During the Middle Ages, many peasant farmers became serfs either through necessity or force (Hilton, 3). Serfdom was a system whereby farmers tilled the lands of their lords and in return they received justice, protection, and the right to cultivate some fields for their own subsistence use (Domar, 44). Serfs could be bought, traded and sold but unlike slaves, there were some limitations. They could only be sold together with the land. In short, a serf was bound to a hereditary plot of land, and to the will or instructions of his landlord (Hilton, 7). Therefore, it was some sort of debt bondage, where the peasant was indebted to the feudal landlord, and therefore had to discharge some duties to enjoy the privileges and protection of their lord. The serf had to give part of his grain to the landlord. In other instances, the landlord compelled the serf to part with a portion of the cultivated crops (Hilton, 8).
In most cases serfs were harshly treated, and lacked the liberty and freedom enjoyed by freedmen. This includes lack of freedom of movement, not able to move without the permission of the lord, and only marrying after the approval of their landlord (Domar, 51). Therefore, they could only gain freedom through escape, manumission, or enfranchisement. Furthermore, serfs who participated in combat as soldiers and showed bravery or valor could be given freedom. Also, serfs could purchase their freedom by working enough and saving to enable them pay for their freedom. Lastly, generous owners were touched by kindness could voluntarily decide to grant freedom to their workers after many years of dedicated service (Domar, 55).
Domar, Evsey D. "The causes of slavery or serfdom: a hypothesis." Critical Readings on Global
Slavery. Brill, 2017. 43-57.
Hilton, Rodney Howard. The decline of serfdom in medieval England. Springer, 2016.