PEASANTS - Tarleton State University

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PEASANTS
• Overwhelming majority of
Europeans in the 18th century
were peasants
• Peasants in Western Europe
were relatively free but were
still under the thumb of the
seigneurial system
– Which denied them
sufficient land to achieve
economic independence
– Which also siphoned off
whatever surplus they
produced
• In the form of rents and
fees
CHARACTERISTICS
• Men labored from dawn to dusk, using primitive tools
• Women married late and gave birth to five or six children
– Of whom maybe one or two survived to adulthood
• Majority lived in a state of chronic malnutrition
– Often failed to consume the 2000 calories a day
necessary to keep their health
– Kept them in the firm grip of Malthusian demographic
cycles
THREE-FIELD SYSTEM
• Grain yields remained at
5:1
• Could not raise enough
grain to feed large
numbers of livestock
– And therefore did not
have enough livestock
to produce enough
manure to adequately
fertilize their fields
• Trapped in a system of
triennial rotation, where
they had to keep 1/3 of
their land fallow each year
so that it could renew itself
LACK OF INNOVATION
• Could not convert fallow land to
the cultivation of nitrogenrestoring crops like clover
because they lived too close to
the line of survival to risk
experimentation
• Farmed scattered strips of land in
open, unenclosed fields
– They sowed and harvested
together
– Stifled individual initiative
because it forced everyone to
perform their work at the same
time and to employ the same
methods
• Any deviation might
jeopardize the survival of
the entire community
MARGIN OF SURVIVAL?
• Backyard gardens often
provided the margin of
survival for peasants
– Because they did not have
the land necessary to
achieve economic
independence
• Much of their harvest drained
by seigneurial dues, tithes,
rents, and taxes
PEASANT PROPRIETORS
• Better-off peasants rigged
collection of taxes so that tax
burden fell mainly on the backs of
poorer peasants
– Created serious divisions with
peasant community
• Indebtedness also caused
division
– Poorer peasants frequently
borrowed from better-off ones
(who acted as local loan
sharks) to meet their tax and
seigneurial obligations
• Hatred, jealousy, and conflicts of
interest divided every peasant
community in Europe
SURVIVAL
• Life was a constant struggle for survival
• In times of scarcity, poor peasants had to buy their food
– Suffered as consumers while, at the same time, rising
prices allowed peasant proprietors to make a killing
• Poor peasants had to survive by their wits during hard
times
– Spun and wove cloth in their cottages
– Hired themselves out as farm hands
– Did odd jobs
– Or took to the road in search of work
DESPERATION AND DEATH
• Sometimes they took to the
road for good
– Drifting around Europe
scavenging for food
– Raiding chicken coops,
milking untended cows,
stealing laundry, and
disguising their bodies to
pose as invalids and collect
charity
– Became smugglers,
highwaymen, pickpockets,
and prostitutes
– And in the end, they died-alone
DEMOGRAPHIC DISASTER
• 55% of all rural Europeans born in the
18th century died before the age of 10
• Marriages lasted an average of 15
years
– Terminated by death, nor divorce
• Relations between children in peasant
families was harsh
– Each new child meant the
difference between mere poverty
and destitution
• or threatened destitution for the
next generation by swelling
number of claimants for
inheritance
INNOVATION
• Agricultural innovation first appeared on the large estates
of some members of the aristocracy
– In response to inflationary spiral that began in 1750,
some turned from rent to producing directly for the
market to compensate for rising prices
• The rise of commercial agriculture on many aristocratic
estates in Europe in the late 18th century increased the
amount of certain foods, including grains and meat for
human beings and certain root crops for animals
ROOT CROPS
• Long range trend away from
cultivation of cereal crops for
human consumption and
towards the production of root
crops
– Especially the potato
– Barley, rye, and wheat were
relatively low in nutrition
and also exhausted the soil
• Triennial rotation was
inevitable result of
planting cereals, which
robbed soil of its
nitrogen faster than any
other crop
CONVERSION
• Poor peasants were subsistence farmers and could not
afford to experiment
– Failure of one crop could jeopardize their very survival
– Life was unstable enough for them without the risk of
experimentation
• Only a major crisis could provoke poor peasants to break
with tradition
– Foundation of new agriculture for the peasantry lay in
disaster
• Failure of grain crops in England (1739-40), Germany
and Austrian Empire (1770-72), and France (1788-89)
• These massive crop failures forced poor peasants to
convert to root crops or die
SPREAD OF THE POTATO
• Originally there was
popular prejudice against
the potato
– Taste was ridiculed
– Could not be stored for
long period
– Superstition that it was
poison and caused
tuberculosis
• Disastrous grain harvests
caused people to take a
second look
– Found out it was a more
dependable crop than
grain
• Reputation of potato
then spread rapidly
BENEFITS
• Irish switched to potato on a massive scale by 1800
– Spread to Germany, Poland, Austrian Empire, and
Russia during first half of 19th century
• Gave peasants levels of immunity and energy never known
before
– Yielded four time the quantity of food than grain had on
the same amount of land
– Could be used as fertilizer and as animal feed
– High in calories and vitamins A and C
– Caused population to double in regions that adopted it
within 20 years
NEW CROPS
• With the adoption of the
potato, other new crops
also became popular
– Industrial crops such
as sugar beets
– Vegetables
– Grapes (in southern
Europe)
• New crops required
new knowledge,
intensive cultivation,
care, and specific skills
– Unlike old
agriculture
TURNIPS AND SUGAR BEETS
• Turnips replenished the
soil with nitrogen, could
be used as fertilizer,
and made excellent
food for cattle and
sheep
• Sugar beets not only
provided food for
Eastern European
peasants but were also
good for the soil and
could be used as fodder
– also could be refined
into sugar or distilled
into a cheap, but
potent, brandy
LIVESTOCK
• Production of fodder
crops became
widespread
– Hay, clover, turnips,
beets, and potatoes
– Allowed peasants to
increase size of
herds
– Also increased
average size of
individual animals
WINNERS AND LOSERS
• Food supply measurably increased through
Europe in the 19th century
– Population as a whole experienced an advance
in nutrition
• Peasant proprietors experienced rising standard
of living because they were good farmers
– Poor peasants had problems
• New agriculture required new outlays of
money, better knowledge and methods, and
more intensive labor
–Many poor peasants lacked money and
knowledge to succeed
• New agriculture separated the good farmer from
the bad one and contributed to progressive
disappearance of poorer peasants during the 19th
century
INTO THE EARLY 20TH CENTURY
• Peasant proprietors continued to do well as long as they
grew diversified cash crops
• Number of agricultural laborers increased as poor
peasants were squeezed out and because commercial
agriculture required a large number of workers at the time
– Their wages rose (although still less than urban wages)
• Poor peasants continued to disappear
– Either remained in countryside as tenant farmers or
agricultural laborers
– Or moved to cities to become part of growing urban
workforce
GENERAL TREND
• Declining market for
agricultural products after
1840 might have wiped out the
peasant proprietor altogether
– If governments had not
stepped in and artificially
propped them up with tax
exemptions, protective
tariffs, and price supports
• Peasant proprietor
transformed into a small
commercial farmer
increasingly protected by
their governments against
market slumps and
overproduction crises
SUMMARY
• Poor peasants either became agricultural laborers or
moved to the cities
– Because they found it increasingly impossible to
compete in commercial market
• Given their limited holdings and agricultural
knowledge
• Given the disappearance of marginal producers and
general increase the amount, diversity and quality of
food due to commercialization of agriculture, the
general standard of living in the countryside
improved to the degree where most rural people had
enough to eat and possessed proper nutrition
– Population in the countryside was smaller in the
19th-20th centuries than it had been in the 18th but
it was relatively better off physically and
economically
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