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Serfdom (Bondage), a term which came into use in the high Middle Ages for a type of personal dependence differing form late Roman slavery. As a rule, serfdom included personal rights and limited ownership rights. People became serfs through subjugation, abduction, purchase, inheritance (through the marriage of partners of unequal social status, whereby the lower status was taken on by the partner, or when the mother was a serf). In the eras of the Carolingians and the Ottones, unfree persons living on the estates of their lords ("servi casati") worked for their own livelihoods but also were required to give labour and produce to the "villa" of their lord. "Servi manentes" were (usually young, unmarried) servants and maids on large estates. Unfree women worked in large workshops ("Gynaezeen"). In the high Middle Ages persons of this status were called "proprii" ("own people"). In the course of the expansion and colonisation which took place in the high Middle Ages, an independent peasantry developed out of former members of the agriculturalist proprii. From serfs employed in special services (as bailiffs or knights), "ministeriales" developed within the respective estates of the lords; these were special groups of followers who bore arms and from whom a large part of the aristocracy of the late Middle Ages developed. Numerous serfs were freed in the 11th to 13th centuries and, for a certain payment, put into the service of clergymen ("Zensualen"); these persons with freedom of movement are considered to have been significant in the development of the class of townspeople. In the 13th century, as far as the agricultural sector was concerned, the boundaries between freed men, serfs, and Zensualen became quite fluid. Serfdom existed later in the region that is now Austria only as a form of punishment after peasants' revolts. In Bavaria and southwestern Germany, serfdom as a personally dependent condition remained in existence up into the 18th century. In the vernacular and in certain academic interpretations, an intensified dependence of the peasantry from the 16th century, particularly in the regions east of the Elbe and in Poland, Bohemia, and Hungary, is called the "second enserfment". This is valid inasmuch as Emperor Joseph II spoke of "serfdom" when transforming this dependent condition into a more moderate form of hereditary vassalage similar to the Austrian prototype by means of the "Leibeigenschaftsaufhebungspatent" ("serfdom abolishment charter") for the Bohemian countries, dating from 1 September 1781. Since then, as set down in the Allgemeines Buergerliches Gesetzbuch (General Austrian Civil Code of Law) of 1811, serfdom has no longer been allowed in Austria.


E. Bruckmueller, Sozialgeschichte Oesterreichs, 1985.