Serf is a term that comes from serfdom referring to the economic condition of peasants under feudalism. Serfs are workers who are linked to the land. In the feudal society, they created the lowly social class. Serfs and slaves were almost linked but there existed some stark contrasts between the two that made them stand out apart. Some of the similarity between the two was that they both paid taxes to the barons who owned the land they tilled. A person who was free could choose to become a serf by choice or by being forced. If the land was going through a time of famine and the person could not pay his taxes, then they opted to serve the baron they owed money to. In return the barons were supposed to offer them shelter and protection and cancel their debt.
During the time, serfs were seen to labor for everyone while their masters were seen to fight for all people. A churchman on the other hand offered prayers for everyone. Though all these groups were meant to exist on the same level, serfs were often mistreated, overworked and were not fed properly. In the Roman Empire, slaves could be sold in public while barons could not sell their serfs. If a Lord decided to sell his land the serf who worked in that particular piece of land would go and serve the new owner of the land. A serf could not also leave the land he served without being granted a permit and could not sell the land as well. If one attempted to do this they could be severely punished if caught.
Free peasants on the other hand had farms on their control. They however paid rent to the lords but did not owe them any service. The free peasants could till their lands to feed their families. This was unlike serfs who had their existence completely pegged on their masters. Compared to slaves and serfs, the number of free peasants was low. The free peasants could however be chased from their farms if they failed to pay their taxes or in an event where the Baron felt that he had to utilize the farms for his own use. Where serfs had to obtain permission to marry a person from a different manor, the free peasants were allowed to marry anyone from any farm they felt like.
After Portuguese and Spain conquered the Caribbean islands, there was need for some extra labor. This made these two nations begin taking slaves from Africa to meet this extra labor. This gave birth to slaves as we know them today. Slaves had some similarities with serfs but there were some pointed contrasts. The biggest difference between serfs and slaves was in the way they were treated. While serfs had some rights, slaves enjoyed little or no rights. Slaves were not allowed to own even a small piece of land. The whole of their lives depended wholly on their masters and were viewed as those masters property. This meant that the master owned them fully and had a right to do to them whatever they willed. Serfs paid taxes to their masters through farm produce. They could then use the surplus they got to sell to the existing markets for extra cash. This made some of them to be wealthy than their free counterparts. This was however on rare cases.
Serfs and slaves were almost on the same level but slaves were more persecuted than their companions. Slaves were viewed to be a property of the one who had bought them and hence they had a legal right to do to them whatever it is that they deemed fit. The free peasants on the other hand had some freedom but their freedom could not be termed to be complete. They still had to pay taxes to the Barons who had the right to repossess their farms at will.
From as early as 753 B.C, Roman law dominated almost the whole of the west civilization. Most legal systems were based on this laws commonly referred to as civil-law systems. Most marriages were carried out based on these laws. Canon law on the other hand was a collection of rules and regulations that were generated by clerical authority. The law however borrowed some clauses from the civil or Roman law hence the similarities. There are however some differences between the two laws.
The Roman law had legalized marriage between people who were related by blood. This meant that if ones husband died then the next of kin could inherit the left widow. The Canon law saw this as a gross violation of the word of God that had stated clearly that sexual intercourse was to be sacrosanct between two people. The Roman law stated that only sexual intercourse with ones sibling was to be prohibited. The canon law stipulated that sexual intercourse was to be prohibited to the seventh generation. This was a big difference from this hitherto dominant law.
Another major difference was that the Roman and Germanic law allowed for the marriage of many wives. On the contrary, the canon law allowed only for the marriage of one wife. Polygamy was viewed by the canon law to be fornication. This created a big shift from the Roman law that allowed one the liberty to marry more than one wife. Another major difference in the two laws was that the canon law viewed or rather termed marriage as a lasting union while the Roman law gave room to separation.
The Roman law gave parents and especially fathers the legal right to pledge their children as a surety if they were going through a hard financial time. However in the canon law this was not recognized. Overall, the father in a Roman marriage was perceived as a deity. The man in the home was allowed to divorce his wife even without a valid reason. Most of these divorces arose from political alienations. Most marriages were from people who wanted to build political careers. After they had served their purposes the man was permitted to dissolve the marriage. Under the cannon law this was abolished and marriage made to be a life binding union.
Though the canon law was created based on the Roman and German laws, there were many differences when it came to their application. Canon laws were based on the rules of the church while the Roman/German laws were the laws that used to govern people during that particular era. The church wanted to correct the ills that they felt had been condoned by the ruling elite during those days. With more people leaning more to Christianity, the Roman laws on marriage were completely replaced by the canon laws.