Serfs were farmers who paid taxes in agricultural produce and subsisted on the remainder. As I understand it, they (unlike freeholders) did not sell their produce or manufactured goods for personal income, so they wouldn’t have been able to buy things with currency. How, then, did they obtain the iron implements they needed for their work and survival? Did they just petition their lord for whatever they needed?

Edit: I’ve researched the definitions of terms such as freeholders/franklins, villeins, serfs, cottars, and bordars. I know the issue is a little complicated, because the Middle Ages was a long period, and definitions and roles changed over time and varied across countries. Much of that research has stemmed from reading the Domesday Book and seeing unfamiliar terms in it. I’ve gotten some additional context from reading works such as the Canterbury Tales, The Pillars of the Earth, and Tain Bo Cuailnge.

My research led me to understand that freeholders could sell their produce for monetary income; whereas serfs owed their lords labor, were required to pay a tax of food to him and the Church, did not technically own personal property, did not have the freedom to travel, did not have personal rights beyond the permissions granted to them by their lord, and did not receive monetary income for their work. My impression was that a serf’s produce was his lord’s to sell at market, rather than his to sell for his own personal profit. Maybe I don’t have a clear understanding of the nature of ownership in the serf-lord relationship, and unintentionally made incorrect inferences.

Even if the context I stated was incorrect, I believe the actual question remains valid: How did they obtain these goods?

I appreciate being corrected whenever any of my statements is wrong, because I came here for information, and those corrections increase my knowledge even beyond the scope of the question. I’m willing to rewrite the question in any way necessary. I’d just like to be told how I should restate my question to make it acceptable, rather than having it dismissed outright for being poorly structured.

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    The statement "Serfs were farmers who paid taxes in agricultural produce" is incorrect (for Western Europe at least. As with everyone else in the feudal hierarchy, serfs paid their fee in days labour - not in kind or agricultural produce. And if not the serfs, who do you think grew the agricultural produce that fed the towns and cities? Oct 29, 2019 at 18:51
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    Oct 29, 2019 at 20:46
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    There were many variations of serfdom, and this looks at some types - you might find it interesting. Also, many serfs could sell their surplus for cash - "a serf might still accumulate personal property and wealth, and some serfs became wealthier than their free neighbours..." (loc cit).
    – TheHonRose
    Oct 30, 2019 at 0:59
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    – Semaphore
    Oct 30, 2019 at 7:32
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    Although the premise may be flawed as PieterGeerkens argued, the underlying question is sound. It is not an absolute given that serfs having income means they bought all their farming equipment - in fact it was generally in the interest of the manor lord to equip his workforce to improve their productivity. Exploring this seems an eminently fitting question for this site.
    – Semaphore
    Oct 30, 2019 at 7:33

1 Answer 1


Generally speaking, iron tools---like the land itself--would have been the property of a nobleman.

Here's a book chapter which compares serfdom with slavery. It explains (with my emphasis added):

Serfs had at their disposal the means of producing their own livelihood. As working peasants they controlled, but they did not own, the material implements needed in agriculture. Their tools, buildings and substantial parts of the goods they produced or grew belonged not to them but to the land-owner.

Some tools were produced by peasant households themselves (an excellent book on sefdom in 18th-century Russia mentions this) but for iron tools specifically, I suspect that was rare.

Whether there were cases of serfs petitioning for specific tools they felt they needed, I'm not sure. It would have been in the rational interest of the landowner to provide iron plows and such whenever this was feasible, as it would increase the productivity of their manor.

  • When, as some comments suggest, serfs paid their dues in time, it would onl make sense for the lord to provide tools for work actually done for the lord?
    – mart
    Nov 4, 2019 at 8:06
  • It is not clear who this book call serfs (country, age). This was definitely not true in places like Hungary neither in the middle ages nor later.
    – Greg
    Nov 4, 2019 at 17:27

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