Pity the mediaeval serf. Not because of his status or his poverty, but because he has been misunderstood for centuries. His Latin name is Nativus (hers is of course Nativa). How are they translated into English when we find them in Latin manorial court rolls? Some translators use a term common in late mediaeval and early modern English documents from northern manors, bondman. That conveys their unfreedom well enough, but it isn’t a direct translation of the Latin word and might not be regionally authentic. Serf means something in a European context; we instinctively think of the Russian peasantry before the Revolution, which is unhelpful. Peasant is an equally unhelpful term, as the French paysan has a closer parallel in the early modern English yeoman, particularly in his independence. I have seen the French naïf used by some archivists. Is this the origin of our naivety? We are straying yet further from our English Nativus. I have met him many times and he was rarely naïve.
I don’t believe he is a ‘native’ in the later colonial sense. Yes, in post-Conquest England there were ethnic differences between landowners and People (as there were before 1066 too) but nativi were usually a subset of the inhabitants of a Manor, and not its entire population. It would be tempting to suggest in the north or the west that they were survivors of an ancient British population, but let’s not superimpose later meanings onto our word.
It’s a very simple word. It means ‘born’. Remember the Nativity; nativitas is the abstract noun, nativus the adjective. When Nativi are given by deed or will (what could be more unfree, doesn’t this sound like slavery?) they are given with their sequelae – those who follow – because the status is hereditary. He and his children and his children’s children must stay within the manorial boundaries. Their Freedom of Movement is curtailed. If they leave without licence they will be pursued as fugitives and fined or brought home. Why do they leave their place of bondage? At Norton in Hertfordshire (whose court rolls I translated in a Community History project) some left to go to clerk’s school, others to major cities, one to enter the King’s service. We might call them ‘Middle class’ reasons; they are not dropping out of the world but participating in it. You might call them The Indispensables. A Manor could not be run without them. Nativi were often the Reeves and Bailiffs, the Estate Managers. They were literate, had financial acumen, and probably impressive man-management skills too. The Lord’s land was tilled by the forced labour of the rest of the population, including freemen, who might pay to avoid their day of reaping, even though it must have been a sociable affair, with food and drink provided after the alebederepe – transliterating something like ‘ale bid reap’. The Reeve, with his unfree nativus status, managed the whole operation, cajoled the unwilling into paying or joining in, and took charge of the harvest. No wonder Lords used law and custom to keep him and to ensure that his sons would succeed him.
We find the word nativus in mediaeval records from Wales too; wouldn’t it be tempting to think that here it means cymro – a Welshman? My legal historian friends tell me that the word has a different Welsh translation, taeiogion. Now, in England, the nativus becomes a copyholder, a landowner whose title deed is a copy of the roll of the court where he must go to buy and sell his land, or to take up his father’s holding after his death. His land will pass down in his family. But in Wales, the taeiogion share all the community land or tir cyfrif, which is reallocated every generation among all the adult males. The same Latin word, but a very different concept and social context.
The illustration I have chosen here is an anachronism I know – a detail from The Harvest by George Stubbs – but the point I want to make is that it is not the men and women reaping and binding who would have been the Unfree of Mediaeval England but the Bailiff or farm manager on his horse – every profitable landowner needs one. He is one of the Indispensables. And what’s the English surname borne by descendants of these Indispensables? “The name’s Bond…”