The Early History of Medieval Serfdom in Europe

  • R. H. Hilton
Part of the Studies in Economic History book series


IN the long history of pre-industrial societies one of the constant features has been the existence of social groups whose members were unfree. The freedom which they lacked was not, of course, an absolute quality of social existence. It is a truism which needs no elaboration that in most societies men’s freedom of action is limited by the authority of the state, by the power of the rich and by the customary pressures of social groups. And, just as there were always numerous variations in the opportunities, that is the freedoms, of men who were called free, there were similarly many variations in the forms of unfreedom. The view expressed in a Carolingian capitulary that non est amplius nisi liber et servusl might have been convenient for the serf-owners, but at that particular time completely misrepresented the great complexity of contemporary social conditions. Yet the complex variations in the grades of unfreedom that were to be found in ancient, medieval and later societies should not lead us to minimise the fact of unfreedom for many human beings, often the majority, in these societies. Even if we ignore the limitations on freedom resulting from the poverty, lack of opportunity, lack of influence and lack of power which has always been the lot of most men and women, we could not ignore the fact that, in medieval as well as in ancient societies, these practical limits on freedom were openly institutionalised as hereditary juridical servitude.


Twelfth Century Ancient Society Social Existence Absolute Quality Estate Owner 
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Copyright information

© The Economic History Society 1969

Authors and Affiliations

  • R. H. Hilton
    • 1
  1. 1.University of BirminghamUK

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