Medieval villages and manors had systems that involved different classes of people from slaves, serfs and peasants at the bottom of the social ladder, then cottagers and small holders, and lords and nobles at the top. In this system, only slaves had less freedom than serfs. The definitions of the names these classes of people were not as strict in the Middle Ages and were standardised much later.
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The Rules of Serfdom
Serfs were bound to the lord's or noble's land they worked, and if the land was sold the serfs went with it. They were expected to work about three days per week on this land but in return they had a modest house and rights to hay, wood, and animals that grew on the land. Serfs were not permitted to marry outside the manor.
The lord or noble could tax his serfs as much as he wanted. Serfs usually paid their master with money, grain, honey, eggs or other produce. Being part of the manor brought serfs protection from invading marauders and lords and nobles realised they needed the serfs for their manors to be successful.
Serfs were craftsmen, bakers, tax collectors, millers, and most often farmers. Women did not usually have occupations other than managing families. Even spinning, weaving, and clothing-making were done by men.
Male serfs wore a tunic or blouse and trousers made of rough cloth, clogs or shoes probably made of cloth as leather was too expensive, a leather belt with a sheath hanging for their knife, and sometimes heavy work gloves. In cooler weather, they wore an overcoat made of wool and lined with sheepskin. Women wore longer tunics made of rough cloth and a leather belt around their waists. If their tunic was too long and was in danger of goin in the mud, women would tuck it into their belt to make it shorter. Serfs frequently went barefoot to save wear and tear on their expensive shoes.
The End of Serfdom and the Manor System
The Black Death, a disease that originated in China and was spread westward by ticks on rats, ultimately brought about the end of the manor system. From 1347 to 1352, about 20 million people died in the Black Death pandemic. That was about one-third of Europe's population. This caused a severe labour shortage which enabled serfs to demand higher pay and better conditions. They were no longer tied to a nobleman's land, and many moved to cities. The manor system collapsed and gave way to the beginnings of capitalism.
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