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Ordinary People & Serfdom in Medieval England

How did ordinary people resist serfdom in 13th and 14th century England?

In thirteenth and fourteenth century England, economic difficulties and social unrest could be seen to account for intensifying conditions of serfdom in villages. Although serfdom existed in England since the early Middle Ages, increasing power of landlords in the thirteenth century and unfavourable social conditions in the fourteenth, largely deriving from the economic devastation resulting from the Black Death, intensified unfree conditions for peasants. However, as will be explored in this essay, ordinary people strongly resisted serfdom due to the heavy working conditions it entailed as well as the unenviable social stigma it carried. Rather than acquiesce to their lords’ demands, peasants resorted to both legal and illegal action to resist serfdom, meaning, as Whittle contends, ‘we now see ordinary people as political actors in their own right [who] found many ways of making their interests and ideas known’.[1] This essay will consider a variety of means by which peasants expressed their dissatisfaction with serfdom and their resistance to it through what can be generally classified as ‘passive resistance’ and direct means illegal in context of medieval England, including violence and flight. Finally, the Peasants’ Revolt (1381) will be discussed in considering the extreme forms resistance to serfdom could take in the central Middle Ages. Social and economic conditions will be considered as central to the nature of, and resistance to, serfdom.
While many ordinary people opposed the conditions under which they worked, Dyer suggests that peasants’ resistance to landlords’ use of coercion should be viewed as being a ‘silent hussle’ whereby ‘latent coercion and grumbling resistance’ characterised lord-tenant relationships in thirteenth and fourteenth century England.[2] Did this mean, therefore, that ordinary people resorted to ‘passive’ forms of resistance, rather than outright action, when opposing the demands made on them by their lords? This issue is complicated since in comparison with the fourteenth century, the thirteenth century saw favourable social conditions from the perspective of ordinary people, in terms of enjoying security of tenure, while economic development saw securer living conditions in rural societies. Why, then, did the thirteenth century see ‘an intensification of pleading and conceptual analysis of the law against a political background of disturbance and reform’?[3]
The evidence suggests that in the thirteenth century ordinary people turned to the legal system in seeking redresses against the demands of serfdom imposed on them by their landlords, rather than utilising violent methods as means of resistance. Harding argued that by the mid-thirteenth century ordinary people became increasingly encouraged to petition the king in opposing the conditions of serfdom under which they lived and used the king’s courts to enlist complaints against their lords.[4] Yet does this mean that, generally speaking, ordinary people across England turned to the legal system to resist serfdom? Dyer believes so, arguing that in the thirteenth century ‘groups of servile tenants and individuals hired lawyers to fight cases in the royal courts against the lord’s assertion of their unfree status’.[5] Dyer’s argument is supported in that ordinary people became aware of the range of courts available to them in the thirteenth century, while some conveyed their hostility to serfdom by taking their lords to court to protest their free conditions and exemptions from serfdom. In 1224 a tenant of the abbot of Battle took his lord to court to resist his lord’s demands made on him as a serf, protesting his free condition.[6] Appeals to the king convey a confident use of the legal system made by ordinary people in the thirteenth century to resist serfdom, as seen in 1280 when the peasants of the manor of Michleover were successful enough to obtain a royal writ freeing them from conditions of serfdom.
Other examples of ‘passive’ resistance support the argument that peaceful methods of opposition or methods involving a lack of violence were utilised in the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries in resisting serfdom. Several historians have recognised the prominence of appeals of manumission which evolved later in the thirteenth and the fourteenth centuries, as well as the use of appeals to Domesday Book in order to prove that a particular area was of “ancient demesne” and so its tenants were free from serfdom. Hilton documented the use of the Domesday Book in allowing peasants to claim exemptions from villeinage, which had been occurring in England since the 1270s.[7] Yet it should be considered whether this method was commonly utilised by ordinary people across the country as a means of resisting serfdom. Kent, for instance, did not experience the harsh conditions of serfdom in the central Middle Ages and so never saw appeals made by its tenants to Domesday Book to resist serfdom, thus Whittle and Rigby’s claim that ‘the usual way of attempting to prove [freedom] was to appeal to the Domesday Book’ is doubtful since it appears to have only been in certain areas where the use of the Domesday Book was used to obtain freedom from serfdom.[8] Müller’s evidence for the argument of “ancient demesne” in early-fourteenth century Wiltshire indicates that this particular method of resistance to serfdom was remarkable in that resistance of this type occurred frequently in certain areas rather than being a widespread phenomenon.[9]
By contrast, in the early and later fourteenth century direct action, which could involve violence, developed as a concentrated means by ordinary people in resisting serfdom. A consideration of how social and economic conditions intensified conditions of serfdom in the fourteenth century will be instructive in discussing how opposition to serfdom plausibly changed. War, weather, and disease ‘brought a long period of expansion to a close’ while severe deflation in the period 1336-42 and widespread plague later in the century led to increasing tension. Population growth earlier in the century and extra labour intensified conditions of hardship for ordinary people.[10] Lords tightened their grip on their tenants, demanding extra labour and increasing coercive powers over tenants. Due to harder conditions, it does not seem surprising that many tenants turned to flight as a means of resisting serfdom in the fourteenth century. In Suffolk in 1361 workers went outside their “vill” to escape their hostile conditions and to obtain higher wages.[11] As Schofield argues, the use of flight increased in the later fourteenth century due to population decline and improved wage-labour opportunities elsewhere.[12] Furthermore, Dyer’s claim that ‘it was often the small demands, rather than such major payments as entry fines, which provoked peasant agitations’ is challenged in that on the contrary, violent confrontations seem to have been utilised when demands were viewed as being especially heavy.[13] The abbot of Halesowen’s exploitation of the financial side of his seigneurial rights over his tenants in the later fourteenth century led to ‘an orgy of plundering of the abbey property’ by peasants while the abbey’s servants and officials were assaulted and abused.[14]
Yet forms of direct action which did not involve violence also escalated in the fourteenth century. Poor performance of labour services, withholding money and rent, non-attendance at court and failure to act as suitors were widespread methods involved in resisting serfdom across England. Indeed, it seems questionable to conclude that violent methods of opposition completely replaced ‘passive’ resistance in the fourteenth century. As Schofield recognises, ‘passive’ resistance continued as a common method of opposing serfdom in this later period. Yet in considering the nature of the Peasants’ Revolt, the more direct nature of resistance in making off with charters and goods in Harmondsworth, for instance, and invoking threats implies that resistance to serfdom evolved into utilising more direct methods and, occasionally, violence.[15]
The Peasants’ Revolt shows the most extreme form of resistance to serfdom which could be taken in fourteenth century England. While a revolt of this magnitude can in no way be seen as typical, it does indicate the increasing resentment towards serfdom pervading rural society. The actual nature of these violent acts shows the intensifying desire for freedom from serfdom. The repeated burning of manorial court records occurred, for instance in Essex, while the release from gaol of Robert Belling, a serf, symbolically indicates the rebels’ intent to abolish serfdom and attain widespread freedom.[16] ‘The experience of at least a century and a half of local struggles’ between tenants and lords played a pivotal role in causing the revolt.[17] Yet did the rebellion influence the weakening, or decline, of serfdom? Whittle’s suggestion that it did in that it helped to ensure that serfdom disappeared in the fifteenth century is debateable, since in the sixteenth century serfdom continued, for instance in Norfolk.[18] However it cannot be denied that the revolt severely undermined landlords’ authority. While revolt was not often used to resist serfdom in this period, the Peasants’ Revolt indicates increasingly violent resistance among the peasantry to serfdom and a determination to obtain freedom. The involvement of four counties in this revolt and the burning of manorial rolls in all four suggest that serfdom was both widespread and opposed, although the nature of serfdom ultimately differed depending on location.
This essay has suggested that resistance to serfdom in thirteenth and fourteenth century England did not simply involve violence and rebellion against landlords, but depended significantly on the nature of the demands imposed on ordinary people by their lords, social and economic conditions, and geographical location. ‘Passive’ resistance emerges as a common form of resistance to serfdom, particularly earlier on in this period, including appeals to the legal system and appeals to the Domesday Book, although in some areas more direct action was utilised. Opposition to serfdom appears to have been widespread but was more intense in areas such as East Anglia, whereas areas such as Kent enjoyed comparatively free conditions for ordinary people. Yet the increasing use of direct action by ordinary people in the late fourteenth century reveals intent to abolish serfdom. While individual success was not widespread, by the fifteenth century greater confidence among peasants and favourable social conditions meant that the nature of serfdom was weakened, if not fully eradicated, in rural societies. The underlying means of resistance to serfdom, according to contemporary evidence, was passive in most societies; although scholars should recognise that, even this form of resistance, could involve fierce opposition in the forms of desertion or appeals to the monarch. When unfavourable social and economic conditions intensified, it cannot but be doubted that more violent action was readily utilised, culminating in the outbreak of revolt in 1381. This essay hopefully provides some impetus to social historians to reconsider the nature of serfdom in the late medieval period, and how ordinary people sought to resist an institution many of them clearly found to be intolerable.


[1] J. Whittle and S. H. Rigby, ‘England: Popular Politics and Social Conflict’, in S.H. Rigby (eds.) A Companion to Britain in the Later Middle Ages (Blackwell, 2008), p. 83.
[2] C. Dyer, ‘The Ineffectiveness of Lordship in England, 1200-1400’, Past & Present, Vol. 195, Issue suppl. 2, 2007
[3] P. Hyams, Kings, Lords and Peasants in Medieval England: The Common Law of Villeinage in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries (Clarendon Press, 1980), p. 266.
[4] A. Harding, England in the thirteenth century (Cambridge University Press, 1993)
[5] C. Dyer, Standards of Living in the later Middle Ages: Social change in England c1200-1520 (Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. 137.
[6] S. H. Rigby, ‘Agrarian Class Structure and the Forces for Change II’ in English Society in the Later Middle Ages (Macmillan, 1995)
[7] R. H. Hilton, ‘Peasant Movements in England Before 1381’, The Economic History Review, Vol. 2, No. 2, 1949
[8] J. Whittle and S. H. Rigby, ‘England: Popular Politics and Social Conflict’, in S.H. Rigby (eds.) A Companion to Britain in the Later Middle Ages (Blackwell, 2008), p. 76.
[9] M. Müller, ‘The Aims and Organisation of a Peasant Revolt in Early Fourteenth-Century Wiltshire,’ Rural History, Vol. 14, Issue 01, April 2003
[10] S. L. Waugh, England in the reign of Edward III (Cambridge University Press, 1991), pp. 21-22
[11] E. B. Fryde and N. Fryde, The agrarian history of England and Wales: Vol.3: 1348-1500 (Cambridge University Press, 1991)
[12] P. Schofield, Peasants and Community in Medieval England 1200-1500 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2002)
[13] C. Dyer, ‘The Ineffectiveness of Lordship in England, 1200-1400’, Past & Present, Vol. 195, Issue suppl. 2, 2007
[14] Z. Razi, ‘Family, Land and the Village Community’ in T. H. Aston (eds.) Landlords, Peasants and Politics in Medieval England (Cambridge University Press, 1987), p. 392.
[15] R.H. Hilton, ‘Peasant Movements in England Before 1381’, The Economic History Review, Vol. 2, No. 2, 1949
[16] N. Brooks, ‘The organization and achievements of the peasants of Kent and Essex in 1381’,  in R.I. Moore and H. Mayr-Harting, Studies in medieval history: presented to R.H.C Davis (London, 1985), p. 256.
[17] R. H. Hilton and H. Fagan, The English Rising of 1381 (London, 1950), p.32.
[18] J. Whittle, ‘Peasant Politics and Class Consciousness: The Norfolk Rebellions of 1381 and 1549 Compared’, Past & Present, Vol. 195, Issue suppl. 2, 2007
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