• Serfs

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    Serfing

    Drawn and Quartered. Ever wonder about that term – D and Q? Somewhere along the line I’m sure you have heard – in a movie or elsewhere – the threat: “You S.O.B., if I could, I’d have you drawn and quartered.” Usually the speaker doesn’t have the faintest idea what he is talking about. But if you were a Serf living in the middle/dark ages you quickly learned what it meant. Lets say you were convicted of some minor offense – lifting a crust of bread, squinting at your betters, or maybe a trumped up charge of not knowing your place. The local regent would grab you up, no real trial or explanation, just do as he pleased.

    Many times what he pleased was to fasten ropes around each of your limbs, then tie the ends to four large War Horses. The horses then slowly moved to the points of the compass until you were stretched like a piano wire (this was the Drawn Part) and then, with cheers from the crowd, the horses were whipped into violent motion and galloped away – you get the Quartered Part at this point – many of the crowd placing bets on which torso piece would be the largest. Or where your head was headed. Except for a couple of minutes of anxious anticipation and a gruesome image, you went out immediately with massive shock and blood loss, not too bad of a way to end it all. Albeit somewhat messy for those cleaning up.

    So what does Drawn and Quartered have to do with anything – including the apparent misspelled “Serfing” as the title of this little tome? Well it has to do with a detailed, in-depth, academically based, religiously inspired, professionally performed, worldwide genealogical investigation into the history of my esteemed ancestors. Actually that’s total BS. What I have done is to take a very, very shallow look at my kin – concentrating mainly on their long drudgery as Serfs. I really have never had any interest in tracking my herd though the centuries – assuming that they staggered along, pretty much unnoticed and unheralded. A mixture of English, Scottish, Scandinavian, with a touch of Russian, but mainly French.

    My dad occasionally liked to hope that there might be a Seigneur or Marquis in the family tree, but his investigation on his grandfather’s side stopped at the missing records of an orphanage in Gap, France, not too far from the Italian Alps. I assume that we had our assemblence of Rag Pickers, Pretenders to some sort of Regency and everything in between. The closest I have come to showing any real interest was to order an Ollivier Coat of Arms from some outfit in Bayonne, New Jersey. It was a colorful faux decal on plywood – looked vaguely like something from King Arthur’s time – lots of lions, flags, swords, crosses, etc. – gold and red. If we really do have a real coat of arms, I’m assuming it shows a beating being administered to a cowering Serf, with crossed hoes and rakes below.

    I did, on a slow afternoon, take a cursory look at my family’s records, and found some information about our past in what eventually became the French Nation. Part of my lack of genealogical interest is the disdain that I have for anything French. How can you respect any nation that can’t build a decent car, thinks Slime Producing Gastropods are a delicacy (although put enough butter, salt, garlic and especially cognac on anything and it can taste decent), speak exclusively through their noses, and whose war records are defined by Rapid Retreat Strategies?

    As I took this look at my forebear’s march through the dispensations of time, I found that I did indeed come from a long line of serfs – about 800 years worth. And suddenly I became interested in these heroic Serfs – no doubt all men of distinction. Definition: Serf – “Lowest class of cultivators of the soil” – based on the Latin word Servus – Slave.

    Serfs have existed throughout history – sometimes being called slaves, vassals, underlings, dogs, scum, etc. Never called “Good Serf” or “Worthy Serf”, – just Serf, as in Hey, You! Serf! Or on most occasions – You Damned Filthy Serf – or worse.

    As a Registered Serf, you had the a unique arrangement with the Overlord you served – no matter whether your master was a Lord of the Realm or a heavy-handed, whip carrying, narrow eyed, beetle browed Duke beholding to Ivan the Terrible. By the way, Russia was a very interesting place to be in the Serf’s Union. When abolished in 1861 about 38% of the population (23,000,000) were freed – basically to go starve (Stalin got better numbers later on, but used harsher methods). The nobility, some 1.8 million of them, (remember the Romanovs had 700 plus years of reigning and reproducing) got their comeuppance after Nicolas II, Anastasia, and the rest of the Tsar’s family were eliminated. Most bolted for Western Europe with the Bolsheviks in hot pursuit. Lenin made it a point to put any he could catch in front of a firing squad. And, as usual, those of noble birth carted off everything that wasn’t nailed down, leaving the common folk with a few tools, lots of land, a failed war, lots of worker’s and soldier’s committees, and a question of who was going to take care of them. Whoa, just realized I’m off on a tangent. Lets go back to Serfing.

    So, here was the deal – the land you tilled (never your own of course) cost you pretty much 90% of what you could produce – you got to keep something for yourself by working on other lands the regent held, or offering up a son or daughter for service in the castle. Serfdom in our neck of the woods was officially outlawed in the 1700’s – so we immediately became peasants – sort of a sideways step. We forced our way up the corporate ladder to the position of indentured servants in the 1800’s – about the same work – but fewer people beat on us.

    So how did this serfdom of the Olliviers’ come about? Well, the Vikings came calling in the 9th century, taking advantage of the power vacuum created by the disintegration of Charlemagne’s empire – with their normal pillaging, burning, and sacking and slaying. Before these Northmen took over, my ancestors were eking out a subsistence existence, first as true hairy barbarians, then as Celts, Gaels, and Roman Subjects (nope, never became Citizens of the Empire). Not great, but we had our own garden plots and as good subjugated Catholics went faithfully to Mass on Sunday – First Diocese in our neck of the woods was around 377 AD.

    Then it all came to a halt – we became earth grubbing Serfs, nose, feet and hands in the dirt, bent backs in the air, for these Viking Thugs/Normans/Franks, et al. The Religious Wars eventually came along, where we became Protestants then Catholics again – a man will become devout to pretty much any interpretation of God with his family about to be put to the sword. All during this time we ended up as tenants on the land under one bad regent or another. Land that was a frozen mess five months of the year.

    As Serfs, starvation was a common way to escape the drudgery of life – and many took this option, although not willingly. Each day was the same, get up with the dawn, get your wooden hoe and other implements – lucky if you had an iron tipped plow – and head out to the fields – planting, growing and harvesting – remember that “lowest cultivator of the soil” tag. Of course there was the Serf’s dress code – office casual – Brook’s Brothers blue oxford shirt, Merino cashmere sweater, Hermes tie, Docker pants and Gucci loafers, topped by a Burberry overcoat and kid gloves. Actually you went to work in your handmade serf’s uniform – rough spun wool, pulled overhead – sort of like a giant T-Shirt/Tunic that reached to your knees, muskrat belt tied around the middle. Underpants to match – itchy as hell – even your sweat couldn’t mat everything down. You could design your raiment in any color, as long as it was in dirt tones.

    After dressing properly for work you would head out – avoiding long toothed animals, bigger and smarter serfs, the Black Death, freezing to death, and the local Lords and Clergy – who were generally in cahoots. The resident Priests letting you know that the eternal fires awaited, unless you stayed in your place – and in fact, God had foreordained you to that place –part of the grand plan. Then finally lie down at night on a straw covered dirt floor – animal skins and bedbugs awaiting – bone tired – and rise at dawn to start the entire cycle over again, only interrupted when the next conquering hoard came through and tossed out the current rulers.

    Recreation was limited, procreation being the favorite – drinking one’s self into a stupor a close second, and secretly hoarding a few fruits, vegetables and mead beer for continued existence a third. Of course at Summer Solstice you could go down to the local Druid Ruin and run around naked, calling on the Ancient Gods to save you from this barren existence and smite all others.

    The lucky serf children died during childbirth. Those that bested childhood ravages such as whooping cough, bloody fever (dysentery), plague, poisoning, and fatal infection from abrasions, could live to the ripe old age of thirty. Celebrate your birthday with an afternoon at Chucky Cheese? No one knew their own birthday, let alone how old they were. You didn’t get “long in the tooth” because no one had long teeth – they were all worn down from the abrasives in the millstones. These teeth, of course, were the ones that hadn’t rotted out already. Higher-class vassals did try to scrape a little plaque and grime with a twig or sharp rock – usually just before their weddings. Bad Breath – it could bark a tree, only thing worse was the B.O., minimally offset only by the pervasive wood smoke deodorant – makes you wonder if recreational procreation went on with moss stuffed up everyone’s nose. Wash and bathe? Only if you fell in a stream – another good way to check out since no one knew how to swim. This highly enjoyable situation for my ancestors went on for hundreds of years, bested only by their Russian relatives, who got to freeze all year long.

    Raising and harvesting food was a full time occupation. There were other vocations such as being dragged on a crusade as a cudgel bearer– return chances of about 1%. There is some question whether or not my kin did engage in the practice of fragging their betters while in pursuit of, or running away from, the desert Saracens.

    Another popular serf job was gathering bodies from the various plagues and other diseases and burying same (“Bring Out Your Dead”). Or providing sport for the local Lord as victim of bludgeoning, rape, and being a D and Q participant. Monthly, but especially in October, the Knights’ vassels would come around to restock the manor house and take basically everything you had – leaving maybe just enough to cheat starvation through the winter – if you had a daughter, comely or no, ravaging her would be part of the deal.

    But here comes the rub. My ancestors, while not smart enough to get into the clergy or to follow the sun south into Italy, found that civil disobedience was necessary to sustain life – a family attribute that seems to have continued to this day. In other words they were all about sticking it to their overlords every chance they got – without getting caught and therefore being subject to the rack, evisceration, molten lead being poured down their throats, clamping devices attached to appendages, or any other torture currently in vogue – a favorite being the stringing up of a Serf to strangle, and then watching the body slowly rot on the gallow tree. But my guys generally stayed alive by touching their knuckles to their foreheads with a slight bow – eyes and heads downward – paying tribute without much fuss, accepting the new tyrant in charge, and wearing the old style skull covers and cowls – denoting a dull witted ox-like mentality – and, by plotting day and night.

    What did that mean? They circumvented the local authority in many ways – one of the best was a sad tale of death told to the authorities – that the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse had come to call – necessitating the normal immediate burial in a shallow grave – dug up almost immediately by hungry badgers. Pretty good story and hard to prove otherwise, especially since death was omnipresent and the Horsemen came for their due on a regular basis. In reality some of my ancestors faked it, and then joined Robin Hood like Bands (Ok, not so noble as Robin) and began living in the forests, now plying their new trade – Armed Robbery with intent of Grievous Bodily Harm.

    The ones who stayed on the Serf Job found they were best served by hiding anything of value – and selling or smuggling same – much of it hidden in secret forest lairs. Alcoholic beverages, dried meat, and weapons were the best choices. Turn over the Fall Truffles to the nobility, uh huh, sure. They survived the winters by sneaking out to these cellars, sometimes a mile from their one-room, mud, cow dung and wattle villas – usually on the edge of a wood. They traded with like-minded other brigands, sold a few things at the monthly markets and little by little accumulated some Coin of the Realm.

    Since they were French, it was expected that they raise and stomp “fruits of the vine” for the local Noble. For him they used the moldiest, the stunted, and the sourest, making sure they trudged barefoot through the pigsty before crawling into the vat to march around – giving the local Lord’s wine a full-bodied flavor. Their finest grapes they squeezed gently into Sherry, Port, Madera, Brandy and other fine grades with increased alcohol content – both to swap and sell, and to fortify themselves against the winters, (kind of like antifreeze) and Serfdom Life in general. They found that a touch of the grape before bed (and any other time they could get away with it for that matter) made life a bit more bearable, as experienced through an intoxicated daze.
    Over hundreds of years, various wars, and political uprisings, they finally managed to blackmail some mad Regent to deed them a small parcel of land. Having reflected on their own long passage through Serfdom, they refuted the practice, and instead had prodigious numbers of children to till the soil. My great, great, grandmother had thirteen – apparently one thing the French are good at. While these late blooming ancestors were finally landowners, they were overtaxed, and took a dim view of King Louie the Sixteenth along with everyone else who had the luxury of wearing plumed feathers in their hats. When Madame Lafarge, Robespierre and the rest of the radicals came to power, they called as loudly as anyone for the guillotine to do its work. Eventually the land holdings they had supported an extended group of relations. Still had to work as hard as serfs, but got to keep what they garnered and the beatings only came from family members.

    So, there you have it, a short history (probably not short enough) of the Olliviers’ as Serfs. Eventually a bunch immigrated to the western US – the matriarchal Grandmother sending the boys out and then picking wives to follow. They became Miners, Sheepherders, Butchers, and Farmers – never admitting that they came from a long line of Serfs. Or that their ancestors cheered loudly, made bets on, or had been a screaming and unwilling participant in the Drawn and Quartered Spectacles. Even today, however, with genes passed down through the Millennia, most occasionally look over their shoulders to make that sure that the Pale Horse from Saint John the Revelator, 6:8, is not gaining on them.

    May 2011

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