Until far into the nineteenth century, the greater part of the Europeans lived in rural areas, with peasants accounting for 78 percent of the population in 1800. Peasantry was an order of society whose condition by birth, in many areas of Europe, was servitude, the lack of personal freedom. For at least a part of the century, peasants remained dependent upon and subservient to those above them in the social structure, to whom they paid compulsory dues and services in cash, kind, and labor, and to whose legal jurisdiction they were subject.
Grain and livestock were the prime foods, and large tracts were devoted to the production of both through farming practices that had so many similarities in all European regions that they have come to be seen as a "system." Lands followed a rotation, most commonly a sequence of winter-sown grain, spring-sown crops, and a fallow year. Common-field farming and grazing in common after harvest persisted.
Country people's diet varied greatly: according to region bread was made from wheat, chestnut flour, oats, or rye. In pastoral areas, people ate fewer cereals and more nuts, meat, and dairy products. In the South, they drank wine, in the North ale, hopped beer, and vodkas made from grain or potatoes. In fruit-growing countries, they enjoyed cider; in dairying areas, milk and whey; in sugarbeet areas, kvas; and everywhere, herbs infused in water. They ate less meat (some 15 kilograms per person in 1800, but already 50 kilograms in industrial states by 1900, when pig breeding grew significantly), and more bread (approximately 300 kilograms yearly) and potatoes.
The peasant wardrobe contained woolens, linen, fleece, and hand-spun flax fiber garments; wooden clogs, and leather shoes that were beginning to be worn for everyday work.
Mortality was high, often as a result of serious epidemics, famines, and wars. The most widespread diseases—plague, tuberculosis, cholera, dysentery, smallpox, and leprosy—claimed more lives among poorly nourished rural populations, who lived in crowded villages. The 1846–1847 potato famine killed one in eight residents of Ireland, while others emigrated overseas. The dreadful famine winter of 1847–1848 left one-third of Europe's population totally impoverished.
Peasants lived in the village that often constituted their whole world—the Russian word mir signifies community, world, and peace, while the word for the peasant, krestyanin is almost identical to kristyanin, Christian, which elsewhere (Italian cristiano) stands for the human being in general. The village was a self-contained, self-maintained, self-reliant community of illiterate workers, who led a hard life on the margin of subsistence.
The exact number of Europe's villages is not known: by 1789 France had some 44,000; the twenty-two provinces of European Russia surveyed in the 1850s counted 100,348 rural settlements, from isolated farmsteads occupied by a single family to villages with more than five hundred homesteads. Most of Russia's villages contained fewer than three hundred people, England's one hundred to two hundred, and southern Italian rural towns had populations of eight hundred to one thousand.
Many villages had existed "from time immemorial," but new ones were continuously being established. There, egalitarianism was an exception, inequality and an accentuated stratification the rule. Even on lands of periodic redistribution, wealthy peasants were allotted more shares of communal land.
In 1800 only 43 percent of peasants were self-sufficient farmers and smallholders, while 35 percent were wage laborers, with only a scrap of land around their huts, or the landless, working as farmhands or servants and living in landholding peasants' households. On the eve of the French Revolution, 86 percent of peasant households in Picardy and 30 to 40 percent in Normandy were landless. Inequality and poverty increased during the century with the upsurge of population: landless peasants greatly outnumbered those with holdings, and parish poor relief in England grew from £700,000 in 1750 to £8,000,000 in 1818.
Almost all peasant families sought an external source of earning. In Scandinavia and in central Europe most households drew their livelihoods exclusively from their holdings, but in the rest of Europe, around 1850, some 70 percent of the rural household budget went for food purchases. Independent tradesmen and artisans accounted for 5 to 15 percent of the rural population. Smallholders had outside employment as farmhands and skilled artisans or migrant workers in mining, metallurgy, forest industries, and transport; each spring the roads came alive with thousands of peasants seeking work in distant places. They typically returned home in late autumn. All households were involved in cottage industries, usually spinning, weaving, and small metal production.
Village assemblies, held on Sundays and holidays, often in the open air, were usually composed only of landholding peasants, though in Hungary and Switzerland, smallholders could also vote, as could all adult males in prerevolutionary France. Women could sometimes represent a household, if their men were dead or absent. Frequency of meetings varied from one to three times per year in the Małopolska province of Poland to ten times per year in Romania and each Sunday in Denmark. Assemblies chose officials, the headmen (who in Ireland and Norway were known as "kings") for the dayto-day governance, for the intermediation between the village and its lord, and for the practice of periodic redistributions of village lands which although not universal were quite widespread. The mir was nearly universal in Russia (90 percent of land) until 1906, but repartitions of land were also practiced until late in the century in parts of Poland, Hungary, Eastern Galicia, and Moldavia; along the Moselle River; in Leon, the Spanish Galicia, the Aragonese slope of the Pyrenees and Estremadura; in most of Sardinia and Corsica; in Carinthia, Carciola, and Tyrol; in parts of Norway (until a royal decree forbade it in 1821), Ireland, the Rhine, and the Belgian Ardennes. In Scotland, groups of families rented land jointly, in Switzerland parts of common land were used to plant crops.
Peasant family typology included a nuclear or conjugal family that included servants; a stem family, where only one married son remained living with the parents; and a multiple family where all sons remained and tilled the land jointly. The size of the latter varied from ten to twelve people in the Papal States, to twenty to thirty, even eighty to one hundred family members among the Slavs of the Balkans, in Bohemia, Moravia, Silesia, Romania, Hungary, some regions of northern Italy, and western Europe. The daughters usually left.
The family often lived, ate, and slept in the same room. Boys and girls went into service for long hours, often spending days and months outside the home. Young children were the worst off among the members of the household, because
they were often considered unwelcome burdens and became victims of parental neglect. Infant death rates were very high (one in five died before the age of one), and the murder of unwanted children was frequent.
Europe's overall death rates dropped steeply from the 1750s on, with northwest Europe leading the trend, while the birthrates dropped only one hundred years later. This led to a veritable population explosion, from one hundred eighty-five million in 1800 to four hundred million in 1900.
Food requirements of the rising population forced the pace of agricultural change. Major effort was put into improving the productivity of staple foodstuffs, grain, and other high-starch-content foods, and livestock, and in promoting high-yielding crops such as buckwheat, potatoes, and maize. Sugar-beet cultivation spread widely during the Napoleonic Wars when the English naval blockade cut off supplies of sugarcane. Agricultural production entered a growth cycle in the 1830s and more than doubled in the next four decades. More intensive use of the soil led to the use of modern chemical fertilizers. The old three-field system gave way to permanent crop rotation, but mechanization proceeded very slowly. These changes and a massive rural emigration to large cities caused the "depopulation of the countryside," a frequent subject for a growing number of sociological studies, such as Eugène Bonnemère's Les paysans au XIXe siècle (1846).
From the late eighteenth century, the pessimistic belief that Europe was a vast territory of poor farming and impoverished peasants helped to promote radical transformations in farming and spurred legal reforms. Agricultural improvers insisted upon transition from communalism to individualism (private property and freedom of action for individuals) and viewed constraints imposed by the community as a major hindrance to agricultural progress. Central governments entered the village to promote agricultural reforms and reinforce the impact of individualism and, in the process, encroached upon village autonomy. The French revolutionary government weakened the communes through legislation, the Helvetic Republic integrated them into new and larger political districts, Austria and Saxony (in 1849 and 1839 respectively)—into large townships. Only in Russia did the state support communalism as an insurance against social unrest. Whereas the German and Austrian serf-emancipation laws contemplated no role for the communes, the Russian 1861 law preserved a central position for the mir.
The transition from communal collectivism to individualism was swift in England, Scotland, Denmark, Sweden, and Norway—by the 1840s remaining open fields and the commons were divided and enclosed farms multiplied. Elsewhere, the transition was slower. Even when each household occupied a specific holding, the commune still supervised pastures, meadows, and other resources held in common. The village community was vanishing, but only slowly. The process could not go on, however, without a radical abolition of all forms of unfreedom.
In many lands, peasants were dependent upon and subject to the legal jurisdiction of the lords. Serfdom was the most common form of unfreedom. Usually serfs were bound to the soil, but in Russia and in Poland lords could sell, exchange, or move serfs from one land to another. The initiatives for reform came from sovereigns supported by sections of the nobility inspired by fear of peasant rebellion, economics, and idealism, or in some cases by military defeats (Prussia's in 1806, Russia's in the Crimean War).
The liberation of Europe's peasantry proceeded steadily for more than a century. In 1767 Maria Theresa's (r. 1740–1780) great code Urbarium regulated the lord-peasant relationship in Hungary (in eastern Hungary, the Ottomans had ruled with a lighter hand) and in 1771 a princely decree ended the feudal subservience of Savoyard peasants. Emperor Joseph II (r. 1764–1790) formally abolished serfdom in Austria in a series of legislations from 1781 to 1789. France's National Assembly declared all the seignieural rights to be null and void on 4 August 1789 and in 1793 abolished all feudal rights and made peasants into freeholders. Napoleon's (r. 1804–1814/15) conquest carried emancipation to the lands subject to French rule. In 1810–1811 Prussia granted ownership of land to peasants and did away with fundamental privileges of the nobility. But emancipation on German lands was not completed until the Revolutions of 1848, when the Frankfurt Parliament established a list of basic civil rights. The last acts of peasant emancipation in Europe were Russia's in 1861 and Romania's in 1864.
Everywhere, emancipation released the peasants from bondage and from manorial obligations; gave them civil rights; and guaranteed their personal freedom of movement, choice of vocation, and equality with all other subjects before the law; and abolished the hierarchical system of orders. Common lands were partitioned, scattered plots of arable land concentrated, and the collective system of farming dissolved. The emancipation heralded an unprecedented era of freedom in the history of the peasantry and led to a change in their public image.
Endemic rural unrest and everyday violence has always been an expression of the strong attachment of peasants to their own community as well as an attempt at resistance. Peasant revolts could be prompted by many factors, including cruel frustrations engendered by the greatest hopes. Peasants revolted against conscription; abuses by local lords; illegal imposition of excessive corvee or taxation; and especially the appropriation of common lands and customary rights to water, passages, grazing, gleaning, and wood-gathering.
Villagers usually had the right of self-defense with no police force present until later in the century, but their access to justice was limited, because the local nobility—in England, eastern Europe, and southern Europe—were also magistrates. Lawsuits started by the community against the landlords' usurpation of common rights could last for decades. Thus, peasants frequently resorted to the weapon of riot. As the catalog of offenses was similar in many regions, also the typology of peasant response was similar: smashing fences and walls, filling up ditches, tearing down hedges, and occupying "usurped" land. Peasants armed with scythes, pitchforks, and axes attacked lords and their officials, pillaged homes, and burned the (supposed) records of their submission. In the regions of pastoral economy, rural brigandage was widespread, which attracted novelists and painters of the Romantic age.
Frequent food riots were typical for the subsistence economy. The Great Hunger of 1846–1847 broke down the resistance of the small farmers throughout Europe, but the last famine of the century, in Russia in 1891, which was said to have cost seven hundred thousand lives and reduced thirty million to indigence, led to mass pillaging of barns on great estates.
The fear of peasant armies in revolt haunted governments and landlords, as was the case of the "Great Fear" in France in 1789. Their numbers were unknown. Yemelyan Pugachev's (1742–1775) army of Cossacks and Russian peasants, in the period from 1773 to 1775, was said to count around twenty thousand men, Cardinal Fabrizio Ruffo (1744–1827)—who led Calabrian peasants in a crusade against the French-imposed Neapolitan republic in 1799—never knew how many men he could count on every day. The risings in the French Vendée lasted from 1793 until 1833 but the peasant armies of the Vendée were mobilized for only a few days or a few weeks each time. Elsewhere, peasant revolts repeated the Vendée pattern on a smaller scale in 1798 to 1799: the Cudgel War in Luxembourg, the Peasants War in Limburg, the "war of shepherds' smocks" in the mountain cantons of Switzerland, the Santa Fede march of Calabrians, and the Viva Maria rising in the Tuscan Apennines near Arezzo.
A new "Great Fear" came in the period from 1846 to 1848, triggered by a large peasant uprising in Polish Galicia in February 1846, at the time when the Polish patriots, who were also the peasants' overlords, were preparing an insurrection against the Austrian yoke. The peasants, led by a small tenant farmer named Jakub Szela, frustrated by abuses and excessive corvée, turned their arms against the country nobility and townspeople, and, in one week of bloodshed, sacked four hundred mansions and killed twelve hundred nobles and their servants. In 1848–1849 many peasants revolted, in the French Midi, in the Pyrenees, in the Two Sicilies, against taxation or just in the hope of regaining their customary rights.
The political upheaval over, once again the resistance resumed its "normal" course with "Captain Swing" riots against threshing machines in England in 1830–1832, the Irish "Troubles" (1812–1822, 1830–1834), land agitations in Scotland in the 1860s, in Ireland again in 1878–1882, and in Andalusia in 1854, 1868, and 1871. In Russia, in the period from 1825 to 1854, from Nicholas I (r. 1825–1855) to the Crimean War, the "ghost of Pugachev" was evoked with the average of twenty-three cases of rural revolt per year, and the serfs, emancipated by the statute of 1861, rioted again over the delays in instituting the statute.
One long-term effect of emancipation was the incorporation of peasants into the new liberal social and political order. Peasants had been enfranchised in Norway as early as 1814 and in Prussia and in France in 1848. In Switzerland the union government of 1848 integrated alpine peasants into a unified Switzerland with the introduction of single currency, unified postal service, and integrated army. Eventually, peasants also became political subjects throughout Europe and were wooed by political leaders. Their support was sought for a variety of different political views: the evangelical movements in Norway, conservatives, and the Catholic Church saw in them the heroes of the Vendée and the Santa Fede, while the Italian, French, and Spanish anarchists, followers of Mikhail Bakunin (1814–1876) and Peter Kropotkin (1842–1921), praised their revolutionary potential of the "powder box," and the Russian populists (narodniki) their egalitarian tradition. In 1851 in France the peasants voted massively for the Second Empire of Napoleon III (r. 1852–1871) that led Karl Marx (1818–1883) to refer disparagingly to them as "sacks of potatoes," while Léon Michel Gambetta (1838–1882) saw them as the potential basis for a democracy of small property-owners.
Peasants were also part of the discourse of nation-building in Ireland, Germany, southern Italy, Russia, and Poland. The Polish peasant Michał Drzymała became a patriotic symbol of the opposition to the Germanization of the soil, while the German nationalist Wilhelm Heinrich von Riehl (1823–1897) saw the peasant as the savior of Germany in 1848 and as "the future of the German nation."
Another effect of emancipation was the exposure of peasants to market mechanisms. After 1870 when grain poured into Europe from the Americas and livestock products began arriving in refrigerated ships, European peasants could not compete. The deep depression followed, from the mid-1870s to the 1890s: in favorably situated areas, peasants turned to specialized crops, such as citrus fruits, olives, and bergamot in the Mediterranean and vegetables and fruits in cities' hinterlands. Peasants emigrated in millions from other areas, in the greatest exodus from Europe ever experienced, mostly to the Americas.
The general crisis of the peasant economy gave rise to the formulation of the so-called peasant question (Agrarfrage). The Marxists, such as Friedrich Engels (1820–1895), Vladimir Lenin (1870–1924), and Karl Johann Kautsky (1854–1938), saw no future for peasant agriculture, and the inevitable triumph of capitalist, privatized, and rational large estates. The socialists considered it a duty to convince the peasants of the hopelessness of their situation: "capitalist mass production will trample over the impotent, antiquated small farm just as a train crushes a push cart." A dissenting voice was that of the Russian economist Alexander Chayanov (1888–1937), who saw a different rationality in the small peasant economy.
The systematic study of folklore that began in the nineteenth century focused exclusively on rural folk songs, fairy tales, folk music, local customs, material culture, and dialects. Two main tendencies emerged in these studies: a conservative idealization of the village and an enlightened critical approach.
The former idealized country life, in the tradition of pastoral poetry. The picturesque played a big role: merry country folk were observed dancing round maypoles, expressing their simple piety in pilgrimages or wayside shrines. The humane traditional village culture, the quintessential "community" (Gemeinschaft) was counterposed to the modern industrial anonymous "society" (Gesellschaft) of the "madding crowds." Change was sadly portrayed as a transition from the former to the latter, and—in the wave of the midcentury nostalgia—began to be perceived as an irreplaceable loss.
Many early folklorists were nationalists who saw the tenacious conservatism of village communities as the guarantor of their fidelity to the true national ethos. The Romantics were interested in Volksgeist, because they saw the Volk as a depository of ethnic purity. The Grimm brothers, Jacob Ludwig Carl (1785–1863) and Wilhelm Carl (1786–1859), collected peasant fairy tales in order to reconstruct the "Germanic mythology"; the Norwegians sought to change the written language from the Bokmol to the folk Nynorsk.
A different tradition with roots in the Enlightenment saw the village and the peasant family as the matrix of authoritarian behavior. The socialists blamed Bonapartism on the natural antiliberalism of the peasants, on the "idiocy of rural life." Theodor Adorno (1903–1969) argued that it was "a duty to deprovincialize" the village society that was hindering its own emancipation and progress. Mid-nineteenth-century German and Danish studies of old German practices of "agrarian communism" led to the formulations of "universal laws" of social evolution that everywhere began with the communal ownership of land and equated communalism with the primitive. It would be a century later with the social anthropological approach of Robert Redfield and Eric Wolf when the view of the "peasant society" shifted, and was seen instead as a modern industrial society, market-oriented and assimilated into a political unit.
While most nineteenth-century social scholars were concerned with urbanization and industrialization, writers were fascinated by the peasant. The romans rustiques enjoyed great popularity, Irish peasant plays were performed at the Abbey Theatre, and Władysław Reymont (1867–1925) was awarded a Nobel prize for his novel Chłopi (Peasants; 1904–1909). After 1848 rural themes became even more present in poetry, songs, and novels.
This literature was realistic in its description of the peasant condition: Silas Marner in George Eliot's (Mary Ann Evans, 1819–1880) novel lived, worked, and slept in a single room; Nikolai Gogol's (1809–1852) peasants were ignorant, brutish and drunk. La vie d'un simple by Emile Guillaumin, Honoré de Balzac's (1799–1850) peasant novels, Giovanni Verga's (1840–1922) novellas, all showed the hardship of the everyday life. The memory of feudal oppression survived—in 1856 Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–1859) thought the bitterness of the French peasantry inextinguishable—and lived as late as 1890 in Jacques le Roy's novel Jacquou le Croquant. But there was also change and social mobility: Gustave Flaubert's eponymous protagonist Emma Bovary (1857), a daughter of a rich peasant, could read and write and marry a doctor.
The Romantic nostalgia for a way of life led the writers to romanticize and idealize peasants and their institutions and to celebrate them as the preservers of the special human quality, as in George Sand's (Amandine-Aurore-Lucile Dudevant, 1804–1876) novels and in Pierre Dupont's populist songs and poems.
After the midcentury the yearning for a rural world became a counterweight to the drastic alterations of society under the impact of rapid industrialization. People clung to comforting ideals of rusticity that derived their meaning from the opposition to the city, Thomas Hardy's (1840–1928) flight far from the "maddening crowds." The countryside stood for simplicity of the bucolic worlds free of the corruption of cities; for virtuous work in a direct relationship to animals and land, with no money, no organized labor, no slums, and no unemployment; for innocence, childhood, and arcadia; for timelessness; for instinct and freedom. In short, the countryside represented the primitive in the sense of the first and the original.
This nostalgia for the Golden Age of the pre-industrial past gave the peasantry, in the years from 1875 to 1914, a popularity never before known. With Paul Gauguin's (1848–1903) "primitive" and "sauvage" Brittany, the myth of the lost paradise of preindustrial humanity assumed a new meaning, proclaiming the superiority of the rustics over sophisticated ladies of Paris. Filippo Palizzi's (1818–1899) Contadinelle or Camille Pisarro's (1830–1903) (a follower of Kropotkin) Plowman expressed ideas of health, honest labor, and dignity set against the pollution and degraded labor of the city.
In the wake of 1848 the peasants came to new political and cultural prominence and became a radical force in the society. New art celebrated the arrival of the "common man." The "peasant painter" Jean-Francois Millet's (1814–1875) Winnower (c. 1847) is a vigorous standing male shaking his basket, the embodiment of the spirit of 1848, and so is Gustave Courbet's (1819–1877) Stonecutter (1849). As Alexandre Dumas fils (1824–1895) wrote, this is no longer "the peasant of 1660, but the proletarian of 1859." Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo's (1868–1907) The Fourth Estate (1901) showed the peasants as a conscious class of distinct individuals, marching together for a common cause. Still, until 1914, lurking behind the arcadia and class consciousness, was the bestial and unthinking peasant brutalized and crushed by famine and starvation as portrayed in Sergei Ivanov's The Death of the Settler.
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Herbert, Robert L. From Millet to Léger: Essays in Social Art History. New Haven, Conn., 2002.
Hobsbawm, E. J., et al., eds. Peasants in History: Essays in Honour of Daniel Thorner. Calcutta, 1980.
Parker, William N., and Eric L. Jones, eds. European Peasants and Their Markets: Essays in Agrarian Economic History. Princeton, N.J., 1975.
Williams, Raymond. The Country and the City. New York, 1973.