Better Late than Never

On June 20, 1825, the British Parliament finally got around to abolishing feudalism and the seigneurial system in British North America. They were a little late to the party: feudalism had essentially ceased to exist in practice by the 16th century in England and many other European countries, and most countries started officially abolishing it in the 18th century.

Although feudalism defined the era known as the middle ages, it was a pretty crappy way to live if  you were anything other than the nobility (and even they were technically vassals of the king). For all intents and purposes, you were a slave, with no real hope of freedom, ever. If you were lucky, you lived under a lord who did his job, protected your family, and basically left you alone to do your thing. If you weren’t, you were subject to a guy who could swing by and drag you out of your fields and off to war with no notice. Or tax you into starvation. And there really wasn’t a damn thing you could do about it.

Unsurprisingly, people started to fight back against the system, especially after the Black Death left a major labor shortage in the late 14th century that meant workers had a lot more bargaining power than they used to. Tyler’s Rebellion in 1381 put pressure on the powers that be to reform the feudal system in England, and as a result serfs received increased liberties. Feudalism began gradually dying out, and the Industrial Revolution pretty much killed it completely, as farmers started leaving the countryside for more profitable jobs in industrial towns, and landowners (the smart ones, at least) began investing more heavily in industry.

During the era of the French Revolution, most mainland European countries abolished serfdom. Eastern Europe was slow to follow suit: Russia finally kicked the habit in 1861, Poland and Georgia abolished serfdom in the mid-1860’s to the early 1870’s, but Bosnia and Herzegovina held onto the practice until 1918. Outside Europe, Bhutan and Tibet both waited until 1959 to finally emancipate their serfs.

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