What did serfs from the Middle Ages do and what did their parents do for a job?
I have to create a biography of a person who lived in the Middle Ages and I can choose between a noble, bishop, serf, and priest. It is a made up person but it has to have factual information about the Middle Ages.
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The first answer posted above is incorrect in several respects. No serf ever swore an oath of loyalty to his lord, nor were they significant players in the system of feudalism. This was an important custom entered into between lesser and higher lords; however both participants were members of the nobility. With a grant of land to the lesser lord in exchange for his sworn oath of fealty, the serfs living on the land granted were also passed along. Serfs had no role in this, nor did they pay money rents to anyone, as they had no money. If you were to put this on your paper--particularly if I were scoring it--you would not be happy with your grade.
The word "serf" is from the Latin servus meaning slave. Serfs were in fact slaves in everything but name. They could not leave the land without the landlords permission; if they attempted to run away, they could be brought back forcibly and punished in a variety of ways from days in the stocks to whippings or even hanging. In several instances, runaway serfs were nailed to a post by one ear and given a knife to cut themselves loose.
Serfs were obligated not only to pay rents in kind (a portion of their crops) to the landlord, but were also required to work a certain number of days on the Landlord's fields, mills, roads, and bridges. The landlord could increase the number of days required if he chose to do so, and the serfs had no redress. They typically lived in a one room cottage with a dirt floor. There was one mattress stuffed with straw on which everyone slept. The cottage was normally shared with farm animals and was normally quite smoky. Their diet consisted of porridge comprised of oats or barley boiled in water or milk with course bread and homemade beer. Potatoes and maize (corn) were unheard of. The only meat available was tough stringy pork from pigs who were allowed to roam freely though the fields. Beef was never eaten, and poultry only on special occasions--such as Christmas, hence the "Christmas goose."
Serfs wore a rough tunic woven of wool and if they could afford it, a linen undergarment (many could not afford it.) Most were bent over from years of working in the fields, and all had fetid breath and lost their teeth at an early age.
Although most lived near wooded areas (large towns and cities were practically non-existent) few ventured into the woods except with others, and no one at night, as wild animals were a constant threat. The stories of Goldilocks and the Three Bears and Little Red Riding Hood all originated from this time frame from stories people told their children to keep them out of the woods. In the original stories, the ending is quite gruesome: the pigs and Goldilocks are eaten.
Children of serfs were serfs themselves for the duration of their lives. They worked for the same landlord or his successor if he should die or sell the lands off.
One final point: if you are writing from the serf's point of view, make sure you write in a scribe--perhaps a priest--as no serf could read or write.
An excellent source you might consider is A World Lit Only by Fire by William Manchester.
This is a great question and a very fun project. Let me give you a few points.
First, in the Middle ages, there was something called feudalism. The serfs had to pledge an oath to the local lords. This would entail obedience to the lord in practically everything. However, most of this would mean manual labor in the fields. Here a quote on this topic from Jean Froissart.
"It is the custom in England, as with other countries, for the nobility to have great power over the common people, who are serfs. This means that they are bound by law and custom to plough the field of their masters, harvest the corn, gather it into barns, and thresh and winnow the grain; they must also mow and carry home the hay, cut and collect wood, and perform all manner of tasks of this kind."
Second, in light of this, I would talk about the daily hard work of farming. In addition, some serfs were able to rent land. They would rent it from the local lord. You can use your imagination here. What happens in there was a poor harvest year? What happens if wild animals came to eat your livestock?
Third, the serfs also had religious duties. They would often pay a tithe to the local church and even work the church's land. You need to realize that in the Middle Ages Europe was very Christian. Hence, this would be an extra work, which could be draining.
I would say that the "serfs" were compelled to grow crop in order to survive since most of them were peasants. Thus their living conditions were sometimes very harsh however it is said that the lord of their village had to protect them in case of danger. As Readerofbooks said it is true that they had to pay a kind of tithe, the "gabelle" (In France the "gabelle" was a tax on salt) and many other important duties.
Furthermore many historians contend that they lived in startling conditions, prey to hunger and cold especially in winter and in times of famine. The roofs of their houses were made of thatch, the walls were often made of wood lattice and "wattle and daub" (It is a mixture of straw, animal droppings, argile and hay). As for health, many contagious diseases as the plague, the cholera were often carried by polluted water.
My answer is not complete but I hope it will be useful.
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