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Serfdom in Poland

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Title: Serfdom in Poland  
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Subject: History of Poland, Serfdom, Economic history of Poland, History of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth (1648–1764), Slavery in Poland
Collection: Economic History of Poland, Feudalism in Europe, Serfdom
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Serfdom in Poland

A peasant in stocks in a 16th-century Polish woodcut

Serfdom in Poland became the dominant form of relationship between peasants and nobility in the 17th century, and was a major feature of the economy of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, although its origins can be traced back to the 12th century.

The first steps towards abolishing serfdom were enacted in the Constitution of May 3, 1791, and it was essentially eliminated by the Połaniec Manifesto. However, these reforms were nullified by partition of Poland. Over the course of the 19th century it was gradually abolished on Polish territories under foreign control, as the region began to industrialize.


  • 10th to 14th centuries 1
  • 15th to 18th centuries 2
  • Abolition 3
  • See also 4
  • References 5
  • Further reading 6
  • External links 7

10th to 14th centuries

In the early days of the Kingdom of Poland under the Piast Dynasty in the 10th and 11th centuries, the social class of peasantry was among the several classes that developed. The peasants had the right to migrate, own land, and to specific forms of judicial recourse in exchange for certain obligations towards their feudal lords.[1]

Over time more peasants became dependent on feudal lords. This occurred in various ways; the granting of lands together with their inhabitants to a lord by the king, debt bondage, and peasants subjecting themselves to a local lord in exchange for protection. There were several groups of peasants who had varying levels of rights, and their status changed over time, gradually degrading from a yeoman-like status to full serfdom. Conversely, the least privileged class of the bondsmen, the niewolni or outright slaves (formed primarily from prisoners-of-war), gradually disappeared over the same period. By the late 12th century, peasantry could be divided into the free peasants (wolni or liberi), with the right to leave and relocate, and bonded subjects (poddani or obnoxii), without the right to leave. All peasants who held land from a feudal lord had to perform services or deliver goods to their lord.[2] In time, and with the development of currency, most of those services evolved into payment of monetary rent, which became the dominant form of service around the 14th and 15th centuries.[3]

15th to 18th centuries

Around 14th and 15th centuries, the right to leave the land became increasingly restricted, and peasants became tied to the land.[3] Proper serfdom evolved in Poland together with the development of noble (szlachta) manorial estates known as folwarks,[4] and with the export-driven grain trade (so-called Polish or Baltic grain trade) economy.[5] According to historian Edward Corwin the year 1496 (Statutes of Piotrków) marks the proper beginning of the serfdom era in Poland.[6] Likewise, Paul Robert Magosci points to a series of related legislation around the turn of the 15th and 16th centuries.[7]

It was tied with the decrease in monetary rent, replaced by physical labor, demands for which increased over time.[4] Whereas in the early days of serfdom in Poland, the peasant might have been required to farm less than three weeks in a year for his lord, in the 16th century, a weekly service of 1–2 days become common, and in the 18th century, almost all of a peasant's time could have been requested by the lord, in extreme cases requiring a peasant to labor eight days a week (which in practice meant that the male head of the family worked full-time for the lord, leaving his wife and children working on the peasant's family land, and even then they had to help him occasionally).[5] Simultaneously, peasantry rights (to own land, to leave it, or to have independent, royal justice) were reduced.[4] 1521 marked the end of the peasant right to complain to the royal court.[5] By the mid-16th century no peasant could leave the land without explicit permission of the lord. The situation of individuals who did not own land also worsened (migrant peasant workers), as several laws attempted to force them to become peasants (serfs). They were also forced to partake in various monopolies of their local lords (such as to buy drinks only in the tavern owned by the lord, or use only the lord's owned mills). Due to increased population, and impact of certain laws, individual peasant estates became steadily smaller. This resulted, particularly from the second half of the 16th century, in increased impoverishment of the peasantry, banditry and the occasional peasant uprising.[4] This phenomenon was also witnessed in several other Central and Eastern European countries, and was known as the "second serfdom" or "neo-serfdom".[5][8]

Reversal of those trends begun in the 18th century, as part of various reforms aiming the revitalize the ailing governance and economy of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. Some serfs became emancipated by their owners, who replaced the physical labor rent with monetary one.[9] It became illegal for a lord to murder a serf, and the peasants regained some right to land ownership.[9] Describing the system as it existed by the end of the century, Wagner writes: "The situation of the peasants in Poland was better than in most other countries. In France and Germany, for example, the owners of landed estates had unlimited jurisdiction over them, including the power to punish by death. In Russia, their economic oppression was notorious, and one of the reasons Catherine II gave for the partition of Poland was the fact that thousands of peasants escaped from Russia to Poland to seek a better fate."[10] Polish government reforms aiming at improving the situation of the peasantry reached culmination with the Constitution of May 3, 1791, which declared that the government would protect the peasantry, and encourage the use of contracts between peasants and their lords.[11] Any further reforms were made impossible by the partitions of Poland and the resulting disappearance of the Polish state.


Abolition of serfdom in Poland occurred gradually. At the end of the 18th century a great reform of the Polish state was carried out. The Constitution of May 3, 1791 took the peasant class under the protection of the state, as the first step towards elimination serfdom. The Constitution was later overthrown by Polish magnates supported by Russia. Full abolishment was enacted by the Proclamation of Połaniec but this was also short-lived as Poland's neighbors invaded and partitioned the country. In the 19th century, various reforms took place at different paces in the Austrian partition, Prussian partition and the Russian partition with the advent of industrial revolution. Serfdom was abolished in Prussia in 1807, in Austria in 1848, in Russia in 1861, and in Congress Kingdom of Poland in 1864.[12]

See also


  1. ^ Juliusz Bardach, Boguslaw Lesnodorski, and Michal Pietrzak, Historia panstwa i prawa polskiego (Warsaw: Paristwowe Wydawnictwo Naukowe, 1987, pp.34–36
  2. ^ Juliusz Bardach, Boguslaw Lesnodorski, and Michal Pietrzak, Historia panstwa i prawa polskiego (Warsaw: Paristwowe Wydawnictwo Naukowe, 1987, pp.39–42
  3. ^ a b Juliusz Bardach, Boguslaw Lesnodorski, and Michal Pietrzak, Historia panstwa i prawa polskiego (Warsaw: Paristwowe Wydawnictwo Naukowe, 1987, pp.98–100
  4. ^ a b c d Juliusz Bardach, Boguslaw Lesnodorski, and Michal Pietrzak, Historia panstwa i prawa polskiego (Warsaw: Paristwowe Wydawnictwo Naukowe, 1987, pp.200–207
  5. ^ a b c d Norman Davies (1982). God's Playground, a History of Poland: The origins to 1795. Columbia University Press. pp. 280–285.  
  6. ^ Edward Henry Lewinski Corwin (1917). The political history of Poland. Polish Book Importing Co. p. 108. Retrieved 3 April 2012. 
  7. ^ Paul Robert Magocsi (11 May 2010). A History of Ukraine: The Land and Its Peoples. University of Toronto Press. p. 151.  
  8. ^ Robert Bideleux; Ian Jeffries (12 October 2007). A history of Eastern Europe: crisis and change. Psychology Press. p. 188.  
  9. ^ a b Juliusz Bardach, Boguslaw Lesnodorski, and Michal Pietrzak, Historia panstwa i prawa polskiego (Warsaw: Paristwowe Wydawnictwo Naukowe, 1987, pp.291–292
  10. ^ Wagner, W.J. (1992). "May 3, 1791, and the Polish constitutional tradition". The Polish Review 36 (4): 383–395. Retrieved 18 April 2014. 
  11. ^ Juliusz Bardach, Boguslaw Lesnodorski, and Michal Pietrzak, Historia panstwa i prawa polskiego (Warsaw: Paristwowe Wydawnictwo Naukowe, 1987, p.p307-308
  12. ^ Juliusz Bardach, Boguslaw Lesnodorski, and Michal Pietrzak, Historia panstwa i prawa polskiego (Warsaw: Paristwowe Wydawnictwo Naukowe, 1987, pp.389–394

Further reading

  • A. Kamiński, "Neo-Serfdom in Poland-Lithuania," Slavic Review 34:2 (1975): 253~268 JSTOR
  • Piotr Gorecki, "Viator to Ascriptititus: Rural Economy, Lordship, and the Origins of Serfdom in Medieval Poland.", Slavic Review, Vol. 42, No. 1 (Spring, 1983), pp. 14–35 JSTOR
  • Robert Millward (1982). An economic analysis of the organisation of serfdom in eastern Europe. University of Salford. Retrieved 3 April 2012. 

External links

  • Clothing of Polish peasants throughout history
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