Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Parable Of The Grateful Serf

In Merrye Olde Englande many people lived as serfs, in the Middle Ages.  A serf is property, usually bound to a particular piece of land; essentially a slave.  Not- quite; if you want to quibble.  Serfs weren't chained, though they often wore an iron collar; and they had some rights.  They just weren't allowed to travel, say, more than a mile from their farm.  Free-range slavery, then.

Geoff, our serf, was born in the wattle and daub farm cottage, and when his father died in harness Geoff became the one chiefly responsible for operating their farm.  He took a mate, and they had children, to make sure the farm would continue to bear produce for the Lord.

As a reward for the family's labor, and incidentally to provide them with enough food to survive, Geoff and his family were entitled to keep 1/10th of all they raised.  No, not including the pigs, don't be stupid; those belonged entirely to the Lord.  But they got to keep 1/10th of the turnips; 1/10th of the barley, 1/10th of the wheat.  No potatoes; this is before Columbus infected America.

The Lord's Reeve (I think that's the right name) would come around in the Spring and tell Geoff what to plant- and how much- and when.  When a child became old enough for labor- the fields to be managed would be enlarged- more must be produced.  Only fair.  The child eats, the child must produce.

Work starts before dawn and runs to after dark.  Essentially every day of the year.  When not working in the crops, there are the pigs and geese to tend, and protect from wolves, foxes, and outlaws; brushwood to gather to feed the fires in the Lord's kitchens; etc.  Land to plow; by hand; fences and hedges to repair; roads to build...

The system works beautifully.  Geoff has just enough food to keep his family alive.  If they all work hard.  And a roof.  Any effort to leave the land would almost certainly result in death- or if they did manage to escape- starvation.  They would have no land, no turnips, no law.  Staying put is by far the best option for Geoff, and his 8 children.

The years pass.  The children grow, those that survive.  More are born.  There are moments when it's not utterly unbearable.

One Spring...

The Reeve arrives on his annual visit; riding his horse, and accompanied as usual by 5 men-at-arms, on foot.  He is wearing a sad face.

Geoff and his mate and family greet him; of course they are expecting the visit, and are waiting to hear what their tasks will be in the coming year.

The Reeve begins; "Great news, Geoff.  Our Lord is going to war!  You know that the lord to the south has been raiding our people for years- the time has come to end it!"

Geoff is mildly interested; he's heard of the raids, though they are far away, almost 5 miles.  Perhaps the pigs he tends will be safer.

The Reeve continues.  "Of course- war is costly.  Our Lord must have more men; and they must be armed.  I know we can count on your best efforts this year."

Geoff is now terrified.  Will they take his sons?

"Everyone in the Lord's keeping must contribute.  Geoff- this year, you must deliver the Lord's portion - and half your own, as well.  This is the law."

Geoff and his mate are stunned.  The children stand by, uncomprehending- and are interested to see the tears begin to run down their mother's face.  Geoff and mate know- this is a death sentence, for someone.  The 1/10th they keep is barely enough to keep body and soul together as it is.  Cut in half- they cannot live.  Perhaps some of the children can be sold into full slavery, and saved that way.  Perhaps.  But they can't afford to lose the strong children, and the market for puny young ones is very poor.  They don't really own their children either- the Lord does...

Like a pole-axed ox, Geoff sinks to his knees- it's not premeditated, not an act- he's facing utter catastrophe.  "Please... Sir... you know us, we work hard.  Every year, we've been fair to the Lord; we always deliver his share; we don't cheat and hide some, as you know others do.

"Please.  We will lose our children- or we must all starve together.  Please, Sir Reeve...  we beg.  Is there no other way; is there nothing we can do to escape starvation?"

The Reeve appears moved.  "Geoff - it's true; you and your family are productive; I know you work as hard as you can; better than most.  I've always considered you a good serf; I have always been as a friend to you.  But what am I to do?  The decree is clear.  All must contribute more for the safety of the fief.  I am powerless."

Geoff and mate are prostrate on the ground.  "Please.  Please.  Must we starve?  Please, Sir Reeve- Please..."

The Reeve appears uncomfortable up on his horse, and unhappy.  He sends the men-at-arms away, out of earshot.  "Geoff" he half whispers... "I cannot see you starve- I will turn a blind eye, as much as I can- I will do all I can, because I am your friend - I will allow you to keep 1/4th of the lord's extra portion.. if I tried to let you keep more, I would be found out, and we both would be put to death..."

Geoff and his mate are wild with joy.  Instead of losing half their family's annual food supply- they will only lose 3/8ths.  It's wonderful!  They have escaped an incredible danger!!

"Oh!! Thank you!  Thank you, Sir Reeve!!  We will never forget your kindness!!"  and Geoff and mate gather their family into their arms as tears, now of joy, run down their faces.


The Reeve, most likely, had firm instructions from the Lord to gather 1/4 of the Serfs' shares, not 1/2- he wouldn't want his serfs to become too weak to work.

Have you noticed how absolutely delighted you are to pay $3.50 for a gallon of gas?  It's wonderful to have it so cheap, isn't it?

I didn't make up this Parable of the Grateful Serf - I heard it somewhere, long ago.  It's an ancient- truly ancient- and well known, well studied, method of "management".

We're being "managed" folks.  Or manipulated, if you wish.  Good old management techniques like this is how Exxon et. al. have had staggeringly huge record-breaking profits for what, 2 years in a row, now?

It works on us all- it works on me- I'm SO grateful gas is only $3.50 - and I KNOW it's a trick.   And  the folks on Wall Street- are ecstatic that the Dow closed at 11,020 today.   When a couple days ago, it was at 11,700.

Even the mainstream commentators are catching on- speaking up.  Steven Pearlstein at the Washington Post has had several very tough things to say over the last months; in his column today, he lays it out: 

"What we are witnessing may be the greatest destruction of financial wealth that the world has ever seen -- paper losses measured in the trillions of dollars."

Those are very heavy words indeed- for a business columnist at the Washington Post.

And keep in mind- not everyone is getting skinned.  Some folks are getting rich- every time a dying bank is "rescued".   The managers have stripped your pennies, and mine- now they are turning on each other.

It's all being managed.  And the managers have known how to do it, for hundreds of years.

And like Geoff- there's really nothing you and I can do about it.  The alternatives are worse.  But just maybe, it could be useful to keep your eyes and mind open- and try to see what's really going on.


It's me said...

Thanks for telling the story that I've tried to tell my husband's family... the old high is the new low, and now we're thrilled. This says it so much better.

And scares the sh*t out of me. In all of our little dreams of sustainability and a more "primitive life", rarely do we think of the misery, suffering and loss of life. Or at least we try not to. We focus on that nice image of slowing down, gathering with the children at night by the lamplight. I suppose it's the "pretty dreams" that keep us going though.

Peace to you Greenpa.

Valerie Roberson said...

Wonderful post. I was totally engrossed in the story. When it got to the "moral" I was shocked--at how truly it applies to our situation.

What an eye-opener.

Thanks for sharing...and I hope you're having a wonderful turning of the seasons :)

Anonymous said...

It's the "derivative" versions that make me the craziest -- when what matters is not whether the news is good or bad (even a manipulated good or bad such as in the story) but how reality compared to the PREDICTIONS of reality. Bad news, but not as bad as forecast? Hooray, everything is wonderful! Good news, but not as good as forecast? Horrors, doom, and off with their heads!

Jennlala said...

Wonderful post!

Anonymous said...

Yep - I do see the point! and I read the newspaper articles today about the vast sums these bankers are still blithely spending on themselves I need to say more?

All this whilst ordinary Jane and Joe in the street are wondering whether their annual cost of living rise will in actual fact be so low that its a paycut...if they manage to keep their job in the first place.

Susan Och said...

My former neighbor would read a lot, and then wander over and drop information over the garden gate. One day she told me that the plagues were the end of the feudal system because so many people died that there could be no accounting of which of the survivors were born to which station of life.

jewishfarmer said...

Greenpa, it really depends on when your Geoff lived, whether serf life was that bad. It was after the conquest in 12th and 13th century England - during the period that the land was being subdivided to pass off to the Normans. Pre-conquest, however, that wasn't the norm - the 1/10th measure was actually quite a bit smaller, more like 1/3, and you could actually organize to get rid of your lord if he was awful enough.

I realize this is needlessly picky, given your overall metaphor, but it seems clear from the comments that some people think that this is fully representative of the scope of serf life. It isn't. In fact, in most of england, true serfs of the iron collar type were quite uncommon. There was even considerable mobility - courts could free serfs who could afford the fees, and about 4% of all serfs did elect to be freed.

One of the things I always think is hysterically funny is that Robin Hood stories in our culture are always about freedom - the tragedy of being a serf, and not being free. In fact, the Robin Hood narrative arose after the conquest when the king and his lords were attempting to overthrow the rights of the serfs - one of their rights was not to pay taxes, since they were serfs. Lords and freedmen paid taxes - and when the Norman rulers and their descendents ran out of ways to extract more money from the lords, their next trick was the forcible freeing of the serfs - now they no longer had a right to housing, beer on festivals and other things - they had no protections, and few rights as freedmen, plus they had to pay taxes (and the court fees for being involuntarily freed from their serfdom). Generally speaking, serfs strongly preferred not to be freed, unless they were fairly affluent - they usually had to be dragged into the court and forcibly freed from their servitude.


Greenpa said...

Thanks, everybody- Val; welcome, and thanks for telling; that of course is exactly what I was aiming for; lovely to hear it worked.

Susan- really interesting thought!

Sharon - oh, picky, picky, picky! :-)

Sure, I know. Two points on the other side, though; the portrait of Geoff in this parable WAS sometimes exactly accurate. (ergo my usage for the parable) And- how about the serfs in Russia? My understanding there is that they more closely resembled the bad end of the serf spectrum, most of the time, for centuries, rather than the up.