Peasant and Farming Villages

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Palle Ove Christiansen

Peasants and villages are among the most studied themes in social history, but researchers have always had difficulty finding general definitions able to cover the forms, in time and space, in which agrarian people have organized and localized themselves under political conditions and those given by nature.


The European village normally carries associations of a small consolidated agricultural community, in the ancien régime sometimes consisting of only a few farms. But especially in central and southern Europe villages could appear as built-up areas with five to ten thousand inhabitants. The basic difference between village and town, before the widespread abolition of town and commercial privileges in the 1800s, could seldom be expressed in area or population but was more of a legal and cultural character. The usually modest structures built to shelter shepherds and for cheese production, and so forth, in the various systems of transhumance from European mountain regions, are normally not considered independent villages, as pastures that are exploited in this manner usually belong to village in the lowland. The same applies to so-called satellite villages used for seasonal lodgings or wine production, for example. The concept of the village never refers only to the permanent, dense, rural settlement, but to the entire surrounding area legally available regardless of how much of it is exploited. Large areas with scattered farmsteads can also constitute villages.

The village was the most common form of habitation for the greater part of Europe's population far into the 1800s, and as an organized food producing unit it goes back to around 7000 b.c. for southeast Europe, and around 500 b.c. for northwest Europe. The village has always been characterized by cattle raising and farming in the broadest sense, and since the late Middle Ages, by relations to population groups who did not themselves take part in the primary production of foodstuffs. Investigators like Eric Wolf, Teodor Shanin, and Frank Ellis have spoken of peasants as traditional agriculturists, who run their family-based farms, organized in villages or other cooperative units, to satisfy their own consumption, but who also through production of a surplus are dominated by outsiders and thus are part of larger political and economic systems.


Most European peasant villages from the Middle Ages up to the 1800s and 1900s can be best viewed in relation to the manorial estate and the market town respectively. The relationships between the village and the lord's estate and between village and town have constituted basic conditions shaping villages and village life that cannot be explained solely through scrutiny of the individual village.

The relation to manorial estates. The peasant's praxis in the village in historical Europe should be understood in light of the demand on one hand to perpetuate his own farm and family, and on the other to feed other social estates such as the seigneurs, the church, and the king. Georges Duby (1968) has pointed out that village-estate relations existed both before and after European feudalism, and that the seigneur's close protection of the peasant and the king's outer defense continued in various configurations up into the 1800s.

In the medieval social structure the village lord, through his right to the peasant's or the village's dues, allocated land to the peasants or the village. This was this case regardless of whether the relation between lord and peasant was one of sharecropping, lease, rent, or lifetime faeste (a Scandinavian form of semi-feudal dependent tenancy) combined with varying types of personal legal ties to the land, the estate, or the peasant occupation itself. In some places private manorial estates also administered the tax to the supreme prince and the tithe to the church.

To obtain the village resources necessary to sustain himself economically the non-free peasant had to pay dues to the lord, who was responsible for administration over the peasants as a social category. It was especially in the collection of dues in the form of produce, money, or corvée (labor service) to the lord that the estate exerted influence over the village's internal affairs. Where the dues included corvée a large part of the village's labor force was used outside its own area, as a rule in the direct cultivation of estate's demesne lands. From the 1400s and 1500s up to the 1800s, this demand was most pronounced in the great grain-growing regions in central and eastern Europe and the Baltic countries. The manorial dues to the lord assumed very different forms according to the natural conditions and local tradition. In the Mediterranean region dues in olives and fruit were not uncommon. In grazing and mountain regions the dues were often paid in cows, goats, sheep, and wool. Along the Atlantic coast dues were often paid in fish. And special products of almost every kind, such as poultry, honey, hides, and textiles, have also been used. Most familiar, however, are grain dues in the form of rye, barley, and wheat (for bread, porridge, and beer). Dues were normally assessed on the individual farm, but especially early on and in eastern central Europe collective dues have existed, for example in the form of a head of cattle paid by the peasants of a midsized village.

Just as the married male peasant at the head of his household was a nucleus of village's organization, in the ancien régime he was accorded a place together with his fellow villagers in the society's hierarchical structure as producer of food and taxpayer. It was this position of villages and peasants within a hierarchical society of fixed social estates, a relation absent in so-called primitive societies and ones without seigneurialism, which made peasant and village societies specific historical categories in Europe.

The relation to market towns. If the seigneur was able to demand dues in the form of money, or if the king, the duke, or the feudal overlord demanded taxes paid in cash, the peasant was forced to convert some of his products to money at the market. In regions with great distances between the market towns rural markets were periodically held for small producers to exchange products. Where the towns were close together, as in northwestern Europe, the peasants often had to retail their most important commodities in the market towns or else sell them to the town's merchants. With Poland as the best known exception, the market towns were often outside the seigneurs' jurisdiction and were instead protected by the country's prince. In areas where the peasant had no natural access to salt and iron, these basic needs also forced him into contact with the commodity market, in other words the town. This stable market commerce did not mean, however, that production activities in the old village were governed by market principles of supply and demand.

Even though market dependency increased quantitatively from around 1500, the village-town relationship is of long standing. This relationship is significant for understanding the regional variations in domestic utensils, clothing, dyes, and small metal goods, which in differing quantity and composition have been a fixed element in the mode of life of European peasant villages, and which probably attained their greatest diversity in the 1800s. Börje Hanssen's studies of the Österlen region in southern Sweden (1952) describe villages in the 1600s and 1700s as part of a complex network with both market towns and rural fairs. Hanssen also shows that frequent town contact does not necessarily lead to changes in the peasant or folk culture. This was implied in Robert Redfield's (1941) criticized but nonetheless widely used continuum model of social change, based on his early studies of Central America. Although the isolated peasant and the self-sufficient village have by and large never existed in Europe, spatial contact has not automatically led to cultural adaptation.

Ferdinand Tönnies's classical dichotomy between Gemeinschaft (community) and Gesellschaft (society) has greatly influenced the modern public's stereotyped conception of city versus country (village). All concrete investigations show, however, that the small village is not exclusively homogeneous and the great city differentiated. Studies have also demonstrated that there have always existed rather large contingents of village people in cities, such as servants, small tradespeople, carters, fishermen, and laborers, some of whom moved back to their villages after a few years. At the same time many villages have been home to culturally urban people such as clergymen, estate functionaries, and regional technicians like surveyors and officers.


Within Europe's boundaries innumerable forms can be found under which village peasants have lived and still live, which because of their variety are nearly impossible to discuss in general terms. This diversity stems from factors ranging from geopolitical circumstances, state administration, and landlord policies, to market access and local ecological conditions. Attempts have been made to speak of differences on the basis of varied forms of European estate systems, the topographical adaptation of peasant village structure, and variations in the cultivation systems in the old village, that is, the village prior to land consolidation reforms.

Many features of present-day European village structure have roots in an earlier dependency on nearby manorial estates, and even in estate structures and settlement patterns that were developed in the 1500s, a period of population and price increase. In European estate organization the distinction is often made between indirect cultivation, in which the lord lives off dues in the form of foodstuffs or money from the peasants on the tributary tenant land, and direct cultivation, in which the lord himself engages in large-scale production on his demesne land. Under indirect cultivation the distance between the peasants' own places of habitation and the estate is not especially important. Before the 1500s and 1600s this type of estate organization was found especially in thinly populated areas in the east, and in the west on scattered tracts such as crown land, in areas with dispersed peasant settlements and interior soil, and in regions where the early feudal estates were, after the 1500s, unsuccessful in reestablishing an effective direct cultivation based on serfs or hard corvée.

With direct cultivation the distance from the demesne to the agricultural laborers or the peasants who through their labor dues cultivated this land had to be as short as possible, which as a rule necessitated that the farms be more closely grouped. This also made easier the lord's supervision of the labor force. Because of recruitment of the village population for corvée, this estate cultivation in northeastern Europe could result in a considerable density of villages in regions that earlier had more scattered settlement. In these otherwise agrarian areas, the estates also produced goods for export to western Europe, largely by compulsory labor dues. In some places all the way up to the 1900s the manorial exploitation resulted in pauperized village societies. Research has shown that even though the pressure from lords on peasants intensified in Mecklenburg, Swedish Pomerania, East Prussia, Poland, the Baltic countries, and the Russian regions, as compared to most places in western Europe, there were far greater differences in both east and west than hitherto assumed.

Scholars have long been tempted to discern a pattern in the innumerable typologies of European village forms. Historians, geographers, and linguists have examined the geographic distribution of settlement patterns, systems of succession, village names, and number of farms per village. Some have distinguished between street villages, terrain villages, round villages, and dispersed settlements. A particularly important aim has been to set up frameworks describing the establishment and physical structure of villages, but it has been difficult to find patterns. Nonetheless, research has demonstrated some regularities; for instance, people settled to form villages where there is fertile soil, sufficient water and forest, facility of clearing land, and lines of communication.

Hamlets, that is, small clusters of houses with no actual historical village organization, are found everywhere in Europe. There are also the agro-towns and villages surrounding Kirchenburgen, or fortified churches. Agro-towns have evolved from the Middle Ages well into the 1800s in Southern Italy, Sicily, Andalusia, and in southeastern Hungary. There are examples of very large villages of this kind, sometimes with over thirty thousand inhabitants, which besides their peasant and agricultural laborer population include urban social categories and have urban institutions. In the Mediterranean area the inhabitants of agro-towns prefer to be associated culturally with an urban ethos, whereas agro-towns on the Great Hungarian Plain have always had a more rural character. The fortified church is primarily a phenomenon of eastern central Europe. Best known are the Saxon villages in Transylvania (Romania), where from the 1400s many churches were fortified and encompassed by ramparts and ring walls as protection against the Turks and roaming Vandals, giving the villages a striking physical appearance.

Particularly before the post–World War II mechanization, climate and soil differences have also produced great disparities in conditions between Mediterranean and transalpine agriculture, and consequently in village configuration and organization in these two regions, relative to available resources. Some investigators speak of the transalpine ecotype as compared to the Mediterranean, and Lynn White (1962), extending Marc Bloch's theories as presented in his French Rural History (originally published in 1931), has endeavored to summarize some of the main characteristics of villages and village production and their evolution in southern and northern Europe respectively. Since the Middle Ages Mediterranean peasant agricultural practices adapted to a dry climate and light soil, as distinct from the northern European practices adapted to heavy soil in a humid climate. According to White and other investigators, the respective conditions determined whether people settled in small or larger villages, used light or heavy plows, and tilled equilateral versus long fields; they also accounted for differences in village organization and location.

Despite the fact that even at the end of the twentieth century great differences existed between the two parts of Europe, the variations present in either period cannot be explained solely on the basis of ecological adaptation or technological diffusion. Before mechanization, and particularly in the early open-field village, it is the village and not the individual farm that is the relevant unit for analysis of the overall exploitation of nature and the relationship of peasants and their livestock to historically determined scarce resources. In modern farming, however, both in the south and the north, it is the farm which is the pivotal unit.


According to Jerome Blum, the European village community arose in the Middle Ages as a corporate body managing communal resources, directing certain common activities, and supervising certain aspects of the communal life, and it persisted for as long as the open-field village was in existence, and as far as certain communal interests such as the exploitation of peat bogs were concerned, all the way up to the modern era. Formally the village community was run by the village assembly headed by the village headman. In some places this post was rotated among the farms in the village, and in certain regions the seigneur had to approve the choice of new headman. The village assembly decided important internal matters in the village and often acted as a go-between for the individual farm or inhabitant and the seigneur, the church, and the state, especially in areas of central and eastern Europe where the dues were assessed collectively on the village as a whole.

Generally the village had a large degree of independent authority which could, especially in areas of Switzerland, Austria and Southern Germany, include its own local court. The village assembly in some freehold areas could also sell, buy, rent, and rent out communal land. Even in those parts of Europe where the seigneur could sell or reallocate both peasants and village land, and thus intervene in all internal village relations, he often let the village take care of itself so long, as he got his dues punctually.

The village assembly gave guidelines for how communal areas with grazing land, forest, bog, meadow, or lakes should be exploited, and how fences and roads ought to be maintained. It decided when sowing and harvest should begin or be concluded, which of the two cultivated territories under the widespread three-field rotation system should be laid out the next year and with which crops, and which zone was to be opened for grazing. The village assembly moreover could hire village herdsmen, decide which of the peasants was to feed the communal bull each year, assist in firefighting, and issue petty fines for disturbing the peace.

The formal farm-village relationship functioned on the basis of the so-called village law, which dates from the Middle Ages but which worked on the basis of oral tradition until the 1800s or even longer. Perhaps all households, or at any rate all households with land, originally had a vote in the village assembly, but in the 1600s and 1700s in many places less than one third of the households in the village were represented, and the most prosperous village inhabitants enacted statutes that stripped the landless or those with limited land of influence. This phenomenon is often interpreted in connection with the general population increase since the 1500s and especially the 1700s, when there was greater competition for the village's resources. As a rule only male farm representatives could sit in the village assembly but in some areas in Russia widows also had a vote, and in certain places in France both women and men took part in the meetings of the village assembly. In these areas the local priest and even the seigneur could be members, but otherwise the village assembly was reserved exclusively for the peasant estate. In the 1800s, representative democracy in some countries resulted in the creation, as the lowest administrative unit, of parish councils in which persons from all social estates could have a seat.

In many places the village assembly's earlier rather sovereign position had already been undermined before the abolition of the open-field system eliminated its most pivotal functions. Particularly in northeastern central Europe—when from the 1500s to the beginning of the 1800s much peasant land was incorporated in the demesne lands and the inhabitants made into cottagers or day laborers (a process termed Bauernlegen in German)—the village assemblies were depleted of their traditional functions and authority. Under intensive large-scale production in both east and west, the seigneurs were in many places successful in eliminating some of the village headman's functions. They were able to replace the headmen with so-called peasant bailiffs or with headmen who were also estate functionaries of a sort, since besides administering the village's own affairs they were supposed to summon their fellow villagers to corvée on the demesne farm. However, in western and central Europe with the Enlightenment of the 1700s the state endeavored to safeguard some of the peasants' rights vis-à-vis the seigneurs, perhaps not for the peasants' sake alone, but to secure for the nation a more solvent tax basis, a greater number of inhabitants, and more—and more loyal—soldiers. This state intervention in village affairs could not help but standardize the functions of the village assemblies.

The best known example of the village assembly or commune's regulating function, in which the commune acted as the de facto owner of the peasant land, is found in Russia in the 1700s and 1800s. Under this system the peasants had permanent right only to their house and outbuildings, to communal areas such as commons and forests, and to only a little cultivated land. In return, at regular intervals the village assembly (mir) apportioned shares of the village land to the individual peasant household, usually in relation to how many mouths it had to feed or how many adult workers it contained. Where in most peasant communities the household had to adapt its domestic size and consumption to the amount of land, in Russia it was the village assembly which redistributed the village land to the households according to their size and need. This system is known in different variants in a number of areas in both eastern and western Europe.

Corporative organization of various forms existed in European villages into the twentieth century. Best known are the southern Slavic brotherhoods, where the dangers of isolation rendered collaboration among rural inhabitants necessary, and the non-family-based guild in Germany, the Nordic countries, and England, which had a role in organizing large work projects in the village.


The old village has often—in national ethnography from the late 1800s and in discussions of equality and national character—been held out as a democratic unit to be emulated. Recent research has shown, however, that the preindustrial village was often strongly socially differentiated, often strayed from the communal ethos, with its norms of mutual cooperation, suggested by its formal organization.

The village has nearly always been compounded of more occupational groupings than peasants, even though the peasants were originally predominant. From the 1600s great inequality of resources and affluence prevailed within the old peasant category, alongside which there often lived smallholders, cottars, artisans and small tradesmen, landless laborers, servants, and hired hands. The latter population elements increased markedly in the 1800s. Often they did not have independent representatives in the village assembly even though in numbers they might constitute the majority of the village population. The occupational designations were not necessarily attached permanently to the individual person or family; a young couple might start out as day laborers, later become peasants for twenty to twenty-five years, and end as cottars or lodgers. Nor was being a servant a permanent occupation in continental Europe, but rather a phase in the life cycle of young people, before they got married and perhaps took over an independent cottage or a farm. For smallholders and cottars the combination of farming and wage labor is very old, but in the 1900s it became widespread among the ranks of small farmers as the lower limit for viable farming was pushed upward.

In the case of southwestern Germany, the historical-anthropological studies of Hans Medick (1996) and David Sabean (1990) have shown what a variety of social and cultural forms existed in the villages of the 1600s, 1700s, and 1800s, and how women and men acted in their preoccupation with material interests, social position, and religious norms. In areas with partible inheritance where both sons and daughters were heirs, as Sabean in his book on Neckarhausen in Württemberg revealed, clashes between parents and adult children, between fathers and sons-in-law and between brothers-in-law over inheritance of plots of land could be an immediate part of daily life in the village. Under these conditions family and blood relations were apparently of far greater significance in the village than often assumed.

In a study of east Danish villages Palle O. Christiansen has shown how in the 1700s the villagers' different interests and the estate's economic policy toward the villages as dues payers led to almost constant conflict in estate villages even where peasants otherwise had large adjoining lands. The everyday life of the villagers was remote from the commonplace notions of a corporate community. Village life was rather to be perceived as a conflictual coexistence between two essentially different peasant life-styles, one lived in an often rather jolly day-to-day perspective and the other more ambitious and provident. The village can thus be understood as a kind of unity of opposites, in which the two lifestyles with a basis in the estate's praxis contributed mutually to reproducing each other. The balance between the two lifestyles might vary according to the estate's administrative praxis and the village's resources, particularly forest, but this duality was found in all villages belonging to the estate.

Differences in behavior among villagers may be perceived even into the twenty-first century. These differences result from the modern division of labor and the new presence of culturally urban people in the village, and also from the multiethnic composition of many villages, which often has roots both in late-medieval colonization in eastern central Europe and state-directed population movements of the 1700s and 1900s. In Hungary and Romania, especially until 1945, there were many German (Swabian or Saxon) minorities who lived in the same villages as Magyars, Romanians, and Roma (Gypsies), each speaking its own language. In the Balkan countries the diversity of nationality, language, and religion could be even greater, and has persisted into the twenty-first century.


An extensive complex of state-directed agrarian reforms, implemented especially in the 1700s and 1800s, aimed to modernize the old open-field village and


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emancipate the peasant families as individual and independent citizens by means of the abolition of serfdom, conversion of corvée, and transition to peasant freehold. The earliest examples come from small countries like Savoy, Switzerland, and Denmark. The most important physical changes in the village have to do with the so-called technical reforms, that is, the conversion of open fields, divided into scattered strips, into consolidated, enclosed holdings, and the decentralization of individual farms. These reforms disturbed irrevocably the classical farm-village relation, though in most cases without resolving the inequalities that had arisen between big and small peasants.

In some areas in France and Southern Germany since the 1500s, villages have carried out consolidations of scattered strips themselves, and similar consolidations occurred in eastern Schleswig-Holstein. The first and most systematic centrally authorized consolidation, the English enclosures of the shared pastures and common fields, were organized in the 1500s and 1600s. The most extensive governmental enclosures of villages, however, took place in the following century, mainly in the Midlands. The most significant visual changes were the fences between the plot owners' main parcels, which also made it possible to put together the smaller tilled strips, particularly from the late 1700s. On many estates consolidated land that was not leased out was traditionally left for sheep farming and hunting.

On the Continent consolidations took place generally much later than in England. Except for a few precursors in the 1600s and early 1700s overall most consolidations in Schleswig-Holstein, Northern Germany, and Denmark began in the mid-1700s, and through the following century in other parts of Europe. In large parts of Russia, Poland, and what later became Czechoslovakia, as well as in areas of Switzerland and southern Germany, consolidation did not gather momentum until the 1900s.

Consolidation as a rule apportioned the village's communal areas such as commons and forests among the individual farms, and gathered each farm's often innumerable small fields into a single large parcel or a few bigger parcels which the peasant himself could decide when and how to cultivate. This led to a greater emphasis on the individual peasant within the village. He no longer had to wait for his neighbor in communal projects, and he saved time driving and walking to his fields and back. The peasant could obtain much cleaner and better manured soil, and by effective personal fencing keep neighbors and their livestock out of his fields and avoid the danger of contagion that came with earlier communal grazing. The great expense of consolidation notwithstanding, the governments and proprietors tended to reckon that the individual peasant, through his hopefully greater initiative, would become more solvent and that he would exploit resources like forest and grazing land less ruthlessly. They also hoped that the village could better support an augmented and more affluent population.

In many places consolidation was followed by the removal of farmsteads from the old village nucleus to the new field which the peasant had been allotted. A single large quadrangular parcel with the farmstead in the middle was considered the most effective setup but was not always possible, because of both the natural contours of the land and the expense involved in moving many farmsteads out onto the fields.

There is hardly any doubt that consolidation combined with the gradual introduction of more effective crop rotation raised productivity, though the old village was not nearly as inefficient as some of its modern critics have asserted. The improved yield from the consolidated lands—in hay production especially—did not occur until after old boundaries and ditches were slowly adjusted to the new field contours and otherwise untitled land was brought under cultivation, which took several years. Thereafter the productivity and commodity production per farm could be increased, which was reflected in augmented dues, more cows, and larger sales. Most important, perhaps, was that the new individual and farm-centered production held a very great potential in that the clearly defined, assembled parcels, often quite large and making more efficient use of the land than scattered strips, for many years henceforth allowed hitherto uncultivated areas to be brought under the plow. This was the case in Denmark and southern Sweden, for example, as well as in northwestern Germany and France.

The pattern of village transformation described above was not universal, however. In some areas peasants have always dwelled on their field plots rather than in village centers, although the cultivation of these fields over time has not always resulted in field contours which are suitable for modern motorized production. This is true in southwestern England, Ireland, all of southwestern France, Holland, Belgium, and the district west of Bremen in Germany, plus in Latvia and Serbia. Conversely there exist places, particularly in southern Europe, where peasants have no wish to move out of the village center, either so as not to reduce their already diminutive plots or because it is considered more urban and therefore finer to live in the village center than on the open land.


In the consolidated village the village assembly's primary activities were eliminated, but in many places the organization remained in existence but with fewer and other tasks under its province. The removal of many farms from the village center could also change the physical configuration of the village. The old village changed its character rather than merely disintegrating. Even though the big, communal projects vanished and many families, particularly in transalpine Europe, moved out onto the fields, family, neighbor, and cooperative relations continued to exist. Moreover, many villages in the 1800s and especially the 1900s became small service centers, with artisans and shops for daily necessities.

The modern peasant-farmer, on his separate parcel of a size able to feed his family at the minimum, is inconceivable without a local service network and access to the larger market for both purchases and sales. Actually it is only in its modern form that it is possible to speak of the farmstead as both an economic unit and a home (see Eric Wolf, 1996, p.13). Although some European peasant farms have very low productivity, family farms have simultaneously turned out to have a far greater potential than was believed by reformers. The extinction of European family farms has often been prophesied, without their disappearing. Even though family farms face problems, and even though many have been combined, the structure itself continues to be reproduced.

The larger family farm's strength appears to be connected with the fact that in continental Europe it never became a small capitalistic enterprise. That is to say that the agriculturist often did not behave like the English tenant farmer or perform farm labor, even though modern agriculture involves large commodity production and is also dependent upon operational investments and loans. The independent peasant freehold of the 1800s and 1900s made it possible for the family-based farm at the end of the twentieth century to invest and become involved in the market, while at the same time the farm did not always have to pay interest on its own equity or include the family's labor in calculating the production price relative to the market wage. Just as in the case of smallholdings earlier, family members often supplemented their income with domestic industry or wage labor with the aim of keeping the farm and the home intact. This nucleus of agricultural activity contributed to the continued functioning of many villages. Simultaneously, some governments and the European Union also subsidized family production and services in villages, so as to maintain a degree of activity in marginal areas.


The parcelling out of land to peasants with the aims of stemming social unrest among agricultural laborers, limiting overseas emigration, and securing the necessary labor force for farmers and estates, began at the end of the 1800s. The land reforms after World War I in Czechoslovakia, Prussia, Finland, and part of Denmark, and after World War II in Yugoslavia and Italy, had the direct aim of reducing the extent and power of the still existing great estates, while at the same time obliging a rural but landless population's demand for land. The governments also sought to prevent a large-scale influx to the cities, which were rarely able to supply jobs to both a growing population and men returning from war. State land reform and the laying out of smallholdings in new so-called rationally planned villages has often paralleled the appearance of social movements of a populist character, which in opposition to both estate production and urban proletarianization have argued for healthy rural work and the small independent family farm. It was often pointed out that productivity per area unit in these small farms was greater than on estates, whereas the productivity per time unit was disregarded, inasmuch as surplus time in the village was seldom able to be used productively in other ways.

Many of the smallholdings which through centralized land reforms were portioned out in the 1900s have been so localized that the often extensive rural settlements can be spoken of as villages. These new villages came to function as intended in many places, but in others problems of various kinds arose. In southern and central Europe plots were never inhabited or farmed because they were too small or inexpedient from the outset, roads or water mains were never laid, people did not venture to move out of the old villages, or cattle thefts proliferated. These settlements, alongside the deserted villages, stand today as ghost towns. Other smallholdings were combined and new families moved into the houses, but particularly up until around 1960 these new smallholder villages had a symbolic progressive and antifeudal aura about them in those sections of Europe historically characterized by extensive seigneurial estates.


A very different kind of land reform took place in parts of eastern Europe in the twentieth century. The collectivization of village peasants which took place from 1929 to 1938 in the Soviet Union and in all socialist countries after 1948 with the exception of Poland and Yugoslavia fundamentally changed conditions in rural areas in that part of Europe. In socialist agriculture the distinction must be made between conditions on the collectives proper and state farms, which are more reminiscent of large estate production with a paid labor force. The collectivization of large amounts of village land meant combined production on a large scale on former peasant farms, which thus were not modernized as individual family enterprises. At the same time the peasants got the right to personally farm so-called private plots. Despite the fact that these personal plots often were only one-third and one-half hectares, through their occupiers' intensive cultivation they had a very large yield. Mechanization took place primarily on the often very extensive state farms and on the collective fields, whereas production on the small personal plots was intensified mostly through comprehensive allocation of family labor and low-technological equipment. Thus, in much of eastern Central Europe the socialist experiment often not only preserved but also developed a classical peasantlike cultivation which characterized village life in the otherwise strongly industrialized societies.

Socialist agricultural and industrial planning also had other conspicuous consequences. In Romania in the 1970s and 1980s, many villages in the plains districts were completely depopulated and the peasants relocated in large central towns engaged in either large-scale farming or the State's high-priority industries.

Following the anticommunist upheavals in 1989–1991 in eastern central Europe decollectivization has taken place. Peasants have divided the former collective fields, often according to the land division that applied before the forced collectivization. Many small family farms were reestablished in the villages in this way. The result has been a large difference in the exploitation and possession forms in the countries in question. In some places financial magnates have tried to buy up land to combine into large private farms, while simultaneously small peasants have collectively sold the large machines from the former collectives, which are useless on their own small holdings, and instead have bought a horse and a couple of cows. In such villages it is possible to see peasants build small timber stables for their newly acquired livestock in the same style as at the beginning of the twentieth century. The family's reestablished agricultural enterprise supplements other sources of income such as wage labor and other small production.


Much of Europe, particularly in the 1900s, saw a migration from the country to the city, gradually draining many villages of young people. Frequently the lands have been so small and inaccessible, and the prestige in living in a rural area so low, that families have not been able to sell their property in the villages, which are therefore gradually depopulated. After 1991 this has also been the case in villages in the former socialist countries, where the ethnic German inhabitants moved to Germany. Remaining are only old people and empty houses, possession of which is in some cases eventually taken by Roma.

Partial depopulation is not a new phenomenon, though the background for deserted villages always has to be perceived in a specific historical context. Rural depopulation was known in the Middle Ages (due to epidemics), in the Thirty Years' War in the 1600s, in the 1800s due to the great waves of emigration, and after the two world wars and in the Soviet Union and Romania due to deportations and forced migrations. The problems in many villages at the beginning of the twenty-first century are not only connected with young people leaving for urban centers to get education and jobs. The dwindling of the population bases is exacerbated by the fact that many small tradespeople have to close shop and that schools are amalgamated; in addition, state policies that are poorly suited to rural conditions can contribute to depopulation.

At the same time, since the 1960s, especially in northwestern Europe, a change has occurred in the pattern of migration in that numbers of people are moving away from the large cities in order to settle in villages and small rural towns. This is not only a result of the late modern anti-industrial attitude among well-educated population groups, but also has to do with better transportation possibilities (roads and private automobiles), cheaper homes in the country, and new forms of electronic communication. The increased demand for rural houses (including vacation homes) in such areas, often close to large well-functioning centers, has also resulted in planned expansions of many older farm villages. These villages exhibit a wholly new form of discourse characterized by both traditional agrarian viewpoints and strong culturally urban interests.

See also other articles in this section.


Bloch, Marc. French Rural History: An Essay on Its Basic Characteristics. London, 1966.

Blum, Jerome. The End of the Old Order in Rural Europe. Princeton, N.J., 1978.

Blum, Jerome. "The European Village as Community: Origins and Functions." Agricultural History 45 (1971): 157–178.

Blum, Jerome. "The Internal Structure and Policy of the European Village Community from the Fifteenth to the Nineteenth Century." Journal of Modern History 43 (1971): 541–576.

Brunt, Lodewijk. "Social Change in a Dutch Village." In Beyond the Community:Social Process in Europe. Edited by Jeremy Boissevain and John Friedl. The Hague, Netherlands, 1975.

Christiansen, Palle O. "Culture and Contrasts in a Northern European Village: Lifestyles among Manorial Peasants." Journal of Social History 29 (1995): 275–294.

Christiansen, Palle O. "The Household in the Local Setting: A Study of Peasant Stratification." In Chance and Change: Social and Economic Studies in Historical Demography in the Baltic Area. Edited by Sune Åkerman et al. Odense, Denmark, 1978.

Christiansen, Palle O. A Manorial World: Lord, Peasants, and Cultural Distinctions on a Danish Estate, 1750–1980. Oslo, 1996.

Duby, Georges. "Manorial Economy." In International Encyclopedia of the SocialSciences. New York, 1968.

Ellis, Frank. Peasant Economics: Farm Households and Agrarian Development. Cambridge, U.K., 1988.

Franklin, S. H. The European Peasantry: The Final Phase. London, 1969.

Galeski, Boguslaw. Basic Concepts of Rural Sociology. Manchester, U.K., 1972.

Hanssen, Börje. "Fields of Social Activity and Their Dynamics." In Transactions of the Westermarck Society. Vol. 2. Copenhagen and Åbo, 1948. Pages 99–133.

Hanssen, Börje. Østerlen: En studie över social-antropologiska sammanhang under1600–och 1700–talen i sydöstra Skåne. Stockholm, 1952. Basic study in Swedish of the relationships between villages, fairs, and towns.

Hofer, Tamás. "Agro-Town Regions of Peripheral Europe." Ethnologia Europaea 17 (1987): 69–95.

Koefoed, C. A. "Udskiftningens gang gennem de europæiske lande . . ." Tidsskrift for landøkonomi (1933): 566–595; 629–665; 705–722. Important presentation in Danish of village consolidation (with maps) in all European countries.

Koefoed, C. A. My Share in the Stolypin Agrarian Reforms. Odense, Denmark, 1985.

Medick, Hans. Weben und Überleben in Laichingen 1650–1900: Lokalgeschichte alsAllgemeine Geschichte. Göttingen, Germany, 1996.

Redfield, Robert. The Folk Culture of Yucatán. Chicaco, 1941.

Sabean, David. Property, Production, and Family in Neckarhausen, 1700–1870. Cambridge, U.K., 1990.

Sampson, Steven L. National Integration through Socialist Planning: An Anthropological Study of a Romanian New Town. Boulder, Colo., 1984.

Shanin, Teodor, ed. Peasant and Peasant Societies: Selected Readings. 2d ed. London, 1988.

Tai, H. C. "The Political Process of Land Reform: A Comparative Study." Civilisations 18 (1968).

Turner, Michael. Enclosures in Britain 1750–1830. London, 1984.

Tönnies, Ferdinand. Community and Society. Edited and translated by Charles Price Loomis. New York, 1957 (1887).

Verdery, Katherine. Transylvanian Villagers: Three Centuries of Political, Economic, and Ethnic Change. Berkeley, Calif., 1983.

White, Lynn, Jr. Medieval Technology and Social Change. Oxford, 1962.

Wolf, Eric R. Peasants. Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1966.