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The Peasantries of Europe: From the Fourteenth to the Eighteenth Centuries.

The Peasantries of Europe: From the Fourteenth to the Eighteenth Centuries. Edited by Tom Scott (London and New York: Longman, 1998. xi plus 4l6pp.).

In a few hundred years time, when the final word is written--or spoken--on the century gone by, I suspect the development that gains most attention will not be the relationship between the classes, or the violence of the two world wars, or even the emergence of global communications; it will be the fourfold increase in the world's population. With the rate of growth now appearing to slow down, the demographic explosion of the twentieth century will in all likelihood seem a great deal more significant in the future than it does to us today. This will inevitably have an effect on the way people view the past.

The strange irony of our own time is that a number of professional historians have turned their backs on demography and have instead given pride of place to the role of class conflict in successive stages of social development from ancient slavery, to feudalism, and onwards into capitalism; a natural presentist bias has focused their interest on the 'transition from feudalism to capitalism'. They often have negative things to say about the 'neo-Malthusianism' of historical demographers and they dismiss continuity and a more cyclical view of human development as 'l'histoire immobile', a term first coined by the doyen of 'neo-Malthusians', Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie.

There are many notable features about the theoretical construction of a 'transition from feudalism to capitalism'. The 'disappearance of the traditional peasantry', as Tom Scott calls it in his introduction to the collection of essays reviewed here, forms its capstone. It is supported by three towering assumptions: that capitalist agriculture, requiring economies of scale, swallows up inefficient peasant smallholdings and replaces them with large farms employing wage labor; that the traditional peasantry is averse to risk and, as a result, does not innovate; and that the aim of the traditional peasantry is subsistence rather than the increase of its income through commercialization. The center of the building is dominated by a statue to the exploiting landlord, the chief agent of change, who, in a symbolic alliance with the state, slashes away at the protective terms of peasant tenure, opens land to the market, and consolidates his holdings. From this central piece are derived several of the surrounding deco rative motives, such as the 'English exception' (with its yeomen and gentry) or Central and Eastern Europe's 'second serfdom' (shaped by export-oriented estates).

Whole fields of history have been hidden by this vast monument--demography is only one of them. Many subjects pursued by quantitative historians only a generation ago, such as price series and estimates of harvest production, are now left in the dark; the quantity theory of money, once dominant in Iberian and Mediterranean studies, is nowhere in sight. The study of physical factors, like the geology of the land, the effects of climate or the constraints of biology, is shrouded in shadows. In one of the darkest dales lies the field of politics and the neighbouring lot of war--which actually had quite an influence on the lives of European peasants.

When one hears in the empty distance the confident cry 'Recent studies show...', or 'Nowadays, the argument has moved on ...', one may rightly wonder: is this progress? The silence in these abandoned fields is terrible.

Then the good news arrives: local history has maintained its commitment to detail, and the detail runs absolutely counter to the onward moving argument.

In the local studies presented here, rural politics cannot be ignored, the effects of war are obvious, the changes in climate become evident, agricultural productivity is revealed as fundamental, and demography is once again established in its proper place--the driving force of the economy. Most remarkable for a collection of essays guided by a theoretical concern with social hierarchy is the consistently proven weakness of European landlords in the face of an extraordinarily innovative peasantry. On the face of the evidence it is even tempting to conclude that, along with the Gulf Stream, one of the chief features distinguishing Europe from the rest of the world was the relative powerlessness of its landlords.

One must begin with western Germany, where European agriculture as we know it probably started. Thomas Robisheaux's essay is, in itself, a little masterpiece. Though doffing his hat a few times to current anti-Malthusian obsessions, Robisheaux develops from his data the theme of a self-regulating population regime of smallholders with secure tenures and a seigneurial system held in check by the states (Wurttemberg, Bavaria and others). He outlines the natural resources available on this part of Europe's great northern plain, the compact pattern of village settlements, the crops sown and the field systems employed. The closely related cycles of population and agriculture, established by Wilhelm Abel in the 1930s, play a critical role in Robisheaux's analysis: a phase of decline between BOO and 1450 when, in Germany as a whole, around 46,000 villages were abandoned--but the peasantries in the western regions benefited from the close proximity to centers of commerce; a century of growth, which witnessed the est ablishment and codification of heritable tenures; another phase of contraction in the seventeenth century that Robisheaux traces to problems of distribution rather than production; and a period of sustained advance after 1700. "Surveying the peasantries of western Germany in the middle of the eighteenth century, one could hardly conclude that they were in decline," Robisheaux concludes. "The demographic regime, patriarchal household and family structures, the economy, weakened seigneurial institutions and state protection combined at the village level to create strong, socially disciplined and commercially oriented peasantries."

To the west and south of this part of Germany one can follow similar cycles; and the commercial orientation of the peasantries cannot be doubted. From East Anglia to Sicily smallholders developed land markets, cash crops and complex systems of tenure. Jonathan Dewald and Liana Vardi have written a curious chapter on France that says nothing about population and contains only a paragraph on agricultural production. But one knows from a whole series of local studies--such as Le Roy Ladurie's work on Languedoc--that these cycles existed and that it was the smallholders who occupied the most productive and commercial land. R.M. Smith devotes two thirds of his essay to analyzing English court and manorial rolls in the twelfth and thirteenth century, which one would have thought stood outside the subject of this book. But he establishes an important geographical point overlooked by those who emphasize the power of England's landlords: the eastern counties, and specifically those of East Anglia which were dominated by smallholders, had a more active market in land than those of central 'champion England'. It was in the eastern counties that the tenure of copyhold took root during the expansive years of the sixteenth century, thus laying the ground for the emergence of the English yeomen, "a process engineered by the copyholders themselves." What a pity Smith mentions neither the wool trade, so important in the area, nor its obvious proximity to Europe, particularly Holland which developed a similarly precocious kind of agrarian social differentiation (the book contains no essay on the Netherlands). As the essays on Spain and Italy point out, smallholding peasants were genuine free traders, undermining the authority of the state through smuggling if they had to. One has traditionally divided Spain into the northern secano, dry lands, where the peasant was relatively free, and the southern regadios, the irrigated zone, where the latifundia system made the peasant a slave. But Teofilo Ruiz's evidence shows that the distin ction was not at all clearcut. The late medieval crisis dragged the peasants of Old Catalonia into serfdom from which, as the economy picked up again, they freed themselves through war. The latifundia, on the other hand, were a product of the reconquista and a failure, during the medieval crisis years, to resettle the land according to the small farm practices of the north. Nonetheless, in eastern Andalusia a society of small proprietors and renters did develop in the sixteenth century. Ruiz argues that the seventeenth-century crisis was "a dagger into the heart of the Iberian peasant," driving him into a poverty from which he never fully recovered--and nor did Spain. A north-south divide is also the familiar image of Italy which Stephen R. Epstein shows to be a gross oversimplification. A vibrant urban life developed in southern Italy that fed into a hinterland of coexisting smallholders, living off cash crops of wine, oil, and silk, and the wheat-growing massari of the latifundia. One must bear in mind that only one third of Italy was ever cultivated because the land was so mountainous--the ideal country for smugglers who maintained the trade across borders, even when the city authorities did not want it.

Even more remarkable is the peasantry's contribution to trade and industry in Central and Eastern Europe, which followed the same demographic cycles as the west. In his concluding essay John Langton revives E.W. Fox's notion of 'agricultural kingdoms', living far from navigable waterways, and 'commercial kingdoms' that generated wealth through their proximity to the coast and inland waterways. Langton goes even further, painting a Europe made up of progressive zones from Russia, a 'peasant state', to Central Europe, an 'agricultural kingdom', to the Rhineland, Holland, and England, 'republics of commerce'. But again this is not what the essays show.

The whole of Europe is a peninsula, not a continent. A comparison of Edgar Melton's essay on Russia with William W. Hagen's work on East Elbian Germany and Poland suggests that Russia was not the most backward zone of Europe, its peasantries were not the least free, and nor were they as dependent on the state as Langton implies; in fact, the Muscovite state peasantry, or the chernososhnye, had virtually disappeared by the sixteenth century. Judging by terms of the law alone, and specifically the Code of 1649, the condition of Russian peasantry appears servile, but Melton demonstrates that enforcement was erratic and that, even in those areas where a demesne economy was successfully established, the labor demanded was lighter than in Poland.

The idea of an export driven 'second serfdom' that is supposed to have developed in the aftermath of the seventeenth-century crisis in East Elbian Germany, Poland and Russia is largely derived from the theories of Witold Kula and several works of Marxist-Leninist synthesis that were published in the 1950s and 60s. The evidence in these essays leaves it shot through with holes. In the heartland of eighteenth-century Poland only 3 per cent of the grain harvest was exported; it was even less in Belorussia--the port of Riga, on the Baltic, made its trade less in grain than in hemp and flax, peasant crops. When serfdom was abolished in Russia in the mid-nineteenth century only one quarter of the population consisted of serfs and, again as Melton shows, some of them were highly entrepreneurial serfs. Russian development from the seventeenth century onwards was nor so much in the direction of serfdom as towards a regional division of labour between the newly settled black-soil steppes, which became the granary of t he empire, and a capitalist, proto-industrial Russian heartland. Melton outlines three huge networks of rural industry that grew up in this period of advance; the distinction in the heartland, he maintains, was less between town and country than between trade and manufacturing villages on the one hand, and agricultural villages on the other--all of which gives an early hint of the catastrophe wrought on Russia by the social engineers of 1917.

Indeed war and politics emerge from these essays as another major factor in the peasant economies of early modern Europe. One might feel a certain sympathy for the Polish nobles who appeared at Vienna in 1814 to appeal for the independence of their country in the post-Napoleonic order; but this has to be put in the perspective of the bloodletting that occurred between 1650 and the first Polish partition of 1772. "This succession of disasters," writes Hagen, "registered the defeat of Renaissance Poland's answer, in the form of the decentralized, cavalry-armed, gentry dominated parliamentary monarchy, to the challenge of early modern state-building." Europe's centralized states, these essays repeatedly show, were the allies of peasants, not the landlords. Poland is the counter-example. By the early eighteenth century Polish barons had reduced some villagers to the point of slavery, and, where they couldn't control them, they massacred them. Exports and economics were not at the base of this; it was politics, t he politics of the Polish Commonwealth. But even here, Hagen concludes, "the villages, though battered and bruised, survived the contest."

Hermann Rebel's essay on the Austrian Empire provides yet another graphic account of the role of state politics in the lives of peasants. Anyone interested in the complex dealings of Habsburg diplomacy should take Rebel's evidence into account. Following in the footsteps of Eric Wolf, he offers some particularly revealing material on the relationship between the 'free' German peasantry with corporate status within the system of dynastic landownership, and the non-German fringe peasantry, more open to trade and to proto-industrial activities, more mobile, more skilled, a peasantry which eventually became a serious competitive threat to the German 'core'.

It would be unfair not to mention David Gaunt's survey of Scandanavia, one of the best essays in the book. This region, out on the bounds of cultivable land, gives another clear example of the delicate equilibrium that existed between resources and population, the effects of the change in climate, the role of demographic and agricultural cycles, the exaggeration of conventional distinctions between 'free' and 'unfree' peasantries, and their extraordinarily innovative powers in agriculture, trade and industry.

Fikret Adanar's account of the Ottoman Empire creates some confusion by not sticking to a regional order in his comments--and it was an empire containing many regions. But his analysis of the timar system and the later mukataa system of tax-farming has the merit of demonstrating that, once beyond the Dinaric range of the Balkans, one is truly outside Europe. Adanar quotes Traian Stoianovich's Balkan Worlds, which describes Ottoman government policy as the pursuit of 'command-economic relationships'. It would be difficult to disagree with this. In the Balkans, at any rate, the peasants, deprived of most trade except in pigs, lived in a quasi-permanent condition of banditry and war.

In his final page Langton points out that the period 1950-75 witnessed an epochal shift in which the peasantry became for the first time a 'global minority.' The remark, faithful to the view of the great transformation, may comfort the enemies of Malthus and l'histoire immobile. But, given the evidence presented here of the European peasantry's survivability, along with its capacity to innovate, 1 would prefer to close on a note of continuity: perhaps we are all becoming, like Louis Aragon's Parisians, urban peasants.

Despite its theoretical shortcomings, this is a book of capital importance which no decent historian of Europe can afford to ignore.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Dallas, Gregor
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2000
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