Abstract The dense clusters within the Serpens Molecular Cloud are among the most active regions of nearby star formation. In this paper, we use Gaia DR2 parallaxes and proper motions to statistically measure ∼1167 kinematic members of Serpens, few of which have been previously identified, to evaluate the star formation history of the complex. The optical members of Serpens are concentrated in three distinct groups located at 380–480 pc; the densest clusters are still highly obscured by optically thick dust and have few optical members. The total population of young stars and protostars in Serpens is at least 2000 stars, including past surveys that were most sensitive to protostars and disks, and may be much higher. Distances to dark clouds measured from deficits in star counts are consistent with the distances to the optical star clusters. The Serpens Molecular Cloud is seen in the foreground of the Aquila Rift, dark clouds located at 600–700 pc, and behind patchy extinction, here called the Serpens Cirrus, located at ∼250 pc. Based on the lack of a distributed population of older stars, the star formation rate throughout the Serpens Molecular Cloud increased by at least a factor of 20 within the past ∼5 Myr. The optically bright stars in Serpens Northeast are visible because their natal molecular cloud has been eroded, not because they were flung outwards from a central factory of star formation. The separation between subclusters of 20–100 pc and the absence of an older population together lead to speculation that an external forcing was needed to trigger the active star formation.

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