How to tell a Serf from a Slave in Medieval England

By Sara M. Butler; posted 15 August 2019.

About six months ago, I stumbled across an intriguing 2011 article by Stephen Alsford on the subject of medieval serfdom and the myth that “town air makes free” – that is, escape to a town for the period of a year and a day earned a fugitive serf his freedom in medieval England.[1] The subject aside, what surprised me most about the article is the fact that it appeared in the journal Slavery & Abolition. Equating serfs with slaves is a bold move, and something that we emphatically do not do in medieval historical circles. The medieval unfree were undoubtedly the descendants of the Roman Empire’s chattel slaves; but, as the medieval history textbooks pronounce, their status was wholly different. Admittedly, after that strong stance the explanation in the textbooks tends to get a bit hazy, and for good reason. There are wide gaps in our knowledge. When chattel slavery died out is hotly debated. Some argue it withered away during the Roman era;[2] others see the Norman Conquest as the key moment for the abolition of English slavery.[3] How slavery transitioned into serfdom is an equally elusive subject; but most importantly the distinction between the two states — how the daily experience of serfdom differed from that of slavery — is something we know little about. Admittedly, the records don’t make this easy: the fact that the standard vocabulary for slavery (servus, mancipium, ancilla) was simply repurposed for medieval serfs makes it difficult to detect any transition in status. In the classroom, most of us just hope that in rapidly glossing over such a major shift no student will stop to ask exactly how this happened.

When it comes to English serfs (also referred to as: villeins, customary tenants, bondsmen, and neifs), the long-standing scholarly consensus is that unfreedom actually had its 487px-Plan_mediaeval_manorperks. First, among the English peasantry the status sprang from means of tenure more than anything else. Thus, as the legal treatises suggest, a peasant might hold some property through debt bondage and be required to work the lord’s demesne and be subject to the typical obligations of unfreedom. Yet, he might also hold property as a freeman in which he was simply required to pay rent. One’s status, then, was not necessarily set in stone.

Second, the villein benefited from rent control: rising land values meant that the cash rents charged on villein holdings were generally lower than the real market value of land. As a result, some historians have argued that English peasants preferred unfree status. Back in the 1960s, Michael Postan observed that English serfs were far more interested in land acquisition than in manumission; meaning, that they could afford the few shillings required to buy their freedom, but opted instead to spend that money buying new land.[4] Twenty years later, John Hatcher produced a profusion of evidence to reinforce this argument. Moreover, he demonstrated that not only were villeins failing to spend their money on manumission, but some freemen were willing to give up their freedom for the right property. Again, the implication is that medieval unfreedom was far from the exploitative state that we associate with slavery.[5]

This was my background knowledge before I wandered into the C 249 class at the National Archives in Kew this summer. C 249 is comprised of warrants for replevin, writs which instruct sheriffs to: 1) release prisoners on bail; and 2) return beasts and chattels taken by way of distraint to the original owner. The surviving writs are all problematic ones. When a sheriff completed the task a writ instructed him to perform, normally he threw it away. But all of these writs were returnable: meaning, on the dorse of each the sheriff wrote a terse response to the king explaining why he could not carry out the king’s command, and returned the writ to Westminster accordingly. What is most striking about these writs is how interchangeable they are: whether the sheriff is releasing people, animals, or objects, the language adheres to the same formula, offering the distinct impression that chancery scribes saw little difference between them.

One returnable writ stands out in particular. Dated to 8 February 1362, the writ is directed to the sheriff of York, demanding the release of John Gollyng, purportedly arrested by John de Somernill, chaplain. On the dorse, Marmaduke Constable, the sheriff of York, explains that he cannot release John Gollyng as requested in the king’s writ because John de Somernill claims Gollyng as his neif and his chattel.[6]

Claiming a person as one’s chattel sounds an awful lot like slavery.

Clearly, before I could go any further with these writs, I needed to brush up on the basics of villeinage in medieval England. This led me to Alice Rio’s impressive 2017 publication Slavery after Rome, 500-1100. She offers the clearest explanation I’ve seen in print to make sense of the difference between slavery and serfdom:

while both slavery and serfdom are designed to place a certain category of people at a fundamental disadvantage in terms of rights, slavery primarily concentrates on denying rights altogether, whereas serfdom is, instead, fundamentally geared towards charging for access to them instead.[7]

This description is unnervingly accurate for medieval England. Being a villein meant being nickled and dimed (or pennied and shillinged, as it were) for everything, especially the basic necessities of life.

For the use of his land, he paid:

  • cash rent (in addition to tallage, an annual tax);
  • food rent (such as: pork rents, cheese rents, butter rents, ale rents, etc);
  • and labor services.

Work on his lord’s demesne farm might include week-work (several days each week); boon-work (special work services, particularly at harvest time); or, it might be commuted into a money payment (sale of works).

In addition, he had to pay licenses for just about everything imaginable:

  • to take possession of a tenement (gersuma);
  • to marry off his daughters (merchet) – or to permit them to remain single;[8]
  • to produce an illegitimate child (leyrwite or childwyte);
  • to live outside the manor (chevage);
  • to use the lord’s mill (mill suit);
  • to administer goods upon death;
  • to exchange land or divide it up among his family members;
  • to buy land, hold free land, or lease land;
  • to permit his widow to retain custody of their children, or to buy the custody of his neighbors’ or relatives’ orphaned children;
  • to send his children to school;
  • to take Holy Orders;
  • to feed beasts (mostly pigs) in the woods about the village (pannage);
  • to fish in nearby rivers or streams;
  • to collect firewood for fuel (fire-bote);
  • to take wood or thorns to repair fences (hay-bote), or to repair houses (house-bote).

A villein also had specific obligations. Among others:

  • upon death, he owed the lord his best beast as a death duty (heriot);
  • he had to graze his sheep upon the lord’s demesne land to manure it (foldage);
  • he had to agree to hold a manorial office for one-year rotations;[9]
  • he had to police the manor and attend the lord’s courts;
  • when the lord’s eldest son was knighted, he was taxed to pay for the ceremony; when the lord’s daughters married, he was taxed to help with her dowry.

In addition, a villein had no right of succession: he held his land at the lord’s will. He had no legal recourse to fight any of these expectations at the king’s court because Common Law was the law of free men. Nor did a villein have the right to bear arms in his defense; bearing arms was the mark of a free man. [10]

There are also a number of features that make serfdom look especially similar to slavery. A villein had no freedom of movement. If he wished to spend an extended time off the manor, he had to pay for a license to do so; doing so without a license made him a fugitive. He could be hunted down by one of the lord’s officials. A writ of naifty from the king also enlisted the king’s officials in the hunt and retrieval of fugitive serfs. Both Glanvill and Bracton explain that a fugitive at large, breathing town air for more than a year and a day, obtained his freedom; although Alsford’s remarkable study demonstrates how rarely officials adhered to this tenet.

The lord also had rights over the body of his bondsmen. It was acceptable for a lord to assault his villein, providing he could claim the purpose was disciplinary. As John Gollyng’s case above suggests, a lord could imprison his serfs. A 1201 Cornish lord purportedly held one of his bondsmen in chains “because he wished to run away.”[11] There were limits, of course. A lord could not murder his serf with impunity; and despite everything we’ve read about the myth of jus prima noctae, he could not rape his female tenants either. (This was a highly Catholic society, after all.) Yet, as Paul Hyams has noted, just because there are no known cases of serfs suing their lords for either does not mean it never happened.[12]

And as the Gollyng case implies, serfs were understood to be a form of property. Richard Fitz Nigel’s Dialogus de Scaccario (Dialogue concerning the Exchequer – a twelfth-century legal treatise) states this point matter of factly: “the villein is a thing without rights, a mere chattel of his lord.”[13] Lords could also sell their serfs. More often than not, they were sold as part and parcel of an estate; that is, a villein was considered tied to the land. But it was possible (although not common) for a lord to sell one of his serfs individually. An 1170 document from the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds records a sale by the knight Gilbert fitz Ralph to the prior of Bury. The item for purchase was Aluric son of Stannard the fuller, “with all the progeny that has descended from him or will descend from him.”[14] Upon discovering this case, Robert Bartlett writes:

It is not customary for historians to use the term ‘slavery’ when referring to late twelfth-century England, but here we have as clear an example as there could be of a human being treated as a commodity and as breeding stock.[15]

The responses of local officials on the returnable writs in C 249 clarify that serfs were treated as property. Dated to 28 October 1357, a writ to the sheriff of Essex asks him to secure the release of William atte Ree senior, recently arrested and imprisoned by the Abbey of Waltham Holy Cross, providing he was not being held for any unbailable crime (such as homicide, or a forest infraction).

TNA C 249/16, no. 25: Writ to sheriff of Essex.

The instructive response on the dorse was penned by William atte Donne, bailiff of the liberty of the Abbey of Waltham Holy Cross. The bailiff explains that he cannot release William atte Ree senior because he is one of the abbey’s naifs. He belongs to the abbot, as his ancestors, who were also naifs, had to the abbot’s predecessors; and this has been the right of the abbey since “time out of memory.” He adds that William had acted rebelliously against the abbey and its ministers; he had opposed the abbot and his ministers, and for that reason he had been arrested and imprisoned.[16]

The king was not satisfied with this response. The sheriff of Essex received another writ regarding this matter dated to 20 December of the same year, demanding once again to secure the release of William atte Ree senior. Once again, the dorse includes a negative response. We are told that William atte Ree senior is being held in chains at the Abbey. The Abbey counts William among its chattels and they will not see to his “liberation.”[17]

Why was the abbot so determined to keep William in prison? A search of the king’s letters patent helps us to understand what was going on. Correspondence dated to 18 September 1366 is edifying:

Whereas it has been shewn to the king on behalf of the abbot and convent of Waltham Holy Cross that they recovered in the king’s court one William atte Ree as their bondman, and by pretext of such recovery entered into 30 acres of land, not held of the king, which the said William had acquired in fee simple, as the perquisite of their bondman, as lawful was for them to do, and whereas they fear they may be impeached on account of the said entry; pardon to them of any forfeiture of the land on account of the said acquisition and entry.[18]

Can we imagine a better example of a lord’s power over his villein? Not only did the abbot keep William imprisoned for years at a time, but he stole the land that William had rightfully paid for with money he had earned. At least the abbot had the good sense to feel that his action was wrong. Nonetheless, it is telling that this oppression has been erased in history: the Victoria County History simply records William atte Ree’s lands in High Roding and Matching as a “gift” to the Abbey.[19]

C 249 includes numerous other writs alluding to “disobedient serfs.”[20] William atte Ree was not the only serf kept in chains. On the dorse of a writ dated to 1344, the bailiff of Ramsey Abbey explains that John Coker of the village of Stukeley Magna is being kept in chains by John of Washingley. The bailiff spoke to John’s jailer and he assures the king that John of Washingley claims his prisoner as his naif by blood, born on his manor.[21] In his 1386 response to the king’s writ, William Hod at least justifies why he has his naif, Thomas Cadyman, imprisoned: he is a fugitive from his manor of Tydd, having fled by land and by sea.[22]

The final grouping of documents confirms the objectification of medieval serfs. In a writ directed to the sheriff of Surrey and dated to 8 August 1391, the king demands the release of William Milhirst of Horsell with his livestock and chattels. William had been recently arrested and imprisoned by officials of the Abbey of Westminster and someone had complained to the king on his behalf. Nonetheless, this initial writ was ignored. On 8 November of the same year chancery issued another writ to the sheriff of Surrey to secure his release. This time, it was returned with a note from William Stoket, bailiff of the liberty of the Abbey of Westminster and its manors of Wandsworth and Pyrford. He writes that William cannot be released because, as the attached document from the abbot explains, he is a naif belonging to the manor of Pyrford under the lordship of the Abbey. The Abbey had been “seized” of William and his ancestors “since time out of memory.”  He also commented that William was a “rebel”; and that he had disobeyed the mandates of the Abbey, and was imprisoned accordingly.[23]

Talk of “being seized” (that is, in legal possession) is usually reserved for property, both landed and movable.[24] As Stephen Alsford clearly recognized when deciding to publish with Slavery & Abolition, serfs were not as far removed from slavery as we once thought. Indeed, given the evidence, it is hard to agree with the view formulated by Michael Postan and John Hatcher that villeinage might even have been preferable to freedom. Instead, let’s return to the questions they raised. Why did England’s serfs tend to buy land instead of their freedom? Zvi Ravi argues that English landlords most likely were not willing to sell them their freedom because they did not want to give up free labor. Why did some peasants give up their freedom? Because they had no choice: freedom without adequate property to support oneself and one’s family is meaningless. [25]

We are often told that the Black Death brought about the demise of serfdom. In the wake of disaster, England’s villeins escaped their bonds of servitude, knowing that their lords had inadequate manpower to track them down. Certainly, the Black Death ushered in a new era. But the writs in C 249 suggest that some lords were trying hard to hold on to their unfree tenants long after the plague’s outbreak. A writ dated to 16 April 1410 seeking the release of John Kyngesson of Wainfleet from custody confirms this: the sheriff of Lincoln notes that Gilbert Umfreville claims him as his naif.[26]


Main Image: From Queen Mary’s Psalter (Ms. Royal 2.B. VII), fol. 78v. Public Domain. Wikimedia Commons.

“Plan of a Mediaeval Manor,” from William R. Shepherd, Historical Atlas (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1923). Public Domain. Wikimedia Commons.

TNA C 249/16, no. 25.  Courtesy of The National Archives (Kew, Surrey).

[1] Stephen Alsford, “Urban Safe Havens for the Unfree in Medieval England: A Reconsideration,” Slavery & Abolition 32, no. 3 (2011): 363-75.

[2] Alice Rio, Slavery after Rome, 500-1100 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017).

[3] David Pelteret, Slavery in Early Mediaeval England: From the Reign of Alfred until the Twelfth Century (Woodbridge: Boydell, 1995; repr. 2001).

[4] M.M. Postan, “Medieval Agrarian Society in its Prime: England,” in his The Cambridge Economic History of Europe, vol. I: The Agrarian Life of the Middle Ages, 2nd edn. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1966), pp. 604-17.

[5] John Hatcher, “English Serfdom and Villeinage: Towards a Reassessment,” Past & Present 90, no. 1 (1981): 3-39.

[6] The National Archives (hereafter, TNA) C 249/17, no. 2.

[7] Rio, Slavery after Rome, 14.

[8] E.D. Jones, “The Exploitation of its Serfs by Spalding Priory before the Black Death,” Nottingham Medieval Studies 43 (1999), 140-141.

[9] Mark Bailey, “Villeinage in England: Regional Case Study, c.1250-c.1349,” The Economic History Review, new series 62, no. 2 (2009), 435.

[10] Robert Bartlett, England under the Norman and Angevin Kings, 1074-1225 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 324.

[11] Doris Stenton, ed., Pleas before the King or his Justices, 1198-1202, 4 vols. (Selden Society, 1948-9 and 1966-67), vol. 2, 60; as cited in Bartlett, England under the Norman, 325.

[12] Paul R. Hyams, “Medieval Attitudes to Poverty: Amartya Sen and Serfdom Without Strings?” in Emotions, Communities, and Difference in Medieval Europe: Essays in Honor of Barbara H. Rosenwein, ed. Maureen C. Miller and Edward Wheatley (New York: Routledge, 2017), 186.

[13] As cited in Margaret Fisher, “A Thing without Rights, A Mere Chattel of their Lord’: The Escape from Villeinage of a Suffolk Family,” Proceedings of the Suffolk Institute for Archaeology and History 42 (2009), 32.

[14] D.C. Douglas, ed., Feudal Documents from the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds (London: H. Milford, 1932), 172; as cited in Bartlett, England under the Norman, 323.

[15] Bartlett, England under the Norman, 323.

[16] TNA C 249/16, no. 25

[17] TNA C 249/16, no. 26.

[18] Calendar of Patent Rolls, ed. H.C. Maxwell Lyte (London: HMSO, 1891-): Edward III, volume 13, 309.

[19] A History of the County of Essex, ed. W.R. Powell, et al. (Victoria County History, vol. 8, 1983), 196-206.

[20] For example, TNA C 249 / 8, no. 33.

[21] TNA C 249/16, no. 24.

[22] TNA C 249/19, no. 14.

[23] TNA C 249/20, no. 27.

[24] This language echoes that of the thirteenth-century legal treatise Britton. In discussing how a lord goes about proving that a naif is indeed his, the author writes that the plaintiff needs to show whether he was “ever upon the land of the plaintiff and in what manner the plaintiff was seised of him.” Francis M. Nichols, ed., Britton: An English Translation and Notes (Washington, D.C.: John Byrne & Co., 1901), 169.

[25] Zvi Ravi, “Serfdom and Freedom in Medieval England: A Reply to the Revisionists,” Past & Present, Supplement 2 (2009), 186.

[26] TNA C 249/23, no. 31:


  1. Thank you for this illuminating article. Feudalism, National Socialism, Communism are all variations on the same theme. They create ruling classes and rest and the rest of us are mere pawns. I have friends and colleagues who grew up in totalitarian countries. They are all happy they now have their freedom. Serf, slave, subject of a totalitarian state have a lot in common. Most Americans don’t appreciate what they have.


  2. Found the article useful in understanding a family reference of a William Kyberd born 1570. He received his charter of manumission from the Abbot of Saint Edmund of Bury. His father John Kyberd was born 1544 and married Marie Belconger in 1569. Perhaps he was a slave /serf as well.

    Liked by 1 person

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