Peasantry in the Era of Absolutism

Note : the Issue of Serfdom is discussed in a separate chapter.

Peasants, in the 17th and 18th century, by status have to be distinguished in free peasants and serfs. While in the countries of eastern central Europe, and in Russia, the far majority of peasants were serfs, in countries such as the Netherlands, Switzerland, Sweden, the marshlands along the German North Sea coast, free peasants formed a considerable segment of the population. In Sweden, called Bonde, they even were represented in the national parliament, the Riksdag.
Catherine the Great, in order to populate the newly gained provinces in what is Ukraine today, called settlers into the country, among them ethnic Germans, whom in a privilege she guaranteed that they were allowed to maintain language, faith and free status. Similarly, the Habsburg rulers called in settlers to settle Hungary, conquered from the Ottoman Empire in 1683-1699. Frederick the Great supported the regulation of the Oder, Neisse, Warthe Rivers - for peasants involved in the project, hard and potentially hazardous work with the prospect of a farmstead for themselves. The Mennonite communities which have drained and cultivated marshland in the lower Vistula valley (Poland), in the 16th century, enjoyed the status of free peasants.

Free or serf was not the only criterion of importance; there were peasants who 'had' a farm of their own, while others had only a cottage - a house with some land, not sufficient to sustain a family, so that additional revenue was needed - and those peasants who had no land of their own, which we may refer to as farmhands. Farmowning peasants usually had family names, often derived from the name of the farmstead; cottagers equally could have family names; farmhands usually did not. Finally, there were havenots who escaped from or were expelled from farms and who travelled the country, in the sources referred to as vagabonds. The authorities regarded them as potential troublemakers, they were often forbidden to enter certain areas, and at times vagabond hunts were organized (in order to expel these 'undesired elemnents'.
The status of serfs was different, depending on where they lived. To the east of the Elbe River, the noble landowners had the privilege of jurisdiction over their serfs, the right to sentence them to death. On the other hand, serf peasants had a firm hold on 'their' farms, could inherit them to the next generation - as long as they fulfilled their feudal duties. The feudal duties, dues in money or in agricultural products, corvee labour - varied from place to place. The complex of feudal duties was often documented incompletely, a situation which invited noble estate owners to exceed their demands for corvee labour, at times an incentive for a peasant revolt. In the 17th century, rulers such as Maria Theresia, Frederick the Great, Gustavus III. codified and regulated the peasant dues.
To the west of the Elbe River, the situation of serfs was better, because the state did not permit the nobility to exploit the peasantry as much as Brandenburg-Prussia did, because western Germany was much more urbanized and the proximity of cities provided an alternative (at least as day-labourers), because here free peasants coexisted with serfs, because the western regions of Germany were areas of recruitment for settlers in Hungary or the Ukraine, because here the proto-industrialization provided other sources of income to parts of the countryside population.
A new career opportunity for peasants emerged in the standing armies; the traditional mercenaries were replaced by indigenous, poorly paid soldiers; education was not required, they were drilled in the army. The farmers resented their sons to be drafted in the army, arguing that the army should draft vagabonds instead. These, on the other hand, often escaped recruitment, because they were not registered (for the sedentary population, the parish kept registers).

Many peasants were illiterate; in protestant communities, peasant children at least had the opportunity to learn to read and write (teachers would complain that during the harvest time, school attendance suffered). The discussion of the (possible) liberation of the peasants in the salons of the Enlightenment and in the lodges of Freemasons, largely went unnoticed by the peasants. In the later 18th century, however, even illiterate peasants had heard that the possibility for things to change was there. In the western exclaves of the Prussian state (Kleve-Mark, Minden-Ravensberg, Tecklenburg) the common lands were, by royal order, partitioned, every farmer and cottager who was part of the community, received his share.
Hearing that Sweden acquired an island colony in the Caribbean (St. Barthelemy 1785), peasants in Swedish Finland requested being transferred as settlers (without the government having called for prospective settlers to apply). In Transylvania, peasants, believing that Emperor Joseph II. would support their action and the regional nobles had broken the law, took measures in their own hands (Transylvanian Peasant Revolt, 1784-1785).

Gutsherrschaft, Bauernlegen und Bauernwiderstand (Demesnal Rule, the "Bauernlegen" and Peasants' Resistance in Lower Lusatia), from Geschichte der Niederlausitz (on the situation of the peasants in Lower Lusatia in the 18th century), in German
Friedrich Engels, Zur Geschichte der Preussischen Bauern (On the History of the Prussian Peasants); as Engels was co-founder of the communist movement, to be read with care
Article "Bauernlegen", from Preussen-Chronik
DOCUMENTS King Gustav III.'s proclamation declaring St. Barthelemy a free port, Sept. 7th 1785, edited by Pauli Kruhse
Manifesto of 1763 (Catherine the Great), from, and by Bob L. Berschauer - title : German immigration to Russia

This page is part of World History at KMLA
First posted on September 27th 2003, last revised on November 14th 2004

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