As far as I understand serfdom is very closely related to slavery. For example, Wikipedia mentions serfs could be traded, bought and sold and were more or less at the mercy of their owner/lord and even the word serf is derived from the word slave. I understand that one big distinction between serfdom and slavery, as mentioned on the Wikipedia page, is that serfs were tied to land. But it does not mention where this institution came, which is what I would like to know.

The reason why I am wondering about the above is that from my own reading on slavery I understand that it was quite heterogeneous. As explained here, slavery in ancient Rome was not the same institution as for example slavery in the US. This shows that there are already varieties of slavery, so why is serfdom considered distinct and different?

Is it just that the term serfdom is itself historic so it stuck even though there is no fundamental difference, or do historians consider these two institutions different on some fundamental level?

I also understand that slavery and serfdom were different in different countries, as mentioned in the comments, but this is what just adds to my confusion. As mentioned in the Wikipedia article, slavery is very similar to serfdom and even the word serfdom derives from the Latin word for slave, but then there are different forms of slavery and different forms of serfdom which to me implies there is some fundamental difference which is not explained in the article (or at least I did not understood it if it was).

To clarify even more, I see that the article says that there was difference in rights under feudalism between slavery and serfdom, but there was difference between rights of slaves in Rome and the US. In fact, based on the blog article, it seems to me there was bigger difference between rights of Slaves in Rome and US than between slaves and serfs under feudalism. That is what confuses me.

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    Also difficult to answer without knowing where and when. "Serf' and "slave" exist in legal frameworks. American chattel slavery is very different from other forms, and it is imprecise to compare (for example) Russian serfs with English serfs.
    – MCW
    May 20, 2020 at 12:05
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    The distinction seems to be explained in the Wikipedia article you cited. Perhaps you could edit your question to explain exactly what it is about that explanation you find unclear? May 20, 2020 at 12:13
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    The article on Villein expands on that of serfdom in many ways specific to Western Europe (generally that area west of the oder-Neisse line).) May 20, 2020 at 12:15
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    @Ezekiel - No apology needed - the question is suboptimal, not wrong. Every stack has to have a process to explain the culture to new users. Welcome to the stack and hope we can answer the question to your satisfaction.
    – MCW
    May 20, 2020 at 12:21
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    Are you primarily interested in Feudal England, or some other region of Europe. Conditions varied greatly between regions - so one question per region please. May 20, 2020 at 12:21

6 Answers 6


It seems like you are trying to treat "slavery" and "serfdom" as trans-historical categories, and that is where the confusion lies. To make meaningful definitions and comparisons, we have to be more specific. There are many different forms of so-called "unfree labor" and each must be understood in its own context.

Unfree Labor is the title of a classic book by Peter Kolchin. It draws comparisons between slavery in the US South and serfdom in Russia during the late-sixteenth through mid-nineteenth centuries.

The independence and resident mentality of American slaveholders facilitated the emergence of a vigorous crusade to defend slavery from outside attack, whereas an absentee orientation and dependence on the central government rendered serfholders unable successfully to defend serfdom. Russian serfs, who generally lived on larger holdings than American slaves and faced less immediate interference in their everyday lives, found it easier to assert their communal autonomy but showed relatively little solidarity with peasants outside their own villages; American slaves, by contrast, were both more individualistic and more able to identify with all other blacks, both slave and free.

Ancient slavery is something closer to early modern serfdom than early modern slavery in many respects. But it's a more difficult comparison to make because the ancient world was very different in all sorts of ways. This blog makes the attempt.

In the Roman Empire, slaves could obtain freedom much more quickly than slaves during 1600s-1800s in North America. Also, in the Roman Empire, slaves were at times educated, held status within their households and were valued by their owners. That is not to say that all slaves within the Roman Empire had access to these aspects, but they were present and common practice within Roman society. In comparison, slaves in North America were not afforded these features, they were a source of labor and, eventually in the Southern Colonies, they became essential for the economy. Furthermore, slaves during the Roman Empire were typically ‘white’ and viewed as a person/human being. While in the North American Colonies, slaves were typically black or Indian, no white person was enslaved, and slaves were typically not viewed as having the same rights as free individuals, nor were they believed to be fully human.

To conclude, I wouldn't make too much of the terms "slavery" and "serfdom" when divorced from their specific historical context.

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    I would say almost the opposite perhaps... that each example of slavery and/or serfdom should be treated as its own unique thing, totally different from any other example, except where you can show that there are real connections or similarities between them. Just because two historical processes are both called "slavery" doesn't mean that they are necessarily related in any way.
    – Brian Z
    May 20, 2020 at 13:01
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    @rs.29 If we're talking about later periods, then after Peter the Great they were tied to the land as long as the master wanted them to; serfs were sold (without land) in late 18th century. During the 19th century various restrictions were gradually implemented until serfdom was eventually abolished, but before that sales happened - e.g. since 1808 it was prohibited to sell serfs in marketplaces, and until 1808 it was allowed, there were newspaper ads for selling serfs until such ads were prohibited in 1801; but as selling itself was still allowed, only the ad text was changed to renting them.
    – Peteris
    May 20, 2020 at 20:19
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    "slaves during the Roman Empire were typically ‘white’ and viewed as a person/human being" This is sort of misleading. "White" and "Black" didn't exist. The Romans thought more in terms of Roman and Not Roman. The vast majority of slaves were not Roman, they were prisoners taken during conquests. So there was still an ethnic dimension to Roman slavery.
    – Ryan_L
    May 21, 2020 at 3:55
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    @Ezekiel: It’s not a matter of either “no meaningful difference” or “a clear difference”. It’s more like trying to draw a distinction between “stews” and “soups”. There’s a vast range of partially-liquid, partially-solid foods out there, and it can be meaningful and useful to group them according to more liquid / more solid, or other criteria. The distinction certainly isn’t totally arbitrary. But any way you try to draw the precise line will be somewhat arbitrary, and there will be borderline cases, and cases where your criterion clashes with the traditional name of some dish. May 21, 2020 at 10:08
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    No white people were enslaved in the Americas? This is UTTER BULLS**T. Anthony Johnson, a black Angolan colonist in Virgina, held five slaves in the early 1600s. Four were white. The courts even upheld this! This is merely one example.
    – acpilot
    May 22, 2020 at 18:31

Slavery and serfdom are legal terms; every legal framework (roughly every country) will have different definitions. So as you point out Roman slavery is different from French slavery, and both are different from serfdom.

There is a linguistic principle that the definition of words refers to a cluster of related concepts (think of all the objects that can be described as "chair" - office chair, Danish modern chair, classroom chair, comfy reading chair, etc. If I were to use the word "chair" to refer to a barstool or another object on which someone were sitting, few people would be confused. The meaning of "chair" depends on the context in which it is used. After I wrote this, you provided a similar example - think of all the creatures that we refer to with the word "dog", from chihuahua to great dane)

For slavery and serfdom, the specific meaning depends on the context in which it is used, but the general meanings are as described in Wikipedia.

  • Wikipedia:Serfdom

    Serfdom was the status of many peasants under feudalism, specifically relating to manorialism, and similar systems. It was a condition of debt bondage and indentured servitude, which developed during the Late Antiquity and Early Middle Ages in Europe and lasted in some countries until the mid-19th century.

    @o.m points out something that I missed, and I can't say it better than o.m did, "specific and mutual obligations between the serf and the lord at many times -- e.g. the serf owed the lord X days of tilling the fields, but the lord owed the serf a beer ration during those days. The lord could not simply send the serf into a workshop, he only had the right to demand field work" Serfdom is a mutual relationship with obligations on both sides. In most forms of slavery, the master has no obligation to the slave.

  • Wikipedia:Slave

    Slavery is any system in which principles of property law are applied to people, allowing individuals to own, buy and sell other individuals, as a de jure form of property.

Note that both reference a legal framework - serfdom references feudalism (technically an economic framework associated with a set of legal frameworks, but the distinction probably isn't important for your question). Slavery is specifically references as "de jure".

Slavery permits people to be considered property. Serfdom is servitude in which the serf is still recognized as "person" not property.

The distinctions between the various types of slavery or the various types of serfdom have to be studied each individually. If you want to understand Roman slavery distinct from American slavery, you have to study the laws and jurisprudence that define each framework. Similarly, if you want to understand the distinction between Russian serfdom and English serfdom, you need to study the laws and rulings that define and govern each.

Hope that helps somewhat - I admit that it is less an answer, and more an admission that the answer is difficult.

You asked whether there is a fundamental difference between the two - depends on the context. Is there a difference between a hound and a dog? If you're looking for a pet, then no. If you're going hunting, then quite possibly. If you're a serf, you are going to be passionately committed to the notion that you're not a slave, and if you're an enslaved person, you're going to be persistently aware that you're not a serf.

If you can buy and sell a person, you're talking about slavery.

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    yes, this is very helpful. So if I understand you there is a legal difference but not a difference per se? They are considered distinct because the laws in the past considered them distinct but its not because historians would consider them to be fundamentally different? Do I understand you correctly?
    – Ezekiel
    May 20, 2020 at 12:47
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    I upvoted this answer. Perhaps it could be improved by stressing the specific and mutual obligations between the serf and the lord at many times -- e.g. the serf owed the lord X days of tilling the fields, but the lord owed the serf a beer ration during those days. The lord could not simply send the serf into a workshop, he only had the right to demand field work.
    – o.m.
    May 21, 2020 at 4:53
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    I think "Danish" should be capitalised (near described as "chair"). May 22, 2020 at 11:32
  • @PeterMortensen - I see both alternatives. I've chosen to follow your advice, but I also see style guides that state when the word is used as an adjective, it is not capitalized, but when used as a noun it is.
    – MCW
    May 22, 2020 at 12:04
  • @MCW: Under the statement in your final paragraph: how are minor league professional athletes (and, in may leagues, even major leaguers for their first several years) not thus slaves? Aug 20, 2023 at 18:13

In English Law (post Norman-conquest) there are in general two classes of Villeins, with shared aspects:

  • Villeins en regardant:

    A villein annexed to the manor of land; a serf.

    The consequence of being annexed to the land is that these villeins are both required to, and guaranteed the right to, till the land to which they are annexed and enjoy its produce provided they perform the specified number of days (usually about 40) labour for their lord each year.

  • Villeins en grosse:

    A villein who was annexed to the person of the lord, and transferable by deed from one owner to another.

    Such villeins could be bought and sold independently of the land they tilled.

    Cobbett's Complete Collection of State Trials and Proceedings for High ... notes (pp 42-43):

    The author of the **Mirroir* (c. 2 S 38), who wrote in the reign of Edward the 2d, only mentions Villeins regardant: and sir Thomas ASmith, who was secretary of state inj the reign of Edward the 6th says, that in his time he never knew a villein in gross throughout the realm (Smith's Commonwealth, b. 2, c.10.). However, after a long search I do find places in the yearbook, where the form of alleging villeinage in gross is expressed, not in full terms, but in a general way: and in all cases I have yet seen, the villeinage is alledged in the ancestors of the person against whom it was pleaded, and in one of them the words 'time beyond memory' are added.

Common to all villeins is that their status as villeins is only in regard their lord, and to no other person in the realm, but that to all those others they are regarded as freemen.

Again from Cobbett's:

The [plea of bastardy] was an allegation by the supposed villein that either himself or his father, grand father or other male ancestor, was born out of matrimony; and this plea, however remote the ancestor in whom the bastardy was alleged, was peremptory to the lord: that is, if true it destroyed the the claim of villeinage, and therefore the lord could only support his title by denying the fact of bastardy.

Note that in addition to the classification above of villeins by the terms of their socage villeins were further classed, independently, by terms of their residence arrangements and/or the size of their land right:

Pollock & Maitland's The history of English Law before Edward I provides even more background by searching on "villein".


Most of the answers focus on the similarities between serfdom and slavery, and it can often get subjective based on the one's political views (an anarchist or communist might claim that modern salaried employment is the same as slavery, because the employee doesn't own the means of production and most of the profit goes to the employer).

Therefore, here are the main conceptual differences between slavery and serfdom:

A serf is basically renting a piece of land from the lord, where he can grow his own produce for himself, and he pays the rent in a share of the produce and/or with a specific number of days per year having to work for free for his lord. The difference between him and a free landless peasant is that he is not allowed to terminate his rent contract. But he is not technically the property of his lord. The lord might sell that land to another lord, and then the serf will become the subject of the new owner, but he stays in the same house with his family and will continue to work the same plot of land.

A slave, on the other hand, is basically like cattle, being bought and sold individually. Usually cannot freely marry, and the slave's children will often be sold. A slave cannot really make long-term connections with his community, because he might be sold at any moment, being transported to his new workplace and might never see his old home/family/friends ever again.

A serf, on the other hand, can have a family of his own and raise his children on his own.

A slave usually has no personal property, everything a slave produces is the property of the slave's owner.

A serf, if working harder or being more lucky, has the chance of having better food or building a better house or having better tools for himself and his family, than other serfs who don't work as hard.

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    good point on family.
    – MCW
    May 21, 2020 at 13:36
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    You confuse American-style chattel slavery with slavery in general, which was always very different. The statement "A slave usually has no personal property, everything a slave produces is the property of the slave's owner." is correct only for American-style chattel slavery, and was never true of slavery in general.. May 21, 2020 at 18:35
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    @PieterGeerkens : even in that case a serf can generally have more private property and more privacy than a slave. And I used "usually", not "always".
    – vsz
    May 21, 2020 at 18:38
  • I guess it is country by country, but even the "he is not allowed to terminate his rent contract" was not universally true. E.g. Hungary, the serfs could move freely after paying a certain fee up till the 15th century, and they become tied to the land de facto and de juve after later. In Central/Eastern the position of serfs actually become gradually worse up to about 19th century.
    – Greg
    May 23, 2020 at 8:12
  • @Greg : well then that's an even bigger difference between serf and slave, not less :)
    – vsz
    May 23, 2020 at 11:35

One problem, as has been pointed out above, is that the terms "serf" & "slave" are largely defined in context of the culture they are used in. Almost any statement one could make about a "slave" could often apply to a "serf" too. For example, servants in ancient Rome were always slaves, yet (if I remember my Tolstoy correctly) Russian nobility had "house serfs". And while slavery can be found practically world-wide (I haven't encountered any examples of slavery in China or Japan, but I assume that is due to not looking hard enough on my part), serfdom is not unique to Europe: pre-modern Ethiopia had a system similar in many respects to serfdom (where they were called gabar or zega) -- as well as slavery.

But in general, serfs were unfree members of a feudal society; if there is no feudal, or feudal-like structure (experts argue whether pre-modern Ethiopia truly was a feudal society), there are no serfs. (AFAICR, serfs were owned by nobility, not by non-noble individuals like wealthy peasants or merchants.) Slaves were/are people who are property, like livestock. Because they are not free, slaves can appear in surprising contexts: for example, in some medieval Islam countries, entire armies were staffed by slaves. And while a runaway serf could be punished quite harshly when caught, the penalty for a runaway slave in ancient Rome was usually death. (Augustus in his Res Gestae boasts about the number of runaway slaves he crucified.)

The distinction between the two is a complex subject, & I'm disappointed that the Wikipedia article is so superficial about the nature of the unfree class of people.

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    I've upvoted, but I think your answer could benefit from some links and sources (e.g., Ethiopia).
    – gktscrk
    May 21, 2020 at 19:12
  • In Norman England at least, most manors (and thus most serfs) were "owned" by knights rather than nobles. knights are distinctly not nobility, as still evidenced by the terms Esquire for English barristers and solicitors, and the origin of the House of Commons as being composed of two knights from each borough. Aug 21, 2023 at 11:48

There are many forms of unfree labour. Prison labour for instance or forced or bonded labour. You might want to ask your question on Phil.SE if what you are interested in the philosophical distinctions after stripping away concrete historical conditions.

A serf is a form of bonded labour. He himself is not property. Whilst a slave is property. This is the basic difference.

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