late 15c., "servant, serving-man, slave," from Old French serf "vassal, servant, slave" (12c.), from Latin servum (nominative servus) "slave" (see serve (v.)). The word had fallen from use in this sense by 18c. The meaning "lowest class of cultivators of the soil in Poland, Russia, and other continental European countries, living in conditions of modified slavery" is by 1610s.
It was use from 1761 by modern writers in reference to medieval Europeans attached to the land and incapable of owning property. Contemporary Anglo-Latin records used nativus, villanus, or servus. Middle English sometimes included this class under bond-man, or theu (from Old English þeow), also carl or churl.
updated on May 21, 2022