Skip to main content Accessibility help

The Causes of Slavery or Serfdom: A Hypothesis

  • Evsey D. Domar (a1)

The purpose of this paper is to present, or more correctly, to revive, a hypothesis regarding the causes of agricultural serfdom or slavery (used here interchangeably). The hypothesis was suggested by Kliuchevsky's description of the Russian experience in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but it aims at a wider applicability.

Hide All

For many helpful comments on an earlier draft, I am grateful to the following persons: Abraham Becker, Oleg Hoeffding, Clayton La Force, Edward Mitchell, William Parker, George Rosen, Matthew Edel, Peter Temin, Helen Turin and Charles Wolf, Jr. Alexander Gerschenkron's earlier suggestions were also very helpful. Thanks are also due Ann Peet for her excellent research assistance.

I am also grateful to the RAND Corporation for its support of an earlier version of this study (20 October 1966), and to the National Science Foundation for its assistance (Grant No. NSF-GS-2627) in revising and extending the first draft. Neither these two organizations, nor the persons listed above, are responsible for the views expressed here.

1 Kliuchevsky, V., Kurs russkoiˇ istorii (Moscow: Gosudarstvennoe sotsial'no-eko-nomicheskoe izdatel'stvo, 1937). The original work was published in 1906. All my references apply to the 1937 edition. An English translation by C. J. Hogarth, A History of Russia, was published in New York by Russell and Russell in 1960. For specific references, see Part II.

2 I mean by the “government” any organization capable of maintaining some measure of law and order and particularly of using non-economic compulsion. It can be a king, an assembly of landowners, a magnate, etc.

3 He may be restrained by custom and by the fear that his serfs can run away—a common occurence in Russia.

4 Actually, it is not easy to compare the relative profitability of free and slave labor. Since the free worker is paid more or less concurrently with his work, while a slave must be either reared or purchased, and may have children, etc., the streams of receipts and expenditures from the two kinds of labor must be properly discounted. It is assumed in the text that all indirect costs of using slaves, such as medical expense, extra supervision, etc., are included in Ws.

In a well-organized slave market, the price of a slave will approximate the present value of his discounted net lifetime marginal product. A buyer who pays this price will discover that he will earn not much more than the going rate of interest; he will complain about the high cost of slaves and express doubt regarding the profitability of slavery in general, because at the margin he will be fairly indifferent between employing free or slave labor. But so long as the supply of food and of similar items for the maintenance of slaves is elastic (which it is likely to be), the slave-breeder should do very well. He benefits from the chronic perpetual disequilibrium in the slave market created by the abundance of land and by the limited human capacity to procreate (assuming no importation of slaves). But if the slave-breeder computes his rate of return on the current value of his slaves and land, he may not record much more than the market rate of interest either. In other words, the market mechanism transforms the profit from slaves into capital gains.

On this see Lewis Cecil Gray, History of Agriculture in the Southern United States to 1860, published in 1933 and reproduced in part in Woodman, Harold D., Slavery and the Southern Economy: Sources and Readings (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1966), pp. 106–09, and Conrad, Alfred H. and Meyer, John R., The Economics of Slavery and Other Studies in Econometric History (Chicago: Aldine Publishing Company, 1964), pp. 4392.

5 It is possible that even in a Malthusian society slavery (or serfdom) may linger on. Slaves may be kept for reasons of social prestige (a relic from the times when slavery was profitable), or simply because a slave is more reliable than a hired man. On the other hand, the use of a tenant (with a limited lease) or of a hired man allows the landowner to choose the best among several applicants with much greater ease than among slaves or serfs protected by custom.

6 Kliuchevsky, Vol. I, p. 379; Vol. III, pp. 9–10, 121. Blum, however, talks about depopulation already in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. See Blum, Jerome, Lord and Peasant in Russia from the Ninth to the Nineteenth Century (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961), pp. 6061. It is possible that Kliuchevsky describes the relative position of Moscow among other Russian lands, while Blum refers to the whole country.

7 Kliuchevsky, Vol. I, pp. 282–83; Vol. II, pp. 182–83.

8 Ibid., Vol. II, pp. 121,125, 221–22; Vol. III, p. 135.

9 Ibid., Vol. II, pp. 221, 229–42, 248; Vol. III, pp. 63–64, 230–31, 257, 283. Blum, pp. 93, 157.

10 Kliuchevsky, Vol. II, pp. 254–57, 339–44; Vol. III, pp. 182, 244. Blum, pp. 147, 152–54, 157, 160, 252. Grekov, B. D., Krest'iane na Rusi s drevneiˇshikh vremen do XVII veka (Moscow-Leningrad: Izdatel'stvo Akademii Nauk SSSR, 1946), pp. 794–96, 849.

11 Kliuchevsky, Vol. II, pp. 259, 307. Blum, pp. 253–54. Grekov, pp. 870–71, 903, 909. Grekov, , Glavneiˇshie etapy v istorii krepostnogo prava v Rossii (Moscow-Leningrad: Gosudarstvennoe sotsial'no-ekonomicheskoe izdatel'stvo, 1940), p. 46.

It is interesting to note that when the leaders of the gentry militia were negotiating a treaty with the Polish king Sigismund regarding the accession of his son to the Moscow throne in 1610 and in 1611, they demanded the inclusion of a provision forbidding the movement of peasants. Kliuchevsky, Vol. II, p. 349.

12 Kliuchevsky, Vol. Ill, p. 188.

13 Ibid., Vol. II, pp. 317–18, 336–37, 340. Blum, pp. 96, 234.

14 Kliuchevsky, Vol. II, pp. 321–23, 331–50; Vol. III, pp. 181–88. Blum, pp. 254–55. Grekov, Krest'iane, pp. 826, 850. Grekov, Glavneiˇshie, pp. 64–65.

If the peasants' debts tied them to their lords as strongly and as hopelessly as Kliuchevsky asserts, it is puzzling that the government had first to limit and then to forbid their movement by law.

15 Kliuchevsky, Vol. III, pp. 243–46; Vol. IV, pp. 142–48. Grekov, Glavneiˇshie, pp. 71–72.

16 Here are a few examples: In Pushkin's Dubrovsky, the old Dubrovsky is identified as the owner of seventy souls, and Prince Vereisky, of three thousand; in The Captain's Daughter, the commandant's wife is impressed by Grinev's father's ownership of three hundred souls; in Gogol's The Dead Souls, Pliushkin owns more than a thousand souls; in Goncharov's Oblomov, the principal hero owns three hundred and fifty; in his A Common Story, a certain Anton Ivanich has twelve, mortgaged over and over again….

17 Kliuchevsky, Vol. I, p. 293.

18 Ibid., Vol. I, pp. 293–94. Grekov, Krest'iane, p. 387.

19 Blum, Jerome, “The Rise of Serfdom in Eastern Europe,” American Historical Review, LXII (1957), pp. 807–36. See particularly pp. 821–22.

20 Kliuchevsky, Vol. III, pp. 101–02.

21 Grekov, Krest'iane, pp. 381–83. There seems to be considerable disagreement among the authorities he cites. He mentions a number of legislative enactments passed at the end of the fifteenth century and in 1510, 1519, 1520, 1532 limiting the freedom of peasants to move (p. 387).

22 Blum, “The Rise of Serfdom,” p. 819.

23 Ostrogorsky, Georg, “Agrarian Conditions in the Byzantine Empire in the Middle Ages,” The Cambridge Economic History of Europe, Second Edition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1966), I, 206. See also pages 11, 27–28, 33, 66 and 257 of the same volume. Also, Brownlow, W. R., Lectures on Slavery and Serfdom in Europe (London and New York: Burns and Oates, Ltd., 1892), pp. 4950.

24 François Louis Ganshof and Adriaan Verhulst, “Medieval Agrarian Society in its Prime: France, The Low Countries, and Western Germany,” Cambridge Economic History, I, 294; M.M. Postan in his essay on “England,” same volume, pp. 552–56, 563–64, 624; Blum, “The Rise of Serfdom,” pp. 810–11.

25 Smith, R. E. F., The Enserfment of the Russian Peasantry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968), p. 4.

26 Postan, essay on “England,” Cambridge Economic History, I, 566–70.

27 Ibid., p. 609.

28 Brownlow, Lectures on Slavery, pp. 157–83. Smith, Enserfment, pp. 4–5.

29 The idea that sheep-breeding may have had something to do with serfdom was suggested by Nieboer in his book (pp. 371–75) discussed in Part III.

30 Ponting, K. G., The Wool Trade Past and Present (Manchester and London: Columbine Press, 1961), p. 30. The figures are based on a chart facing p. xviii of Medieval Merchant Ventures by E. Caruss Wilson.

31 According to Postan, p. 568, domestic consumption of cloth is not known. Peter J. Bowden arbitrarily assumed it to be 50 percent. See his The Wool Trade in Tudor and Stuart England (London: Macmillan & Co., Ltd., 1962), p. 37.

32 Data on the size of the sheep population, or more correctly on increments in it, would not be sufficient for our problem. We would have to know how many cropraising peasants were replaced, say, by 1,000 extra sheep.

33 See Lipson, E., The History of the Woollen and Worsted Industries (London?: Frank Cass & Co., Ltd., 1965), p. 19; Nasse, E., On the Agricultural Community of the Middle Ages, and Inclosures of the Sixteenth Century in England (London: Macmillan & Co., 1871), pp. 7778; Brownlow, Lectures on Slavery, p. 184; Bowden, Wool Trade, p. xvi.

34 Woodman, Slavery and the Southern Economy, p. 7.

35 Conrad and Meyer, Economics of Slavery, p. 80; Sellers, James Benson, Slavery in Alabama (University, Alabama: University of Alabama Press, 1950), pp. 71, 120, 162–63; Taylor, Rosser Howard, Slaveholding in North Carolina: An Economic View (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1926), p. 72; Trexler, Harrison Anthony, Slavery in Missouri (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1914), pp. 13, 19; Woodman, Slavery and the Southern Economy, pp. 14–15.

36 As the authors practically admit on p. 78. On the profitability debate see Stanley L. Engerman, “The Effects of Slavery Upon the Southern Economy: A Review of the Recent Debate,” Explorations in Entrepreneurial History, Second Series, IV (1967), pp. 71–97.

37 It was published in The Hague by Martinus Nijhoff. A republication is scheduled in 1970 by Burt Franklin, Publisher, New York.

38 Smith, Adam, The Wealth of Nations (London: Cannan's edition, 1922), II, 6668. There is another book by Wakefield, on the-same subject: England and America: A Comparison of the Social and Political State of Both Nations (London: Richard Bentley, 1833), Vol. II. Other sources: Cairnes, J. E., The Slave Power (London: Parker, Son, and Bourn, 1862); Mill, J. S., Principles of Political Economy, 1848 (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1920), I, 316.

39 Nieboer, Slavery as an Industrial System, pp. 312, 389.

40 A clear statement by Ostrogorsky was quoted in Part II. For the American views, see Woodman's collection.

41 Genovese, Eugene D., The Political Economy of Slavery (New York: Vintage Books, 1967), p. 84. Ulrich B. Phillips, “The Economic Cost of Slaveholding in the Cotton Belt,” Pol. Sci. Q., XX (June 1905), partially reproduced in Woodman, Slavery and the Southern Economy, p. 36.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

The Journal of Economic History
  • ISSN: 0022-0507
  • EISSN: 1471-6372
  • URL: /core/journals/journal-of-economic-history
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed