Recently I watched a video where this Korean podcaster, Bobby Lee, made a claim that there was never slavery in Korea. At first, I scoffed at him for being ignorant of his own country of origin's history, and for being called out by two non-Korean Americans when they actually Googled whether Korea had slaves or not, which directed them to the Wikipedia article, Slavery in Korea. But then I actually looked up the article myself, and saw the word nobi. Without looking it up or even speaking Korean, I immediately knew what it meant, because it sounds exactly like a Sino-Korean word that describes a concept once very common in China and Vietnam (my country), and even in Japan under the Ritsuryo system as well:


Korean: nobi

Mandarin: núbì

Vietnamese: nô tì

Japanese: nuhi or dohi

This particular word seems to be sloppily translated as "slave", "serf" or "servant". From my shoddy memory of Asian history, which is seemingly confirmed by the article on Nobi, there was no racial component to this system, and it was used as a punishment for criminals and debtors. Meanwhile, the classic image of a slave in western history seems to have something to do with an "inferior", "subhuman" ethnicity (the Slavs, the Africans, etc.). The Nobi article seems to suggest that 奴婢 still had "civil rights" and even owned other 奴婢 as well? In Vietnam, there were legal mechanisms for 奴婢 to become freemen, for example as compensation for their relative 奴婢 being killed by their master. However, Asian 奴婢 and western slaves were both considered chattel to be owned, bought and sold.

And of course, there's also a linguistic problem, where the European words for "slaves" and "serfs" are often translated as the Chinese-based terms 奴隷 and 農奴 in modern contexts, despite the fact that in ancient China, they were barely distinguishable. Meanwhile, if this Wiktionary entry is to be believed, there's a chance that "serf" and "slaves" could be considered synonyms.

Perhaps Bobby Lee wasn't technically "wrong" to have thought Korea never had slaves, because their ideas of slavery and servitude were so different from the classic western imagery of slavery. In my mind, I'd think of 奴婢 as "bond servants" rather than slaves, mainly because I incline to the racial component of slavery, and also because 奴婢 had much better chances of becoming freemen than slaves.

So what separates a slave from a mere serf or servant in modern European contexts? When a European historian uses these words, what distinctions are they making?

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    When; where; and by whom? In what language do you wish to make the distinction, given that "Slav" is cognate with "slave"? Even within the bounds of Europe west of the Oder-Neisse rivers and north of the Alps, the legal status of serfs an freemen varied geographically. By some definitions of slavery, every professional athlete in North America and every club soccer player in the World might be regarded as a slave - due to the indenture of their contract. Be specific. Commented Oct 29, 2023 at 23:21
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    No. Slavery and serfdom varied widely in its practice even between jurisdictions as close as England and Scotland, and were changing steadily over time across all of Europe. Pick one modern country, and one century, and you MIGHT be specific enough to warrant the effort of an answer. North American chattel slavery bore no resemblance except a shared modern term with household/white-collar slavery in Ancient Rome for example, where slaves might become quite wealthy, and purchase not only their freedom but their own slaves. Commented Oct 29, 2023 at 23:31
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    Documenting preliminary research will improve both the probability of an answer and the quality of the answer(s) Where have you looked? What is wrong with Wikipedia?
    – MCW
    Commented Oct 29, 2023 at 23:38
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    Does this answer your question? How is serfdom related to slavery?
    – Brian Z
    Commented Oct 30, 2023 at 2:36
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    Slaves in Roman times were not of a particular ethnicity; they could be freed and re-assimilate into the general population. Commented Oct 30, 2023 at 9:37

1 Answer 1


Answering for European history, notably the HRE, not Korean:

  • Serf is the usual term for a person with the hereditary duty to work a plot of land, to live on it, and to pay rents (in goods, services, or less commonly money). Rights and obligations are mutual, the most prominent right of the serf is to use certain lands.
    So serfs were 'not free' in the modern sense. But at least in theory, the contract was written down somewhere. Most serfs were illiterate, of course. The landlord may also have the right to appoint judge, or to act as judge. There was no democracy, no checks and balances.
    A serf could break the mutual contract by leaving the land for the city, and staying there 'a year and a day' (Stadluft macht frei in German, city air makes free). That would leave the serf without a home and fields and the landlord without a worker.
  • Slave is the usual term for a person who is owned by another person or entity. Hearing that term makes many modern Europeans think of classic Greek and Roman eras, or post-Columbian America, despite the fact that slaves also did exist in medieval Europe. Serfs were just so much more common.
    In the classic Greek period, a slave would not necessarily be a foreigner or 'inferior race.' The image of a house slave is more prominent than the image of a slave in the Athenian mines. In Roman times, this starts to shift. The image of the foreign prisoner turned a field slave rivals that of the Roman or at least Italian becoming a house slave through bad luck. When it comes to slavery in the Americas, racism was most definitely an issue.
    For practical purposes, Roman slaves could hold property (including other slaves) in the name and with the permission of their owners despite being property themselves. Some slaves e.g. in the Imperial palace could be influential and rich, and more so after manumisson (release from slavery). Others could earn modest prosperity working as an artisan, turning over most of the profits to their owners.
  • Servant is a job description. Serfs were not really suitable as servants because of the fixed nature of their obligations. For instance, a serf might owe ten days of labor on the lord's fields during harvest time, and have the right to bread and beer during that day. The lord could not simply turn that into cleaning pots in the kitchen. The second or third child of a hereditary serf might become a servant, but that would be a change in status.

So much for the theory. A servant in medieval times was expected to defer to his or her 'betters.'

  • Any chance you can add the word "peasant" to this? Commented Oct 30, 2023 at 13:39
  • @AstorFlorida, the OP did ask for those three. Also, peasant was a varied class.
    – o.m.
    Commented Oct 30, 2023 at 15:50
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    @Astor Florida A Medieval peasant was someone who lived in the country and was not a rich landowner of at least one manor. Most worked in agriculture but some had other necessary countryside jobs. Peasants could be slaves, serfs, or free persons. Free peasants could own or rent farmland or both. Richer peasants might own slaves or hire farmworkers. Richer peasants tended to imitate the lifestyles of the lower nobility and hope to become nobles someday. Most slaves and serfs in the countryside were peasants, but many peasants were free.
    – MAGolding
    Commented Oct 30, 2023 at 17:05
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    @cmw, serfdom was also compulsory some of the time. It was enough that a distant ancestor entered serfdom, and how would an illiterate peasant contradict the literate clerk of the (likely also illiterate) lord? The key difference in many places was that serfdom gave mutual rights and obligations, at least in theory. Not a fair deal, but a deal both sides had to stick to.
    – o.m.
    Commented Oct 30, 2023 at 19:20
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    @o.m. Plenty of slaves had rights, depending on when and where you're talking about. Unjustly killing a slave under Antoninus Pius, for example, was treated the same as murder of a free citizen.
    – cmw
    Commented Oct 30, 2023 at 19:31

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