in Studia di Storia e Diritto in Onore di Enrico Besta, Vol. 2 (1939), but has been translated as “From the Royal Court to the Court of Rome: The Suit of the Serfs of Rosny-sois-Bois,” part of the book Change in Medieval Society, edited by Sylvia L. Thrupp, published in 1964 by Appleton-Century-Crofts.

Peter Konieczny is Editor of Medievalists.net

Bibliothèque nationale de France MS Français 135, fol. 327r

This article was first published in The Medieval Magazine – a monthly digital magazine that tells the story of the Middle Ages. Learn how to subscribe by visiting their website.

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