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  • Of all the positions one could attain during the Middle Ages,

  • the one least desirable was probably that of the serf.

  • The meager serf was at the bottom

  • of an already bleak totem pole of lower class

  • and didn't share in the same freedoms

  • as their poor brethren, the peasants.

  • Though a landowner could sell the labor of a serf,

  • it could not, and it cannot be stressed enough,

  • sell the serf themselves, making them technically not slaves.

  • At one point, a whopping 75% of the medieval population

  • was a serf.

  • Today, we're going to explore how much it

  • sucked to be a serf.

  • But before we get started, you lowly serfs,

  • we order you to subscribe to the Weird History channel

  • and let us know what you would do with a parcel of land.

  • OK.

  • We're going serfing.

  • In the Vaud, a canton of Switzerland,

  • the law allowed for lords to chastise their serfs

  • like the recommended consumption of Taco Bell while sober,

  • very light.

  • The customary law said punishment

  • could be served to a serf with or without cause.

  • But they drew the line at torment,

  • which was strictly forbidden.

  • Unfortunately, their definition of torment was pretty loose.

  • It was perfectly legal to throw a serf in prison

  • for an indefinite amount of time or to take

  • all of their possessions, as one might

  • a misbehaving toddler and their toys, but worse and forever.

  • In Notre Dame, it was legit legal to murder a serf

  • should they get into an argument with the tenants,

  • a law thankfully not extended to modern-day landlords.

  • Take that, Mr. Roper.

  • Since the rules were all over the place

  • and varied substantially from region to region,

  • lords pretty much did what they wanted

  • to do when it came to disciplining serfs.

  • This led to many lords acting in bad faith

  • and skirting the rules with technicalities.

  • For example, in Aragon, a lord could technically

  • kill a man who killed one of his own dependents,

  • but bloodshed was a no-no.

  • So technically, an Aragon lord could and did dispose of serfs

  • through starvation, thirst, or exposure to the elements,

  • as in being tossed out during a very cold night.

  • For a serf, life was hard.

  • Serfs were given a tiny piece of land

  • by the lord within the estate they were living on,

  • which allowed them to harvest and provide

  • food for their own family.

  • Typically, this included just a small plot of land,

  • around 12 acres per family, plus their own personal living

  • quarters.

  • And while they were able to enjoy

  • the fruits of their labor, according to law,

  • everything a serf owned was possession of the lord

  • and could be taken or repurposed with no warning at any time.

  • Serfs were responsible for building their homes

  • and making their clothes.

  • But technically, even those tattered rags

  • and flammable huts belonged to the lord.

  • Even the food they harvested for their own personal groceries

  • belonged to the lord since he owned the land.

  • But it's hard to say how often a lord snatched

  • the food from a serf's harvest like they were a cartoon

  • villain.

  • Kind lords also probably didn't go

  • around taking all of their serfs' possessions for fun.

  • What's a wealthy lord going to do with a serf's little shovel,

  • after all?

  • One are the main differences between a serf

  • and a peasant was the ability to leave the land.

  • Serfs were bound to the manor they served,

  • while a peasant was free to roam around and be

  • poor on any street of their choosing.

  • You couldn't tie a peasant down.

  • Think of them as serfs with wanderlust.

  • Peasants were poverty-stricken and relied heavily

  • on the affluent community to provide sustenance,

  • but serfs legally had to pay taxes, rent,

  • and other random payments to their lords.

  • There was no general rule for what financial dues

  • a serf was responsible for, as it varied by region.

  • In most European countries, a serf

  • was treated as part of the estate and came with the land.

  • Serfs weren't seen as slaves during this era

  • because a serf could not be purchased,

  • but their labor could be sold, though this too

  • varied by region.

  • For example, in Russia, a serf was totally up for sale,

  • much more like a slave.

  • Some countries saw serfs as poor, little babies

  • whose only purpose in life was to tend to manors and castles

  • until they died.

  • But others saw an opportunity to beef up their military numbers.

  • Russian forces in the Middle Ages

  • were extremely dependent on serf and peasant labor,

  • boosting the amount of soldiers to over 1 million men

  • throughout the 19th century.

  • State-owned peasants as well as privately-owned serfs

  • were bound to servitude.

  • So this really wasn't a volunteer,

  • patriotic calling for serfs in Russia.

  • Russia didn't have a big distinction

  • between a serf and a peasant.

  • A serf who was freed of serfdom would be let loose into society

  • with no land or money, like a theater major,

  • and probably with the same amount of job prospects.

  • Serfs could turn to self-imposed state peasantry, since it

  • was better to be supported with some measurable degree

  • of freedom, or like when that theater major moves back

  • in with their parents after college.

  • Beggars can't be choosers.

  • It might be tradition for a man to ask

  • a woman's father for permission to marry his daughter,

  • but in a serf's life, he had to ask his lord before putting

  • a ring on his bride-to-be.

  • It might sound insane to have to double check with one's boss

  • before popping the question, but remember,

  • a serf was barely considered a human, basically

  • like permanent, entry-level peons.

  • The abbot of Upper Swabia, or what today

  • is the modern-day German state of Bavaria,

  • issued a number of decrees designed to oppress

  • the freisenser, which was a term used to describe free,

  • but census-paying tenants as well as all serfs.

  • The abbot focused his serf-hating energy

  • on placing regulations on who could marry

  • and providing consequences for people who

  • married beneath their class.

  • Oh, sure.

  • A serf couldn't marry someone a slight step above a serf,

  • but fives marry tens all the time on TV shows

  • and nobody says anything.

  • Weird History, "How Kevin James Married All Those Hotties

  • on TV," coming in the year 2050.

  • If a peasant did get desperate and decide

  • to settle for a penniless serf, half of the peasant's estate

  • would be confiscated and the other half

  • would be taxed to literal death, with death duties.

  • This kept peasants and serfs humble and poor

  • and knocked many down to an even lower class

  • with less hope of buying their way out of serfdom.

  • Sounds like a pretty good excuse to never get married.

  • Plus, did the term "old" maid even exist in these times?

  • What was that, unmarried at 20 years old?

  • Mmm, OK.

  • There was no such thing as calling

  • in sick for a serf with a scratchy throat

  • and a runny nose.

  • That's not to say sick days didn't exist in this time.

  • Some estates provided a set amount of sick days,

  • normally amounting to two to three weeks

  • throughout the year.

  • How a sick serf was treated varied on laws of the land

  • and what kind of mood the lord was in that day.

  • A cruel lord could very well force his bubonic-plagued serf

  • to work while not providing him one minute of sick leave.

  • And if the illness left him incapacitated and unable

  • to work, he could be punished, as if getting the plague

  • wasn't bad enough.

  • And for more information on how much the plague sucked,

  • see some of our other Weird History videos.

  • Other manors allowed for serfs to quit all work for the day,

  • with the exception of plowing and other random jobs that

  • needed to be done.

  • Usually, the day of work had to be made up

  • at some point within the year, either by himself

  • or through a replacement.

  • As if being a serf wasn't bad enough,

  • serfs also had to find somebody to cover their shift at work?