German farms FAQ

Seventeenth century German farms in the GV area

  1. To understand what a seventeenth century farm village looked like think about a fried egg on a plate. The yoke represents the village and the white represents the fields around the farming village (Gemeinde). Rid you mind of the picture of neatly laid out individual farms of rectangular fields bounded by straight roads crossing at right angles.

    1. Villages averaged 1000-2000 acres, roughly 640 acres for a small village to 5760 acres for a large village. An average Gemeinde would have 200-300 arable acres in crops with another roughly 100 or so arable acres fallow and used as pasture. The remaining land included village buildings, fishponds, orchards, forests, meadows, and other such non-arable lands.

    2. Given the technology of the time, it really did take the full time work of 10 household heads with assistance from wives, children over 10 or 12, and hired servants, to cultivate what amounted to a US section of land.

  2. The villages farmed as a unit, not as individual farmers - think of it as an agricultural co-op. The arable fields were worked by the Gemeinde as a whole, and the individual farmer (Bauer) held a share of those common fields. The share of the total arable acreage of a Gemeinde held by each of the individual farmers was naturally much smaller than the total lands held by the Gemeinde. To determine how much land a Bauer might have divide the total Gemeinde's total arable land by the number of households and factor in that the shares were not equal in size. Each farmer held shares of land from which he took his profits and/or food. Each farmer also had rights to pasture a certain number of cows on his share of the village commons with the number of animals depending upon the size of the farmer's share. The Gemeinde is run as a corporation or communally complete with voted on officers. It is as that whole that the farmers decided what to grow in which fields each year.

    1. A "full farmer" or Vollbauer was by definition a person who held enough land in the village corporation to support himself and his family entirely (or at least primarily) by farming, using a combined work force of his own family members and a couple of hired men or girls. This could vary over a man's lifetime: a young farmer with three kids under age 7 would probably hire, but when his kids got into their teens, the farmer could do without hired labor for a while. A farmer who held this kind of share in the lands had a full vote in the village Gemeinde and was expected to do his share in holding local offices, etc.

    2. One of the prerequisites for a farmer to buy a long-term lease was for him to demonstrate he had enough capital available to maintain the buildings and stock the farm.

    3. The average Vollbauer leased about 40-80 acres of arable (plus his proportional shares in the meadows, forests, fishponds, and other commons of the village Gemeinde) and a village Gemeinde normally ranged from 10 (rare to be smaller) to 90 or so households (rare for a village to be larger). There was a practical reason for this size limitation - the farmers had to be able to walk to the fields.

    4. In regions with partible inheritance (where the farm itself could be split when the lease-holder died, rather than all going to one child with the others paid off in cash), you had "half-farmers" or "quarter-farmers." These farmed their share in the lands, but usually had to supplement farm income with some kind of "rural craft" -- barrel making, barge manufacture, etc. were common, and possibly by having his wife take in "putting out" work from textile entrepreneurs, doing spinning for the market, etc.

    5. In slack times many full share farmers also were "rural" crafters.

    6. Villages had 'cottagers' - people who did not hold farmland, but only a house and garden. These were often widows, who, even though they had no share in the Gemeinde were often allowed, as a matter of "decency" as people put it then or humaneness, as we would put it, to keep a single cow on the commons. Cottagers were often elderly widows, but when population increased, there might be cottagers who were day laborers who weren't permanent hired men on any farm, but relied on picking up what work they could get.

    7. Except for retired Gemeinde members, the legal standing of cottagers in a village Gemeinde was ordinarily that of "Beisitzer" -- people who were "sitting on the sidelines". The closest equivalent in modern terminology would be "green card holders". People who were legally present, but did not hold citizenship or corporate rights in the community in which they resided.

    8. The villagers were NOT serfs. The village lands were held by written lease from the landowners. A common lease ran for 99 years or 3 lives, whichever came first. A village usually owed rents to several landowners as landrights could and often were subdivided, leased, sold, inherited, etc. Think of it as somewhat equivalent to the landowners as shareholders of stock and the rents as dividends. Thus a village mayor and council would collect the revenue and send 1/16 to X, 1/8 to Y, 3/32 to Z, and so forth.

    9. Tithes still existed but as with land rents they had been traded, sold, assigned such that tithes rarely supported the local parish or even went to any church.

  3. Draft animals belonged to individual farmers but were used communally. Each farmer had to provide a team of draft animals to qualify to lease his land in the first place. Four individual teams made up an eight-horse team for heavy plowing, etc.

  4. The farmers DID NOT slaughter ALL their livestock in the autumn. They slaughtered those animals raised specifically for slaughter. If a milk cow was getting too old and there was a replacement animal, the elderly cow became roasts. Similarly, when ewes or sows aged they became candidates for slaughter. Steers are male bovines that have been neutered. They may be used as draft animals (oxen) or be raised strictly for meat. Some intellectually lazy historian with no practical farming experience and less logic started this 'rural myth' and it pops up when other folks are too lazy to do their homework copy it.

  5. The soil of Germany/Northern Europe is NOT uniformly "heavy clay". No large region is geologically uniform. The heavy plow may have been first introduced into an area with heavy clay and then spread to other areas without changes.

  6. Livestock, that is, milk cows, sheep, pigs, horses, mules, oxen, and chickens thrive quite nicely on available grazing areas with occasional supplemental feed. They have done so for millennium. They do so today in many places. If there is not sufficient grazing land then and only then is hay feeding necessary.

    1. Except during winter storms or unless the snow was very deep the livestock could graze outside during the winter with some supplemental hay and grain.

    2. There is evidence that during the seventeenth century a change was made in the feeding of livestock. Where farm livestock had not previously been given much grain this began to change and resulted in increases in size and weight.

  7. The three-field crop rotation had been in practice since the ninth century. This leaves one field in three fallow for a year. The fallow fields are used to graze the livestock and grow hay. The village livestock fertilized the fallow fields with their manure.

  8. Sheep and swine have undergone the greatest changes since the seventeenth century. The types of sheep and pigs found in a modern farm did not exist prior to the twentieth century. Sheep are raised for meat, milk, or wool. No single breed does it all. Swine are raised for meat; modern breeds seem to be bigger and leaner.

  9. Any mention of the habits of Goats is left up to Mr. Dennis. (Note to new readers: this is a joke - Andrew Dennis having gotten the nickname of 'Goat' on the Bar)

    1. A goat dairy does exist in Grantville/Mannington.

  10. Corn, when spoken of by a seventeenth century European, means oats, barley, wheat, buckwheat, and rye (cereal grains), not maize. Maize had been introduced into Europe but it apparently was not grown in Germany at this time. Maize cultivation had expanded rapidly in southern Italy and northern Portugal.

  11. Oats and barley were not raised solely to feed horses and pigs. This one belongs with the 'heavy clay soil' and 'slaughtered all the livestock' myths. Undoubtedly some oats and barley did go to feed livestock but that would not have been the primary use for these grains.

  12. Draft horses do not make good cavalry horses and vice versa. Draft horses would have been snatch by armies for draft work, that is, pulling wagons and artillery or for meat. You can harness and plow with a riding horse, however you will wear the horse out quickly and not get as much work from him as from a draft horse. Conversely, draft horses are not suitable for cavalry style riding.

  13. No matter how beneficial a change in farm equipment is there will be a significant percentage of farmers who will resist it, especially when it requires a whole new knowledge set. This is why the use of horse drawn farm equipment will not 'explode' immediately. In a couple of years, with some villages showing off the benefits and a few well respected local farmers proclaiming the wonders, others will consider buying the new-fangled equipment.

    1. Farmers are inherently conservative. If they make a mistake it can mean starvation for them and their families. New crops, new machines, new ideas will be considered but will not be immediately and enthusiastically embraced by all farmers.

  14. Villages did have communal ovens for bread baking. Except perhaps for the largest of villages there were no village bakeries. Each family baked its own bread.

  15. Some man in all but the smallest villages would have blacksmithing tools and shoe the village's horses and oxen. Farriers shoe horses. Blacksmiths shoe horses and also fabricate and repair metal items. Usually only large villages could support a full-time blacksmith. It was not uncommon even in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries for the blacksmith to also be a farmer.

  16. Of course, once we get people convinced of what things were like in western, southern, and central Germany, and then we'll have to introduce the "exceptions to the rule" for Westphalia. BEG

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