A weak monarchy made it easier for the magnates to consolidate their hold on the lives and properties of their underlings. Although slavery, a vestige of the Roman Empire, slowly disappeared, serfdom arose in its place, especially in the north, where land held as alods became less common than in the South. Serfs were legally bound to live and work on specific territories and were required to pay their lords in the form of money, or, more typically, labor services, including work on the lord’s lands.
Limited though their liberty was, serfs should not be confused with slaves. In exchange for their services, they retained precious rights, including the right to exploit land and the right to their lord’s protection. Legally, they could not be sold, and if lordship of an estate to which serfs were attached changed hands, the new lord was expected to respect the traditional rights of the serfs. In an age when law and order was in short supply and economic opportunities were limited, the concrete rights of the serfs to work the land and to protection undoubtedly appeared more important to most people than the abstract condition called freedom. Serfdom became an inheritable legal condition in the 10th and 11th centuries.
Paradoxically, at the same time, the economic forces that would eventually undermine serfdom were gathering strength. First among these forces was a steady growth of population, which increased demand and prompted greater production. The population of the area constituting present-day France grew from an estimated 5 million to 6 million people in 1000 to 18 million to 21 million by the early 14th century. As the population grew, people cleared forested areas to increase the amount of arable land, a process that also expanded supplies of timber.
Timber was especially important for the medieval economy as a source of energy and building material. In addition, agricultural productivity increased. This increase was due to a warming climate that lengthened the growing season, modest technological improvements, such as heavier plows, and the three-field system, which allowed land to lie fallow for one of every three years, rather than one of every two years.
Finally, trade expanded, enabling peasants to cultivate cash crops to exchange for other products in the great markets, such as the fairs of Champagne. Trade and cash crops encouraged the development of regional specialization. Trade also promoted the growth of towns and cities. Paris was the most spectacular example. It grew from between 15,000 and 20,000 people under the Carolingians to between 150,000 and 200,000 people by 1300.
The growth of trade and urban areas encouraged the decline of serfdom. By the 13th century, the population had reached the saturation point in some areas of the countryside, so not all laborers could be productively employed. Some serfs ran away to the towns and cities in search of work, and lords were not inclined to chase after them because their labor was not much needed. Indeed, given the high death rates in the unhealthful cities, urban populations could grow only if people migrated to cities from the countryside. "France" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia.
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