Virginia on Peasants

Wilhelm Henning, in Der vorindustrielle Deutschland, 800 bis 1800 (Paderborn 1974), p. 256f., did a chart on German peasant obligations. Heide Wunder has translated it into English for her essay in Ogilvie's vol. II of Germany: A New Social and Economic History (Fig. 3.1, pp. 72-73).

It starts at the top with Level I, Person required to make payment (always peasant).

Then it moves to Level II Justification or purpose of the payment, for which I have added my shorthand description below in parentheses (six categories). These were divided into

  1. Recompense for use of land, buildings and inventory (rent)
  2. Payments on account of personal unfreedom (serfdom)
  3. Payments for tasks appertaining to rights of sovereignty (state taxes)Divided into
    1. For the maintenance of the peace (court system);
    2. For the maintenance of state order (military defense);
  4. Payments for personal requirements of the territorial lord (subsidies)
  5. Payments for the maintenance of the church and its facilities (tithes and fees)Divided into
    1. Recompense for extraordinary duties, aka perquisites;
    2. Personnel costs;
    3. Material costs;
  6. Payments for the maintenance of community facilities (local taxes) Divided into
    1. Schools;
    2. Poor relief;
    3. Maintenance of roads and bridges;
    4. Recompense for use of the commons;
    5. Herdsmen's wages.

Then move to Level III, Point of time at which the payment was made. The six subdivisions each have at least two, sometimes three, of the following: regularly, on change of ownership, on death, for every utilization, on special occasions — allotted as appropriate.

Level IV is General terms used to designate the payment (technical jargon, if you will).

Level V is Recipient of the payment — landlord, overlord (for bondmen or serfs), juridical lord, territorial lord, ecclesiastical officials, titheholder, teacher, poor fund or paupers, contractor (in the case of a herdsman), etc.


The German word "Bauer" is ordinarily translated into English as "peasant." The word "peasant" brings up the the American mind an image of an oppressed agricultural worker.

However, the German "Bauer" was, by definition, a farmer who owned a heritable, salable, lease — a farmer with property rights in his land, even if they weren't exactly like US property rights. A late medieval or early modern west-of-the-Elbe German Bauer (even if he was a serf, or leibeigen personally) was much more secure in his property than was an English or French tenant farmer, and he often owed at least a portion of his dues and rents in cash rather than kind (that depended on local arrangements). By definition, a Bauer or Voll-Bauer (full-farmer) was able to maintain a team of draft animals and was a citizen with a voice in the village Gemeinde, eligible to hold local office.

The crucial question for the structure of German rural society, then, becomes how many of the rural population were in Bauer households (families on farms large enough to support themselves and pay their dues and taxes) as compared to how many of the rural population fell into the following categories, which often did not have voting rights in the Gemeinde — they were often termed Beisassen — literally "sitters by" the village:

Small-holders (the family has some heritable-lease farm land, but not enough to support itself entirely by farming, and has to engage in some type of rural trade or craft on the side). In parts of Germany, you will find these classified as Halb-Bauer (half-farmers) or Viertel-Bauer (quarter-farmers).

Cottagers (the family has a heritable lease on a house and garden, but makes its living entirely or almost entirely by a rural trade or craft, by working on a noble estate, or by working for Bauer, or some combination of the above)

Servants "im Dienste" (ordinarily young people who may come from either a Bauer or small-holder household, but haven't inherited yet)

Landless, propertyless, adults — termed Tageloehner (day-laborers), Heuerlinge (hired-ons), Einlieger (boarders), or other names.

Between 1500 and 1800, within this rural structure, things got a lot worse for the west German rural population. Around 1500, 60% of the rural population were Bauer and their families. By 1800, this had fallen to 35%, while during the same period, the cottager and landless categories of the rural population expanded from 20% to 40%. More specifically, in Saxony in 1550 the "Bauer" or peasants still made up 49.5% of the rural population, while by 1750 their share had fallen to 24.6%. This was in a territory where (like Brunswick) the rulers practiced a deliberate policy of "Bauernschutz" or "peasant protection" — which in modern terminology you can think of as a kind of farm subsidy program that didn't make payments out, but rather limited rent increases and other demands by the landlords. In areas where there wasn't any "Bauernschutz," the ratios changed even more dramatically during these two centuries (see figures provided by H.-U. Wehler, Deutsche Gesellschaftsgeschichte, Munich, 1987).

This tells you a lot about why so many 18th and early 19th century Germans were emigrating both to the east and to America, Australia, and other colonial locations.

The ultimate cause, slowed by the population drop that resulted from the Thirty Years War, was that by 1600, German agriculture had expanded into just about all the arable land that the country had (including lots of clearing, diking, draining, etc. projects) and simply didn't need any more people to cultivate the soil.

By the 18th century, therefore, the "Bauer" — the "peasant farmers" — who were the most prosperous group in rural society were a minority of the rural population. Heide Wunder reminds us that, "Rural development in Germany was characterized not by a worsening in the legal situation of peasant ownership as a whole, which was above all restricted to the East [Germany east of the Elbe], but rather a redistribution in rural population structure, away from groups with full peasant holdings and toward those for whom agriculture no longer represented the sole or eveven the main basis for subsistence" (in: Ogilvie 1996, p. 153).

One of the interesting underlying economic bases of the 1632-verse is that by introducing a real industrial revolution in the 1630's rather than after 1800, much of this intervening period of an increasingly impoverished rural society can be averted.