Serfdom is distinguished from slavery chiefly by the body of rights the serfs held by a custom generally recognized as inviolable, by the strict arrangement that made the peasants servile in a group rather than individually, and by the fact that they could usually pass the right to work their land on to a son. In Western Europe during the Middle Ages the status of manorial peasants was regulated by local custom, and a wide diversity of names was applied to the various types of tenancy, which extended from the completely servile tenant to the freeholder who paid only a form of rent. Many serfs were theoretically subject to labor service at the will of the lord and in many cases the lord had the right to arrange the marriage of his serfs, but all such matters came to be governed by set customs. In legal theory the serf's holding was granted at the will of the lord, but in practice the right to hold came to be hereditary.
Serfdom sometimes arose from the conquest of a people by victors who did not reduce the natives to slavery but only depressed them to tributaries; these tributaries held their lands as of old, but paid dues (especially labor dues) to the conquerors. Thus serfdom was established in some Aegean regions by Greek conquests. More generally it may be said that serfdom arose only under a local agricultural economy, connected with a political system based on personal contract—some form of feudalism.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.