Book Summary: “End of the Old Order in Rural Europe” by Jerome Blum

End of the Old Order in Rural Europe

Title: End of the Old Order in Rural Europe
Author: Jerome Blum
Scope: 3 stars
Readability: 3 stars
My personal rating: 5 stars
See more on my book rating system.

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Topic of Book

Blum focuses on how serfdom, forced labor and unequal taxes on the peasantry came to an end in Europe.

My Comments

While this book focuses exclusively on Europe in the 18th Century, it gives an excellent depiction of what all Agrarian societies were like in Eurasia. The contrasts with modern society are striking.

Key Take-aways

  • Agrarian societies were rigidly divided into orders. Each order had specific privileges and obligations.
  • The modern conceptual of a society being one of relatively equal citizens with the same rights was completely absent from their thinking.
  • The upper classes were usually divided into political, military and religious sub-orders. Each society had differing views on their relative order, but all three were of much higher status from the peasantry.
  • The upper classes:
    • owned the bulk of the arable land.
    • had a very negative view against physical labor.
    • enjoyed conspicuous consumption of luxury good
    • dressed, talked and styled their hair and body in ways that clearly delineated their status.
    • were exempted from taxation
    • were often composed of an ethnic minority that had previously conquered the land
    • often lived in large capital cities
  • The peasants:
    • formed the vast majority of people
    • worked extremely hard to produce food and still barely had enough to eat
    • paid the bulk of the taxes and land rents
    • lived almost exclusively on grain, usually wheat or rice.
  • Merchants and artisans:
    • Varied greatly in their status from society to society. In the West, they were of much higher status that in Asia.
    • Had strong incentives to cater to the desires of the upper class.

Important Quotes from Book

The social structure of each of these lands was divided into orders, or estates, that were arranged in a descending scale of status and privilege. Law and custom defined the orders, and law and custom established the hierarchy of privileges and obligations that characterized the society. This was the traditional order, the old regime, that had prevailed for centuries.

The inequalities of power, privilege, and honor that characterized the traditional society never seemed greater than they were in the last century of the old order. Then, at what seemed to be the apogee of its long history, the hierarchical structure, along with many other institutions of the traditional society, began to crumble.

In the servile lands, all descendants of a nobleman, or at least all descendants in the male line, were themselves noble, and children of titled families bore their parents’ title while their parents were still alive. In England only the eldest in the male line inherited nobility. All other family members were commoners, though they were accorded so-called courtesy titles. That was why the English nobility was so small. On the continent the majority of the nobility, including many of the greatest families, had no title, nor did they need them. Their special privileges sufficed to mark them off from the rest of their societies

There was no difference, however, in the self-image harbored by the nobility of England and of the continent. They thought of themselves as special beings, possessed of qualities that merited the respect and the deference of the lesser mortals among whom they lived. A consciousness of their superiority never deserted them; pride was to them a virtue. To guarantee that their superiority would always be acknowledged, they created a code of behavior that distinguished them from those beneath them in the social pyramid.

Though pride of family lay at the heart of the hereditary nobility, few could boast of long-distinguished lineage whose first ennoblement lay far in the past. Most noble families were of recent creation.

In agricultural societies land is the single most important commodity and those who control it dominate the society. That was why the right to own rural land was often limited by law to the state, the church, and the nobility, and in some sovereignties to cities as corporate entities and to institutions such as universities or charitable foundations.

Certain privileges attached themselves to the ownership of property recognized

as noble land. One of the most valuable of these privileges concerned taxation…

Land registered as noble land remained tax-free regardless of the social order to which its subsequent proprietors belonged. In short, the privilege of exemption from taxation adhered to the land rather than to the person of its proprietor.

Privileges are of little moment unless they are restricted to a minority of the body politic; their value is in inverse proportion to the numbers who are privileged. The members of the noble order formed a small fraction of the population of their respective countries, ranging from as little as 1 per cent in European Russia (including the Baltic, White Russia, and Lithuanian provinces) in 1858, about 1.5 per cent in France before the Revolution, about 4 per cent in Hungary in the 1820’s, to around 8 per cent in Poland before the first partition of that state in 1772.

The peasants of western Europe, save for a relatively small number, had long ago thrown off the bonds that held them in serfdom. Nonetheless, they still owed servile obligations to seigniors, and they were still subject, to a greater or lesser extent depending upon the locality, to the jurisdiction and punitive authority of seigniors… It became part of the price the peasant paid for the use of his holding to the seignior who had the superior ownership of the land. Since nearly all of the land in these societies belonged to seigniors—whether prince, nobleman, institution, or burgher— nearly all of the peasants owed servile obligations.

Even peasants who were recognized as fully free and who were alodial proprietors of their holdings had to pay obligations to seigniors that were not demanded of property owners who belonged to other orders.

In general the status of the peasantry worsened as one moved eastward across the continent and it reached its nadir in the lands that lay on the other side of the Elbe River. Most of the peasants there were held in a serfdom that was far more onerous and far more degrading than the vestigial serfdom of western Europe.

Often the only effective restraint on the lord was his knowledge that his demands might reach the point at which his serfs would run away to escape them.

The alienation of serfs without land, often involving the break-up of families, reveals the depth of the degradation to which serfs had been reduced in many of the eastern lands. They were sold, mortgaged, exchanged, and gambled away. This concept of the serf as a chattel, a thing that could be made over to another person, apparently was a phenomenon largely of the seventeenth and especially of the eighteenth century. The practice assumed especially large proportions in Russia.

The subservience of the peasant and his dependence upon his lord were mirrored in the attitudes and opinions of the seigniors of east and west alike. They believed that the natural order of things had divided humankind into masters and servants, those who commanded and those who obeyed. They believed themselves to be naturally superior beings and looked upon those who they believed were destined to serve them as their natural inferiors. At best their attitude toward the peasantry was the condescension of paternalism. More often it was disdain and contempt.

The conviction of their own superiority harbored by the seigniors was often compounded by ethnic and religious differences between lord and peasant. In many parts of central and eastern Europe the masters belonged to a conquering people who had established their domination over the native population. German seigniors ruled over Slavic peasants in Bohemia, Galicia, East Prussia and Silesia, and over Letts and Estonians in the Baltic lands; Polish lords were the masters of Ukrainian, Lithuanian, and White Russian peasants; Great Russians owned manors peopled by Ukrainians and Lithuanians and Poles; Magyars lorded it over Slovaks and Romanians and Slovenes—to list only some of the macro-ethnic differences.

The peasants themselves, oppressed, contemned, and kept in ignorance by their social betters, accepted the stamp of inferiority pressed upon them.

Over the centuries a seemingly infinite variety of dues and services owed by peasants to their seigniors had evolved in the lands of servile Europe.

Labor services were perhaps the most common of all obligations, though in western Europe they were a relatively unimportant part of the total burden of the peasant. Seigniors in western Europe, with some notable exceptions, especially in northwestern Germany, were as a rule not as active in agricultural production as were the lords of eastern Europe, so that they had at most a moderate need for labor services. Many of them allowed their peasants to commute their labor dues into money payments.

The tithe was the third and by all odds the most ubiquitous of the major obligations demanded of the peasants in western Europe. Every peasant with land, no matter how insecure his tenure, had to pay the tithe. In fact, all land, including the demesne land of noblemen, the church, and burghers, had a tithe levied upon it, though in France nobles and churchmen often paid at a lower rate and a few of the older religious orders had acquired exemptions for their land. Originally intended for the support of the church and of the needy, the tithe had become a caricature of what it was supposed to be. Now governments, laymen, nobles, burghers, and even peasants, through purchase, conquest, or secularization, had become owners of tithes.

The tithe came out of the gross yield. It represented a much larger share of the net—that is, what was left after the grower had taken out his costs and the seed for next year’s sowing. At the prevailing low level of productivity in which yields often averaged as low as three to four bushels to one bushel of seed, the tithe could amount to one-seventh of the net harvest on good soil, one-fifth on medium, and one-third of the net on poor soil. In short, it could be an inordinately heavy obligation and was often the heaviest burden the peasant had to bear.

In most of eastern Europe peasants could not leave their villages without the consent of their seigniors.

The peasants’ obligations did not end with the dues and services they paid to their lords. They were by far the chief source of the state’s fiscal income. Their number, the relative unimportance of the bourgeoisie and the tax exemptions or favors its members sometimes won for themselves, and the full or partial exemption of the nobility and the church, saw to that.

There was one last claim that the state made upon the peasantry: liability for conscription for peace-time military service.

In servile lands of both east and west the obligations demanded of peasants reached new peaks during the last century of the old order. In France seigniorial dues began their ascent after 1690. They took on new momentum in the so-called “feudal reaction” of the second half of the eighteenth century, when many seigniors (or the bourgeois or prosperous peasant renters to whom they had leased their seigniorial privileges) collected dues more vigorously, insisted upon the payment of arrears, and revived and enforced old and forgotten claims.38 In other lands there was a sharp rise in the amount of labor services demanded by seigniors.

The increased economic pressure upon the peasant was accompanied in a number of the servile lands by a deterioration in their legal status and in their personal rights.

The authority of the seignior over his peasants extended beyond his right to the dues and services they had to pay him. He also had control over many aspects of the lives and activities of his peasants. That control was greatest in the eastern lands, but western seigniors had privileges and public powers of the same nature, if not always of the same intensity, as those exercised by the lords of the east.

One of the most effective and most widely employed instruments of seigniorial control was the monopolies that they possessed. These exclusive privileges were in areas of critical importance to the everyday life of the peasants. In some lands the villagers could buy certain wares only from his seignior at prices that were often inflated for merchandise that was often of inferior quality.

Nearly everywhere, in east and west alike, the seigniors had a monopoly on milling. The peasants had to bring their grain to the lord’s mill. They could not mill it themselves or take it to some other miller. The lord’s mill, the only one allowed in the seigniory, was almost always leased out.

Another widespread seigniorial monopoly concerned the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages.

He also served as the representative of public authority out in the countryside. In some lands the seignior or his representative were the only public authorities with whom villagers, free and unfree, had any dealings. Even in the western lands, where the peasant was the direct subject of the sovereign (rather than the “hereditary subject” of his lord who stood between him and the sovereign as was the case in the east), the local seignior was, for nearly all purposes, the government. The most widespread and most important of the public functions provided by seigniors was the conduct of a court of law, and the supervision of police authority in his seigniory or manor.

All of [the varieties of tenure], however, can be separated into two categories that can be simply termed as “good” tenures and “bad” tenures. The “good” tenures included all those manners of landholding by which the peasant occupant had a permanent and often heritable right to the use of his holding. “Bad” tenures were those by which the peasants held for a limited period, or at the will of the proprietor. Different tenures coexisted within a region or a locality or even within an individual manor. Typically, however, one or another form predominated in a given area. In general, “good” tenures were most common in the lands of the west, while “bad” tenures were the rule in the eastern lands.

The best of the good tenures was that of the free peasant proprietors who were scattered through all of the servile lands. These people had full ownership of their land. However, they made up only a small part of the peasantry. By far the most common of the good tenures was the hereditary right of occupation. Many peasants held their land by this tenure in France, particularly in the northern half of that country, in Germany west of the Elbe.

Hereditary tenure gave the peasant a lifelong right to the use of his holding and allowed him to bequeath, alienate, or mortgage it. Indeed, hereditary tenure often seemed indistinguishable from ownership. But… the hereditary occupant owned only the right to the use of the land and its accompanying servitudes in forest, pasture, meadow, and waste. It was this right of use that the occupant could bequeath, sell, or hypothecate. The superior ownership, the dominium directum, belonged to a seignior who had rights and powers over the use and disposition of the holding that could severely limit the occupants’ freedom of action.

With sharecropping the line was crossed from “good” to “bad” tenures. Some peasants who had holdings too small to support their families took additional land on shares. Most sharecroppers, however, were little more than rural proletarians, almost always in debt to their landlords, and barely able to earn their living. They could not afford to lease land, and in any event they lacked the tools and animals needed to work a holding. They had no choice but to accept the terms offered by the proprietor. He usually provided half or more of the working capital, including animals and seed, needed to work the holding. In return the peasant turned over a share of the produce of the holding to the proprietor. The amount of the share depended upon the agreement made between peasant and proprietor. Generally, both parties received equal shares.

With all of its shortcomings, sharecropping was still preferable to the tenure that prevailed in Europe east of the Elbe. At least the sharecropper had an agreement with his landlord that afforded him a degree of security… Most of the peasants in the servile lands of eastern Europe held their land at the will of their seignior.

The reason, of course, for this overwhelming emphasis on grain was that it was by far the chief human foodstuff. And as population increased, the demand for grain increased. Farmers responded by planting more and more of it to feed their own growing numbers and to supply the expanding urban markets.

The inefficiency and low productivity of agriculture, and the poverty of

the great mass of the population, explained the extreme dependence on grain. One or another of the cereals will grow almost everywhere, they are easy to store and transport, and they contain no toxic materials. Most important, they are cheaper per thousand calories of energy than almost any other food. They are concentrated storehouses of the carbohydrates that fuel most of the energy that men need to move about and to work.

Grain entered the human diet principally in the form of porridge, beverages, and bread.

Despite the increase in the area sown in wheat, rye easily retained first place as the single most important crop in most of the servile lands.

Rye owed its preeminence to its field qualities. It is the least demanding of the major cereals in its soil requirements, so that it does not suffer as much from lack of fertilizer as does wheat. Its extensive root development provides greater absorptive capacity and a greater ability than other cereals to grow in unfavorable soil conditions. It requires less sunshine than does wheat, can survive lower winter temperatures, can endure alternate freezes and thaws, tolerates more excessive conditions of soil moistness, and equals wheat in its resistance to drought. It produces more straw than does wheat and so helped fill out the always inadequate supplies of forage, and its quicker early growth made it easier to get rid of weeds. In short, rye requires less labor and less application of capital and still gives yields superior to those which wheat would give under the same circumstances. On the

other hand, rye, unlike wheat, responds poorly to good cultivation practices such as the use of fertilizer. It shares with wheat the lowest ranking in yield among the major cereals, and it is usually more expensive to produce than barley and oats, the other two chief grains.

Oats was second only to rye in popularity. In the dominant three-field system oats was by far the most popular spring cereal. It often held first place, too, in regions where farmers used convertible husbandry… Oats uses nutrients in the soil that are not accessible to spring wheat or barley, so that it yields well with little preparation of the field. It grows on poor or exhausted soils, withstands heat, cold, dry or humid conditions, and is less affected by weeds and by inferior tillage than are other cereals. It provides food for man and beast. As forage oats has twice the nutritional value of good hay and all animals like it. Usually, however, when oats was used for forage in the servile lands it was fed only to horses. With the replacement in some regions of oxen by horses as work animals, oat culture increased.

Barley, the other principal spring cereal, was much less widely planted than oats. Barley grows in a great variety of climactic conditions and has a short growing season, so that it could be raised successfully in the cold of northern Russia and at an elevation of 2,000 meters in the Swiss Alps. But it is to oats as wheat is to rye, in that it is more sensitive to soil quality and tillage practices, and without proper cultivation is easily overrun by weeds.

With less labor, then, the peasant had larger yields per acre with oats than he did with barley, and so preferred to grow oats.

The inadequacies and inefficiencies of agriculture in the servile lands resulted, as could be expected, in abysmally low yields. From the end of the Middle Ages the ratio between harvest and amount of seed planted oscillated within a narrow band, indicating the static level of agricultural efficiency.

A glance at the charges against the peasants’ harvest before they could consume any part of it reveals the narrow margin afforded by the prevalent yields of the traditional agriculture. A yield of 4 to 1 (considered very satisfactory in most places) meant that 25 per cent of the harvest had to be put aside for seed for the next planting. Obligations in kind to the seignior and tithes took a sizable share of the crop—sometimes perhaps as much as 15 per cent. A part of the harvest had to be stored against possible crop failures in the next season, some had to be fed to the animals, and some had to be sold to raise the money the peasants needed to meet their obligations in cash they owed to lord, state, church, and community, and to buy the wares they did not produce themselves. The wonder is that, given the demands against their meager crops, they were able to stay alive and even to increase their numbers.

The wonder grows in light of the frequency of crop failures and famines. Even in years of “good” harvests, hunger was an accepted part of village life, especially in the weeks before the new crop was ready for harvesting, when the grain left from the last harvest was running out.25 Imagine, then, the peasants’ plight when, as happened all too often, harvests fell short of expectations or failed completely. France during the eighteenth century knew sixteen years of general famine, or about one year out of every six.

Draft power, supplied by horse or ox, was the primary interest of most peasants in animal husbandry.

Most of the sheep belonged to the seigniors. Lords sometimes had huge flocks, especially in central and eastern Europe when sheep-raising boomed to meet new domestic and foreign demand for wool.

There were a few exceptions to the general neglect of animal husbandry in the servile lands. French Flanders was one notable variation from the norm (as it was in nearly every aspect of agriculture). To the Flemish farmer the chief advantage of livestock was the production of the manure that the peasants there applied so liberally to their fields. They did not keep many animals, but they took good care of the ones they had. They stalled them so that their droppings were not lost on pastures and wastes, and they fed them forage crops, oil cakes, and brewery and other industrial residues. They bred strong horses, excellent sheep with heavy fleeces, fat pigs, and cows that gave much more milk than those in neighboring French provinces. Animal husbandry remained of secondary importance to tillage, but it provided a valuable source of income to the Flemish peasants.

Despite the advances in so many sectors of European civilization, the foundation upon which most everything else rested lagged far behind… The methods and implements of tillage had changed amazingly little in the course of half a millennium. The face of rural Europe looked much as it had in the Middle Ages, the farm animals were not of better quality, and the yields from the fields were, at best, not significantly higher. The great mass of the people of the servile lands lived at the narrow margin of subsistence, as much at the mercy of a shortage of food as their forebears had been in the thirteenth century.

The organization and internal structure of the rural economy reflected the disinterest of seigniors in the advancement of agriculture. Most of them showed no concern about improvements in the operations of their manors, even though the manors were usually their chief or only source of income. They did not think of their properties as investments whose returns could be increased by careful management and by innovation.

Seigniorial abstention from direct production was most frequent among the lords of the western lands.

Involvement in the court, the army, government service, or social life provided the chief reasons for absenteeism. Nobles sought and found the preferments, the power, the honor, and the income, which distinguished them from other men, in careers as courtiers, officers, and bureaucrats. Service in bureaucracy or army kept many Prussian, Russian, and Austrian noblemen away from their properties for years, and even for life. Still others preferred the social and cultural attractions of city residence, whether in the capital or in a provincial town, to living on their estates. Others could not abide absence from the court of the sovereign.

Conspicuous consumption and ostentatious display were matters of great moment to a nobleman. They could determine his social and political status among his peers and affect his own and his family’s fortunes.

Whatever their interest or lack of it in commercial agriculture, the fact was that in every land nobles or large renters were by far the chief suppliers of farm goods to the market. The peasants, overburdened by their obligations, were barely able to support themselves from their labors, and usually had little left over for sale.

Most nobles used their income for consumption rather than for investment in their properties. They did not alter that pattern when the rise in farm prices and in rents during the second half of the eighteenth century increased their revenues. The more they made, the more they spent, for as their incomes increased so, too, did the standard of living expected of a nobleman.

Excessive borrowing by noblemen was an old story. It had gone on for centuries. But in the last decades of the traditional order it reached proportions that helped undermine the continued existence of the nobility as a special and privileged caste. Their burden of debt became so great that many of them lost their properties.

The great mass of the peasantry were outside of the market nexus, or at most were involved in a highly localized market system. They lived in small villages that had only rudimentary commercial machinery. Theirs was an economy that lived almost completely off its own resources. They had a traditional skill in making use of these resources, which included materials that seemed of trifling value to others. They had little use for money, aside from that which they needed to pay cash dues to their seigniors and taxes to the sovereign. The primary, and indeed, often the sole purpose of their holdings was to meet their own needs. The small size of so many holdings, the burden of dues and taxes, and the low level of productivity gave them no other choice.

Meals for most peasants were dreary repetitions of a few items. Foods prepared from grain dominated their cuisines. Every meal centered around a grain dish. In many regions it was porridge. Known by many names, it was eaten two and three times a day in peasant cottages from one end of Europe to the other.

Modern estimates of grain consumption in the eighteenth century reflect the overwhelming importance of grain in the human diet in the servile lands.

The most conspicuous gap in peasant diets everywhere was the absence, or near absence, of meat.

When food was available in sufficient quantity, peasants’ diets, though severely limited in their variety, seem to have been reasonably healthy and satisfactory in terms of their nutritional value. The cereals that were their chief foods contain most of the elements needed for human nutrition. They are rich in calories and proteins. They do not contain vitamins and minerals in sufficient quantities, but shortages in these items were unlikely to occur in rural societies.

The European diet was also healthier than the rice, maize, or starchy roots such as yams, cassava, taro, or sweet potatoes that are the mainstay of diet in many underdeveloped lands. These foods lack certain essential nutritional substances, so that their use as staples tends to lead to beriberi, pellagra, or multiple deficiency diseases.

Then, around the middle of the eighteenth century, the indifference of the upper orders of society transformed itself into an intense and widespread enthusiasm for everything connected with the land. The passion for agriculture reached such proportions that the French, who yielded to no one in their ardor for the latest fad, gave it the name of agromanie.

If you would like to learn more about history, read my book From Poverty to Progress.

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