Manorialism and Serfdom

Posted by PITHOCRATES - December 29th, 2011

Politics 101

High Taxes and a Declining Birthrate marked the Beginning of the End of the Roman Empire

Serfdom dates back to European Manorialism.  But it was born in the decline of the Roman Empire.  When the Romans stopped pushing their borders out they lost a key source of revenue for their empire.  The spoils of war.  This coincided with the rise of their welfare state.  An ever larger bureaucracy to manage the breadth of empire.  And a loss of Roman identity and pride.  Taxes were rising.  And they were debasing their coin.  To monetize their debt.  People tried their best to evade taxes.  And had no desire to serve in the mighty Roman Legions securing the empire’s borders.  Which turned out to be quite the problem for the Romans.

The Romans had to hire soldiers to defend their borders.  A very costly endeavor.  Which added greatly to the cost of empire.  Hence the high taxes.  And debasing of their silver coins with lead.  But only the silver coins.  Not their gold.  Because they needed those to have value.  As they used them to pay for their hired soldiers.  And that’s one thing you don’t want to do to a hired army.  Anger them by paying them with worthless lead.  Because they could attack you as easily as protect you.

Soon being a Roman wasn’t fun anymore.  Taxes were so high people were working more for the Roman government than their families.  And inflation was making daily life difficult.  The people’s money was becoming worthless.  Which raised prices.  Soon the Romans were taking tax payments in kind.  Instead of money they took wheat, wine, clothing, etc.  Whatever a person made a large portion of what they made went to the Roman government.  It became so bad people were quitting to do something else.  A lot of them.  So many that it was cutting into what the Romans were collecting.  That and a declining birthrate marked the beginning of the end of the Roman Empire.  Large armies.  A growing bureaucracy.  And a declining tax base.  Not a formula for fiscal stability.  So they said enough.  No more quitting and moving on.  Whatever your father was you’ll be.  You have no choice.  You’ll do as he did until the day you die.

The Lord of the Manor owned Great Tracts of Land that Needed Laborers, Peasants had Labor to Offer but no Land

It was the rural part of this Roman directive that shaped future history.  Especially in Europe.  When the Roman Empire collapsed civilization went backwards.  To a rural, agrarian way of life.  A rural self-sufficiency.  Where people either owned land.  Or worked on land owned by others.  And that Roman idea to prevent people from quitting and moving on?  That became serfdom.  Where people who worked the land were bound to the land.  And not allowed to leave or look for a new job.  And if the lord sold the land the people bound to the land went with the land.  Not the lord.

This is Manorialism.  As the Roman Empire disintegrated power shifted from a central government to manors.  The Lord of the Manor owned great tracts of land that needed laborers.  Peasants had labor to offer but no land.  So they made an agreement.  The Lord of the Manor would permit the peasant to live and work a small piece of his land.  In return the peasant would join other peasants and work the large landholdings of their lord.

A serf was little more than a slave.  But with a home and land to work to provide for his family.  Which was a lot in Medieval Europe and often meant the difference between life and death.  And he had something more.  Protection.  A set of laws to live by among his fellow serfs administrated by his lord and the manorial court.  And protection from outside threats.  Which was also part of the agreement.  The serfs agreed to fight alongside their fellow serfs in defense of their lord’s land.  Which was also their home.  And the source of all provision for their family.  So it was a very beneficial agreement for both lord and serf.

Serfdom was a Life of Subsistence and Prayer

The Lord of the Manor lived in a mansion.  The peasants lived in a little village.  Between the two was often a church.  Also in or near the village was the lord’s mill.  Operated by the serfs for both the lord’s harvest and their own.  Maybe even a bakery.  Surrounding these were the great tracts of land the serfs worked.  And forests where wild game was available to hunt.  And wood to burn.  But the forests were typically for the lord’s sole use.

So after the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome this was what civilization came to.  A life of subsistence.  Back-breaking work in the fields.  Eat what you grow.  Pray.  And try not to starve or freeze to death during the winter.  Not a life we would dream about today.  But one that worked for centuries.  And held Europe together during the Middle Ages.

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