Serfdom, the State, and the Problem of Enforcement

Until fairly recently, history was written primarily with a focus on the state, using sources generated by states (or early versions of states). Historians’ views of how past societies worked came from sources that actually told us more about how societies were governed or how those in government thought their societies worked (or ought to have worked) rather than how they actually worked in practice.

In the latter part of the twentieth century, there was a significant shift toward local and regional studies and “histories from below”. Historians began to study local markets, local institutions, local population dynamics, and the behavior and interactions of ordinary people to try and understand everyday life in the past and how specific societies functioned on the ground. The findings from this research often revealed a very different picture from the one painted by prescriptive evidence from state sources. This has had the useful effect of forcing us to question how much can be assumed from a reading of state-level sources. For many parts of western Europe the interplay between local- and state-level studies has been very fruitful; the relationship between the state and local society is better understood now than it was a century ago. In other places — much of eastern Europe, for instance — there is still much we don’t know.  As the renowned historian of Catherinian Russia, Isabel de Madariaga, has pointed out, we have many rich and detailed histories of tsarist rule in Russia, yet very little understanding of the ways in which tsarist decrees were received in the localities.  Did they have any effect? Were they even enforced?

The question of enforcement is key to understanding how societies worked. In addition to providing clues about how effectively an economy or legal system functioned, enforcement practices can also help us get at questions related to the distribution of power and privilege in a society and the scope of corruption. Where states had considerable administrative capacity, we can find evidence of enforcement in court records and other sources related to civil and criminal litigation. (These exist in varying forms from the late medieval period for many western European societies.) Where such institutions were less well established or less systematized, it is often trickier. How can we know whether a rule was enforced? What kinds of enforcement mechanisms existed?

Serf societies are good examples of the disconnect between decrees issued by states with weak administrative capacity and local practice. Those who study serfdom at the local level tend to think of it as a heterogeneous set of practices, varying significantly from locality to locality. That said, it is hard to conceive of this system of unfree labor without the state. In both the historical and social science literatures on serfdom, the state is always there in the background; it is assumed that the restrictions on peasant mobility which defined serfdom could only be enforced, ultimately, by the state. But how did this actually work in practice? Not very well, it seems.

It is the local-level estate or manorial sources that provide the clearest indications of how the state’s edicts were enforced. These records indicate that the burden of enforcement fell largely on landlords themselves. To stay with the Russian example for the moment, the records kept by the wealthiest noble landlords show us how various state laws pertaining to serfdom were dealt with locally. For instance, the Russian state in the 18th century issued laws against begging and vagrancy and threatened to fine landlords whose serfs were found engaging in such activities; landlords in turn demanded that peasant communes on their estates provide poor relief to the indigent from their communal funds “so that they would not need to go begging”.  A law mandating that landlords provide for their serfs in times of famine led to the establishment of estate granaries and the rule that all serfs had to cultivate their personal allotments and donate annually to the estate granary or face steep fines. Laws that prohibited serfs from owning property in their own names led to landlords providing legal cover for their serfs by allowing them to purchase land in the landlord’s name instead of their own.  And we know that estate-level rulings were enforced, because it is explicitly noted in the documents (like the one at the top of this page).  When the commune was ordered to provide relief to the indigent, a note was added later saying (for instance): “this was done as of 7 May 1824”.  When a peasant was found to be in violation of the rule that all arable allotments must be cultivated, a resolution usually appears in the file: “Ivan Titov was fined 3 silver roubles on 15 June 1831 for letting his fields lie fallow”.  The archives also contain periodic lists of serfs who were fined for infractions or subjected to corporal punishment. (These and many other examples can be found here.)

But what about the most salient feature of serfdom? How were restrictions on peasant mobility enforced – especially across a territory as vast as imperial Russia? And what role did the state play in enforcement efforts? The numbers themselves suggest that enforcement was spotty at best. A recent article by Andrey Gornostaev, in which he investigates the lively informal market in runaway serfs in imperial Russia, puts the number of runaways at over 300,000 for the years between 1727 and 1742 alone. Gornostaev is interested in what he calls the “Chichikov phenomenon” – after the protagonist of Gogol’s Dead Souls. This is the process whereby Russians (usually merchants, nobles, or industrialists) would purchase runaway serfs from the lords they had fled, with the hope of finding them and collecting fines and fees from those who had illegally harbored them. The article examines the various ways in which grey areas in the law regarding the ownership and sale of enserfed peasants could be exploited. Gornostaev’s findings lend support to the notion that the enforcement of mobility restrictions was, in practice, up to the landlords. Yes, the state forbade the flight of serfs and set hefty fines as punishments for those who lured serfs away from their owners or harbored fugitives. But it was left to serf owners themselves to find the fugitives, to bring suit against those who harbored them, and to extract the fines and penalties from the guilty parties.

Not surprisingly, many noble landlords did not have the appetite for prolonged conflict with their peers. In an especially telling example, Gornostaev relays the tale of a noble landlord who sold his runaway serfs to a third party, explaining to him exactly where they could be found and what sort of capital they possessed. Gornostaev suggests that suing for their return was too much trouble for the owner himself, and he felt he was better off selling the rights to a stranger. This is consistent with evidence for the Voshchazhnikovo estate, where the (very wealthy and powerful) landlord, when implored by a serf to intervene on his behalf with a competitor from a neighboring estate, declared that he sympathized with the serf’s plight, but intervening would provoke a conflict with the other landlord and bring everyone “great unpleasantness”.

It is not only the Russian case, however, that forces a re-think of our assumptions about serfdom and the role of the state. The same kinds of questions about enforcement arise in the context of 17th-century Prussia. The vast majority of landholdings there were abandoned by serfs during the Thirty Years’ War and nobles’ attempts to reassert their rights to serf labor were thwarted repeatedly.  While the Great Elector decreed that serfs were obligated to return to their holdings and that mobility restrictions were still in force, these proclamations had little effect. Noble landlords in the Mark Brandenburg noted several years later that their serfs remained unimpressed and had still not returned. Similarly, as the competition for new serf tenants intensified, the ruler set limits on the terms that could be offered by landlords to attract labor.  And again, for years afterwards, nobles complained that their better-off peers paid no heed to these limits and filled their labor needs through “unfair competition”.  (More detailed discussions of the Prussian case can be found here and here and here and here.) In the end, of course, Prussian serfdom was re-established – in contrast to English serfdom in the period after the Black Death. This raises interesting questions about the differences in these societies, especially with regard to the relative strength of these entities (states, landlords, peasants) and the willingness and ability of states to serve as enforcers.

None of this is to say that the state was irrelevant to serfdom or to imply that serfdom “didn’t really matter” because it wasn’t actually enforced systematically. In fact, it may have been that the best way to ensure against peasant flight was to do more policing locally. In this way, the coercive powers of landlords would have been inversely correlated to the weakness of the state. But if local policing by landlords was the only sure way to counter peasant flight, we might have to rethink existing narratives about the origins of serfdom and our assumptions about its persistence over time.


  • Tracy Dennison

    I am Professor of Social Science History at the California Institute of Technology. I am interested primarily in the character and role of institutions in premodern societies, and how they affected the decisions ordinary people made in their everyday lives. To date, my work has focused on the role of entities like states, landlords, communities, and households in central and Eastern Europe before 1900. My current research project examines the relationship between state capacity and the rise and decline of serfdom in Europe, in particular the cases of Prussia and Russia.

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