Origins of Medieval Serfdom

Sunday, Sep 13, 2009

[In the 3rd century, Roman] merchants and the artisans were traditionally organized into guilds and chambers of commerce and that sort of thing. They now, too, came under government pressure because the government could not obtain enough material for the war machine through regular channels — people didn't want all that token coinage. So merchants and artisans were now compelled to make deliveries of goods.

So that if you had a factory for making garments, you now had to deliver so many garments to the government requisitions. If you had ships, you had to carry government goods in your ships. In other words, what we have here is a kind of nationalization of private enterprises, and this nationalization means that the people who use their money and their talent are now compelled to serve the state whether they like it or not.

When people tried to get out of this they were then, by law, compelled to remain in the occupation that they were in. In other words, you couldn't change your job or your business.

This was not sufficient because, after all, death is a relief from taxes. So the occupations were now made hereditary. When you died, your son had to take up your profession. If your father was a shoemaker, you had to be a shoemaker. These laws started by being restricted to the defense-oriented industries but, of course, gradually it was realized that everything is defense-oriented.

The peasantry, known as the coloni, were leaseholders on both imperial and private estates. They too were formerly a free class. Now under the same kinds of pressures that all smallholders were in in this situation, they began to drift away, trying to find better opportunities, better leases, or better occupations. So under Diocletian the coloni were now bound to the soil.

Anyone who had a lease on a particular piece of land could not give that lease up. More than that, they had to stay on the land and work it. In effect, this is the beginning of what in the Middle Ages is called serfdom, but it actually has its origins here in late Roman society.

Inflation and the Fall of the Roman Empire, Joseph R. Peden, October 27, 1984, http://mises.org/story/3663 (MP3).