The dangers inherent in a new serfdom

While medieval serfs and lords had an arrangement that kept the powers of the lord in check, and gave the serfs many protections – such as the right of inheritance – there are no such protections for the common person today, mainly because it hasn’t been particularly thought of yet.

While a medieval serf was able to will his land parcel to his children, without the permission or interference of the lord (the actual ‘owner’ of the land), that is not the case today.  I recently read of a wealthy man in California who was offering a small stipend and a furnished guest house in return for gardening and landscaping duties at his mansion.  Sounds like a pretty decent deal right?  Not really.   The problem was that the stipend was vanishingly small – buying food would essentially wipe it out – and the duties encompassed being at the wealthy man’s beck and call, available for his whims, at all hours.  The duties themselves involved between 60 and 70 hours a week of hard labor.  The astounding thing was that the wealthy man couldn’t understand why he couldn’t keep a gardener.

I have also read recently that there is a farm in Oregon that uses free labor under the guise of ‘teaching’ farming to ‘students’ who come to live on the farm.  There is no pay, only room and board provided.  And the workload is just as great; the teaching is merely the performance of manual labor at the direction of the owner, and little is carried away by the student other than a general distaste for being taken advantage of.   This is not like Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm, where real teaching of the nuts and bolts of what he does and why is part of the daily labor, where part of the evenings are spent answering questions from students.  It is merely taking advantage of eager or desperate people wanting to learn a skill.

On the local Craigslist last year in the farming and gardening section there was a recurring post by a farmer who was looking for labor as described above.   The farmer also gave a warning that his farm was a Christian one, and that there were strict rising and sleeping times, mandatory church and prayer, and no drugs or alcohol allowed.  I haven’t seen the posting in quite a while; I don’t know if he had no takers or if he got some willing labor.  I suspect that his farm was much more like the farmer in Oregon than like Mr. Salatin’s though, regardless of the religious bent of the farmer.

These examples (not Salatin, the others) are to me exactly what we must guard against.  If there are to be land owners using serf type labor, there MUST be accepted rules  and laws in place, commonly known and accepted by society at large, to govern the behavior of the owners particularly, but the serfs as well.  Land owners cannot demand labor on the level of slavery in exchange for housing.  They cannot keep the serf from performing work for himself and his/her family in order to be at least a little self sustaining.  The owner cannot demand labor 7 days a week, with no holidays.  There must be bonuses paid to the serfs, at least in the form of food gifts, money, or offers of land purchase.  In return, serfs must do the contracted labor or they cannot keep their housing.

It sounds simple, or crazy, or both.  I really think, though, that we must begin thinking about these boundaries now, before serfdom/slavery becomes the custom of the land again, or many thousands of people will be taken advantage of a la Tom Joad’s family in the The Grapes of Wrath.

Myths about serfdom

I have made comments recently on a few sites regarding medieval times and it seems to me that there are many, many myths about how awful it would have been to be a serf.

Scenes such as these seem to be what people think of when they think of medieval life:

In reality, many serfs were the predecessors to the later merchant class and were, in fact, quite well off.  They ate pretty decently for the times.  They ate a reasonably healthy diet though very bland compared to ours.  Rye, oats, and barley were staples; wheat was grown but mostly sold rather than eaten.  Cabbage, spinach, peas, and beans were staples as well.  Chickens were too valuable as egg layers to sacrifice for meat for the most part.  Cattle were raised for milk and meat, oxen for plowing, sheep for milk, meat, and wool.  Nuts and berries were gathered in season, beer was brewed and was also a staple of the diet.  The poorest of the poor ate their grain as a gruel rather than ground it but even they generally had at least an onion for flavor.  And everyone ate bread.  Lots of bread.

Instead, one should imagine homes like these:

Because that’s what it more generally looked like.

Myth number 2:

Serfs were slaves.

Truth:  um, yeah.  I dare anyone who has a mortgage to just pick up and leave everything behind.  And does moving somewhere else really make anything better, or does it just give one a new set of problems without necessarily improving one’s station in life?  We are slaves as well, slaves to our jobs, slaves to our debts.  A careful serf could save up the money to purchase his land from the lord; many did and became minor nobility in later times.  This would free them from paying rents to the lord and leave only his mandatory taxes and tithes to pay.  1000 years later and I really don’t think the life of the average person is much better regarding freedom than it was in medieval times; it may in fact be much harder.

Myth number 3:  you spend all your days working the land for the lord and only get to do your own when that’s complete, which it never is.

Truth:  There were tasks that needed doing in every month, some harder physically than others, that needed doing.  Period.  For everyone.  I took this from a website because it was short and sweet and to the point but it shows that there was not backbreaking work in every day of the year.

January & February – work indoors repairing hunting nets, sharpening tools, making utensils – on mild days work outdoors gather firewood, prune vines and mend fences.

March – work in the fields,  plowing and cultivating.

April – clean ditches, pruning trees, fixing sheds, hauling timber, and repairing roofs

May –  sheep washing and shearing,  planting and field maintenance

June – mowing hay crop and raking it into piles

July – harvest grains, bundle sheaves, weeding gardens

August – threshing and winnowing of grains, grinding of grains into flour

September – fruits picked and dried or stored, grapes picked and pressed for juice and wine

October – gather nuts, roots, berries, and mushrooms, fields plowed and empty fields sown with winter wheat, repairing and cleaning equipment.

November – firewood gathered, split, and stacked for themselves and the lord, pigs and cows slaughtered and meat smoked,  flax, wool, and hemp processed to make thread and rope

December – trim trees, prune grape vines, hunting

Taken from an article by Lisa Nikola

There were religious festivals on which no one worked in the fields check out this medieval holy day calendar!

Feasting and socializing were normal and accepted, and in those times the left overs were given to the poor at the kitchen door of the castle.  No one went hungry on feast days.  Try imagining any modern American wealthy person giving the surplus from a banquet they held to the poor.  Having a hard time imagining that?  Me too.

So there you have it.  Money wasn’t necessary for every day life, you didn’t have to spend ‘x’ number of hours every day or every week at a desk for a paycheck, you were free to organize your time (mostly) the way you want, you got to eat lunch with your family and friends every day, and you got lots of days off.  And you got beer for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  Not, all in all, a bad life.

And if you were clergy, you got first dibs on the wine 🙂

For more information, do a search on medieval farming, medieval beer, medieval agriculture, medieval life.  I already knew a lot of this from my own research, but here’s a   site you might like  with interesting facts.