What are some good arguments for serfdom

Serfdom in old Bavaria

Cover of a serfdom book of the Hohenaschau lordship (district of Rosenheim), 1592-1635. (State Archives Munich, Hohenaschau Rule B 51)

by Renate Blickle

Serfdom was a legal status that partially placed one person at the disposal of another and resulted in a significantly reduced social status. In old Bavaria serfdom developed out of medieval quality (and censorship). In modern times there was here (excluding Upper Palatinate) both hereditary personal status and real serfdom acquired through settlement. Body money, bridal money and death tax were considered external characteristics. In the early 17th century self-ransom and lawsuits for freedom began to increase. Around 1800 only about 2% of the rural population were (real) serfs. With the constitution of May 1, 1808, serfdom was abolished in the Kingdom of Bavaria without compensation.


Serfdom oscillates in a gray area between slavery and freedom. It has been equated with slavery, according to Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Adam Smith (1723-1790), and it has been argued that "a serf and other common peasant look alike like two drops of water". Because what is to be understood by serfdom cannot be defined "en general" (v. Kreittmayr, notes I, 588, 587). For Max Weber (1864-1920) it was a variety of man's rights to human beings. Nowadays science mostly speaks of "dependency", more precisely also of "forms of legally fixed personal dependency" (Helmut Coing, European Private Law, I, 206).

Such dependencies existed almost everywhere in Europe in the late Middle Ages and early modern times. The conditions in Western and Central Europe are usually set apart from the conditions east of the Elbe. A contrary development can be observed: While the (economic) importance of serfdom has declined sharply in the West since the late Middle Ages, it only reached its sharpest expression in the East in modern times (second serfdom). The key difference was the work factor. In the west, due to serfdom, (practically) no forced labor was performed, in the east the services (Fronen, Robot) formed the core of the institute (clod binding, hereditary subservience).

The term serfdom, which first appeared in Upper Germany in the late Middle Ages, was always considered disreputable (odios). Due to its flexibility in terms of content, it could be used as a concept of order and transferred to other rooms and times. As recently as 1956, the United Nations demanded the abolition of serfdom from its members (Federal Law Gazette 1958, Part II, 207).

Old Bavaria - property in the late Middle Ages


At the turn of the millennium, the term servus in the meaning of slave faded. The servi were replaced by the homines and, in the somewhat later German-language documents, "the people" or "their own people". "To be" meant "to belong and to have"; it characterized a bond. Self (not unfree) contrasted with free. In the 13th century there is occasional talk of Eigenmann (homo proprius) as well as of the property. Property primarily referred to having goods (proprietas), but also meant the belonging of people. A century later there are formulations like "von der Aygenschaft mein Leibes" (1357; MB 8, 551) and after another hundred years the condensed legal term "serfdom" (1457; BayHStA, KL Rottenbuch No. 47a, fol. 13'f. ). In the course of the 16th century, first under land law in 1518, the expression serfdom prevailed.


The "personal dependencies" were subject to far-reaching changes in the Middle Ages. Strong impulses came from the dissolution of the villication system and the rise of the cities.

For most of the servi (slaves) the transition from fronhofdirigismus to the tax economy (pension manorial rule) meant a significant gain in autonomy. As farmers, from then on they largely organized their own farms, but they were still subject to great personal restrictions: They were obliged to manage their master’s property and to do slave labor (forced labor); on death the gain made was confiscated (no inheritance); they could be sold (saleability, property law). This describes the situation of the self-employed up to around 1300.

In addition to the change from servus to Eigenmann, the transition from servus to Zinser took place. Zinser were people who were given by their Lord for his soul's salvation (soul device) or - after they had redeemed themselves - to the saint of a church, usually a monastery or bishop's church; Free surrendered themselves. The process took place in Old Bavaria during the 12./13. Century played a major role. Zinser had their own legal status (ius censualium); They paid their patron annual (head) interest (standard 5 Pfg., wax), were not obliged to do any work and usually freely. Zinser often formed the population base of the emerging cities - a path that could lead to personal freedom. It is different in the country: There there seems to have been an approximation of the legal situation of Zinsern (deterioration) and Eigenleuten (improvements).

Some self-employed people achieved social advancement into the nobility (ministeriality, knighthood) on the way of special services. However, this did not detach them from the property, as indicated by the phrase "one's own people, noble or ignoble" (Haag, 1352 XII.5; BayHStA, Kurbaiern GU 32218).

Criteria of property

Marriage and child succession

The marriage of the servi / self-employed was now often associated with a takeover of the farm and was thus in the crosshairs of the interests of relatives, rulers and the church. For the legal validity of the marriage, the will of the partners should be decisive (consensus marriage - decretals Dignum est, X.4.9.1), i. H. the marriage could not be divorced from the Lord as before. The result were numerous indissoluble marriages with partners belonging to different masters (inappropriative marriage) and corresponding disputes. The gentlemen reacted with sanctions and, since around 1220, with contracts in which they regulated the mutual freedom of marriage of their own people and the succession of children among themselves.

These agreements became obsolete with the state declarations of freedom (1508/1514), since "the aigen people today should be free" throughout the country; the consent of the Lord was still required (Tit. 3, Art. 10).

In practice, the eminent social, economic and political significance of the institution of marriage in the conflict of interests severely restricted the freedom of choice of the marriage candidates for a long time, since kinship and, up to modern times, rulers saw themselves as competent authorities. Traces of a manorial imperative to marry can be traced throughout the entire late Middle Ages. The constellation is reflected in a promise made by the dukes at the urging of the estates in 1508/1514: In future, they assured, they would marry "khain women or junck women on jren and jrs fatters and muetern [...] sake" (Tit. 3, Art. 11).

In the Middle Ages, different modes applied to the children's series. The so-called annoying hand, according to which all children of a couple had to follow the lower parent, was no longer effective. In some areas maternal succession was common. In Lower Bavaria, by the 15th century at the latest, the habit developed that the mother's sons and the father's daughters followed. This rule was enforced through the state declarations of freedom in all of Old Bavaria (Tit. 3, Art. 9) and in modern practice it was also applied to the marriages of serfs with free people.

Inheritance - estate and death

As an estate, the Lord withdrew the profit that the self-employed had made after their death. The relatives of the deceased have been available as heirs to the estate since the middle of the 13th century. Widows and children of self-employed people who had moved into the city were to receive two thirds of the estate; a third remained with the former gentleman (Landfrieden 1244, Art. 48, approx. 1255, Art. 60). The division of estates gradually became common, but it was not until 1393 that the owners of the Rottenbuch Abbey (district of Weilheim-Schongau) were able to obtain half of the estate as their inheritance (MB 8, No. 61; 1393).

Death is different: it is a typical obligation of the Zinser. The levy had the character of an inheritance tax: the deceased's estate was inherited by his descendants; the Lord put a levy on the inheritance (the case). In Bavaria the death is mentioned late (1184/89), still designated as new around 1200, but apparently quickly enforced in the following period. In any case, a "case" has now been drawn in in many places by self-employed people. Since the estate usually consisted of movables (moving property), primarily cattle, the death consisted specifically of the "best head", the best horse, etc. in the stable, which was confiscated when the owner died; less often one also took items of clothing (robe fall).

Death exemptions by the sovereigns began before 1300 (Munich 1294, Ammergau and Peiting 1330). Duke Albrecht IV of Bavaria-Munich (ruled 1465-1508) is said to have not claimed any death from his own people. Elsewhere the levy in kind was converted into a monetary levy (Steingaden 1505). There was no basic regulation in the Middle Ages.

Work - official duties

Obligation to build, compulsory labor, forced labor: self-employed people were obliged to manage a farm that the Lord assigned them. "There must also be princes and gothic houses and grave ir gut wol order with ir aigen people" (Law Book 1335, Art. 13). So the place of residence and work as well as the type of activity, the profession, were not at the discretion of the owner. If he had moved to a city, he could easily be reclaimed within a year or a day. If he managed the property of a foreign landlord, he had to give notice there at the request of the landlord (home ownership, retract). In addition, homework was demanded from the self-employed and their children were used for labor services on the manor.

This order was disintegrated in the late Middle Ages. Compulsory claims based on serfdom should no longer be permitted, and the compulsory serfdom of young serfs should be limited to the master's right of first rent; the right of home had fallen into disuse.

Saleability - sale and buy-out

One could not buy self-employed people in markets like early medieval servi / slaves, but they were also sold, inherited, etc. The idea that people were alienable was apparently general. The rights of the Lord to his own people were recorded in property law terms - use and "gewere" (possession). The Lord should "have and sneeze" people like goods (BayHStA, KU Steingaden 318; 1355 I.14.); when a purchase is made, affiliation and beneficiary change. In no case was there any mention of a consensus among those affected. The guarantee of this trade was regulated by land law (Code of Law 1346, Art. 218-220). The same applied to Zinser who were loaned out (feudal people).

From the period up to about 1300 and then again in the late 15th century there is evidence that self-employed people ransomed the property. That was only possible with the consent of the Lord. In the first phase it meant people wanted to improve their status and move up to censorship. The buying business around 1500 took place because serfs intended to withdraw from their rule. They paid an average of 6-8 guilders and received a so-called single counting or license (manumissio).

Old Bavaria - serfdom in the early modern era

Distribution: personal and real serfdom

At the end of the Middle Ages the serfs "must have been" very numerous "(Dollinger, Bauernstand, 21), and they were" everywhere "in the country (W. Ziegler, Staatshaushalt, 154). Often they lived in a huddle with the outdoors. There was no serfdom in the Upper Palatinate (Codex Civilis 1756, Part 1, Chapter 8, §4). Around 1490, around 10,000 resident married people were likely to have lived as ducal serfs in the Ingolstadt / Neuburg Rent Office; in 1554 there were around 20,000 to 25,000 couples in the Munich Rent Office. A continuous shrinkage tendency became noticeable by 1600 at the latest. In the Hofkastenamt Munich the number fell from 10,231 in 1624 to 2,177 in 1704; in the Hohenaschau lordship (Gde. Aschau, district of Rosenheim) there were 503 people around 1600, but only 25 serfs in 1723. The national surveys of 1799/1803 make it possible to estimate the proportion of serfs in the population at around 2%.

The quantitative decline took place in the areas of hereditary, personal bondage (servitus personalis). Here it was possible to buy one's way out, and it made sense to give preference to a free partner when marrying (child status). In the regions with real serfdom (servitus realis) this path was not open. Real serfdom existed as local serfdom in northern Lechrain (Aichach, Friedberg [both districts of Aichach-Friedberg], Rain [district of Donau-Ries], Schrobenhausen [district of Neuburg-Schrobenhausen]). Every free person who settled there became - regardless of who was the landlord of his property - ducal / electoral serf. Here the primary goal of the subjects was to ensure that this serfdom was not inherited, that at most the farm owners, but not their children, were serfs. 1662 (freedom of children) and 1732/33 (abolition of the manumission) can be seen as key years for the protracted disputes. Mixed forms of personal and real serfdom existed, among other things. on southern Lechrain and in Tegernsee (district of Miesbach), Eberspoint / Velden (district of Landshut) and Vohburg (district of Pfaffenhofen a.d.Ilm).

Law: Law and Practice

The land law of 1616 (Tit. IIII) and the Codex Civilis of 1756 (Part 1, Chapter 8) contain extensive explanations on serfdom. Both rights emphasize the validity of tradition. Both start from personal serfdom in the core provisions, but also mention real serfdom. Both preserve late medieval legal clauses, even if these were known to have been out of use for a long time: The building service requirements (retract) were named in the Landrecht 1616 (Art. 1) and in the Codex (§15) as valid, although the expert reports on Landrecht 1616 already made it clear that this right was not applied ("not at all removed") (BayHStA, Staatsverwaltung 2022, fol. 298 ', 344); the same applies to the alleged saleability and to the flocks mentioned in § 10 in 1756. Both rights show approaches to introduce Roman legal usages, in particular the mother line (1616, Art. 8; 1756, § 5) or 1756 also a moderate right of punishment for the Lord (§ 16) as innovations.

The land law system classified the serfs among the minorities in 1616: The title "From aignen people" stands between the titles "From paternal authority" and "From guardians". The position of Chapter 8 in the Codex Civilis 1756 was similar, but on the other hand the serfs were referred to here as the property of their master because of their saleability (Chapter 8, §11).

The serfs were obliged to notify the master of significant changes in marital status - birth, marriage, death, withdrawal - or to obtain his consent. Most of the time, cash payments were due: Leibzins (Leibhuhn) as a recognition levy was widespread and had to be paid annually by married serfs (4–12 Pfg). Bridal money (marriage fine) was demanded less often (Haag [district of Mühldorf a. Inn], Hohenaschau, Geisenhausen [district of Landshut] 5% of the marriage property). The death charge was now usually 5% of the property. An electoral regulation generally stipulated in 1763 that 10% or more of the inheritance and marriage property should be confiscated for release from serfdom.

The subordinate status of serfs, on the other hand, was similar to that of free subjects: serfs had access to the courts, appeared as witnesses, were subject to the same criminal law as freelancers, paid taxes, performed military service, were legally competent, their marriages were valid, their paternal authority was undisputed.

Appreciation: meaning and perception

The economic benefit of serfdom for the masters was limited to relatively low financial benefits after the cessation of work obligations - in some places the children's compulsory service (until 1808). Around 1500 the duke's income from serfdom covered about 1% of the state budget; the 1803 national reviews show similarly low profitability. This must have also applied to the remuneration of other personal owners.

Serfdom always had a negative connotation among the peasant population; since 1600 its image deteriorated rapidly. This is concretely demonstrated by the lengthy processes that individuals and entire communities now began to conduct for their personal freedom (causae liberales).If the goods in the areas with real serfdom lay noticeably longer than elsewhere after the Thirty Years' War or if the purchase price of a loan right fell by 25% after this burden became known (1694/98), these are also signs of social ostracism. In the areas with personal bondage, the countless ransom purchases are in themselves a clear vote - for example, the approach of the young husband who invested the entire dowry of his wife in her freedom (Hohenaschau, before 1660) - but the requests for release that were made at the time between 1600 and 1800, the problem was repeatedly mentioned explicitly: Without exemption from the servitude of serfdom it was difficult to get "to honor Heyrathlichen" (StAM, Herrschaft Hohenaschau, A 891; 1636), because the serfs shunned because they were "considered despised by those frey-bored" (BayHStA, GR Fasz. 1115).

Much of the annoyance that serfdom was increasingly felt to be concentrated in the word itself, in the "name". Serfdom was seen as "quite defamatory defamationes" (according to AW Ertl, 1684, in: BayHStA, CA 1452, No. 702, Fol. 1289 '), and the flaw was remedied by replacing the term with "a different, linders, and suffering word "replaced (BayHStA, KU Ettal No. 554; 1684); at the same time, however, verbal analogies to slavery and to the frones were activated as forced labor in order to add serfdom to the battle concept that made the word a career in the 18th century.

Last but not least, the appreciation of personal freedom was fed by the everyday confrontation between serfs and free, i. H. the long, concrete discussion of the phenomenon of serfdom formed the real basis and therefore an important factor in the development of fundamental rights. The provision of the Organic Edict of August 31, 1808, according to which the serf in the Kingdom of Bavaria now "transfers to the free, civil status with submission to the law" (§4), is the first guarantee of fundamental rights in a German constitution (Dieter Grimm).

Research and sources

The relationships of dependency in Bavaria up to the 13th century in the early and high Middle Ages were examined by Philippe Dollinger (1904-1999); his statements are still relevant to this day. There is no monographic representation for the late Middle Ages and the early modern period. The reasons for this cannot be found in the lack of sources.

Serfdom is occasionally taken into account in the context of larger works, for example by Friedrich Lütge (1901-1968) in his monograph "Die bayerische Grundherrschaft" or by Walter Ziegler (born 1937) in his "Studies on the Lower Bavarian State Budget". The series of essays was opened by Theodor Knapp (1854-1941) who, in his comparison with the imperial city of Heilbronn, assigned "Kurbayern" to the rubric "Southwest German serfdom". However, he could only rely on the Codex Civilis of 1756 and the comments of Wiguläus von Kreittmayr (1705-1790), both of which are not very suitable for making statements about the reality of serfdom in Bavaria. Heinz Lieberich (1905-1999) and Adolf Sandberger (1907-1979) laid the actual basis for today's level of knowledge. Lieberich used archival sources to draw up an emphatically statistical overview of the state of late serfdom throughout the country. Sandberger used the same sources (BayHStA, GR Fasc. 1114-1117) in his description of the administrative measures that prepared the end of serfdom, and also gives an outline of the development "in the time of the emerging territorial state". The article by Wilhelm Volkert (born 1928) on "Grundleihe und Leibherrschaft in Ludwigs des Bayern's legal book" is primarily devoted to loan relationships. The works of Blickle attempt to describe serfdom as a historical phenomenon, the observation of which makes it possible to uncover basic social attitudes that unfold beyond economic requirements and beyond traditions of the history of ideas.


  • Peter Blickle, From Serfdom to Human Rights. A history of freedom in Germany, Munich 2nd edition 2006.
  • Renate Blickle, free from foreign arbitrariness. On the social origins of early human rights. The example of old Bavaria, in: Jan Klußmann (ed.), Serfdom. Rural bondage in the early modern period (Potsdam studies on the history of rural society 3), Cologne / Weimar / Vienna 2003, 157-174 (1993).
  • Renate Blickle, serfdom. Experiment on contemporaneity in science and reality, carried out using the example of Old Bavaria, in: Jan Peters (ed.), Gutsherrschaft als Soziales Modell (historical magazine. Supplement 18), Munich 1995, 53-79.
  • Philippe Dollinger, The Bavarian Peasant Class from the 9th to the 13th Century, Munich 1982 (first Paris 1949).
  • Theodor Knapp, Remarks on Southwest German Serfdom (Kurbayern and Reichsstadt Heilbronn), in: Ders., Collected contributions to the legal and economic history of the German peasant class, Tübingen 1902, 85-95 (first 1892).
  • Heinz Lieberich, Serfdom in the Duchy of Baiern, in: Communications for archive maintenance in Upper Bavaria 28 (1948), 751-761.
  • Friedrich Lütge, The Bavarian Manor. Investigation into the agricultural constitution of Old Bavaria in the 16th-18th centuries Century, Stuttgart 1949, 69-73.
  • Wilhelm Volkert, Grundleihe und Leibherrschaft in the legal book of Ludwigs des Bayern from 1346, in: Zeitschrift für Bavarian Landesgeschichte 75 (2012), 95-134.
  • Walter Ziegler, Studies on the State Budget in the Second Half of the 15th Century. The regular chamber income of the Duchy of Lower Bavaria 1450-1500, Munich 1981.


  • Bavarian land peace of 1244 and approx. 1255, in: Franz Michael Wittmann (ed.), Monumenta Wittelsbacensia. Document book on the history of the House of Wittelsbach. Volume 1: 1204-1292 (sources and discussions on Bavarian and German history 5), Munich 1857, 77-91, 140-151. Excerpts in: Karl Ludwig Ay (edit)., Documents on the history of the state and society in Bavaria. 1st section, 2nd volume: Altbayern from 1180 to 1550, Munich 1977, 634-638.
  • Helmut Rankl, State Budget, Estates and "Common Use" in Bavaria, 1500-1516, Munich 1976, 77-134: Duke Albrechts IV. Estimation of the (gross) income of the "Young Palatinate" in 1507, 135-220: Contract between the dukes Wilhelm IV. and Ludwig X. on December 25, 1514.
  • Wilhelm Volkert (ed.), Using the preliminary work by Walter Jaroschka and Heinz Lieberich, Das Rechtsbuch Kaiser Ludwigs des Bayern von 1346 (Bayerische Rechtsquellen 4), Munich 2010.
  • Sources short quotations, printed:
  • Hans Constantin Faussner / Alfred von Grote (eds.), Land register of the princely caste office in Rosenheim from 1580 (sources on Bavarian and Austrian legal and social history 1/5), Hildesheim and others. 1988, 61: "Notes the property in Rosenham District Court, belonging to the Casten doselbs (around 1500)."
  • Ludwig Heilmaier, The former Freisingische Herrschaft Burgrain, Munich 1911, 97-99: "Verzaichnus der kasten, lechen vnd laibaigen people" of Herrschaft Burgrain, 1569.

Further research

External links

Related articles

Body domination, bondage

Recommended citation style

Renate Blickle, Serfdom in Altbayern, published on July 21, 2014; in: Historical Lexicon of Bavaria, URL: (05/24/2021)