What was the master allowed to do with serfs, and the slave owner with slaves?

What was a master allowed to do with serfs, and a slave owner — with slaves?

Accustomed to traveling around cities and countries, we rarely think about the fact that there once existed (and in some places still exists) a category of people severely limited in freedom of movement. We are talking about slaves and serfs, whose fate was in the hands of their masters. It was the slave owners and landowners who decided where a slave or serf could (or should) be. What else could the owners do with their “living property”?


In the 11th-19th centuries, serfs in Russia were called peasants who were in personal, judicial, land and administrative dependence on the landowner. From year to year, their situation became worse: if at first the landowners could not forcibly keep the peasants on their lands (without debts, they could leave), then with the accession of the Romanov dynasty, they lost this right. Peasants were “attached” to a certain estate and could be sold along with it, as well as be sold into the recruiting service, sent into exile or hard labor by order of the landowner. Families were often separated as a result.

The landowner could lose the serf at cards, exchange him, decide whether to let him marry.

Often the nobles themselves chose a couple as serfs (sometimes for the sake of laughter, beauties were married off to cripples or freaks). No one limited the landowner's right to dispose of the body of a serf: peasants were beaten for faults, peculiar harems were formed from peasant women.

Before the very abolition of serfdom, all the property of a serf was already declared the property of the landowner. Prior to this, everything that the peasant himself acquired or manufactured belonged to him, only land was recognized as the property of the landowner. But the landowner could not decide whether a serf should live or die. The murderers were tried according to the law, however, if the case went to court, which happened only in exceptional cases. An example of such a case is the darkest story of Saltychikha, who was sentenced to prison for numerous murders. If the landowner crossed all boundaries in his treatment of the peasant (he beat him, threatened him with murder, demanded unbearable requisitions), he could complain about the owner in court. It was on the complaint of the peasants, which reached Catherine II, that the case against the landowner Saltykova began. But more often the courts did not learn about the cruelty of the landowners.


The position of a slave in the same historical period was even more unenviable – although, it would seem, far worse.

In fact, the slave was a thing, sometimes he was equated with livestock and was called that.

The slave owner could do whatever he wanted with his “thing”. To punish in the ways that he considered necessary, and for what he considered necessary, to determine working and living conditions, to decide whether a slave could start a family (moreover, such relations did not have official marriage status, and the children of slaves also became slaves and the property of the slave owner). Slave owners were free to sell and trade slaves. If it happened that the master killed his slave, he got nothing for it. And if someone killed someone else's slave, this was interpreted precisely as an attempt on property, but was not equated with the murder of a person.

What else to read on the topic

  • The disgusting Middle Ages: what they then ate at rich feasts and in poor shacks
  • 10 facts about how they lived in the Middle Ages. And what, so it was possible?
  • Hygiene in Ancient Rus': is it true that we were cleaner than Europeans?

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