Some questions about serfdom

Oct 2018
6
Cornwall
#1
Hi! I'm doing a roleplay where my character will begin as a serf and become a mercenary. However, I was wondering how viable this is within reason. I know my character is pretty much a slave, so I considered maybe they would plot an escape to another county or country where a mere serf would unlikely to be pursued. How far would a serf actually have to go before people would stop pursuing them? How determined would their lord be in tracking them down? What about using markets and such to buy food and supplies? Would they want to know who my character is and where they are from, and would they suspect my character might be a runaway serf and turn them in? Also would it be possible for my character to poach, cook and salt the meat to sell in small quantities without attracting suspicion in order to make a living? Would any mercenary company that they tried to join be suspicious of who they are and where they came from? What would be the most realistic way for them to break free of the bonds of serfdom?

I'm expecting my character to have something of a struggle escaping serfdom, surviving in terms of food and shelter and turning enough of a profit to acquire some basic equipment and becoming a mercenary
 
Mar 2014
1,693
Lithuania
#2
Joining mercenaries during the war or uprising would be most realistic scenario. Escape to another country would be very difficult and not because of pursuit. Serf will know only one language in most cases, have no cash money and very little ability to earn any. He will know very little about the World beyond several closest villages and small towns. In the Western Europe he could simply go to the "Free City", in the East Europe there were no Free Cities.
 

Chlodio

Ad Honorem
Aug 2016
2,998
Dispargum
#3
I see that you want this to be difficult for your character. If you change your mind, it was possible for a lord to free one of his serfs from all feudal obligations. The process was called manumission and involved some legal paperwork similar to that of freeing a slave. I suppose your character could also falsely claim to be a manumitted serf and could even go so far as to acquire forged manumission papers. Here is a link to an actual manumission document:

Manumission Of A Villein, 1278: Western Civilization I

The document makes reference to a chirograph as a way of verifying the authenticity of the document. A chirograph was two copies of the same document written on the same sheet of paper. The paper would then be torn between the two copies and one copy given to each party - the lord and the serf. To verify the authenticity of one copy, it would be placed back together with the other original copy. If the two halves matched up perfectly along the line of the tear then it was the real thing. So your serf's copy of the forged manumission document should be torn along either the top or bottom to look like a chirograph even though there is no other half of the document. Most people wouldn't check, especially if the serf was far from home, but might be impressed by the tear alone. Certainly if there was no tear that might arouse suspicions.

Serfs were allowed to travel but had to pass each night in their own bed. The law usually assumed a person could travel seven miles out and seven miles back in the course of a day, so any serf found more than seven miles from home was assumed to be a runaway.

One of the few legal ways for a serf to travel more than seven miles from home was if he went on a pilgrimage. If challenged, your serf might, depending on circumstances, be able to claim he was on pilgrimage. He would have to be on a well-traveled path to a famous religious shrine. If on such a path strangers would be common and he would be less likely to be challenged. The greatest danger for your character would be if he was in a place where strangers just don't go.

Your character would initially dress and speak like a farm hand. He would have the rough hands of a man who worked hard for a living. He could not simply change clothes and pass himself off as a merchant or some other profession. His manner of speech and his rough hands would give him away as would his lack of any knowledge of how merchants do their jobs. If he's going to disguise himself, he should consider these factors and choose a disguise accordingly. A muleskinner can legally travel, would have rough hands, and would know his way around livestock.
 

sparky

Ad Honorem
Jan 2017
2,725
Sydney
#4
Serfdom wasn't exactly slavery
it was the hereditary granting of the right to farm one of the lord land ,
in exchange he owned the lord some rent in nature and some work obligation , the corvee
this was usually working the land of the demesne at precisely specified times
or some form of labor such as chopping and carrying wood , work on buildings ...etc
those work duties would often been at the time the Serf would rather have worked his own land and was a grievous charge
when land was scarce being a serf prevented one's family from starving ,
when labor was scarce it was more to the advantage of the lord .
the condition of servage became more onerous as time went by ,
as the population grew but not the plots of land , the condition of the serf family became more miserable
lords were very keen to keep as much free labor as they could

further the lord had the right of low , middle and high justice
often described as he could rob , torture and hang his tenants as the plaintiff , judge and executioner
the lord also had the right of "first night" if it pleased him , to have a woman on her wedding night
hunting was forbidden , that was the prerogative of the lord , even if the game was destroying the harvest poachers were hanged
when some injustice was committed , many young men would take to the forest and turn to outlawry , outlaws to bandits , bandits to mercenary
fortified castles were to protect the lord against his own tenants and their outlaws sons as much as against enemies
peasant revolts were very common , those Jacqueries were brutally repressed in blood

an option was to run to a city , the saying was "the air of a city make you free "
when manumissied , the serf became a landless peasant and he better have a source of income available
 
Last edited:
Oct 2018
6
Cornwall
#5
Thankyou for the replies, there's a lot of indepth information there! If my character were to forge the document and run away, the lord would still be searching for them right? So even with the document, if the guards were looking out for them then they would still be apprehended, and the punishment if found to be carrying such a document would be even more severe right?

I'd like to add a bit more information about the character I am roleplaying below, in case there's more that anyone would like to add to help me design my setting and character, but you can skip this if you like. I'm putting my main questions at the top since my main stumbling block is getting my character from serfdom to being a mercenary, and I don't want to needlessly subject you to my badly designed character XD

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So the character I am roleplaying is a female serf. She's short, plain and boyish, and generally below average in terms of speed, strength, stamina etc. Above average in intelligence, but no genius, with lower than average natural charisma. Currently somewhat lazy, I plan to change that through character development. She has no parents to take care of her although she was raised into adulthood by another family. She worked for the lord's scribe as an assistant and has basic reading and writing skills, but still pretty bad. She wants to be a mercenary because she has delusions of grandeur, since she's young and has read about too many great people (I intend to have her realize she's no one special and never will be, also, eventually).

My intent is to have her disguise herself as a boy. The mercenary guild she intends to join lets it's member act more or less on their own, or with assistance from other mercenaries. They are provided with a license and can gain rank through successfully completing contracts. They also have to pay an annual membership, and it basically acts as a seal of approval so that those they offer their services to can put confidence in them. They may also be offered contracts by the guild according to their abilities. Failing contracts or betraying their contractors gets them expelled and their license rendered void, and will also result in mercenaries being dispatched to retrieve the license by any means necessary. It will be pretty hard to get any kind of work without one of these licenses, especially from the merchant caste or higher. Also the guild contracts are all legally sanctioned, they're don't (officially) deal in criminal contracts

I intend to play this character as weak but cunning. Developing skills like stealth, poisoning, lockpicking and crafting to enable them to complete their work. The majority of their contracts won't involve direct combat, and when she takes a contract with a target she won't be directly involved in combat herself unless she somehow messed things up

I guess the whole mercenary company license thing has no bearing on any real organisation (unless it does? I don't know but let me know if such a thing has ever existed please!), but aside from that I want a fairly realistic setting, and I need the world to be pretty harsh and dangerous as my character will absolutely not be a hero. The purpose is to be a sort of rogue without any real direct combat skills, and working for a legally sanctioned mercenary guild as opposed to the usual crime syndicates
 

Chlodio

Ad Honorem
Aug 2016
2,998
Dispargum
#6
Yes, a forged document would only fool someone who doesn't know the truth. The lord's guards would not be fooled by the forgery.

Heavy emphasis on the delusions of grandeur. Women warriors are more the product of modern fiction than of any historical basis. Women just don't have the upper body strength to wield swords and other weapons of the day. There are numerous examples of women disguising themselves as men and joining an army, but they always get caught. Otherwise we wouldn't know about them. I suppose it's theoretically possible that a woman could have successfully concealed her sex so that history never recorded her deception, but such incidents must have been very rare. Joan of Arc was executed in part for wearing her hair in a manish style and for dressing like a man so in Medieval times there was considerable social resistance to gender-bending.

Mercenary company is a historically correct term, or at least it's used by modern historians who write about medieval warfare. I would avoid terms like mercenary guild or syndicate. A mercenary company was a military organization headed by a captain who recruited as many men as he could. He would be paid by the number of men on his muster roll, and there was a temptation for captains to defraud the army by claiming to have more men than were actually present for duty. I get the sense, however, that you are talking more about an assassin or thief rather than a soldier. Or maybe a security guard rather than a soldier on campaign.

I can see some potential here for an interesting character, especially since you're being honest about the difficulty of pulling off the deception of the woman warrior. It might be possible for your character to fool most people for a while, but there might be one or two people who find out the secret but don't reveal it. Since your character is literate, cunning, and possessing other skills that a person in authority might find useful, in the right circumstances the mercenary captain might be willing to go along with your character's deception.
 
Oct 2018
6
Cornwall
#7
I really wouldn't describe my character as any sort of warrior to be honest. She's weaker even than the average woman. Fortunately for her she has the look of a young boy, and I decided on the crossdressing thing as a way to avoid the hassle of having to constantly deal with her gender, while still having it be a problem when people do find out. If I were to describe her end point as something, it would be as a spy. Right now she's just a weak peasant serf who's only skill is reading and writing - badly - but I want her to end up as a cunning agent for the guild she is working for. I want this to be hard so she has to rely on cleverness and skills to get through situations which is why I wanted to ask.

I've got quite a few ideas already for what to do with her after she becomes a mercenary, starting with menial tasks like brewing medicines, delivering messages and forging documents to prove herself, and progressing to spying, scouting, poisoning, swapping document with fakes, sabotage. I plan to have her complete her tasks by doing things like sneaking, disguising as a squire or an errand boy, picking locks, bribing and blackmailing, swimming, climbing, smuggling the components of tools past guards so she can assemble them on site, or coordinating with other mercenaries who are more combat capable. I absolutely don't want her fighting anyone, unless it's so she can get a beating to reinforce the idea that she can't fight.

So the main part I'm working out is how she gets from being a naive, weak and lazy serf who can read but little else, to being some kind of veteran agent for a fictional legally sanctioned guild. Any and all idea will be appreciated :)
 

Chlodio

Ad Honorem
Aug 2016
2,998
Dispargum
#8
After she was executed, Joan of Arc got a second trial (I know, a little late). The second trial concluded that the first trial was politically motivated, the judges all being English or allied to the English. In particular, the second trial ruled that the first judges had erred in disallowing Joan's defense that she cut her hair short and dressed like a man to avoid being raped. Church law made it heretical for a woman to disguise her sex but did recognize an exception if for women who were afraid of being raped. So again, there is a historical basis for the character you're developing.

You could start her out as a street hustler, willing to do all manner of favors, running errands, etc for a coin or two. She soon discovers that information is a valuable commodity. She's able to use her anonymity to get into positions where she can overhear things that other people are willing to pay to learn about. She should probably be charming, easy to make friends with, easy to talk to, so that information just naturally finds its way to her in the form of gossip. She should stumble into friendships with people from all manner of walks of life so that she comes to hear a wide disparity of information. She might be paid to deliver written messages on the assumption that she is illiterate and unable to read them, but in fact she is able to read and understand the messages, and she would know who was willing to pay for that information.
 

sparky

Ad Honorem
Jan 2017
2,725
Sydney
#9
Even among the nobles there were very few people who could rear or write ,books were exceedingly rare ,
most of the knowledge was oral with tales and songs telling of adventures or drama
an orphan would be usual , the normal form would be for her to be raised by a relative on her mother side
this was sometimes resented by the foster family and the orphan given the less pleasant tasks
beatings were the approved form of teaching good behavior , but too hard would be seen as wrong
village life was very close and restricted , the local small market town would be the only experience of the outside
there any encounter would be possible
 
Oct 2018
6
Cornwall
#10
Ok I've worked it out. While working in the manor she overhears the lord talking about a village that has been razed to the ground by raiders, the refugees are going to a city in the next county West. She forges a manumission and a birth certificate that shows her to be a free peasant of the recently raided village. She steals away in the night, heading East towards the next county East. Along the way she shows the manumission to any questioning guards she meets. As dawn approaches she goes off the road and doubles back, heading for the West County

The Lord's men discover her missing in the morning, fan out and quickly pick up her trail from the guards who met a peasant boy (girl?) with a manumission heading East towards East County. They lose the trail and assuming she has gone to the East County, they continue the search over there. Meanwhile my character has actually taken the back roads while avoiding contact and made it to West County. Upon reaching West County she destroys the manumission and begins using the forged birth certificate from the burned village as she makes her way to the city the refugees are going to. She then joins the refugees. Since the village was burned and all the documents there lost, there's no way to verify the authenticity of her forged document, and she's assumed to be a refugee.

She claims to have worked with the local scribe and to be able to read, so she is allowed into the city to assist the city scribe as an errand girl. Upon entering the city she then joins the mercenary guild I was talking about, acquiring her license and allowing her to begin taking contracts. The guild makes copies of her forged birth certificate as proof of her identity

If her past as a serf ever becomes an issue she can claim to be a refugee from the destroyed village, and that any resemblance she bears is a coincidence, though I expect the guards would soon give up searching for a scrawny malnourished serf anyway and her old identity would soon be forgotten
 

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