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A 17th Century Landless Serf in Belarus
A 17th Century Landless Serf in Belarus
Belarus was a part of the Polish-Lithuanian empire. A 'house serf' was their term for what we would now call a slave, an illegal term in the empire. Landless serfs owned nothing and had no family. The name was probably Polish, both first and last. It is likely the family was not. The Belarus were part of the Polish-Lithuanian empire and Belarus names, especially those of serfs, were changed to sound Polish or to be Polish, it a was the language of the rulers.
Samuel, the father of Catherine I, was born outside of Minsk, Belarus in 1658. He was born about four years after a Polish war with Russia began in 1654. He was a landless serf which in itself made him a figure of low status. Land was the measure of worth. Originally it made sense. The estates didn't sell much. Peasants kept what they needed and then gave what was left over to the lords. Landlords served a function. They protected peasants. No one could kidnap a peasant on an estate, or steal their crops. Also the landlord would keep some extra for the bad years and take care of the poor widows and orphans.
But it changed into something quite different.
Landowners in Poland in 1501 voted that they no longer were subject to the King, but he to them; and they began to make laws that they thought were in their interests. In the Renaissance those landowners found they could become rich by trading with other countries. Prices went sky high as crops were sold to far off markets. Then they became infected with greed. Gradually it got worse. They voted that they could do anything to the peasants on their land including murder, without penalty. No serf could leave; and then they voted that no one could own the land but an aristocrat.
It got worse.
The peasants were told they had to work with their own horses and equipment and had to give the owner a tenth part of their sheep, pigs, honey and fruit.They were required to give extra crops and poultry for the holidays, and chop firewood for the lord. Their poverty became the worse in Europe and the war made it worse still. Now serfs were kidnapped and free men were enslaved.There was no recourse. In Belarus serfs could be tortured, starved or beaten to death for running away. In Russia there was disinterested Tzarist law that to a small extent protected peasants, but in Belarus, nothing. Soon almost everyone was “owned”. If you were in Russia there was a 50/50 chance you were a serf. But in Belarus 98% of the people were owned.
The Jews and Germans were brought in to run the shops and form a middle class. The lords funded them in return for a percent of what they made.
A landless serf was one who had been sold for debt. This was easy to acquire as like the company store of the United States, serfs were forced to buy items from the estate. These were used as the family tutors, accountants, musicians and chefs. They worked, and they were not paid a wage, but they were not 'slaves'. In fact it had been illegal to be a 'slave' after 1436. Slaves were not considered taxable. So now “landless serfs” was the term. A landless serf was owned, he belonged to the family and could be bought or sold. Landed serfs were different because they were part of the land and could not be separated from it even if the estate was sold.
According to Catherine I her father had been sold him to the Sapieha family. Two things were taught in the house of an estate; one was blind obedience. The other was that life is not fair and it was useless to expect this. It was a violent time and place. Husbands beat their wives where the servants could not watch. Mother's beat the servants and tutors beat children. It was to be expected that the servants were beaten. Harsh words and violence were a way of life.
Her father was on a 'working' estate and taught a skill. He was a handyman, doing odd jobs, like changing windows and fixing the roof. In addition he still hauled sacks, brought in wood and did whatever he was told. He was lucky in view of his future life which included escape; to be on a working farm where he was taught to do something of value. In the elegant palaces owned by the Sapieha family, serfs would do nothing but open the doors and say “Lord Sapieha is here.” The house serfs learned useless things like how to light fires and pipes; bring beer or fetch cloaks.
But a house serf despite the lack of privacy had a better life then the regular serfs in many ways. They slept in the big house on the polished floor often with pallets. He smoothed his clothes back in place, since they were rarely changed, wore his shift down to his knees and slept on the floor with his pants still on. Only his boots came off at night. In winter they slept on the stove or by the fire. Their clothes were relatively clean, he himself was not considered dirty. He washed in the bathhouse on Sundays. His clothes were washed a few times a year.
In addition they had to learn to speak good Polish to be understood. He had to learn to eat in polite company; that it was bad to fart, spit and belch or blow his nose on his hands. He couldn't use his knife to get out the food in his teeth sat the table. They ate out of the metal pots on the stove, and there was always food.
Everyone ate with their hands, and shared the bowls of food, aristocrat and commoner. They also used each others spoons and glasses.
The father of Catherine I eventually ran away from Belarus taking advantage of the lack of soldiers to conscript or return serfs, very likely when he was going to sell goods or going on some other task in town.If a peasant could get out of Polish-Lithuania to Swedish or Russian territory, he would be free. Belarusians had bad feelings about the Russians. It was likely Latvia was the closest place to Sweden.The managers on the estate didn't expect anyone to run away.
Minsk had been beautiful before Samuel was born. It was a major city named for the trade that took place there, a meeting place halfway between Europe and Asia. There were goods and people, fishermen, and shops. Farms were all around too and serfs working on them.
Even 30 years after the war it was described as “desolated by war, and several conflagrations, …...that though formerly rich in merchandise, it has not but few shops to show.”1