Skip to main content

Peasants and Rural Laborers


Cathy A. Frierson

From the North Atlantic to the Urals in the 1500s, peasants and rural laborers made up 80 to 90 percent of the population. Peasant men and women were part of a population expansion that began with the ebb of the Black Death in the late fifteenth century and extended into the second half of the seventeenth century. Geographic location set the first boundaries. Peasants who lived west of the river Elbe in the German northeast were among the more fortunate of Europe's rural laborers; those born to the east of the river Elbe faced limits more restrictive and more persistent.

In western Europe, most peasants lived on small farms, for which they paid the lord of the manor rents in money or in kind. Although they were not free of obligations, they did have some autonomy in developing strategies for meeting them. They decided how best to cultivate the land and tend their animals to produce goods they either paid to the master or sold at a local market for the cash they then paid as rent.

In France in the 1500s, most peasants were legally tenants of lords, or seigneurs, to whom they owed monetary payments. There were some peasants who owned their land outright, but their numbers diminished in the 1500s and continued to decline thereafter, especially near urban areas, where population increased and wealthier members of society bought land as an investment. By the middle of the seventeenth century, only a very small number of French peasants owned enough to feed their families, much less prosper. This made the French peasantry a population of renters, who paid rents, taxes, and tithes to landowners, the state, and the church.

The lord was closest at hand and figured most prominently in the local imagination, as he exacted rent on the land and fees for fishing in his streams, hunting in his forests, or milling grain in his mills. The lord also controlled the local markets and could charge fees on peasant trade there. Finally, the lord controlled the local courts and political system, setting the parameters for justice and governance in the local communities that constituted the peasants' world. Some French peasants were able to go beyond meeting the lord's demands to expand the lands they rented and become minor employers themselves, hiring less prosperous neighbors to work in their fields. This practice increased during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, creating a majority population of agricultural laborers who might dig a fellow villager's soil as a hired worker or sharecropper. By the end of the seventeenth century, agricultural laborers might make up as much as 90 percent of a village's population. Relative opportunity and social differentiation thus went hand in hand in the early modern French village.

Rural agriculturalists in England in the 1500s enjoyed a degree of autonomy on the land they worked and security in their tenancy that would have been the envy of peasants east of the Elbe. With the population recovery from the Black Death, lords needed peasants as much as peasants needed access to the lords' land. Lords were constrained not only by demographic trends and their labor needs, but also by an emerging royal judicial system that entered into their relationships with the peasants on their manors. While lords were certainly the masters of their land and retained considerable powers to exact fines, fees, and rents, they found themselves granting forms of tenancy that enabled a peasant to contemplate long-term farming on a particular plot of land and not only the prospect of paying the lord his due, but also opportunities for going beyond subsistence and obligation through successful farming.

Short of outright ownership of the land in perpetuity, English peasants sought a form of tenancy termed copyhold in inheritance. A peasant who secured a copyhold in inheritance for the land he tilled paid an annual rent, but could pass the land to another peasant (not only a family member) who in turn had to pay an entry fine to the master in order to receive the copyhold. Both rents and entry fines varied according to the landlords' whims, injecting some insecurity in the relationship for the peasant and opportunities for revenue and exploitation for the lord. Manorial court records reveal both that lords' courts were mimicking new royal court procedures and that peasants were successfully disposing of their land to individuals of their choice, who received the preferred tenancy through copyhold in inheritance. Less preferable forms of tenancy were prevalent in the Midlands and the south of England, including copyhold for lives (not heritable) and beneficial leases, which gave lords considerably more power over the peasants and subjected the peasants to more insecurity in their relationship to the land and the master. All three forms of tenancy (copyhold in inheritance, copyhold for lives, and beneficial leases) determined what the peasants owed to the masters, but the peasants determined how they met the terms of tenancy.

Even in Spain, where poverty was the primary experience of the 80 percent of the population who were peasants, those working on the land were legally free. The economic condition of the Spanish peasantry in the sixteenth century and beyond closely resembles that of agriculturalists east of the Elbe, but the Spanish retained legal freedom of movement. As in France, town dwellers bought up land, forcing farmers who had held their land in tenancies for life to enter short-term tenancies, with all the insecurities and periodic reminders of their economic dependency that entailed. Everywhere, peasants paid taxes, rents, and dues to noble, church, and royal lords. In the northern mountains, peasants lived on small plots of land in miniature villages, paying their dues largely in kind, but increasingly in cash from the sixteenth century forward. In Catalonia, situated on France's southern border and along the Mediterranean coast, peasants were able to secure long-term tenancies starting in the sixteenth century; some used these opportunities to expand their holdings until they themselves rented their land to other peasants. Further south, peasants were more likely to be day laborers on large manors, or latifundia, which dated to the reconquest of Spanish land from the Moors in the thirteenth century. There, fewer peasants could be called proprietors and most were either renters or hired hands. Over all of Spain, half of the peasants had to hire themselves out to their wealthier neighbors for at least part of the year, either because they had no land at all or too little to enable them to feed their families from one harvest to the next. Across Western Europe, as in Europe east of the Elbe river, those who tilled the soil did so not only for individual lords, but also for institutional lords such as religious institutions, the state as a major landowner, universities, and foundations. Further, peasants dependent on individual lords might find themselves transferred from labor on the land to labor in the lord's other enterprises, such as mining or agricultural processing.

Peasants born on the west bank of the river Elbe in the sixteenth century entered a trajectory leading some to individual proprietorship, freedom of movement, and expanding expectations for personal prosperity beyond subsistence. In the west, peasants had secured heritable land tenures and fixed rents by the sixteenth century. While they still had to pay the lords of the land their due, peasants could plan for a future because they knew they had the land they cultivated for as long as they wished, and they knew what their financial obligations would be. These certainties enabled a class of middle peasants to emerge and expand as they moved onto lands that had been abandoned during the Black Death. The family farm situated in a compact village became the peasants' foundation for moving beyond subsistence. They were fortunate in the fertile soil they farmed and the dynamism of towns and cities, which created both markets for any surplus they might want to sell and a class of burghers who kept the aspirations of the landed nobility in check.

These advantages enabled the agriculturalists in German states west of the Elbe to enjoy a steady recovery through the sixteenth century up to the Thirty Years' War (1618–1648). A generation of warfare depleted both population and resources, threatening the gains the west German peasants had made in the previous century, yet the foundation of those gains seems to have carried them through to both financial recovery and confirmation of the personal freedom and secure land tenures their forebears had acquired. With an eye to tax revenues, rulers in the west German states intervened on behalf of the middle and more prosperous peasants, protecting them from noble lords' efforts to render them more dependent and less mobile. As the eighteenth century approached, peasants along the Rhine, Weser, Main, and western reaches of the Danube owed regular taxes to their political rulers, but farmed and lived as community members relatively free of the heavy hand of their noble neighbors and landlords. The most prevalent forms of tenancy were ownership, for which the peasant still paid rent to a lord; and hereditary leasehold, so-called "steward tenancy" or Meierhof in the northwest. Much less prevalent were lifetime leasehold and tenancy at the will of the lord, who could recall it without warning. The latter faded from the German landscape as tenancy became hereditary in practice, even if not legally recorded as such. This is not to say that the peasants of west German principalities and duchies were free of domination. They were still captives in a web of obligations and hierarchies (Herrschaft) that provided channels for the intrusion of church, state, and nobles into the life of the village. But in the larger European framework, peasants in the west had a wider range of possibilities and actions than their fellows to the east.

Peasants born east of the Elbe in the sixteenth century entered a downward spiral toward the loss of mobility, increasing dependence, economic stagnation, and vulnerability to natural and man-made calamities. From Brandenburg to Moscow, through Poland, Hungary, Bohemia, and Romania, noble lords and ruling princes responded to the demographic crises of the fourteenth century and the political and military crises of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries by joining forces to bind peasants to land and master, locking them into a series of dependencies and insecurities. Throughout these regions, noble lords were able to secure the legal restriction of the mobility of peasants living on their lands, which they had often acquired through the beneficence of the ruling prince or king. The result was large landed estates, populated and cultivated by plowmen and their families, whose former freedom to move from one estate and master to another was criminalized and subject to punishment.

The obligations of peasants in eastern Europe and Muscovy also became more restrictive, shifting from payments in money and kind to labor services. When east European peasants greeted the day, it was as likely that their activities were already defined and assigned to the lord's land and barns as it was likely that they could work for themselves according to their own priorities. Lords were not only taskmasters; they also acquired the roles of local judges, juries, tax collectors, and often human barriers that peasants were forbidden to pass in order to appeal directly to the prince or king. Furthermore, as peasants were bound to lord and land, the lord viewed them as part of an estate's inventory, to be bought, sold, or traded as he saw fit. The estate was the lord's patrimony; peasants were patrimonial possessions; patrimonial lords became local petty autocrats over the people who labored beneath them. The reach of the laws that enforced these regimes was, of course, limited, and peasants continued to flee whenever they could in search of better conditions of life and labor. But the fact was that fleeing within the eastern half of Europe usually only led to another master with similar expectations and prerogatives.


Through the early modern period, all peasants and rural laborers in Europe, from Moscow to Glasgow, answered to another master or mistress beyond their earthly superiors in the shape of landlord, cleric, or state official: nature. Peasants cultivated the land in the traditions of their ancestors, using implements little changed over the previous centuries. The energy available to them came from the sun, the wind, food, water, and animals. Their ability to forecast the weather, to anticipate frost, flood, or drought, rested on folk wisdom and memory. Their understanding of diseases that struck human, plant, and animal populations offered little or nothing that would help them prevent or treat them. This subordination to weather, soil, water, and microorganisms joined their subordination to secular and religious masters to inform the bonds they created with each other and the belief systems they embraced and defended in the communities they inhabited and imagined.

Before the technological age, nature set the parameters of cultivation and production, determining which crops to grow, animals to raise, foods to eat, clothes to wear, housing to construct, and fuel to provide heat and light. Soils, temperatures, and precipitation created a different set of boundaries in Europe, cutting across the tenancy line at the river Elbe. Peasants in central Norway and northern Russia were equally likely to be planting barley; peasants in northern Germany, Poland, Lithuania, and Muscovy shared in the experience of cultivating rye and oats; while those around Dijon, Munich, Budapest, and Kiev were growing wheat. Until the middle of the eighteenth century, peasants largely ate what they grew, without imported tastes or ingredients from other regions. Before the advent of railroads, steamships, and an extensive network of weatherproof roads (still lacking in late-twentieth-century rural Russia), the costs of transporting foodstuffs and the risks of spoilage over long journeys inhibited an interregional market in grains or meat and dairy products, and the differentiation of diets, urban or rural.

Peasants in early modern Europe devised social and agricultural strategies to meet environmental demands, while their belief systems and identities reflected their interpretation and attempts to accommodate those demands without yielding to them completely. Scattered plots in open field farming provided a form of insurance for peasants who recognized that diversifying their crops and distributing their fields over relatively broad areas meant that total crop failure was unlikely in the event of some natural misfortune. From insect infestations and blight to local flooding, drought, or hailstorm, natural assaults on cultivated fields were less likely to wipe out one peasant's or even an entire community's subsistence when numerous plots were spread out, usually with strips of uncultivated land ("balks" in England) to act as the equivalent of a firebreak, protecting each field from the misfortunes of a neighbor's. Scattered plots also enabled peasants to plant multiple crops, as for example winter and spring wheat, sequentially, moving from one to the next while avoiding simultaneous tasks on all of them.

Family life reflected economic considerations. In the north and west of Europe, families were nuclear by the mid-sixteenth century, comprising husband, wife, children, and hired hands who worked together as a labor unit on the land they cultivated. On the southern periphery along the Mediterranean, through the Balkans and into Russia, the household comprised extended, multigenerational and multibranched families who likewise constituted a labor unit. In the west small farms and the relative autonomy peasants enjoyed in organizing their labor encouraged independent households of nuclear families, which took shape when young people had worked long enough to set up a separate home. Kin networks continued to be of primary importance in establishing personal identity, but the larger social and economic structure of western Europe made it possible for a nuclear family to farm on its own and hire hands if its labor needs exceeded familial capacity. In the east, where peasants had to render significant labor to their lords, nuclear families might often be short of the working hands they needed to meet external obligations and feed their families. In areas where poor soils joined significant labor obligations and premodern technologies, extensive farming encouraged extended families or the addition of hired hands to ensure household survival. The trend toward larger households quickened in the late seventeenth century as the grip of lords on bound peasants tightened.

Families were everywhere the primary community and source of identity. Through membership in a family or a household, the individual peasant had access to the land and its products and to shelter, and held a position in the next larger community—the village. Gender, age, marital status, blood ties, and relationship to the household head established a peasant's place in the world. In this framework the distinction between peasants and rural laborers emerged across Europe. Almost everywhere, peasants within families whose household head had established tenancy or serf's terms with the external lords were both more secure in fact and in status within village communities. Those whose families did not have an adequate combination of land, equipment, and labor to support themselves through farming had to hire themselves out to subsist. In Spain and Portugal, such rural laborers lost not only autonomy in their farming lives, but also access to common village pastures and other lands, which was reserved for peasants who could support themselves and their families on the land they cultivated. In southern Iberia, these laborers had reached 75 percent of the rural population by the eighteenth century, and for the entire region, 50 percent of the total.

In Germany west of the Elbe, the ranks of the village poor grew in the sixteenth century, prompting the development of local systems of poor relief and charity. So-called "cottagers" had only their houses and a small plot of land for a cottage garden. While not landless, they had to seek subsistence beyond their land, either through hiring themselves out as workers for other, more prosperous peasants, or through practicing some supplemental trade, such as pottery, smithing, carpentry, or cobbling. In the German states east of the Elbe, the numbers of the rural poor expanded after the Thirty Years War, with more and more villagers falling into the category of landless labourers or householders with inadequate land, who had to work for their fellow peasants as well as the lord to feed self and family. Everywhere in the German states and elsewhere in Europe, this was disproportionately women's fate when they were widowed with children. At this largely pre-industrial era, stratification in rural communities defined layers of prosperity by access to the land and the capacity for household subsistence. Within peasant society, prosperous peasants were thus in a position to assume the status of local "betters" vis à vis their more dependent peasant neighbors.

Stratification within village communities bred resentment and visions of a social reckoning among the poorer peasants and rural laborers, as well as fear and a consequent effort to impose social discipline among the more prosperous and powerful peasants. Historians have detected the tensions within village communities in "epidemics" of witchcraft, court records of local conflicts, and testimonies before officials of Christian churches from those accused of heresy. Accusations of witchcraft fell most frequently on women, and sometimes men, who lived on the margins in rural communities. Women living outside the disciplined order of the patriarchal household fell under suspicion when disorder came to local communities in the form of human or animal epidemics, family disputes, or excessive sexual activity outside the bonds of marriage. Sometimes church officials joined with village leaders in the campaign to restrict the power of women, whose traditional practices in healing threatened both the monopoly of church doctrine and local social hierarchies. Similarly, church and local peasants could join together to bring a maverick in the community to heel if he or she failed to attend church services regularly or to take communion while there.

Rural laborers who challenged the local hierarchy or the larger social and political order sometimes offered tales of personal encounters with angels or supernatural beings who, they said, articulated alternative visions of a more just and equitable society. Within these oral traditions, captured for historians in the testimonies of those accused by their neighbors or local priests, marginal members of Europe's early modern villages left their record of disabilities and discomforts on the edge of their communities.


In the late eighteenth century, princes, kings, emperors, and revolutionary leaders began to set the peasants of land free from obligations to their lords and bonds to their land. Emancipation came through a combination of influences, ranging from the ideals of individual liberty and property to revolutionary upheaval and warfare, which illuminated the hazards of maintaining an order perceived to be unjust, unproductive, and a brake on economic development. The decisions by the prince of Savoy in 1771 and Austria's Emperor Joseph II in the 1780s to abolish serfdom anticipated the watershed resolutions in revolutionary France between 1789 and 1793. When France's National Assembly and National Convention eliminated all noble prerogatives and peasant duties to their lords, then granted peasants the right to divide up the land they cultivated without any compensation to their former lords, they set in motion a total program of emancipation without compensation that was not matched or fully achieved elsewhere in Europe for more than a century. Individual liberty and rights in property became the hallmark of the French Revolution's gains for those peasants who held land; landless laborers and tenant farmers gained individual liberty in principle, but continued economic dependency on their wealthier neighbors. Even so, France set the standard for emancipation and exported it either on the bayonets of Napoleon's soldiers or by example to the rest of Europe.

Across the German states and into the Russian Empire, reforming bureaucrats placed peasant emancipation above noble prerogatives in the name of economic and military progress. For the Prussians, defeat at the hands of Napoleon's army led the Hohenzollern rulers to launch an incremental process of granting peasants personal liberty and freedom of movement in 1809, which expanded two years later to the granting of rights in land to peasants, who had to compensate their former masters and the land's former owners with a third or a half of the land they were cultivating. By 1838, the process of turning peasant renters into property owners and full citizens was largely complete in Prussia.

In Russia, military defeat in the Crimean War enabled reform-minded bureaucrats to implement Alexander II's decision to emancipate the Russian serfs who dominated the rural landscape in the empire's European provinces west of the Ural mountains. Through the Emancipation legislation of 1861 for proprietary serfs and subsequent decrees for state and crown peasants, tens of millions of Russian peasants gained their personal liberty from their masters and property in land, for which they were to pay compensation over the next four decades. They did not gain full liberty of movement, however, as legislation bound them to their communities absolutely for the next decade, and made departure from their communities thereafter contingent upon the granting of permission by the communal assembly of household heads. In principle, they gained equality before the law with other Russian subjects; in fact, the vast majority of their legal concerns remained within the jurisdiction of the caste-specific cantonal court, over which peasant judges presided and ruled according to customary law. The compromises evident in Russia's emancipation process illustrated on the largest scale in Europe the challenges emancipation had posed to rulers everywhere: how to grant individual liberty and property to the majority population of peasants while maintaining economic stability and social order.

Behind emancipation lay the rulers' and bureaucrats' goal of economic progress, now understood to be a prerequisite for membership in the European community of modern states and for military power to defend the interests of those states. The very concept of modern economic and military power was itself in transition during these years, shaped by the process of industrial revolution in Great Britain, which coincided with the political and social revolution in France, and vied with it for influencing both agrarian policies and the experience of Europe's peasants and rural laborers.


Between 1800 and 1850, Europe shifted from a world in which roughly 80 percent of the population continued to live and labor in the countryside to one in which the push of agricultural reform and the pull of industrial development and urbanization was displacing, rearranging, and in some cases, destroying the parts making up the preindustrial village. Great Britain set the standard for the emergence of the modern European countryside. Social and economic processes played out there were repeated across the continent.

The push of agriculture. The new element was the prospect of steady agricultural surplus, which could bring both profit to landowners and a ready food supply to towns and cities. The consolidation and enclosure of scattered plots from open fields into hedged spaces has long been the hallmark of Great Britain's shift from early modern to modern agriculture and the rural social relations it engendered. Hailed initially by agricultural reformers of the Scottish enlightenment, including Adam Smith, "rationalizing" the open fields by gathering scattered plots together, fencing them in, then subjecting them to profit-oriented farming was understood to be the absolute prerequisite for economic progress. This agricultural transformation was mirrored by a social transformation in which peasants trapped in the narrow expectations of subsistence were replaced by farmers who managed their consolidated holdings with an eye to profit on the commercial market, incorporating profit-maximizing developments in crops, animal husbandry, fertilizers, and technologies.

In this mix of technological, economic, agricultural, and social transformation, the social group denoted by the label "peasants" was a de facto endangered species en route to extinction in Europe's development into a modern, industrial, market, consumer society revolving around cities and their activities. As early as 1896, the French observer Jean-Gabriel de Tarde referred to the peasant as a "fossilized creature." Rural laborers were those countrymen and women who provided the hired labor to the entrepreneurial agriculturalists termed farmers. Thus, the peasantry ceased to be a social group or class bound by the traditional concepts, practices, and horizons of the early modern period. While the term and the phenomenon persisted into the second half of the twentieth century from France through Eastern Europe, both "vanished," to use Henri Mendras's expression, much earlier in Scotland and England. One may still visit the village of Laxton, a functioning open field village in Nottingham, to observe peasant practices in England, but one does so as a tourist or a historian peering into an archaic social and economic form.

The features of the transformation of subsistence farmers/peasants into farmers, rural laborers, or urban workers included dispossession, dislocation, and disintegration both social and moral for the peasants and rural laborers who were its victims, and conversely expansion of property, prosperity, and opportunity for those who became farmers and major landowners. As land was consolidated and fenced in, rents increased, labor decreased, agriculture became more intensively commercial, and animal husbandry grew. Enclosures were both voluntary and state enforced through acts of Parliament. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries village communities voted through unanimous decisions required under common law thus, voluntary enclosure could be frustrated by as few as one peasant unwilling to relinquish land in his use. In the eighteenth century acts of Parliament, which required only majority consent, dominated the process. Enclosure by Parliamentary decree, therefore, is the more notorious in the literature for compelling unwilling smallholders to give up their land to the process, and for granting formal property rights to those who received consolidated plots.

Enclosure produced one of the great human dramas of social history. Marxist historians, interested in distributive justice, have focused on the inequities in property distribution enclosure produced. Furthermore, because enclosure commissions in individual communities were typically dominated by large local landowners, the process itself earned E. P. Thompson's sobriquet, "a plain enough case of class robbery." Among the most damaging aspects of enclosure was the loss of free access to common lands in pasture and woods, which deprived the rural poor of traditionally free fodder for their horse or cow and fuel for their fireplace or stove. Fences, hedgrerows, and ditches constructed to demarcate consolidated fields kept out not only wandering animals, but also the women and children of the poor who had previously gleaned the harvested fields for whatever leavings they could find to add to their meager larders.

When smallholders received lands through the enclosure process, they also received the obligation to fence them in at their own expense, primarily to keep their animals contained, thus to prevent their trespass and damage on their neighbors' crops. This cash expense was disproportionately high by comparison with fencing expenses for the larger holdings; sometimes it alone was adequate to convince a smallholder to leave the land altogether. Rural laborers who had earlier been able to supplement their wages with access to common lands and perhaps to garden on a small strip of land assigned to their cottage now found themselves genuinely landless and reliant solely on the labor of their hands and backs. Enclosure, meant to consolidate land and increase production, thus had a broad effect of alienation for the rural poor in England, who were separated first from common lands, then, through the combination of high rents and fencing prices, from the land itself and the subsistence farming they had practiced.

This experience was especially bitter when they observed the benefits larger farmers gained, as enclosure did indeed increase profits for those with land sufficient to compensate for the costs of enclosures. There can be no doubt that this social and economic transformation subjected large numbers of the English population to harsh psychological, physical, and social trauma, which surfaced in such rural crimes as arson, maiming of farmers' animals, and theft of harvested crops. Beyond individual acts of protest and desperation, full-scale rural revolts broke out as the most striking demonstrations of the human costs of enclosure and the agricultural revolution it represented. The preponderance of rural laborers among those accused and convicted of crimes against the property of the beneficiaries of the agricultural revolution pointed to their frequent inability to maintain subsistence for themselves and their families in the new order, as well as to their profound sense of alienation from the communities that developed around profit-oriented, prosperous farms.

Like the witchcraft epidemics of the early modern era, the epidemiology of rural crimes in the nineteenth century pointed to stratification in rural communities. As the village population segregated into farmers, rural laborers, and those who departed to become urban workers, the farmers and rural laborers remained on their former lands on transformed terms. Land and labor were now commodities. Farmers possessed the land and commanded labor on terms designed to generate profit in the larger market, while rural laborers became atomized individual labor units, alienated from both the land and the products of their labor. Laborers protested their reduced status and means by seizing goods they needed for subsistence, or by destroying those same goods through maiming livestock and torching hayricks when farmers denied them access to these sources of their income in commercial farming.

And yet, England did not suffer in macroeconomic terms from this process. On the contrary, enclosure coincided largely with the great leap forward in England's economic history, when the industrial revolution created opportunities for employment and mobility to compensate for the lost insurance of open field, community-based farming. When they found themselves outside the figurative and literal fences of England's agricultural revolution, the displaced agriculturalists had new occupations to explore, new residential centers to inhabit, and new forms of transportation to use to get there. Whereas the undeniably traumatic character of enclosure in those areas where it was imposed from above constituted the "push" of this great transformation, external markets, urban employment, and accelerated economic processes constituted the "pull."

The pull of industry. The bond to the land was broken not only by forced enclosure and state decrees, as in England, but also by the attractions and opportunities offered by Europe's shift from the rural and agricultural to the urban and industrial. Peasants not only "lost" the rural way of life they had known for centuries because their way of life was undermined by state decrees and commercial farming; they also discarded it in search of opportunities beyond the constraints of climate, land, family, and local community.

From Laxton in England to Erdobenye in Hungary to Soligalich in European Russia, this push and pull generated greater mobility for peasants and rural laborers. Social structures, work routines, and geographic boundaries gave way, yielding hybrid labor experiences and social identities throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Those who continued to farm incorporated new crops, production and processing techniques, and fertilizers, and often combined their agricultural labor with seasonal work for emerging markets and the industrial sector. Those who shifted to commercial farming in England and elsewhere also invested in new technologies to speed up agricultural labor, simultaneously threatening the manual skills of the rural laborers and setting new time standards for the performance of daily tasks. Timepieces, such as clocks and pocket watches, became markers of the farmers' higher status and new expectations, as intensely resented by their laborers as the farm equipment in their more prosperous neighbors' barns. Enterprising farmers turned to cash crops for the market, abandoning traditional crops and crop rotation, disrupting seasonal cycles and altering familiar landscapes. The technologies of western Europe made their way through eastern Europe all the way to Russia, where British steel plows competed on the local market with Swedish steel plows for the purchasing power of Russia's most innovative farmers.

Eighteenth-century Flanders provides a particularly vivid example of the combination of agricultural and nonagricultural pursuits by peasants and rural laborers, as well as of the social stratification that accompanied that combination. Flemish peasants planted flax, then transformed it into cloth over the winter months. Flax farming and linen production through home-based spinning and weaving enabled peasants to supplement their agricultural income when population increase and the fragmentation of landholdings threatened subsistence. Family-based linen production for town merchants fed an international textile market, primarily in the American colonies, where Flemish cloth held coffee beans, covered the backs of slaves, and decorated windows in colonial homes. Labor came from every able family member, but rural laborers also hired themselves out to families who had the looms they could not afford on their own. For both the hired hands and the family weavers, the income their participation in the international linen market brought was quite low. For many it staved off indigence, however, while providing a safety valve of sorts in the period between the shift to commercial farming and the full-blown development of industry.

Once industry entered the equation in full force, such tenuous adaptations to demographic and macroeconomic developments faded before the more stunning prospects and pressures of industrialization and urbanization. Before the industrial revolution, peasants combined farming and nonagricultural home-based occupations, such as weaving, smithing, lace making, pottery, or tanning, producing goods to trade in their local or neighboring communities largely as a seasonal supplement to subsistence farming. Once steamboats and trains opened up broader transportation opportunities, towns became centers of industry and commerce, and markets expanded in town for labor and in the countryside for urban products. Non-rural locations and occupations exerted a magnetic pull so forceful that it dislodged many elements in the rural structure, breaking up old patterns and drawing people away from the land. The emigrants included gentry landowners, who sold their land to garner capital to invest in the commercial, industrial economy. Peasants thus gained opportunities to become smallholders themselves. People, products, and information began to move back and forth between town and country.

This process displayed great regional variation, of course, in its tempo, with England and the Low Countries moving most rapidly away from agricultural dominance toward industrial, capital economies. In France in the nineteenth century, tenant farmers leased their lands from wealthy urbanites who invested the capital they had gained in banking and industry in land in the countryside. These former peasants were able to accumulate extensive landholdings of their own and become powerful local employers who hired neighboring peasants. In some regions, peasants rose above their neighbors not through tenant farming, but through their own labor, prudent saving and control over expenses, and family planning. The French village also included peasants who were able to support themselves and their families on their own lands, neither expanding their lands with an eye to profits nor falling behind or risking the loss of any of their holdings. Still other peasants held onto their family land only by supplementing their income with periodic labor through jobs in town or local factories. Sharecroppers and migrant rural laborers in France constituted the lower elements in village stratification. They typically had no land of their own and lived lives of forced subservience as long as they remained in the countryside. In 1892, there were 2.5 million rural laborers in France, who were the group most likely to contribute to the 650,000 rural inhabitants who left for the cities and towns between 1896 and 1901. France and Germany were slower to embrace technological changes (from the use of mineral fertilizers to the purchase of farming equipment), and Russia lay at the geographic and chronological extreme of the spectrum. But even in imperial Russia, so late to embrace industrial development and so constrained by officials fearful of a landless rural proletariat whom they associated with Europe's revolutions, the emergence of industrial centers and a consumer economy by the 1890s wrought upon the countryside the same changes experienced as much as a century earlier on the other end of the European continent.

Four "types" among the peasantry in European Russia in the late nineteenth century illustrate the experience, however belated, of the European peasantry and rural laborers in the transition from agricultural to industrial societies: the peasant proprietor, the migrant agricultural laborer, the peasant-worker male, and the peasant woman who departed for the city or factory town. Peasant proprietors were those who bought land from the departing gentry, who had given up farming when they no longer had access to free labor as they had before the emancipation of their serfs. Peasant proprietors' numbers expanded after 1883, when the state established the Peasant Land Bank, with loans available at affordable rates to the enterprising agriculturalist. These peasants invested not only in land, but also in recently introduced mineral fertilizers and steel plows imported from Sweden and England. They hired their less fortunate or less enterprising fellow peasants, purchased cloth and factory-made clothes in town or from itinerant traders, replaced their thatched roofs with tile or tin, drank tea from samovars, and illuminated their homes with kerosene lamps. They might well be literate, and thus able to read both popular chapbooks and the state's newspaper targeting the aspiring peasant farmer with news of agrarian methods and reforms. They might also join a peasant cooperative, thus entering an institutional arrangement signifying their larger involvement with the market and state beyond their village's boundaries. In sum, their economic and social existence reflected a series of choices and decisions about how to shape their agricultural existence, which was no longer the product of their involuntary bondage to the land, but of their preferences and dreams.

Migrant peasant laborers might well be property owners, too, who farmed the land they had received as part of the emancipation settlement, but who needed to seek income elsewhere to supplement subsistence farming, in order to pay off their various tax obligations or to purchase items for their households. Some traveled far to the south of the empire to large labor markets where wealthy landowners sent their stewards to hire enough hands to bring in their commercial crops. They traveled by train and by riverboat, as well as by cart or wagon, often covering remarkable distances in their search for cash income. The existence of an export market in grain was critical to their employment, however, so they too were involved in the larger market economy, despite the fact that they continued to labor on the land. Once in the hiring markets, they met their counterparts from all over the European provinces of the Russian Empire, whom they recognized as fellow laborers, but not as members of one community.

Peasant-workers were those who left their villages seasonally to work in cities and towns. Often they traveled in village groups as a labor cooperative, hiring themselves out annually to the same employer, living together in factory barracks or city apartments in social groupings that resembled village structures. Like the migrant laborers, they sought cash income, some of which they sent home to family members still in the village and some of which they used to purchase city clothes and goods, which would make them desirable in the eyes of peasant girls when they returned to the village. They, too, traveled by riverboat, railroad, or wagon, part of the Europe-wide movement of peasants into cities, human agents of the transition from the agricultural to the industrial society. The railroads they traveled were themselves funded in no small part through loans from major French banks, who had invested the savings of French peasants in the great Russian construction projects.

The magnet of the city also attracted peasant women, many of whom followed the men of their village and assumed traditional roles as housekeepers and cooks for their transposed community. Others entered domestic service for urban families or became factory workers, usually in the textile industry, moving into factory housing or communal apartments. Like their male covillagers and relatives, many of these peasant women followed a circular pattern of migration, moving back and forth between village and town. Along the way, they gained not only cash, but also new tastes in clothing and entertainment, a sense of mobility as they rode the imperial rails, and a sure knowledge of alternatives to the traditional tasks of the peasant woman. By 1900 in the central industrial region of Russia, which comprised seven provinces, roughly one-fifth of the peasant population requested and received the internal passports they needed to migrate for labor. Somewhat more than half the peasants who immigrated to Moscow and St. Petersburg for labor were women. Thus, at the far eastern reaches of Europe, the processes of transition away from the involuntary bondage to the land that had marked the peasant experience 150 years earlier across the continent had accelerated even in Russia, and had come to include women as well as men. By the end of the nineteenth century, former peasants in some countries were beginning to depart from their insular worldview by participating in collective organizations, movements, and, to a smaller extent, political parties. Collective organizations included cooperatives for the purchase and use of farming equipment, mutual insurance programs, volunteer firefighting brigades, and some farmers' trade unions. There were also parties founded by members of the intelligentsia who became advocates for the peasants and encouraged their political engagement. In Russia, peasant-focused politics had already gone through several party formations by 1900, from the Populists of the 1870s through the People's Will and Black Repartition of the 1880s to the Socialist Revolutionaries of the turn of the century. In Bulgaria the Agrarian Union, formed in late 1899, was on the verge of being the dominant political force in the country. These embryonic forms of economic and political organization would expand in the twentieth century. Full-blown, they would signify both the end of the autarkic peasant mentality and the need for agriculturalists to fight for the preservation and subsidization of their way of life in an industrial age.


Most peasants in Europe at the beginning of the twentieth century had a dim concept of the state or of their identity as citizens of a national political culture. The expansion of their mental horizons had occurred largely in the last decades of the nineteenth century through instruction in churches and schools, military training, and the reading of newspapers and the popular press. The very creation of the nation state was recent for citizens of Italy, Germany, and Serbia, and peasants in central and eastern Europe had every reason to be skeptical about any lasting territorial polity. Even in France, with its long tradition of consciously constructed nationalism, peasants often entered the army uncertain about the identity of their enemies or the political order they were to defend. Yet the state has been the critical player in determining the fate of the European peasantry in the twentieth century. The state most brutally invaded the lives of rural people through the failed politics embodied in two world wars fought across the farmlands of France, Belgium, Germany, Italy, Poland, Hungary, Yugoslavia, and the Soviet Union. The Russian and Spanish civil wars brought similar visitations of destruction upon the Russian and Spanish peasants. The trench warfare of World War I left mines and shells deep in the fields, still to be located and defused a hundred years later by state-employed demineurs, or worse, to detonate under the tractors of French farmers who unwittingly come upon them during spring planting. Invading German troops and tanks in World War II laid waste to the farmlands of Belorussia and Ukraine, when soldiers paused long enough to burn hundreds of villages to the ground. These wars also forced peasant men into the service of the state through conscription. From a vague notion associated with a distant capital city or a local tax collector at the beginning of the twentieth century, the state became an unavoidable entity and element in the rural consciousness.

The state became alternately the agent of forced transformation or the object of political activism. Most dramatically in the Soviet Union in the late 1920s and 1930s and in the states the Soviet Union dominated after World War II, the state determined the nature of agriculture and the socioeconomic position of the people who practiced it on consolidated collective farms, forcing a twentieth-century version of enclosure and binding the peasants to the land again through a system of internal passports, and eliciting popular resistance that repeated the traumas of a century earlier in England. Collectivization in the east also reproduced the divisions between the tightly bound and the relatively free along a line running through Germany that followed the boundaries of the early modern era. To the west of that line, states have stepped in to protect those who farm through state subsidies, tariff systems, and social welfare programs, which make it possible for the individual farmer to prosper in an industrial age. On the eve of World War II, a distinct minority of the population was engaged in agriculture in western Europe, as the percentages for the following countries indicate: France, 32.5 percent; Germany, 29 percent; Belgium, 17 percent; Britain, 5.7 percent. The pull of industry and the power of market economies ensured that peasants would indeed "vanish" in the twentieth century. Everywhere in the West, those who worked the land did so as part of national and international economies, with their work experiences and financial lives as likely to be shaped by regional associations, the International Labor Organization, national ministries and departments of agriculture, import and export regulations, international trade treaties, and state subsidized grain and dairy prices as by their individual or family ties to the land. From the crops they plant to the goods they buy and sell in the marketplace, contemporary agriculturalists must reckon with national and international policies and economic trends far beyond the reach of household, village, or region.

Enclosure on a massive scale, dubbed agrobusiness, made even those independent small farmers attuned to the market seem irrational vestiges of an earlier age. To defend the farming way of life, agriculturalists of the twentieth century formed numerous associations, such as those in France: the Cooperative for the Collective Ownership of Farm Equipment, Societies for Land Management, Associated Farm Interests, Movement for the Organization and Protection of Family Farms, Farmers' Organization for Communal Land Use, and others. French farmers were the most notorious for taking collective action to defend their way of life against international competition and policymaking, with their tractors processing through Paris and their assaults on trucks importing cheap produce from Spain being emblematic of their effort to command the attention of the state to protect their interests. In Hungary, independent farmers participated in post-communist politics with the goal of prohibiting the sale of Hungarian farmland to international interests. From tractors to the ballot box, farming people seized modern technologies and systems to keep rural interests in play, to maintain some power in a world defined by cities and industries.

Farming people of the second half of the twentieth century thus abandoned by necessity or choice much of what sociologists, anthropologists, and historians have described as the "peasant way of life": insularity; dependency on or forced subservience to powerful lords; distance from the dominant systems and values of the larger society beyond the village; primary bond to the land and localities; a cyclical view of time; an aversion to innovation and profit; and profound conservatism in economic, social, and political decisions. And, yet, the word "peasant" has not disappeared from the vocabulary of European cultures or from the mental landscapes of their citizens. Peasants continue to be viewed as the somehow still essential figures in national distinction. Paysans still sell their grapes, garlic, cheese, and lavendar sachets in the market at Ferney Voltaire, where the city folk from Geneva crowd on Saturday mornings to touch base with the fundament of old French culture. In Budapest, a few genuine people of the countryside sell their honey and flowers at the Vasarcsarnok, the central market otherwise dominated by traders. In Moscow, muzhiki still pass through the major train stations, with heavy packs on their backs filled with farm produce in the morning when they arrive and city goods in the evening when they head home.

While cityfolk may disdain such "peasants" for their rough ways, urbanites still fill the trains and highways as they make their own pilgrimages back to the countryside, where many of them till small garden plots, gather mushrooms and berries, and thereby connect with the land of their ancestors' primary experiences. When asked in the year 2000 if Russian people would still rush to their summer cottages at the first moment spring planting becomes possible, even after a fully modernized system of agricultural production and distribution is in place in all cities and towns, two young law professors in their twenties laughed and said, "Of course, we will! We go to plant not just to produce food for our pantry. We go because of our connection with the soil. It restores us and makes us whole after a winter in apartments, buses, subways, and cars in the city." At the opposite end of Europe, in England, urban people display the same impulses and attachment to the earth in their gardening and lobbying for continued free access to walking paths across farming properties in the countryside. Everywhere in Europe, "peasants" are entrepreneurial farmers or hired laborers whose insular world has given way to the industrialized market. But the peasant past continues to hold emotional meaning and definition for an urbanized society which maintains its tenuous bond with the land. States have also everywhere provided the infrastructures of communication and rapid transportation that make the rapid movement of agricultural goods to market and of industrial goods to the countryside possible.

See alsoLand Tenure; Peasant and Farming Villages; Serfdom: Eastern Europe; Serfdom: Western Europe (volume 2); and other articles in this section.


Archer, John E. By a Flash and a Scare: Incendiarism, Animal Maiming, and Poaching in East Anglia, 1815–1870. Oxford, 1990.

Avrich, Paul. Russian Rebels 1600–1800. New York, 1976.

Brooks, Jeffrey. When Russia Learned to Read: Literacy and Popular Literature, 1861–1917. Princeton, N.J., 1985.

Burds, Jeffrey. Peasant Dreams and Market Politics: Labor Migration and the RussianVillage, 1861–1905. Pittsburgh, Pa., 1998.

Braudel, Fernand. Capitalism and Material Life, 1400–1800. Translated by Miriam Kochan. New York, 1973.

Brettell, Caroline. Men Who Migrate, Women Who Wait: Population and History in a Portuguese Parish. Princeton, N.J., 1986.

Clarke, Colin, and John Langton, eds. Peasantry and Progress: Rural Culture and theModern World. Oxford, 1990.

Darnton, Robert. The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French CulturalHistory. New York, 1984.

Davis, Natalie Zemon. Society and Culture in Early Modern France. Stanford, Calif., 1975.

Engel, Barbara Alpern. Between the Fields and the City: Women, Work, and Family in Russia, 861–1914. Cambridge, U.K., 1994.

Fitzpatrick, Sheila. Stalin's Peasants: Resistance and Survival in the Russian Village after Collectivization. New York, 1994.

Frank, Stephen, and Mark Steinberg, eds. Popular Culture in Late Nineteenth-Century Russia. Princeton, N.J., 1987.

Ginzburg, Carlo. The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-CenturyMiller. Translated by John and Anne Tedeschi. Baltimore, 1980.

Ginzburg, Carlo. The Night Battles: Witchcraft and Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. Translated by John and Anne Tedeschi. Baltimore, 1992.

Hammond, J. L., and Barbara Hammond. The Village Labourer 1760–1832: AStudy in the Government of England before the Reform Bill. London, 1913. Reprint, New York, 1967.

Hobsbawm, E. J., ed. Peasants in History: Essays in Honour of Daniel Thorner. Calcutta, 1980.

Hobsbawm, E. J., and George Rudé. Captain Swing. Harmondsworth, U.K., 1973.

Hoch, Steven. Serfdom and Social Control in Russia: Petrovskoe, a Village in Tambov. Chicago, 1986.

Holmes, Douglas, and Jean Quataert. "An Approach to Modern Labor: Worker Peasantries in Historical Saxony and the Friuli Region over Three Centuries." Comparative Studies in Society and History (April 1986): 191–217.

Johnson, Robert. Peasant and Proletarian: The Working Class of Moscow in the LateNineteenth Century. New Brunswick, N.J., 1979.

Jones, Eric L. Agriculture and Economic Growth in England, 1650–1815. London and New York, 1967.

Kingston-Mann, Esther, and Timothy Mixter, eds. Peasant Economy, Culture, andPolitics of European Russia, 1800–1921. Princeton, N.J., 1991.

Lehning, James R. Peasant and French: Cultural Contact in Rural France during theNineteenth Century. Cambridge, U.K., 1995.

Le Roy Ladurie, Emmanuel. The French Peasantry, 1450–1660. Translated by Alan Sheridan. Berkeley, Calif., 1987.

Melton, Edgar. "Proto-Industrialization, Serf Agriculture, and Agrarian Social Structure: Two Estates in Nineteenth-Century Russia." Past and Present 115 (May 1987): 69–106.

Mendras, Henri. The Vanishing Peasant: Innovation and Change in French Agriculture. Translated by Jean Lerner. Cambridge, Mass., 1970.

Parker, William N., and Eric L. Jones, eds. European Peasants and Their Markets:Essays in Agrarian Economic History. Princeton, N.J., 1975.

Potter, Jack M., May N. Diaz, and George M. Foster, eds. Peasant Society: A Reader. Boston, 1967.

Rosener, Werner. The Peasantry of Europe. Translated by Thomas M. Barker. Oxford and Cambridge, Mass., 1994.

Sabean, David Warren. Power in the Blood: Popular Culture and Village Discourse inEarly Modern Germany. New York, 1984.

Schulte, Regina. The Village in Court: Arson, Infanticide, and Poaching in the CourtRecords of Upper Bavaria, 1848–1910. Translated by Barrie Selman. Cambridge, U.K., 1994.

Scott, James C. Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the HumanCondition Have Failed. New Haven, Conn., 1998.

Scott, Tom, ed. The Peasantries of Europe: From the Fourteenth to the EighteenthCenturies. London and New York, 1998.

Segalen, Martine. Love and Power in the Peasant Family: Rural France in the Nineteenth Century. Chicago, 1983.

Shanin, Teodor. The Awkward Class: Political Sociology of Peasantry in a DevelopingSociety: Russia 1910–1925. Oxford, 1972.

Shanin, Teodor. Peasants and Peasant Societies: Selected Readings. Harmondsworth, U.K., 1971.

Simoni, Peter. "Agricultural Change and Landlord-Tenant Relations in Nineteenth Century France: The Canton of Apt (Vaucluse)." Journal of Social History 13, no. 1 (Fall 1979): 115–135. Stichter, Sharon. Migrant Laborers. Cambridge, U.K., 1985.

Weber, Eugen. Peasants into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France, 1870–1914. Stanford, Calif., 1976.

Worobec, Christine. Peasant Russia: Family and Community in the Post-EmancipationPeriod. Princeton, N.J., 1991.

Wylie, Laurence William. Village in the Vaucluse. Cambridge, Mass., 1974.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Peasants and Rural Laborers." Encyclopedia of European Social History. . 16 Jun. 2019 <>.

"Peasants and Rural Laborers." Encyclopedia of European Social History. . (June 16, 2019).

"Peasants and Rural Laborers." Encyclopedia of European Social History. . Retrieved June 16, 2019 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.