Serfdom in East Central Europe

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SERFDOM IN EAST CENTRAL EUROPE. From the sixteenth to the seventeenth centuries, peasants in Poland, Ukraine, Hungary, and Bohemia were gradually subjugated to their landlords. This subjugation, usually referred to as the "second serfdom," had three aspects: economic, by virtue of the peasant's use of the lord's land; judicial, whereby peasants fell under the landlord's jurisdiction; and personal, in that peasants now needed their lords' permission in order to leave their villages. Enserfed peasants owed goods and services to their lords, including tribute in kind (usually grain, dairy products, or poultry), rent in money, and above all labor, or corvée, on the lord's lands (the demesne or folwark ). Beyond the abovementioned countries, aspects of the "second serfdom" were also seen in Russia and Prussia.

As landlords expanded their demesnes during the early modern period, corvée, initially limited to several days a year, increased to a few days a week. Peasants worked their lord's estates using their own plow oxen and farm implements or, lacking those, simply their hands and bodies. Corvée often involved the most arduous work of farming a large estate, and eventually the burden of the demesne's production costs was shifted onto the peasants' shoulders. Serfs were also bound to do additional work, such as providing transport and helping during the harvest. They were often also constrained by the landlord's monopoly on the production and/or sale of wine, beer, and spirits. The monopoly gave landlords an outlet for excess grain when market conditions were unfavorable, as in the second half of the seventeenth and the first half of the eighteenth centuries, as well as providing additional income from the sale of alcohol. Peasants were in most cases forbidden to produce alcohol themselves, and they were required to purchase it at their lord's tavern. In Hungary, while peasants were allowed to produce wine, they could sell it only to their lords. The limitation on the peasant's right to leave the village was also often extended to his family. In some cases serfs were de facto bought and sold, as when an estate or part of an estate was sold along with its residents, or when a landlord who had taken in a runaway peasant offered monetary compensation to the original owner in lieu of returning the runaway.

The "second serfdom" has been variously interpreted. Some scholars have stressed the legal aspects of enserfment, while others have analyzed the social or economic aspects. Some of the interpretations put forward have had a distinctly ideological character. Marxist historiography (especially in Sovietbloc countries) saw the enserfment of the peasantry in the early modern period as contributing to a "refeudalization" of society and sometimes even the return to a natural economy. The "second serfdom" was, according to this view, a return to the most primitive form of peasant service (corvée ) and a retreat from a market-based and money-based economy. Marxist historians further argued that it led to the gradual destruction of both peasant and urban economies, because by hampering the growth of an affluent rural population and by fostering the self-sufficiency of landed estates, it deprived urban craftsmen of markets for their products. Generalizations about "refeudalization" have not gained lasting acceptance, but historians continue to react negatively to the second serfdom, particularly when comparing developments in eastern Europe with the social and economic structure of western European countries during the same period. The second serfdom is seen to reflect the underdevelopment of eastern Europe.

One can date the beginning of the second serfdom in Poland to the end of the fifteenth century and the beginning of the sixteenth, when the first limits on a peasant's right to leave the village were imposed (1496) and a parliamentary decree mandated one obligatory day of corvée a week from each full peasant allotment, or laneus (1520). One can also connect the beginnings of enserfment with the 1423 decree giving landlords the right to buy the office of village administrator (Latin scultetus ) and subordinate villages directly to themselves. It is generally held that these developments were related to the enlargement of the landlord's demesne, as landlords sought to produce more grain to meet market demand. The growth in grain exports through Gdańsk, along with the price revolution in Europe, created greater opportunities for landlords to sell their grain. From the sixteenth to the first half of seventeenth century the burden of corvée grew significantly heavier. By the second half of the sixteenth century it had reached three to four days a week per allotment, even though most peasants had only half of a full allotment (laneus). The peasant could, however, realize substantial profits as the result of the growth of grain prices and the lease of supplementary lands (without giving corvée ); he could also send his servants (farm hands) to implement the corvée on the landlord's demesne.

The burdens entailed by enserfment and the deficit of manpower in the country were such that the frequency of peasant flight increased steadily in this period. Ukraine was a particularly popular destination, as services were less burdensome there, and landlords rarely demanded corvée. The situation of the peasantry took a sharp turn for the worse after the wars of the mid-seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Peasants' farms grew smaller, the grain market shrank, and the landlord's demesne asserted an ever tighter monopoly over the production and sale of beer, the staple drink of the region. The effort to replace corvée with rent during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries failed. But reforms granting peasants personal freedom, independent jurisdiction, and even the right to vote were introduced after the second (1793) and third (1795) partitions of Poland in the territories annexed by Austria, Prussia, and Russia.

In Hungary, after the 1514 peasant uprising led by György Dózsa, the parliament consolidated the lord's right to land and introduced an obligatory corvée of one day per week. Although Hungarian landlords were unable to export grain, their demesnes started to develop markedly between 1530 and 1540 (in Slovakia c. 1550). Corvée reached two to three days a week only in the second half of sixteenth century, and it became widespread in the seventeenth century. Because of the Turkish conquest and the ravages of war, the agrarian economy was forced to evolve; the steppe regions shifted from grain to cattle breeding and the export of livestock, while the northern regions moved to viticulture. In these conditions, and because the agrarian economy was more diversified, serfdom could not be fully enforced. Landlords tried instead to take over peasants' wine production. In Hungary the heyday of the second serfdom was the seventeenth century, and it can be said to have ended in 1767, when the empress Maria Theresa limited peasants' labor services. Her son Joseph II went further in 1785 when he abolished the personal subordination of peasants to their lords.

In Bohemia early steps toward enserfment were taken in the fifteenth century. The parliament limited the peasant's right to leave the village, and later in the century it passed further regulations against peasant flight. But historians consider the years 15301540 to be the beginning of the development of the demesne and the concomitant intensification of enserfment. Since the market for Bohemian grain was limited to Bohemia's urban population, landlords looking for additional revenue tried to take over and monopolize the production and sale of beer and to breed fish on their demesnes. In such conditions the demand for peasant labor services grew rather slowly. In some places corvée reached two to three days a week by the second half of the sixteenth century, but this became common only after the defeat at White Mountain in 1620. In 1680 corvée was fixed at three days a week from each allotment (laneus). Thus in Bohemia the second serfdom did not fully establish itself until the seventeenth century. Its end came with the peasant uprising of 1775 and the abolition of personal serfdom by Emperor Joseph II in November 1781.

The notion of the "second serfdom" is misleading, for it gives the impression that east central European peasants had been relatively free during the late Middle Ageswhile their counterparts in western Europe toiled under the "first" serfdom. According to this view, before the early modern imposition of the "second serfdom," east European peasants enjoyed the right to leave the village, rendered their services in money instead of corvée, and were under the jurisdiction of village administrators who represented the village self-government rather than the lord. But a closer look at these circumstances undermines the notion that late medieval east European peasants were free. The right to leave the village was in fact limited, because labor was more valued than land. Even in free villages, the village administrator was the lord's official and judged on his behalf, not on behalf of the community. Finally, it can be doubted that peasants ever paid services in money ("rent"), since there were few cities where peasants could sell their goods to obtain money. The earlier serfdom did lack the extended labor services that characterized serfdom in the early modern period, but this was because landed estates were autarkic and could serve the landlord's community without recourse to the market. The relation between these estates and the larger economy changed, and early modern east European serfdom should thus be seen as not a new, "second" serfdom but rather as a continuation of medieval serfdom, as adapted to the conditions of the agrarian market economy that arose during the period.

See also Agriculture ; Bohemia ; Hungary ; Peasantry ; Poland-Lithuania, Commonwealth of, 15691795 .


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Serfdom in East Central Europe

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