From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Serfdom is the socio-economic status of peasants under feudalism, and specifically relates to Manorialism. It was a condition of bondage or modified slavery seen primarily during the Middle Ages in Europe. Serfdom was the enforced labour of serfs on the fields of landowners, in return for protection and the right to work on their leased fields.
Serfdom involved work not only on fields, but various agriculture-related works, like forestry, transportation (both land and river-based), crafts and even in production. Manors formed the basic unit of society during this period, and both the lord and his serfs were bound legally, economically and socially. Serfs were labourers who were bound to the land; they formed the lowest social class of the feudal society. Serfs were also defined as people in whose labour landowners held property rights. Feudalism in Europe evolved from agricultural slavery of late Roman Empire and spread through Europe around the 10th century; it flourished in Europe during the Middle Ages but lasted until the 19th century.
After the Renaissance, serfdom became increasingly rare in most of Western Europe but was strong in the Central and Eastern Europe (this phenomenon was known as "later serfdom"). In England, it lasted legally up to the 1600s and in France until 1789. The Black Death broke the established social order to some degree and weakened serfdom. In Eastern Europe the institution persisted until the mid-19th century. In Finland, Norway and Sweden feudalism was not established, and serfdom did not exist. Feudalism, according to Joseph R. Strayer, can be applied to Russia, Byzantine Empire, Iran, ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt (Sixth to Twelfth dynasty), Muslim India, China (Chou dynasty and end of Han dynasty), and in Japan during the Shogunate. According to Pierre Bonnassie, feudalism could also be seen in Spain. Although serfdom existed in all these regions it was not uniform throughout them.