In my fictional country (a dictatorship), the social structure is very rigid. A complex system of classes, sub-classes, castes and professional groups exists, with little or no social mobility. The lower classes have no access to higher education (or even decent vocational training) and are constantly monitored by the police.

As already implied, every social class is separated into a subsystem of groupings that is even more complex that the system of classes itself, meaning that even the dirtiest proletarians and asocials have somebody to look down upon.

On the very bottom of the population pyramid, two groups, both damned to a short, hard life of menial work and unfreedom, exist. Let's call them serfs and slaves, the former standing higher than the latter.

Serfs are legally bound to their owner like slaves and receive no or little salary. They are most commonly found in the country, working on farms for dozens of generations. In the rare case serfs are transferred to or born in a city, they work in factories as skilled laborers, having some responsibility, usually as a supervisor over slaves. Their children are usually allowed four years of education. In rural environments, especially on very small farms where the serf-owner relationship persists for centuries, serfs are treated as a part of the family and sometimes live and eat together with their masters. Serfs working in the household usually are butlers, maidservants and cleaning ladies; senior serfs can become personal secretaries. Universities utilize serfs as laboratory workers. Owners can send serfs to the military (effectively the military rents them), receiving a large part of their pay; such serfs usually serve in the line infantry. Serf families who receive salaries usually save them (over the course of multiple lifetimes); they can buy themselves free with the permission of their masters and the local magistrate to become free laborers (often becoming wage slaves in large cities). Vice versa, free laborers can voluntarily sell themselves into serfdom in return for accomodation, food and safety. The process of the direct transfer of a serf between owners is somewhat bureaucratic.

Slaves are classified as cattle legally. They perform the dirtiest, most menial and excruciating labors and are considered to be expendable. They have no hope of freedom. They receive no education or training whatsnotever (and can usually not even speak properly) except for what is required for the execution of the job. Slaves are usually not rented but bought by the military, serving as poorly armed or unarmed cannon meat or test subjects (e.g. roles that bear little chance of survival). Mind control implants, drugs and draconic punishments are used to keep slaves submissive. Slaves may be easily traded on slave markets and auctions, serving as tokens of bulk payment and speculation objects. Slaves are usually supervised by serfs, who treat them extremely sadistically.

My question is:

Have both terms been, with historic usages in mind, chosen appropriately and can they be used safely without causing much confusion to the reader?

  • $\begingroup$ Why is this question on worldbuilding and not on writing.SE? $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Commented Aug 3, 2018 at 3:51

2 Answers 2


Serfs and slaves

In real history the difference between a serf and a slave is that the slave has no legal capacity and belongs to a person or an institution whereas the serf has (either full or limited) legal capacity and is bound to a domain.

Serfs are not property; the master does not own the serf: they own the domain to which the serf is bound. Serfs can have property, they can marry legally, they can stand in justice. Slaves cannot have property, they cannot marry legally, they cannot stand in justice.

Using the words with different meanings is of course allowed, but you may want to explain.

And slaves are "classified as cattle" only if you want them to be classified as cattle. What specific tasks a slave had depended very very very much on the specific culture, specific master and specific slave. Historically, there have been cultures where slaves were legally classified as speaking tools ("instrumenta vocalia" in Rome before the Punic wars, for example), and there have been cultures were some slaves wielded military, civil or political power -- the Janissaries and the Mamelukes come to mind.

By the way, once the European societies discovered the idea of serfdom, slavery was doomed. Slaves are expensive and inefficient -- once you buy a slave they are yours, you must feed them, clothe them, provide accomodation for them, and so on, for life. Expensive to buy, expensive to maintain. Much better to use serfs. Serfs are independent agents, you have no expenses with them, except for the occasional wedding gift and such. They feed themselves, clothe themselves, build houses for themselves; and, most importantly, they have an incentive to work harder, because they get to retain part of the product of their labor.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Another way to say this: serfs could usually buy and sell as freely so long as they've paid the taxes and/or rent to their landlord. Slaves own nothing and can make no decisions on their own. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Commented Aug 3, 2018 at 3:49

Historically speaking Slaves were (culture-depending) considered to be property with little to no legal rights, similar to livestock (again, depending on culture).

Serfs, by comparison, were a low class of subject. "Serf" is more of a byword for Peasant than it is for Slave. Serfs/Peasants would have lived under a ruler of some sort, serving to do work for their lords. They would occupy and work an area of land for their lord in exchange for protection and rights that the lord would give them.

Yes, you can use the two words to mean two different classes of your society, but make sure you explain or make clear what each is and emphasize the difference from it and the real-world equivalent.

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    $\begingroup$ I cannot think off the top of my head of any society which had "citizens" and "serfs" at the same time. (Or, more correctly, in societies which has "serfs", "citizens" were a special class of people, shielded from the power of the monarch by being associated with a free city.) Most usually, in societies which has "serfs", people who were better off were "subjects" of a monarch. Fun factoid: it was only after the 2nd World War that the British stopped being "subjects" and became "citizens". Whether this also holds true for Canadians I don't know. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Aug 2, 2018 at 21:55
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP That's my bad, I should have used the term "Subject". We had the same idea, I just used the wrong term. Fixed! $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 2, 2018 at 22:12
  • $\begingroup$ Often serfs are considered to have less value then a slave because you pay for a suave but get serfs for free... $\endgroup$
    – Pliny
    Commented Aug 2, 2018 at 23:02
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    $\begingroup$ So slaves are objects and serfs are subjects? $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 3, 2018 at 9:14
  • $\begingroup$ @JulianEgner That's my interpretation of it, and that's how I usually set up my D&D worlds. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 3, 2018 at 22:10

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