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Notes on Serfdom in Western and Eastern Europe

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  11 May 2010

Arcadius Kahan
University of Chicago


The purpose of the following observations on serfdom in Western and Eastern Europe is to call attention to some of the problems, in part methodological ones, that arise in attempts to analyze the system of serfdom as a social institution in space and time.

Papers Presented at the Thirty-second Annual Meeting of the Economic History Association
Copyright © The Economic History Association 1973

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On two occasions I was privileged to discuss the problem of a model of the serf economy with Professor Witold Kula of the Warsaw University. In dealing with this problem I have borrowed freely some ideas he expressed. However, he is not responsible for the context in which his ideas are presented here. I have also benefited from discussions with my colleagues. Roger Weiss and Donald McCloskey.

1 The work by Peter Struve opened a debate on the profitability of serfdom in Russia at the time of emancipation, in which, unfortunately, his hypothesis was never rigorously tested.

2 Let us also not overlook the fact that what was called “the market” during the Middle Ages did not always coincide with our concept of a free market.

3 I am optimistic with respect to the emergence of economic models of the serf economy given the contributions made recently by Witold Kula, Evsey Domar, Sir John Hicks, Douglass North and Robert Thomas. See Kula, Witold, Theorie Economique du Systeme Feodal, Pour modele de l'economic polonaise 16e–18e siecles (Paris: Mouton, 1970)Google Scholar; Domar, Evsey, “The Causes of Slavery or Serfdom—a Hypothesis,” Journal of Economic History, III (March 1970)Google Scholar; SirHicks, John, A. Theory of Economic History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969)Google Scholar; and North, D. C. and Thomas, R. P., “An Economic Theory of the Growth of The Western World,” Economic History Review, XXIII (April 1970)Google Scholar, and “The Rise and Fall of the Manorial System: A Theoretical Model,” Journal of Economic History, XXI (December 1971)Google Scholar.

4 In Poland, one could, view as affected by the grain trade monopoly of the nobility such phenomena as the relative retardation of urban development, the increase in the relative profitability of the large estates vs. the smaller landholdings, the high component of transportation services in the total service obligations, the domination of the oligarchy over the smaller gentry, and so forth.

5 “The proprietors of land were anciently the legislators of every part of Europe. The laws relating to land, therefore, were all calculated for what they supposed the interest of the proprietor.” Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations (New York: Modern Library, n.d.), p. 369.

6 Although I share the view that during most of the history of serfdom the central authorities of the state were aligned with the serf owners as a social group, one ought not to ignore conflicts of interest in the relationship between the two.

7 Much confusion has resulted from the nineteenth and twentieth century tendency to consider a legal document which spells out mutual obligations (although in fact fixing the conditions of dependency) as reflecting a contractual relationship. I believe that Adam Smith was more accurate in evaluating the social content of the behavior during the Middle Ages when he wrote: “The pride of man makes him love to domineer and nothing mortifies him so much as to be obliged to condescend to persuade his inferiors. Whenever the law allows it, and the nature of work can afford it, therefore, he will generally prefer the service of slaves to that of freemen.” The Wealth of Nations, p. 365.

8 It is necessary to point out that property rights by serf ownérs in land were neither uniform nor absolute in terms of modem concepts of property. So for example, a patrimony represented “stronger” property rights than a service allotment. Property rights in land that excluded any and ail interference with the exercise of freedom to acquire or dispose of land were rare in the twelfth or thirteenth centuries in Western Europe and perhaps more prevalent in seventeenth or eighteenth century Eastern Europe.

9 My own inclination, in providing a rough summary of the development from a system of feudal tenure to a fundamentally different system of tenancy in Western Europe, would be to say that the abolition of property in men took place at the price of acquisition of unfettered and unlimited property rights to the land retained by the former serf-owning class.