In which ways did peasants 'matter' in early modern Europe?
The role of the peasantry in early modern Europe cannot by any means be disregarded. The peasantry of the early modern period were an extremely important section of European society which were predominantly responsible for the progress and sustaining of the period itself. At the end of the mediaeval period, European society was predominantly agricultural and 90% of the population were peasants. Although vast in number the peasantry were subject to rule by higher powers in varying relationships depending on the region, for example the east's form of neo-serfdom is very much different to the landowner/peasant relationships in the west.
It is important to look at how the peasantry were viewed and defined at the end of the mediaeval period, in fact M.L. Bush suggests that the peasantry had 'no legal definiton'1, which is arguably true, in terms of the three estates which were the clergy, the nobility and the bourgeois with the professions, the peasantry were an undefined area. Culturally and in religious views, the peasantry did have a role. Religious teaching had defined the purpose of a peasant to be a labourer who worked all his life in order to gain reward in heaven, added to this was the biblical idea of the meek inheriting the earth. 2 Culturally, the peasants were viewed as the anti-thesis of culture, however these views changed as I will explain later in the essay. Another area to look at is the peasant's economic importance; this is arguably the most important area to address in a period of transition and growth. And finally it is worth looking at a peasant's political role, the revolts and riots that broke out during this period would suggest a political consciousness however as we will see the aims of such insurgence were never about political upheaval and were instead focussed around subsistence.
As I have stated religion saw the peasants as labourers and indeed necessary for the sustaining of their religion. It is also worth noting that it was believed Adam was the first peasant and so all men and nobility were descended from the peasantry.3 Without churchgoing peasants the church would have ceased to function and as the predominant source of funding was from the peasants, and in some cases the exploitation of, the peasantry did matter. More importantly the peasantry mattered to the monarch and the nobility. Taxation was one of the key roles of the peasantry, if not their most important, taxation was necessary for many things but most importantly in this period to fund warfare. The early modern period is one in which war was commonplace, most notably of which was the thirty years war (1618-1648). Without the taxation of peasantry fighting in these wars would not have been possible, peasants were also recruited into the army to fight and so provided a ready supply of troops if needed; a practise which was most visible in 17th century France.4
Early modern Europe was agriculturally dominant, and as Henry Kamen strongly states 'Agriculture was the mainstay of economy, society and state. The peasant classes were correspondingly the mainstay of all three.'5 This is definitely justified, with the growth of towns and a rising population, demands also rose for food, and such food naturally came from the land peasants worked upon. It also should be noted that as the growth of towns increased and new employment opportunities arose peasants often moved to the towns to fill these vacancies, the peasants arguably had a significant role in the growth of towns and so in the economic development of the early modern period. Peasants who had little land in the countryside also served as a 'labour pool for expanding handicrafts'6, of which would be sold at markets or to merchants thus contributing to local economies and private enterprise, contributing, if only in a small way, to the emergence of capitalism.
Peasants who worked on the land often did not own the land they worked upon; there was more often than not an agreement between the peasants and the landowners. In Western Europe, the predominant case was that land was given to the peasant and the peasant was allowed to work on it, in exchange the peasant had to pay rent or a proportion of the crops, the latter was known as 'share-cropping'7. In the west, serfdom had declined by 1500 and so the relationship of landowner and peasant was more an agreement than servitude, the importance of this is its effect on the nobility and landowners. The fact the peasants had tenant rights was indeed threatening to the landowners, R.Blickle's article on early modern Bavaria, outlines some of the obligations a landlord had to their peasants. That in Bavaria, peasant's attitudes were based on the idea of need or subsistence, and that the landowner could not ask the peasants for more than he needed.8 This shows a dependency on each other and arguably that the peasantry were very important to the landlord insomuch as sustaining their societal position.
Peasants in Western Europe also had propriety rights, which further gave peasants some clout in dealing with landlords. The first of which was the property holder could transmit tenure to offspring or to dispose of it entirely through sale or through subletting. Second it allowed him to pay the lord a fixed rent which did not change even in times of inflation, thirdly it allowed the tenure holder the use of uncultivated parts of the land and finally it allowed qualified members of the village to participate in its management.9 These rights show that the peasants did in fact 'matter' and were more independent than what was believed.
Eastern Europe was very much different to the western model, where serfdom had declined in the west; serfdom was reinstating itself in what is known as 'neo-serfdom'. The eastern landlords owned the peasants and could buy, sell or trade them; peasants became 'private property'.10 Whereas the western economy was one arguably based on subsistence and necessity, the east balanced the subsistence economy with a capacity to export grain to the western European markets.11The peasants or serfs were subsequently an integral part of this eastern economy especially in Muscovy.
As stated earlier, mediaeval conceptions of the peasantry saw them as the anti-thesis of culture, however over the following period art and these opinions changed. Peasants had been featured in artwork in the mediaeval period and earlier, although they would never appear in the foreground of a painting.12So although not prominent in artwork, it is true that their presence was still there. With the Renaissance and its theme of nature developed a series of artists who focused on natural landscapes but most importantly were those whom focused on the harvests.
The focus of artwork on the harvest was particularly prevalent in the 16th and 18th century, many pictures depicted the peasants in the foreground, clearly working on the land and they were often depicted as muscular and athletic.13 The often flattering portrayal of the agricultural labourers showed their importance in society as those who worked alongside nature and those who provided food to the rest of the populous. Artwork was officially recognising the peasants as an important component to the European world. In the 16th century, pictures of rural life and work became depicted in larger mediums such as full-sized panels, canvases and prints.14 Even playwrights recognised the agricultural labour, for example, as L. Vardi points out, Shakespeare in the tempest comments on these workers: 'you sunburned sickle-men, of August weary'15. The growing cultural awareness of the peasantry and the agricultural labourer in this period cannot be ignored.
Peter Bruegel the elder distanced the peasantry further from the old 'anti-thesis' opinions, painting pictures of the peasantry not at work but in community settings; in effect he depicted peasant culture. Most famous of which are the 'peasant's wedding feast' and the 'peasant's dance in Vienna' both circa 1568, the paintings could be seen as somewhat comical and even satirical in style, especially in the peasant's dance where it is clear that some of the peasantry are inebriated and so could show the peasant's as crude and easily tempted into folly, however other readings of the paintings see it as a humanist approach, sympathetic and even highlighting aspects of their culture, in this instance perhaps the idea of a drinking culture.16 There are multiple interpretations of these pictures but most importantly Bruegel through his portrayal of peasant festivities and events did present the peasants as a distinct cultural entity, and a recognised entity at that.
So as the peasants became more culturally important, was there any change to their political position in society? Arguably not, although they had more independence (particularly in the west) their position and influence on the country or region's affairs did not change by much. If we look at the peasant revolts and riots which occurred in this period, in particular the German peasants war which Merry E. Wiesner- hanks calls the 'largest mass uprising in Europe before the French Revolution.'17 we can see that the peasants had no qualms over expressing their grievances. However their grievances were not aimed at major political change, in fact it was based around subsistence.
The German peasant's war (1524-26) arose over objections to new laws limiting fishing and hunting rights but soon encapsulated objections of high taxes and the imposition of labour obligations. Their grievances as is seen did not talk of overthrowing or replacing any significant authority, but addressed issues that were necessary for their livelihood and survival. The 'Twelve articles of the German peasants' show these issues but it is surprising at how it also sets out to attack pastors and those in the church who are abusing their positions. This does seem to show the peasantry attacking some authority by using religion as their justification; they suggest they are acting under the gospel: 'First, the gospel is not a cause of rebellions or insurrections, because it speaks of Christ the promised Messiah, whose words and life teach nothing but love, peace, patience, and unity, so that all who believe in Christ become loving, peaceful, patient and united. If the basis of all the peasants' articles (as will be clearly seen) is directed toward hearing the gospel and living according to it, how can anti-Christians call the gospel a cause of rebellion and disobedience?' 18 The part religious, part subsistence revolt was eventually crushed by the princely armies. The peasant's revolt was a failure and showed that the peasants were not a force which could cause any political change. Although revolts did occur in this period and the peasants readiness to express their grievances does show that they did not want to accept restrictions which would affect their ability to survive and were not a totally subservient mass.
In conclusion, the peasants did matter in early modern Europe and were an important part of their society if not integral. Their role as agricultural producers cannot be understated in this period of economic growth, food and the harvest were paramount to feed the growing populations, also their importance to the nobility, monarch and landowners is also apparent, the peasantry were necessary to sustain the social hierarchy. The peasantry also became the subject of cultural mediums, once shunned and put into the background of art they became a clearly depicted group and in the case of artists like Peter Bruegel were depicted as a cultural entity in themselves. Although it can be said that politically the peasants did not have any real voice or feature in any prominence in political life, they did express their grievances and even justified their actions in the case of the twelve articles of the German peasants. Although not achieving any political change, the peasantry were not a totally silent part of society which is important to note. So it can be said that the peasantry were an economically, culturally and socially important group in early modern Europe, one which contributed greatly to the societies they inhabited.
1M.L.Bush, 'Tenant right and the peasantries of Europe under the old regime' in M.L.Bush (ed.), Social orders & Social classes in Europe since 1500: Studies in social stratification (London, 1992) p.136
2 'The Meek shall inherit the earth', 20 December 2002 <http://www.topical-bible-studies.org/45-0002.htm>, (6th November 2009)
3 Henry Kamen, European society 1500-1700 (London, 2000), p.146
4 Merry E. Wiesner- hanks, Early modern Europe 1450-1789 (Cambridge, 2006), p.288
5 Henry Kamen, European society 1500-1700 (London, 2000), p.146
6 Merry E. Wiesner- hanks, Early modern Europe 1450-1789 (Cambridge, 2006), p.196
7 M.L.Bush, 'Tenant right and the peasantries of Europe under the old regime' in M.L.Bush (ed.), Social orders & Social classes in Europe since 1500: Studies in social stratification (London, 1992), p.137
8 Renate Blickle, 'From Subsistence to Property: Traces of a Fundamental Change in Early Modern Bavaria', Central European History, vol. 25, no.4 (1992), p.378
9 M.L.Bush, 'Tenant right and the peasantries of Europe under the old regime' in M.L.Bush (ed.) Social orders & Social classes in Europe since 1500: Studies in social stratification (London, 1992), p.137
10 Merry E. Wiesner- hanks, Early modern Europe 1450 - 1789 (Cambridge, 2006), p.197
11 Merry E. Wiesner- hanks, Early modern Europe 1450 - 1789 (Cambridge, 2006), p.197
12 Liana Vardi, 'Imagining the harvest in early modern Europe', The American Historical Review, Vol. 101, No. 5 (December, 1996), p. 1357
13 Liana Vardi, 'Imagining the harvest in early modern Europe', The American Historical Review, Vol. 101, No. 5 (December, 1996), p. 1360
14 Liana Vardi, 'Imagining the harvest in early modern Europe', The American Historical Review, Vol. 101, No. 5 (December, 1996), p. 1364
15 Liana Vardi, 'Imagining the harvest in early modern Europe', The American Historical Review, Vol. 101, No. 5 (December, 1996), p. 1370
16 Perez Zagorin, 'Looking for Pieter Bruegel', Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 64, No.1, (January, 2003), p.74
17 Merry E. Wiesner- hanks, Early modern Europe 1450-1789 (Cambridge, 2006), p.163
18 The 'Twelve Articles' of the German Peasants (1525), <http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1850/peasant-war-germany/ch0e.htm> ( 7th November 2009)
'The Meek shall inherit the earth', 20 December 2002 <http://www.topical-bible-studies.org/45-0002.htm>, (6th November 2009)
The 'Twelve Articles' of the German Peasants (1525), <http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1850/peasant-war-germany/ch0e.htm> ( 7th November 2009)
Blickle, Renate, 'From Subsistence to Property: Traces of a Fundamental Change in Early Modern Bavaria', Central European History, vol. 25, no.4 (1992)
Bush,M.L., 'Tenant right and the peasantries of Europe under the old regime' in M.L.Bush (ed.), Social orders & Social classes in Europe since 1500: Studies in social stratification (London, 1992)
Kamen, Henry, European society 1500-1700 (London, 2000)
Vardi, Liana, 'Imagining the harvest in early modern Europe', The American Historical Review, Vol. 101, No. 5 (December, 1996)
Wiesner- hanks, Merry E., Early modern Europe 1450 - 1789 (Cambridge, 2006)
Zagorin, Peter,'Looking for Pieter Bruegel', Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 64, No.1, (January, 2003)