The difference between a serf and a slave.


After the collapse of the Roman Empire, there were practically no serfs in the newly formed barbarian kingdoms. The inhabitants of the lands conquered by successful feudal lords were initially subjected to enslavement. Slavery, to the extent it existed in Rome, did not recover. The feudal lords realized that the labor of serfs is more efficient than the labor of slaves. The peasants, although they were servants, had much more rights than slaves:

  • the right to private property;
  • the right to make commercial transactions (some of the slaves also had a similar right, but this was rather an exception to the rule, and it was typical for the last centuries of Rome);
  • the right to a part of his labor (the feudal lord usually received from a quarter to a half of the harvest);
  • the right to a defense in court.

The status of a serf in different countries and at different times was quite different, so this list could be supplemented. However, the above points characterize the most significant differences.

In conclusion, I would like to say a few words about serfdom in the Russian Empire. The number of serfs (private peasants) only in certain periods of our history slightly exceeded half of the entire population of the empire, more often it was much lower. Since the end of the 18th century, Russian landowners have been experimenting with the emancipation of the peasants, such as, for example, the favorite of Catherine II, Grigory Orlov (albeit after the empress had resigned him). In the 19th century, with the accession to the throne of Alexander I, there is a gradual liberation of the serf national outskirts (the Baltic States, Transcaucasia, and so on). Presumably, the autocrat was afraid to start the liberation with the Russian peasants, as this could lead to unpredictable economic and social consequences.

In 1861, on the eve of the Manifesto of February 19, which liquidated feudal relations in the country, the number of serfs in the Russian Empire, according to various sources, ranged from 30 to 35 percent of the population. Some were ransomed from serfdom several decades before the historical date, such as, for example, the founder of the famous Morozov trading dynasty, Savva Vasilyevich. For the freedom of his family (he had five sons), he paid 17 thousand rubles, amassed by entrepreneurship - a huge amount at that time. It is interesting that the abolition of slavery in the United States took place almost two years later - on January 1, 1863, and in some territories - only in December 1865.


Having figured out what is the difference between a serf and a slave, it remains to add that the last manifestations of these dependent states were eliminated relatively recently. Serfdom officially existed in the Kingdom of Bhutan (a small state in the Himalayas) until 1956. And the last place on Earth in which slavery was legally enshrined was Mauritania, where its final abolition took place only in 2007. Although international human rights organizations still have many complaints against this country.

Slave Serf peasant
Legal statusIs the property of the slave ownerIs the property of the feudal lord
RightsDoes not haveHas some the right (to possession of tools and other property, to judicial protection, to conduct economic activities)
Relationship to propertyDoes not own property, tools of labor are provided by the slave ownerIs the owner; usually these are agricultural implements, livestock, tools for various economic activities (trade, handicraft or industrial production, and so on)