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Serfdom in England: 1200 to 1500

Image of serfs at work from the 14th-century Queen Mary Psalter (British Library MS Royal 2.VII)

Image of serfs at work from the 14th-century Queen Mary Psalter (British Library MS Royal 2.VII)

with Professor Mark Bailey

at the Old Court, Sutton Hoo (map)
on Saturday, 2nd February 2013.

Serfdom impinged upon the lives of around half the population of thirteenth-century England, and one half of its land, and therefore had a profound effect upon medieval society. By 1550 it had withered away, releasing the land and labour markets and pointing the way forward for England to become the first industrialized nation. This course considers the reality of serfdom, its dominance of the historical literature, and the causes of its decline in England.

Provisional Programme
(There may be variations to the programme on the day – all these subjects will be covered, but not necessarily in the advertised order.)
  10.00 Coffee on arrival  
  10.15 Serfdom in England - What was serfdom, and why should we study it? The opening session will attempt to answer these questions. In c.1200 around one half of the rural population of England, and around one half of all peasant land, was servile or 'unfree'. It follows from this simple statistic that serfdom shaped medieval English society. This opening session will set the scene for the day, sketching the major debates on the nature of serfdom, its significance and the importance of its decline.  
  11.15 Coffee  
  11.45 Serfdom and Villeinage 1180 to 1348 - The second session will look in detail at the reality of serfdom at its peak during the long thirteenth century. What was the legal theory, and the practical reality, of serfdom? Extensive use will be made of translated original sources to illustrate the institution and functioning of serfdom. We will also analyse the heated debate between historians about its impact upon the expansion of the medieval economy in the decades before the Black Death struck in 1348-9.  
  12.45 Lunch break  
  14:00 Serfdom and Revolt - The fourteenth century was a tumultuous period in English history, and historians have long argued that landlords attempted to re-impose serfdom in response to the Black Death. The result was increased tension between serfs and lords, culminating in the Peasants' Revolt of 1381. This session will consider the great upheavals of the fourteenth century, and assess their inter-relationship with serfdom.  
  15:00 Tea break  
  15:15 The Decline of Serfdom and the 'Transition Debate' - The final session will chart the chronology of the decline of serfdom, and attempt to establish the reasons for its decline. In doing so, it will consider the implications of its decline for the transition of western Europe from feudalism to agrarian capitalism, and the beginnings of the modern world.  
  16:20 Close  

About Mark Bailey

Mark Bailey is Professor of Later Medieval History at the University of East Anglia, and the author of various books on medieval England, including Medieval Suffolk and Modelling the Middle Ages (with John Hatcher). He is currently preparing a new book for publication, entitled The decline of serfdom in late medieval England.

Some suggestions for further reading
(useful but not essential)

The following books contain useful sections providing good introductory background to serfdom and villeinage.
E. Miller and J. Hatcher, Medieval England. Rural society and economic change 1086-1348 (1978)
R.H. Hilton, The decline of serfdom in late medieval England (1983)
S.H. Rigby, English society in the later Middle Ages (1995)
R.H. Britnell, The commercialisation of English society 1000-1500 (1996)
A. Dunn, The Peasants’ Revolt; England’s failed revolution of 1381(2004)

The following offer more detailed discussion and debate:
P. Hyams, Kings, lords and peasants in medieval England (1980)
J. Hatcher, ‘English serfdom and villeinage’, Past and Present, 90 (1981)
R. Britnell, ‘Feudal reaction after the Black Death’, Past and Present, 128 (1990)


Please phone or email to check the availability of places. Study Days are 38 per person, which includes a full day of lectures, access to the NT site, parking, coffee and tea throughout the day, and access to the NT exhibition. Once you have reserved your place please send a cheque to confirm the booking. For your first booking please complete the application form to ensure that we have recorded your contact details correctly.

Wuffing Education,
4 Hilly Fields,
Woodbridge, Suffolk IP12 4DX
tel : 01394 386498

Email cliff AT wuffingeducation.co.uk
(replace 'AT' by '@' in order to send email - we used 'AT' to avoid spam robots automatically sending us emails)
Website www.wuffingeducation.co.uk

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