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Peasant economics

Political role of the peasantry

Folk society and folk culture


Studies of the peasantry in different places and in different eras have been made by historians, sociologists, economists, anthropologists, and other scholars, all of whom use a wide variety of definitions and concepts. Some writers have employed the term “peasant” to characterize entire societies; others have dealt with the peasantry as a partsociety within a larger whole. Prevailing practice includes analysis of peasant behavior at the levels of whole social systems, nations, sectors, villages, households, and individual cultivators.

Peasants are usually seen as forming part of a structured society, within which they fall between the aristocracy or great landholders, on the one hand, and the landless, on the other. However, this definition has been stretched at both ends. Some writers include among peasants groups of cultivators with no class of landlords above them; others refer to landless peasantry.

Again, peasants are normally conceived of as settled agriculturalists. Yet in tropical Africa, Central and South America, and parts of southeast Asia, there are groups of peasants who rely on shifting cultivation of the slash-and-burn type.

With regard to the land which they till, the legal status of peasants may be that of proprietors, tenants, or crop sharers. They may or may not be free to leave the land.

In a broad sense, the peasantry has constituted the most numerous social group in all organized states, from ancient to modern times, that have rested on traditional forms of agriculture. Even in western Europe during the throes of nineteenthcentury industrialization the peasant population constituted the largest segment of society. The progressive emancipation of the peasantry from serfdom and other forms of bondage has furnished favored themes for discourses by politicians and treatises by historians. Even after World War i the agrarian problem, land reform, and peasant movements (“green risings”) continued to evoke public and scholarly interest. Most recently, however, the characteristic differences between urban and rural economic activity and social life have faded, and the peasantry as such has been in the process of disappearing. Meanwhile, in other areas—for example, sub-Saharan Africa—there are some indications of a movement from tribal to peasant societies. By contrast, the United States, Australia, and New Zealand have never had a peasantry.

The ending of European rule over many parts of Africa and Asia has led to an enormous increase in the number of studies devoted to the peasantry of the so-called “underdeveloped” areas, le tiers monde. This literature is primarily of an applied nature and is concerned with efforts to modernize peasant agriculture. Among the chief subjects are reforms in systems of land tenure and other prerequisites for rapid economic development. There are also a number of examples of fundamental research aimed at a comprehensive understanding of the structure and functioning of peasant society in these countries.

Rather than trying to define peasants or peasantry in any restrictive sense we shall indicate the main lines along which significant work on peasants has been carried forward since the 1920s. We shall quickly survey the issues which have been raised in relation to the peasantry in the following geographic and historical order: feudal Europe, modern Europe in the industrial age, tsarist Russia and the Soviet Union, Japan, Indonesia, and India. Turning to more general topics, we shall take up the economics of the peasantry with particular reference to (a) recent “microanalysis,” (b) the position of the Russian school associated with the name of Chayanov, and (c) “subsistence” economics; then the political role of the peasantry, including its part in risings and revolutions; and,finally,the question of folk, or peasant, cultures.

Feudalism . One of the richest sources of literature about peasant societies continues to be the study of the agrarian aspects of feudalism in Europe from the eleventh century to the fifteenth century. There has been a remarkable flow of studies in recent decades on the kinds and conditions of the peasant classes; their ties and obligations to the seigneurs or feudal lords above them; the interplay between the peasants’ work on their own fields and their work for the lord on his demesne or home farm; systems of field cultivation; why and to what extent village lands were periodically consolidated and redistributed among the cultivators; phases of emancipation of the peasants from bondage and periods of “re-enserfment”; peasant revolts; and relations of moneyed people from the towns with the peasantry, whether by way of moneylending, buying of crops, or taking over of village land through purchase or foreclosure. [SeeFeudalism; Manorial Economy.]

Age of industrialism . Another important body of research in recent years is that devoted to the position of the peasantry in Europe since the coming of the industrial revolution. Interest has centered on such subjects as the differences from country to country in the timing and the manner in which serfdom was brought to an end. In one way or another the medieval system of agriculture, based on relations between the manor and the village community, gave way to individual farming. Large-scale cultivation with hired laborers came to predominate in certain regions, notably England and eastern Germany. France and western Germany, by contrast, continued to be lands of smallscale peasant agriculture up through World War n.

The application of modern biology and chemistry to farming led to what has been called an agricultural revolution, with unprecedented increases in productivity. The education, scientific training, technical knowledge, capital equipment, and financial resources required for carrying on the new agriculture were obviously more accessible to the large farmers than to the petty peasantry. A question which has been much discussed is how so large a number of small peasants managed nonetheless to remain in existence. The evidence suggests that they owed their survival to long hours of back-breaking toil and minimal levels of living.

The small-scale peasant agriculture of the Low Countries was distinguished for its specialization and high technical proficiency. Denmark became famous for its rural education and cooperative movements. Rack rents, poverty, crop failures, depressed prices, crowding on the land, and subdivision of holdings have been cited as factors in the great peasant migrations from Ireland, Germany, Scandinavia, and Italy.

Russia and eastern Europe . In eastern Europe the progress of industry was slower and its impact on peasant society less. The aristocracy and large proprietors held on to enormous estates until the Russian Revolution in 1917, while the peasantry remained illiterate and backward in its agricultural techniques.

In its efforts to assure a low-cost food supply for the urban working classes, the new Soviet regime came into conflict with the middle ranks of the peasantry as well as the more prosperous “kulaks.” The eventual solution in the form of a thoroughgoing, rapid collectivization of agriculture, carried out from 1928 to 1934, constituted the most traumatic blow to the structure of peasant society in any country in modern history. The historical background to collectivization, the campaign itself, and its consequences for Soviet society and economy may be studied in a vast literature of absorbing interest, under such heads as: class composition of the Russian peasantry in the 1920s; the character of collectivization and its advantages and disadvantages in the light of subsequent agricultural problems; role in a socialist economy of private garden plots, peasant family livestock, and free peasant markets.

After World War n the advent of socialist regimes in the countries of eastern Europe initiated a series of campaigns designed to collectivize peasant agriculture. These attempts were less drastic than those in the Soviet Union but have nonetheless been pushed very far in Bulgaria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Rumania. By contrast, they have been abandoned in Yugoslavia and Poland.

Japan . Recent studies of Asia have largely emphasized the present and the immediate past. The most reliable data and the widest range of studies of any peasant society in Asia pertain to Japan. A striking feature of Japan’s rural experience has been the impact, since 1945, of the great expansion of urban factory employment, with rising wages and improved amenities. The attraction of the towns for the country youth, especially the young men, has become very powerful. As they leave, the average age of the farm population moves up steeply. To indicate who does the work in rural areas today, the Japanese have coined the expression “grandfather-grandmother-daughter-in-law agriculture.” The demand for hired labor has become so great that agricultural wages have set new records. To hold his laborers at the busy season the employer has to feed them well and speak to them politely.

Even for small farms of barely one hectare peasant families in central Japan have been buying many small machines—multipurpose two-wheel tractors, chaff cutters, polishers, tiny pickup vans. Also, these families are each likely to have a transistor radio, a television set, a washing machine, and a refrigerator. These items are acquired not solely for economic reasons but as part of a determined effort to lighten labor and make farming more attractive to young people. What is happening is the industrialization of agriculture and the modernization of rural life. Peasant agriculture and peasant society, in central Japan at least, are disappearing.

Southeast Asia . In southeast Asia, Indonesia is the area which has been studied the longest and the most systematically. It was with reference to Indonesia that the theory of “dual economy” was developed at the beginning of the twentieth century. J. H. Boeke, in a series of writings from 1911 on, argued that the peasant sector, or what in colonial times was called the “native sector,” lived a life apart, largely unaffected by the market-oriented modern urban sector. He held that the peasants zealously guarded their own values, institutions, and way of life. He believed that this situation was desirable on grounds of imperial policy and urged that it be encouraged as much as possible. [SeeEconomy, Dual.]

This theory of dual economy was sharply criticized by other Dutch authors for seriously underestimating the impact of Dutch rule, foreign trade, and market-oriented production upon the peasant sector. Nonetheless, Boeke’s point of view has been given wide popularity in the English-speaking world by the works of Furnivall (e.g., 1939). In his studies of Burma and Indonesia, Furnivall expanded Boeke’s theory of dual economy to a concept of “plural society,” which explicitly allowed for three or more main elements. In this way Furnivall proposed a framework for the relations between the Burmese peasants, the British rulers and businessmen, and the Indian laborers and moneylenders in Burma; or, for Indonesia, between the Dutch, the Chinese, and the Indonesian peasantry.

Although the term “plural society” is widely used, it does not, in the opinion of the present author, throw much light on the peasants covered by it. The compartments into which the main elements of society are divided turn out, in practice, to be much less watertight than Boeke or Furnivall would have us believe. What is more, almost all of the great societies that have existed in history have been composed of a number of principal elements among which economic or social relations may have been severely restricted. In this sense, “plural society” becomes almost a universal phenomenon of history. What is gained in our understanding of Norman England if we call it a “plural society”?

India . Of all the countries in the nonsocialist world, India has the largest peasantry and the most deep-rooted social obstacles to agricultural development. The mixture of ancient Indian, Muslim, and British notions and practices about landholding has given the country a peculiarly complex structure of land tenure. There are no significant reserves ofgood land to be brought under cultivation, and a number of regions are already very densely populated. Agriculture is largely dependent on the monsoons, which are fickle. Many areas are chronically short of water.

All economic and social institutions in the villages are deeply affected by the divisions and sense of hierarchy connected with caste. This gives a low value to manual labor. In many regions of India those who do the bulk of the agricultural work are the most disadvantaged and the most looked down upon—the “Untouchables.”

Since the attainment of national independence in 1947, there has been remarkably free debate as to what should be done for, with, or about the Indian peasantry, and how to implement the large number of governmental measures relating to the rural population. In addition to the more narrowly technical projects involving, for example, irrigation, use of artificial fertilizers, or improvement of seeds, there has been much land reform legislation, an impressive extension of cooperatives and local self-government schemes, and a vast program of “community development,” designed to achieve the goal of over-all betterment of living conditions in the villages. Whatever the success of these various endeavors, there can be no doubt of the interest in the discussions generated at each phase of development. Since India can boast a number of first-class economists, there are a great many high-level analyses of peasant problems and suggested solutions.

Meanwhile, the way of life of India’s peasants has been affected not only by the array of governmental actions undertaken for such purposes, but also by the great growth of industry and over-all modernization of national life since the launching of the first five-year plan, covering 1951-1956. The proliferation of factories and workshops and an immense building program—new factories, government offices, schools, housing, roads, bridges, dams—have given jobs or supplementary income to millions of peasants.

Villagers are more aware of what is going on in the outside world, and they enjoy the spectacle of the city people coming to solicit their votes at election time. The hegemony of the upper-caste families within the village has been challenged. In parts of south India the Brahman landlords have been humiliated and forced out of their holdings. Throughout the countryside the spread of education has brought Untouchables’ sons and in some areas even their daughters into the schools. The foundations of traditional peasant society in India are being shaken.

Peasant economics

Most of the studies of peasant economic behavior have been carried out by persons trained in the classical and neoclassical economics developed in England, on the Continent, and in the United States. Quite naturally, the economists brought along with them the tools of their trade, the categories and concepts which they were used to working with. The underlying assumption—made explicit by a considerable number of writers—is that the prevailing economic theories and methods of the Western world are universally applicable. With suitable modifications, the argument goes, they can be utilized to explain the behavior of individual economic units in any society that has ever existed. Thus Firth, in his well-known analysis of the Tikopians in Polynesia, first explains that they have no market, no money, no cash nexus, no prices, no interest, and no “entrepreneur” class as such. Nonetheless, in default of any other suitable terms, he proceeds to analyze the behavior of the Tikopians as though they were entrepreneurs engaged in undertakings. If one man gets his neighbor to help him build a house, the first is taken as an entrepreneur who is employing the second. Similarly, Sol Tax writes of the petty traders of the Guatemalan highlands as “penny capitalists.”

When the “farm business” method is applied to analysis of peasant agriculture, the peasant’s land and livestock, equipment, and other goods are equated with those of a small firm. The peasant’s behavior is then treated in terms of the theory of the firm as developed for business enterprises. It is taken for granted that the peasant’s aim is to rationalize his operations so as to obtain the maximum profit. Accounts are drawn up for the agricultural year. The field work of the peasant’s wife, his children, his parents, and other relatives is evaluated at prevailing wages paid to hired laborers. Receipts from the sale of farm products, including an estimate of the value of food kept for the family, are totaled. Against these are set the costs incurred for agricultural purposes, which have been carefully separated out from the expenses of the family as a consumption unit. These costs of production include working expenses, rent actually paid or calculated from the value of the land owned, interest that could otherwise have been earned on the capital invested, and wages imputed for family labor. If these costs turn out to be greater than the receipts, the farm is said to be operating at a loss. If this situation goes on year after year, it is said to be an uneconomic farm. The problem then becomes one of trying to explain how peasants in countries like India, for example, go on for decade after decade engaging in so-called “uneconomic farming.”

This approach to peasant agriculture was challenged in the opening decades of the twentieth century by a group of Russian economists. The followers of the “organization and production” school—Kablukov, Kosinskii, Chelintsev, Makarov, Studenskii, and Chayanov—argued that the assumption that the peasant family should be treated as if it were a business enterprise was unsound and misleading. The primary aim of the peasant family is to feed itself and somehow manage to make whatever payments are due to the landlord, the moneylender, the merchant, or the state. The members of the peasant family have to eat throughout the year, whether or not they work. The actual work which they perform cannot be measured in money. If the family’s consumption needs and the other usual requirements are not satisfied, the members of the household will put in more labor, even if the additional product obtained is very small indeed. Similarly, the peasant family may rent or buy land at a very high price which would not be justified, according to normal business standards, by the value of the output they could hope to obtain from it. The peasants do this in order to be able to use the surplus labor of the family, which is freely available without any extra cost.

Chayanov and his colleagues insisted on treating the total returns garnered by family labor as indivisible. They analyzed the decisions of the head of the peasant household in terms of a balance between his judgment based on experience as to the total needs of the family and his subjective evaluation of the drudgery involved in agricultural work. After 1930 the work of this school was cut short in Russia, and it seems to have had little influence elsewhere except in Japan.


A number of somewhat different approaches to the study of peasant economics have utilized “subsistence” as the key concept. Whereas both the farm business or small entrepreneur method and the “organization and production” school concentrate on the individual peasant, subsistence has been examined on the “macro” as well as the “micro” level of analysis. Peasants who produce wholly or mainly for their own consumption are characterized as subsistence farmers, in sharp contrast to agriculturalists who produce for the market. Groups of villages, regions, or even whole countries (particularly with reference to the past) are presented as subsistence areas or subsistence economies. Sometimes we read of modern and subsistence sectors (often identified with different ethnic elements) within a country or an economy. It is also common to find discussions keyed to a threepart scheme: subsistence agriculture or economy, semisubsistence, and modern.

Generally speaking, writers who employ the term “subsistence” take as their standard of comparison the highly organized, mechanized, market-oriented agriculture of the great industrial nations. Subsistence tends to be denned negatively, by the complete absence of markets and accordingly of all commercial relations or incentives for increased production. But examples, of this purely subsistence agriculture are hard to find.

Semisubsistence fills in the gap as a transitional form between pure subsistence and the most advanced industrial economies. In practice, the largest number of historically known societies fall into this essentially teleological middle category.

Criteria of peasant societies

The present author has suggested another possible framework for studying peasant economy and society at the macrolevel. My interest is to identify whole states (either current or past) which can usefully be classed as predominantly peasant in nature. The next step, and one I believe would be fruitful, is to examine the process by which such societies have come into being, their life history, and the manner in which some have passed out of the ranks of peasant societies.

For the purpose of this analysis I have set forth five quantitative criteria that apply to the national level. (1) One half or more of the total production must be agricultural. (2) More than half of the working population must be engaged in agriculture. (3) There must be a state of at least a minimum size, and it must be organized on a territorial basis rather than as a tribal, kinship, or clan order. The administrative structure of such a state must comprise a total of at least five thousand officers, minor officials, flunkeys, and underlings. (4) A peasant society presupposes the existence of towns and a break between these towns and the countryside that is simultaneously political, economic, social, and cultural. The total urban population of the state should amount to at least half a million persons; alternatively, at least 5 per cent of the entire population of a peasant society should reside in towns. (5) The typical and most representative units of production must be family households which grow crops on their lands primarily by the physical effort of the members of these families. The household may include a slave or two, a domestic servant, or even a hired hand. But the total contribution of these nonfamily members to actual crop production must be much less than that of the family members. Half or more of all the crops grown in the society must be produced by households relying mainly on the labor of their own family members.

For the period of the past two hundred years at least 25 countries can be shown to have societies which meet all of these criteria. Many other national units, taken at different periods, will correspond only partially to this definition, but their deviations from it may also shed light on the dynamics of the constitution and dissolution of peasant societies.

Political role of the peasantry

The characteristic subjection of the peasantry in late medieval Europe gave way to sporadic uprisings and even some sustained revolts. This facet of peasant behavior has also been noted (to mention a few instances) in Tokugawa Japan, Manchu China, modern Mexico, and tsarist Russia, where major movements were led by Stenka Razin and Pugachev.

Almost always peasant uprisings have been marked by fury, desperation, and brutality. Once in motion the peasants have usually tried to destroy records, burn mansions, and, not uncommonly, put to death the landlords and their families. The upper classes have struck back ruthlessly. Because of their narrow horizons and limited resources, education, and military experience, peasants have been ill-fitted to organize and carry through successful revolts. By contrast, princes and landlords have been accustomed to the arts of politics and war. They have known how to divide a large peasant movement or overwhelm and destroy a small one. On the whole the peasants have paid dearly for their violent efforts to break their shackles.

After the French Revolution there arose a school of “romantic” political thought which idealized the peasantry as the center of conservatism in society as a whole, the stronghold of religion, and the seat of traditional values. Supporters of monarchy who wanted to stop the spread of democratic ideas exalted the peasant way of life as a counterpoise to the radical tendencies of the urban populations and called for its preservation.

Marxist views

From the opposite point of view, that of wishing to hasten the process of change, Marx and Engels concurred in conceiving of the peasantry as a bastion of reaction. Marx went so far as to term peasant life “rural idiocy.”

Marx and Engels bequeathed this prejudice to the socialist parties of western Europe. They also bequeathed to their followers the doctrine that peasant cultivation was inefficient because of the small size of the units and that it was foredoomed to be replaced by large-scale agriculture. In Marx’s eyes the growth of capitalism was certain, in the course of time, to break up the class of peasant proprietors, each with his own land, work animals, and implements. Some few of these independent proprietors would become capitalist employers relying upon hired labor to carry on their agriculture. Many more of them would lose their land and turn into agricultural proletarians who would have to go out and seek work as wage laborers.

As the socialist movement grew in Germany and France, the problem of its relation to the peasantry became pressing. To some of the socialist leaders, the process of the breakup of the peasantry which Marx had foreseen seemed to be occurring very slowly, if at all. Nonetheless, in the early 1890s, after Marx’s death, Engels insisted on the soundness of Marx’s analysis and his prediction. By his firmness on this point, Engels cut the ground out from under the socialist politicians of the day who were hoping to make an alliance with the peasantry against the landlords and industrialists.

The logical corollary of Marx and Engels’ position was that it would be wrong for the socialist parties to support measures designed to aid peasant agriculture. Such tactics could serve only to prolong artificially the existence of a stratum which was economically outmoded, socially backward, and politically conservative. Instead, the socialists should encourage the class demands of the agricultural laborers, who were the natural allies of the urban industrial workers.

Debate between Narodniks and Marxists

In tsarist Russia during the fifty years before the revolution of 1917, there took place a historic debate between the Narodniks and the Marxists. The Narodniks (Populists) believed that the mir, the typical Russian village community, was still a vital and flourishing institution. A striking feature of the mir, they held, was an old tradition of group activity in agriculture. It would be possible, the Narodniks argued, to build upon this already existing foundation and thus make a direct transition to a kind of Russian agrarian socialism without passing through a stage of capitalism.

Plekhanov and Lenin retorted that the unity of the village was a myth, since the rich and poor peasants were sharply divided by their class interests. In any case, capitalism could not be avoided, since it was already the dominant tendency in the Russian countryside as well as in the towns. The peasantry, according to Lenin, represented a form of petty-bourgeois independent production within the framework of an increasingly capitalist economy. Therefore, the class which was called upon by history to lead the way to the new socialist society was the militant industrial proletariat of the cities and not the peasants in their villages.

The peasantry as a revolutionary base

Recent decades have witnessed the development of a new and dramatically different Marxist evaluation of the political possibilities of the peasantry, particularly in reference to the Far East and Latin America. Mao Tse-tung and other communist leaders learned from their bitter experience in China in the mid-1920s how difficult it was to sustain a revolutionary movement that was centered on the city. In a country so large and so rural as China, the working classes of the towns were relatively feeble and thereby exposed to massive reprisals. The road to power, according to the theory which the Chinese communists elaborated, was no longer urban but rural. The base areas for the socialist revolution must be located in the countryside. There the discontented peasantry were to be organized, a politically conscious people’s army created, and guerrilla warfare waged until the time was ripe to shift to mobile warfare, encircle the big cities, and capture them. This new policy was not only enunciated by Mao Tse-tung but it was also effectively put into practice by the Chinese communists, who succeeded in carrying through a revolution relying much less on the industrial proletariat of the towns than on the peasant masses.

Influenced by the ideas of the Chinese and, closer to home, by the example of Fidel Castro in Cuba, guerrilla movements that are primarily peasant in composition have been organized by revolutionary parties in the rural areas of many countries in Latin America, notably Colombia, Venezuela, Guatemala, and Peru.

Folk society and folk culture

An important new series of contributions to the study of peasantry comes from the ethnologists and social anthropologists. In its early years as a discipline anthropology tended to emphasize the search for social origins. Field investigators accordingly directed their efforts toward studying the most primitive and most isolated human groups which could be discovered. Since World War n, in particular, anthropologists have greatly widened their sphere of interest and have produced literally hundreds of studies of peasant communities on all continents.

The shift from dealing with secluded entities about which little or no previous information was at hand to peasant villages embedded in countries with well-known cultures and long histories posed new problems of methodology and theory. One key question that the anthropologists found they had to grapple with was the place of the small community in the context of the society as a whole. They began to explore the extent to which the peasants shared in the “high” culture of the areas in which they lived and the extent to which they could be said to have a folk society, folk culture, or folk religion of their own. Redfield, in his work on Mexico, was one of the first to call attention to this relationship between the little community and the larger world, the small and the great traditions. Later studies have explored more complicated patterns of interconnection of village and national culture, as found, for example, in India.

The spread of modern industrial society as a world-wide phenomenon is changing the conditions of life for the peasantry every day. It may be unwise, however, to expect any early disappearance of the peasants from the international scene. For more than one hundred years we have been told that the peasantry is doomed, and we have been presented with exhaustive lists of the hardships which plague peasants. Nonetheless, they and their problems are still very much with us. The lasting power of the peasantry should not be underestimated.

Daniel Thorner

[See alsoAsian Society, article onSoutheast Asia; Economy, Dual; Land; Land Tenure; Modernization; Village; and the guide underAgriculture.]


AugÉ-LaribÉ, Michael 1955 La revolution agricole. Paris: Michel. → A comprehensive discussion of the modern era, including a valuable bibliography.

Bloch, Marc (1931) 1952-1956 Les caracteres originaux de Vhistoire rurale frangaise. 2 vols. New ed. Paris: Colin. Volume 2, Supplement etabli d’apres les travaux de Vauteur: (1931-1944), was written by Robert Dauvergne; it is one of the most influential discussions of how best to treat the broad evolution of the French peasantry. An English translation was published in 1966 by the University of California Press as French Rural History: An Essay on Its Basic Characteristics.

The Cambridge Economic History of Europe From the Decline of the Roman Empire. 1941 Cambridge Univ. Press. → The most authoritative work on the subject, with a magnificent bibliography. A second, revised edition is in preparation.

Chayanov, A. V. 1966 The Theory of Peasant Economy. Edited by Daniel Thorner, B. Kerblay, and R. E. F. Smith. Homewood, III.: Irwin. → A major theoretical work and important synthesis of Russian research from the 1880s to the 1920s.

Desai, Akshayakumar R. (editor) (1953) 1961 Rural Sociology in India. 3d ed., rev. & enl. Bombay: Indian Society of Agricultural Economics. → First published as Introduction to Rural Sociology in India. A comprehensive collection of readings.

Dore, Ronald P. 1959 Land Reform in Japan. London and New York: Oxford Univ. Press. → The best treatment of the subject; based on field work.

Duby, Georges 1962 L’economie rurale et la vie des campagnes dans Voccident medieval (France, Angleterre, Empire, IXe-XVe siecles): Essai de synthese et perspectives de recherches. 2 vols. Paris: Aubier. → A good account of the peasantry in the medieval world; it reprints in French much source material and has an excellent bibliography.

Eicher, Carl; and Witt, Lawrence (editors) 1964 Agriculture in Economic Development. New York: McGraw-Hill. → A useful collection of readings on post-1945 developments.

Fei, Hsiao-T’ung (1939) 1962 Peasant Life in China: A Field Study of Country Life in the Yangtze Valley. London: Routledge. → A classic study by one of Malinowski’s students.

Firth, Raymond W. (1939) 1965 Primitive Polynesian Economy. 2d ed. Hamden, Conn.: Shoe String Press. → Primitive Polynesians as seen by an anthropologist trained in neoclassical economics.

Firth, Raymond; and Yamey, B. S. (editors) 1964 Capital, Saving, and Credit in Peasant Societies: Studies From Asia, Oceania, the Caribbean and Middle America. London: Allen & Unwin; Chicago: Aldine. → Attempts to apply the concepts of neoclassical microeconomics to primitive and peasant peoples.

Forde, Daryll 1956 Primitive Economics. Pages 330-344 in Harry L. Shapiro (editor), Man, Culture, and Society. Oxford Univ. Press. → Perhaps the best brief discussion of the subject; written in collaboration with Mary Douglas.

Franklin, S. H. 1962 Reflections on the Peasantry. Pacific Viewpoint (Wellington) 3, no. 1:1-26.

Furnivall, John S. (1939) 1944 Netherlands India: A Study of Plural Economy. Cambridge Univ. Press. → Applies and broadens J. H. Boeke’s theory of the dual economy.

Gerschenkron, Alexander 1943 Bread and Democracy in Germany. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press. → A succinct discussion of the controversy among the German socialists on the peasant question.

Hobsbawm, E. J. (1959) 1963 Primitive Rebels: Studies in Archaic Forms of Social Movement in the 19th and 20th Centuries. 2d ed. New York: Praeger. → A highly suggestive discussion of peasant movements under the impact of rising capitalism.

Institute of Pacific Relations 1939 Agrarian China: Selected Source Materials From Chinese Authors. London: Allen & Unwin.

Kautsky, Karl 1899 Die Agrarfrage: Eine Ubersicht iiber die Tendenzen der modernen Landwirtschaft und die Agrarpolitik der Sozialdemokratie. Stuttgart: Dietz. → The classic discussion from the point of view of orthodox Marxism.

Koninklijk Institut Voor De Tropen 1961 Indonesian Economics: The Concept of Dualism in Theory and Policy. Edited by W. F. Wertheim et al. The Hague: Van Hoeve. → Presents J. H. Boeke’s theory of the dual economy and criticisms of it by Dutch authors.

Lenin, Vladimir I. (1899) 1960 The Development of Capitalism in Russia: The Process of the Formation of a Home Market for Large-scale Industry. Volume 3, pages 23-607 in Vladimir I. Lenin, Collected Works. 4th ed. Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House. → Lenin’s first and most comprehensive book on the peasantry.

Lewis, Oscar 1951 Life in a Mexican Village: Tepoztlan Restudied. Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press. → Study of a Mexican village after land reform.

Lichtheim, George (1961) 1964 Marxism: An Historical and Critical Study. 2d ed., rev. London: Routledge. → A paperback edition was published in 1962 by Praeger. See especially Part 5 for a useful discussion of Kautsky and the peasant question.

Marriott, Mckim (editor) 1955 Village India: Studies in the Little Community. Univ. of Chicago Press. → Also published as Memoir No. 83 of the American Anthropological Association, which was issued asAmerican Anthropologist, Volume 57, No. 3, Part 2, June 1955.

Mitrany, David 1951 Marx Against the Peasant: A Study in Social Dogmatism. Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press. → A paperback edition was published in 1962 by Collier. A critique of Marx and a good illustration of the point of view of Balkan peasant parties.

Moore, Barrington JR. 1966 Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Lord and Peasant in the Making of the Modern World. Boston: Beacon. An unusually comprehensive discussion of the role of peasantry in modern Europe and Asia, including an excellent bibliography.

Redfield, Robert 1956 Peasant Society and Culture: An Anthropological Approach to Civilization. Univ. of Chicago Press. → A paperback edition, bound together withThe Little Community, was published in 1961 by Cambridge University Press.

Sorokin, Pitirim A.; Zimmerman, Carle C ; and Galpin, Charles J. (editors) (1930-1932) 1965 A Systematic Source Book in Rural Sociology. 3 vols. New York: Russell. → Presents perhaps the best set of readings on the peasantry available up to 1931.

Thorner, Daniel 1965 Peasant Economy as a Category in Economic History. Pages 287-300 in International Conference on Economic History, Second, Aix-en-Provence, 1962, Contributions. The Hague and Paris: Mouton.

Volin, Lazar 1960 The Russian Peasant: From Emancipation to Kolkhoz. Pages 292-311 in Cyril E. Black (editor), The Transformation of Russian Society: Aspects of Social Change Since 1861. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press. → A useful summary of a vast literature.

Warriner, Doreen (1939) 1965 The Economics of Peasant Farming. 2d ed. New York: Barnes & Noble. → Focuses on eastern Europe in the 1930s, with an important new preface surveying postwar developments.

Wolf, Eric R. 1966 Peasants. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall. → A compact synthesis by an anthropologist.


views updated May 29 2018


PEASANTRY. The existence of a European peasantry did not change fundamentally between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, but during those three hundred years significant shifts in the status, occupation, and livelihood of peasants occurred at various times and places. Generally speaking, the fortunes of Europe's agriculturalists conformed to a cycle of upswing until the later sixteenth century, followed by depression or even crisis, which lasted in some parts of Europe until the late seventeenth century, to be succeeded by a recovery in the eighteenth. Although Europe's peasantries had been the prisoners of Malthusian checkswith war, famine, and disease serving to restore a population in danger of outgrowing available resources to a new homeostatic balanceby the eighteenth century substantial and sustainable population growth in the countryside was being achieved by means of improved crop rotations, the planting of new crops (not least potatoes, which in many instances replaced grain as the staple of subsistence), and some technological innovations. But the pace of change was slow and incremental: there was no "agricultural revolution," and it is doubtful whether changes in the rural economy were responsible in any direct fashion for the supposed industrial revolution of the nineteenth century. Rather, the increased stratification of rural society, above all the emergence of a sizeable class of cottars and landless, which is an almost universal feature of early modern Europe, created pressures for employment that were often satisfied by the rise of "proto-industries" based in the countryside; the alternative, especially in much of southern Europe, was seasonal mass migration into towns, with peasants returning to their fields during the months of plowing, sowing, and harvesting.


Two contrary strands can be observed in the pattern of farm-holding peasants' stake in the land after 1500: their rights of tenancy became generally more secure, even if hereditary leases were often reduced to term-leases, but their possession of the land (outright ownership was rare) was progressively eroded by nobles' and bourgeois' acquiring extensive estates, on which the peasants might continue as rent-paying smallholders, but where they were frequently employed as wage-laborers or obliged to enter into sharecropping agreements. The classic instance is France, where generally favorable rights of tenancy were powerless to prevent a decline in peasant landholding in the face of purchases by the administrative nobility (noblesse de robe), so that by the eighteenth century peasants held no more than one-third of the land. A similar tale unfolded in southern Italy, though here it was nobles of the blood who became major latifundistas. On a parallel track, in Spain the common land (forest and pasture) at the disposal of the peasant community was sold to meet growing tax demands; after 1570, 40 percent of commons, known as baldíos, were alienated, ending up in the hands of the aristocracy or the church, which came to own two-thirds of all agricultural land in the peninsula. Secure rights of tenure were to be found in parts of the Holy Roman Empire (with peasants holding up to 90 percent of the land in western Germany, around 70 percent in Austria, and even 60 percent east of the Elbe River in Brandenburg), as well as in much of Scandinavia, or elseunder a commercial agrarian regimein parts of the Low Countries (where hereditary leases were common, even if farms were often very small), and in Catalonia. In England, where the yeoman paying a market-determined ground rent to a capitalist landlord is supposed to have displaced the traditional peasant, customary tenures of manorial provenance in fact persisted well into the seventeenth century. The beginnings of capitalist agriculture were as likely to be driven by such peasants (who in any case had long been able to dispose of their customary tenancies on the open market) as by freeholders or "yeoman" leaseholders. Indeed, contrary to received opinion, security of tenure may have stimulated a land market and agricultural investment by peasants, as has been argued for western Brabant within the orbit of Antwerp, or for many areas of France, where village elites embraced specialized crops and complex crop rotations.

The efforts by landlords to shorten leases after 1500, however, can be seen in France, in Italy (where short-term contracts replaced customary leases), or in Spain (though emphyteutic leases, that is, perpetual leases at fixed rents, were common in the north), and, under a harsher sign, in the German lands east of the Elbe, where hereditary tenures were relegated to leases revocable at will. Although the boundaries between areas of partible and impartible inheritance customs throughout Europe barely shifted over the centuries, landlords in southern Germany, a region poised between the two, showed some willingness after 1500 to encourage impartibility in place of equal division of the farm and its inventory among the heirs, not least in order to underpin the peasantry as a fiscal and economic resource. An ideological variant of this policy was pursued by the Austrian Habsburg rulers of the Tyrol, who, in one alpine valley on the linguistic borderland with Italy, promoted impartibility among their ethnic German full-holding peasants in order to shore up their role as local agents of state policy, but who allowed their Romance-speaking subjects, an underclass of cottars and migrants, to cleave to partibility. Where partibility was practiced (as in all of Mediterranean Europe), the size of farms tended to decline; in France, most holdings were less than five hectares (about twelve acres), with up to 90 percent of the rural population having to seek alternative employment as manual laborers. But the consequence was not invariably the rise of a rural proletariat, as shown by the example of western Germany, where the manpower required by agrarian regimes such as viticulture could absorb (at least seasonally) the labor of members of the peasant household otherwise destined for impoverishment.


After 1500 the burdens and restrictions upon European peasants are held to have followed two sharply diverging paths: the disappearance of servile obligations in the west, whether negotiated or achieved by popular resistance (as in the remenças revolt in Old Catalonia before 1486), and their intensification in northeastern and east-central Europe. Although broadly accurate, this verdict is open to misinterpretation. It elides the distinction between personal and tenurial serfdom: even in England, where serfdom is supposed to have vanished by 1500, the East Anglian rebels in Kett's Rebellion of 1549 well knew the difference between bondmen and "bondy lands."

Forms of tenurial unfreedom persisted in parts of northwestern Germany, while in southern Germany lords before and after 1500 deployed personal or residential serfdom as an instrument to consolidate small or fragmented territories. East of the Elbe, by contrast, a "second serfdom" became prevalent, whose hallmark has been taken as hereditary personal subjection, placing severe restrictions upon movement and marriage, ultimately coupled with onerous labor-services and the expropriation of peasant farms. In fact, the origins of a revived serfdom in eastern Europe were identical to those in the west: the lords' attempts against the background of the late medieval demographic and economic downturn to find tenants for abandoned farmsteads. Only gradually and much later, in the seventeenth century, did serfdom as a personal disability with degrading connotations become widespread, often, but not always, linked to the rise of large cereal-producing commercial latifundia under aristocratic control, which relied upon the corvées of unpaid (sometimes paid) forced labor. But a settled peasantry, working its own farms, by no means disappeared east of the Elbe; demesne farming, with attendant labor-services, was slow to develop, especially in Russia (in Belarus it was even abandoned in the later seventeenth century in the wake of the Northern Wars). Moreover, in the case of Denmark, labor services on demesne estates were embedded in a form of personal subjection (vornedskab) that granted peasants security of tenure but no freedom to move.


The image of peasants as possessing tenants, farming their lands with family labor within a nuclear household, underwent much retouching in early modern Europe. In many areas peasants turned their hand to alternative employment such as rural crafts or petty dealing, to the point where, as with the maritime provinces of the northern Netherlands, a traditional peasantry is supposed to have disappearedor, rather, to have subsisted as one rural class alongside other groups no longer defined by agricultural livelihoods. The marked recovery in European population from the late fifteenth century onward certainly put pressure on land and resources, squeezing the chances of heirs inheriting farms that were viable in their own right, yet the spread of rural manufacturing and the growth of an underclass of landless or wage-working hired hands were not, contrary to expectations, seriously interrupted by the renewed economic and demographic calamities of the early seventeenth century. In some areas the need for peasant by-employment was obviously shaped by ecological constraints independent of secular cycles (the harsh climate of Scandinavia, for instance, or the poor soils of upland Castile). In others, such as many parts of Germany, France, northern Italy, and, somewhat later, Russia, a dense urban network together with constraints on manufacturing capacity within towns created a demand for goods that could be produced more cheaply and flexibly in the countryside, commonly through outwork by means of the "putting-out system." Urban capitalists and entrepreneurs advanced money, raw materials, or tools of trade to dependent piece-workers ("outworkers") in return for delivery of finished or semi-finished goods. Such a system was particularly applied to the production of textileslinen, fustian (a linen/cotton blend, which required merchants north of the Alps to supply Mediterranean cotton to peasants who locally could only grow flax), the woolen and worsted "new draperies," or silk.

But a distinction needs to be drawn between such put-out by-employments, controlled by urban entrepreneurs, and the subsequent growth of genuine proto-industries in the countryside that were able to flourish precisely because they evaded urban supervision (as with Italian silk-weaving, or Bohemian and Silesian textile production). State authorities did not always look kindly upon unregulated rural manufacturing; in France, the textile boom of the sixteenth century gave way to decline in the seventeenth, as state manufactories were set up with strict quality controls. Nevertheless, no matter how far the peasant economy was penetrated by crafts and manufacturing, the essential structure of peasant society remained unaltered (barring the northern Netherlands, and ultimately, for different reasons, England). A switch to the secondary sector and production for market should not be taken as automatic solvents of the peasant household and economy; indeed, it has been argued (for France and the southern Netherlands, for instance) that such diversification provided the very safety-valve that allowed traditional peasant social structures to survive.

From the time of the late medieval economic depression onward, these influences set their stamp on the peasant economy as a whole. There were few regions of Europe that did not witness a diversification into new crops, especially fodder plants grown as catch crops (so-called green manures), which restored nitrogen to the soil, and the cultivation of industrial crops such as flax, dyestuffs (saffron and madder, but especially woad) and, by the seventeenth century, tobacco. The initiative for the development of commercial farming lay as often as not with the peasants themselves, especially in urbanized areas such as the Low Countries, where a ready-made consumer market and good communications (via canals, and latterly paved roads) enabled peasants with holdings of five hectares or less to survive and prosper, not least because they were able to raise crop yields appreciably. A similar story unfolded in Catalonia, where advanced agriculture benefited from the stimulus of Barcelona as a major outlet. In both cases, the resilience of a diversified peasant agriculture was underpinned by long-term leases and moderate ground rents. The advantages of land drainage and reclamation, moreover, so evident in the Low Countries, were matched elsewhere, as in the Lombard plain, by irrigation systems that allowed peasants to dispense with fallowing altogether. The prevalence in much of northern Italy of intercropping or particulture (coltura promiscua), with grain, olives, and vines grown intermingled, allowed peasants to seize regionally or seasonally varying market opportunities and so to spread their risk.

Nevertheless, such agrarian regimes were often managed by sharecropping, in which a proportion of the harvest (usually half) was surrendered to a bourgeois or noble landowner. The general verdict on sharecropping, whether in France (where it was prevalent beyond the northern cereal-growing plains), Iberia, or Italy, is entirely negative: it is regarded as economically backward, encouraging risk-aversion, and a lack of investment and innovation. While it is possible to qualify this verdict (especially for parts of Lombardy), there is no denying that agricultural diversification as such, whatever its initial responsiveness to market demand, might in certain circumstances prove a blind alley. But it posed less of a hazard to the autonomous peasant household than the appearance in early modern Europe of latifundia, large estates devoted to agricultural specialization (usually a cereal monoculture), which sprang up in southern Italy, Iberia, and above all in east Elbia. Here large sections of the peasantry were reduced to the status of laborers, with little economic independence (though in Spain latifundistas also resorted to sharecropping), a development that might lead to enserfment (east of the Elbe), but need not (as in the Mediterranean). The fortunes of the peasantry of early modern Europe were in the end adversely affected, not so much by the accumulation of land in the hands of noble or ecclesiastical magnates as such, as by the latter's unwillingness to invest in their huge estates (unlike the aristocracy in England), preferring instead the life of the rentier, who viewed his lands as a vehicle of social prestige.


By the late sixteenth century, however, peasants in many countries of Europe were faced with an additional threat: the burden of state taxation. The costs of war, bureaucracy, and representation fell most severely on the mass of the population as peasants, except in England (where the aristocracy was not exempt from taxation) and the northern Low Countries (where commerce was taxed and towns obliged to purchase state loans). The level of public taxation was already rising before 1500 (provoking tax revolts in Italy, for instance), but it was in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that the state's fiscal appetite unleashed popular uprisings across a broad swathe of EuropeFrance, Italy again, the German lands (especially in the north), and Russia, where up to half the peasants' income was swallowed up by the state in the wake of Ivan the Terrible's wars. But there was another side to this coin. Rulers were often just as concerned to protect their peasants for reasons of state: Bauernschutz, the maintenance of viable peasant households with a measure of civil legal protection, was practiced by the Austrian Habsburgs, not least on their mortgaged estates where state revenues must not be allowed to diminish by destructive exploitation of the peasantry, and in Brandenburg-Prussia, notwithstanding the spread of serfdom. And that policy was extended to the peasant commune itself, which, contrary to older views, was far from crushed east of the Elbe; in Russia, it was actively promoted by the tsars as an agent of local policing in a country vast and difficult to govern. The peasant household and commune indeed became upholders of social discipline and morals at the village level, as the welter of "housefather" literature in western Germany attests. At all times in early modern Europe, lordship, state authority, could only be exercised effectively with, rather than simply over, peasants, who remained the bedrock of ancien régime society.

See also Agriculture ; Capitalism ; Class, Status, and Order ; Feudalism ; Landholding ; Rentiers ; Serfdom ; Serfdom in East Central Europe ; Serfdom in Russia .


DuPlessis, Robert S. Transitions to Capitalism in Early Modern Europe. Cambridge, U.K., 1997.

Epstein, Stephan R., ed. Town and Country in Europe, 13001800. Cambridge, U.K., 2001.

Hoppenbrouwers, Peter, and Jan Luiten van Zanden, eds. Peasants into Farmers? The Transformation of Rural Economy and Society in the Low Countries (Middle Ages19th Century) in the Light of the Brenner Debate. Turnhout, Belgium, 2001.

Kriedte, Peter. Peasants, Landlords and Merchant Capitalists: Europe and the World Economy, 15001800. Leamington Spa, U.K., 1983.

Langton, John. "The Origins of the Capitalist World Economy." In Companion Encyclopedia of Geography: The Environment and Humankind, edited by Ian Douglas, Richard Huggett, and Mike Robinson, pp. 206227. London and New York, 1996.

Ogilvie, Sheilagh C., and Markus Cerman, eds. European Proto-Industralization: An Introductory Handbook. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1996.

Overton, Mark. Agricultural Revolution in England: The Transformation of the Agrarian Economy, 15001850. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1996.

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

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

Völgyes, Ivan, ed. The Peasantry of Eastern Europe. New York, 1979.

Wallerstein, Immanuel M. The Modern World-System. Vol. 1, Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the World-Economy in the Sixteenth Century. New York, 1974.

Tom Scott


views updated May 21 2018





Peasantry refers to peoples and communities who are peasants. The modern English term peasant comes from French and Latin terms referring to residents of an administrative district. In modern times the term has come to refer primarily to small-scale agriculturalists who live in villages and small towns in rural areas. Peasant communities are typically based economically on the cultivation of grains and other high yielding plant foods. Wheat, barley, and oats were first domesticated in the area where Syria, Palestine, and adjacent areas of Northern Iraq are now located and the first peasants appeared in Ancient Mesopotamia (present day Iraq).

The basis of peasant agriculture began with varieties of rice and wheat in Asia, corn and beans in what is now Southern Mexico, and potatoes in the Central Andes (Peru). The grains of Mesopotamia spread into Europe; rice spread into other areas of Asia; the cultivation of corn and beans spread north and south from their centers of origin; and potatoes and some grains domesticated in the Central Andes spread throughout the Andean region. These areas became the bases for the growth of peasantries. Peasants typically produce their crops with simple technology in which the work is done by human labor and the use of farm animals. Unlike farmers who usually employ some hired labor to cultivate large crops primarily for sale in markets, peasants are typically small-scale producers who consume much of each crop that they produce.

The rise of the first civilizations and the economies of most urban areas throughout history were primarily dependent in three ways on rural peasantries. The first way was for food. Due mainly to market systems and taxation, surplus peasant production was typically transferred from rural production areas to towns and cities where food was consumed by non-peasants. The second way in which urban areas were dependent on peasants was demographic. Prior to the development of modern public health practices in the nineteenth century, more people tended to die in cities than were born in them. Throughout history peasants have tended to have relatively high death rates, but have offset their death rate by an even higher birth rate. But due mainly to the inability of peasant communities to economically support growing populations, some percentage of every generation typically migrated to cities and maintained urban populations or caused them to grow. The third form of urban dependency on peasants was for labor. When peasants migrated into cities, they usually occupied the lowest rungs of the social order and provided much of the cities manual labor and menial services.


An essential component in the sociology, economics, and politics of peasants is the way in which they are positioned in relation to non-peasants. In terms of social class relations, peasants tend to be at or near the lower end of socioeconomic hierarchies and related to non-peasants by forms of uneven exchange whereby they render up more economic value to non-peasants than they receive in exchange. One of the basic features that make possible such uneven exchange between peasants and non-peasants is land tenure. The political importance of land tenure to peasants is expressed in the slogan of the Mexican Revolution, Tierra y Libertad, which signals that access to land (tierra) takes precedence over liberty (libertad).

Because they make their living as small-scale cultivators, peasants must have access to land on which to grow crops and raise animals. There is wide variation in the legal, political, and economic aspects of land tenure. The concept of private property, in which land can be bought and sold in a real estate market, is a modern concept. Throughout history it has been common for peasants to live on and work land that is controlled by non-peasants and to whom the peasants are politically subordinate. In non-capitalist state societies the land is typically controlled by a central government that levies taxes on its rural communities. In many other societies, peasant lands are controlled by landlords who charge rent.

State governments also extract surplus from peasants in a number of ways. One of the most common ways is taxation on the crops that the peasants produce or on the land that they use. But taxation of peasants also takes other forms. For example, the monumental architecture of ancient societies, such as the great pyramids of Egypt and Mexico, were built mainly by peasants who had to work on them, typically without pay or other compensation. In feudal societies, peasants may have labor obligations to their lords, whereby they are required to work so many days each year on their farmland or render other services to their landlords. Sharecropping is another form of rent, whereby peasants are given access to land controlled by a landlord, who then receives some fraction of each crop that the peasants working that land produce. In economies with well-developed markets, the peasants may sell part of their harvests to raise money to pay their rents or taxes. In some societies, peasants are required to work lands of the government and also possibly render other services. Also, until recently, peasant conscripts were required to do military service in the armies of kingdoms and states, and of feudal lords. Indeed, until modern times, most of the rank and file members of armies have been of peasant origin.


Peasants periodically rise up against the lords and governments that impose taxes and rent and other forms of uneven economic exchange on them. However, the potential for peasant rebellions and political organizing in general is often weakened by internal competition and distrust, which is a result of struggle for scarce resources within peasant communities. Indeed, it was these characteristics that moved German revolutionary Karl Marx (18181883) to refer to peasants as like potatoes in a sack ([1852] 1972) implying that they were too individualistically oriented to organize as revolutionaries.

But peasantries have on a number of occasions been involved in large-scale regional and national rebellions and revolutions. For example, from 1524 to 1526 German peasants in Franconia, Swabia, and Thuringia joined with impoverished town dwellers (many of whom were no doubt of peasant origin) to mount the Peasant War, to redress exploitive relations with non-peasants. This movement was largely unsuccessful, but peasants have been major actors in other major conflicts that have had varied outcomes in the twentieth century, such as the Mexican and Russian Revolutions, the formation of contemporary China, and the Vietnam War of independence against France and the United States.

Until the mid-twentieth century, most of the worlds population could be characterized as peasant, but since that time peasant communities have tended to become more complex, due largely to ever increasing rates of permanent and circular migration from agricultural communities to urban areas. It became common for many formerly-peasant households to be largely dependent on seasonal migration of some of their members who seek salaried work or self-employment. Much of this migration is across national borders, typically from areas and nations of lesser to higher levels of economic development. Such high rates of migration have increased social, economic, and cultural complexity in formerly peasant communities.

SEE ALSO Agricultural Economics; Agricultural Industry; Common Land; Dual Economy; Land Claims; Land Reform; Landlords; Lewis, W. Arthur; Maximization; Subsistence Agriculture


Kearney, Michael. 1996. Reconceptualizing the Peasantry: Anthropology in Global Perspective. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Marx, Karl. [1852] 1972. The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. New York: International Publishers.

Nagengast, Carole. 1991. Reluctant Socialists, Rural Entrepreneurs: Class, Culture, and the Polish State. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Otero, Gerardo. 1999. Farewell to the Peasantry: Political Class Formation in Rural Mexico. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Shanin, Teodor, ed. 1987. Peasants and Peasant Societies, 2nd ed. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Wolf, Eric. 1966. Peasants. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Michael Kearney


views updated Jun 08 2018



Survival . The Middle Ages (earlier known as the Dark Ages) refers in Europe to a period that started with the precarious survival of enough men and women to reproduce themselves. The feat to keep its numbers up against malnutrition, poor hygiene, parasitic infections, and disease in order to cultivate the land and support a new generation so that they could carry on the societal groups and reproduce themselves was, as late as 1000, hard for the medieval populace. The natural hostilities of climate made many a poor infant defenseless with a mortality rate of several hundred per thousand. Many adults’ lives were brought to an end in their thirties by death from war or disease. Yet, medieval Europeans were not wiped out because after 814 there was a remarkable economic growth that was to make Western Europe a rich and powerful part of the world.

Earning a Living . At first, earning a living during the Middle Ages was limited to “those who worked” and “those who fought.” The Christian Church, however, rapidly interposed its institutions within this context, making “those who prayed,” particularly in the monastic setting, a part of the medieval economy of the ninth century.

Farming . To earn their livelihood, medieval peasants simply worked from sunrise to sunset. Peasant life followed the seasons and most of the already time-honored practices of cultivating fields: preparing the land, sowing, cutting, and stocking the grain, and usually threshing and winnowing it, since they grew predominantly wheat-type grains for food. In spring the peasants raked and planted seed for grain. From summer into early fall was weeding, haying, and harvest time for fathers, mothers, sons, and daughters, on their land and the lord’s, cutting the crop with scythes and turning it with rakes. Sheep were left to graze on fallow areas. For women there was the milking of the cows and the feeding of the chickens at home. Some women made ale to quench the thirst of the field laborers. During the winter, peasants stayed indoors. They made candles, wove cloth, and did other tasks.

Technological Transformations . Two technological transformations in medieval agriculture by about 800—a new horse collar, rigid yet padded such that the animal would not strangle itself as soon as it began to pull with significant force, and the integration of the heavy plow—altered somewhat the previously habitual routines. The heavy plow added plowing to the spring tasks and led in particular to the arduous task of bringing more land under cultivation. The peasantry cut down forests and removed bushes and briars to clear vast new areas of land for farming. A slowly integrated technique of dividing all the land of a single estate into communally worked fields also had an impact on peasant livelihood. Eventually across Europe, each community of peasants worked two or three large fields in rotation. One would be planted with wheat or rye in the fall and a second left uncultivated to lie fallow; a third was sown with oats, barley, or legumes in the spring.

Husbandry . Work in the fields was fundamentally physical and hard. Some aspects of the exhausting toil of the medieval peasant were diminished by the exploitation of both water- and windpower to raise water and grind grain, as well as to drive trip-hammers and saws. By 1300, with agricultural surpluses available, a part of the peasantry specialized in sheep and pig raising. In southern France, northern Spain, and in England in the Cotswolds and East Anglia, herds ranged in size from fifty to a thousand head. In most regions an amount more than a thousand head was so large that the sheep or pig herders needed to move them from one foraging area to another, beginning in some areas the seasonal practice of transhumance.

Peasant Home . The medieval peasant lived within a cluster of small houses in a village, often with its own church, blacksmith’s shop, and mill, all of which was owned by the lord of the land. Each house was a simple single-room, single-story, high-roofed structure. At the center of the room was an open-hearth fire on the packed-earth floor; it vented through a hole in the roof. The term hut is often used to describe the peasant home, perhaps to evoke the fragility of its construction from

readily available, often highly flammable materials, including a thatched straw roof, unsupported by roof trussing until the thirteenth century. Most peasant houses had to be rebuilt by every new generation. At the back of their house many peasants had a rudely constructed shed or lean-to. Behind the house and shed was a stretch of enclosed piece of ground. This was usually broken up and planted with vegetables. Both at the immediate back and in the rough grass beyond, there would be a few fruit trees. At the bottom of the garden there might be a pigsty or pecking space for a few fowl. The fortunate peasant might have a cow tethered at the base of the garden grazing on the naturally growing grasses.

Food Consumption . Peasants ate at least two meals a day, using wooden or earthenware bowls and wooden spoons. In addition to the staples of the diet—bread, pottage, or porridge—peasant fare, which was hardly lavish, consisted of oatcakes, cheeses, and perhaps the odd chicken. The bread, a dark loaf of four or more pounds weight, was made of maslin, a coarse wheat-rye or barley-rye flour mixture. The vegetables a peasant grew would be available in a variety in spring and summer: cabbage, onions, lettuce, leeks, spinach, and parsley. There was also the seasonal fruit from his trees: apples, pears, and cherries. Peas, beans, eggs, and the occasional fish supplied the only protein. There was meat only rarely, since the livestock that was raised was most often used to pay rent and other obligations. Animals that were not needed for breeding were killed every winter, since over the winter there was little spare hay from the meadow left to feed other animals after giving the plow team of four to eight oxen its daily rations. Animals that survived the winter by remaining on the common pasture were apparently not the most appetizing. One medieval observer declared that if he had to choose between the meat and the hide, he would eat the hide.

Clothing . Their clothing, which varied little throughout the whole of the Middle Ages, unlike that of the urban dwellers, which changed with fashion, gave the peasantry a characteristic appearance. It consisted, for women, of long loose gowns of rough material, belted at the waist, with wimples to cover the head. For men, the attire was a short tunic and either short, below-the-knee stockings or long hose, which fastened to the waist belt. A hood or cloth cap covered the male head. The peasant man also would have had coarse gloves or mittens and heavy leather shoes, while his wife might well have had neither. This discrepancy in protective clothing ought not perhaps be surprising, for Peter Lombard, a twelfth-century theologian, had to remind Christians that, while God had indeed made Eve from Adam’s rib and not his head, he had also not created her from Adam’s foot, as a slave. Women of every station were obliged, once married, to look after the home, “cooking, sweeping, cleaning pans”; peasant women had, however, the additional challenge of helping their husbands look after the home,

Written Documentation . Accounts of peasants who spoke for or about themselves are virtually nonexistent. To thirteenth-century contemporaries who did write of the peasantry from a certain distance, several dispositions are echoed as if characteristic. From the description of one author, medieval peasants were frequently overwhelmed by the conditions of life: “Her cake is burning on the [hearth] stone, and her calf is licking up the milk. The pot is boiling over into the fire, and the churl her husband is scolding.” At the same time, peasants were also described as dealing with their lot in life with great equanimity: when the bread was of common grain or of beans, and their drink, of the spring, when cheese and milk were their only feast, with their garments of sober gray, “the world of such folk [was] well ordered in its estate.” Perhaps the most realistic general description stems from a clergyman who did not push beyond his scorn for the dissipations of the peasantry to analyze their difficult home life or their stamina to face it. In simply condemning their enjoyment of “idle play and japes, carolings, making of fool countenances, … [giving] gifts to jongleurs to hear idle tales, … smiting, wrestling, in other doings of strength,” he did more than he realized perhaps to evoke their need for such pleasures.


Marc Bloch, Feudal Society (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961).

G. G. Coulton, Medieval Village, Manor, and Monastery (New York: Harper, 1960).

Georges Duby, Rural Economy and Country Life in the Medieval West (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1968).

Duby, The Three Orders: Feudal Society Imagined, translated by Arthur Goldhammer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980).

Barbara A. Hanawalt, The Ties that Bound: Peasant Families in Medieval England (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986).

David Herlihy, Medieval Households (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1985).

M. M. Postan, E. E. Rich, and Edward Miller, eds., The Cambridge Economic History of Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985).

Shulamith Shahar, The Fourth Estate: A History of Women in the Middle Ages (London & New York: Methuen, 1983).


views updated Jun 11 2018


The original agriculturists of the northern Eurasian plain lived a communal, seminomadic existence, based on slash-and-burn cultivation. By the time of Kievan Rus, the defining characteristics of a peasantry were in already in evidence: an agricultural population bound by trade and tribute to a wider world, but in an incomplete and dependent way. Princes imposed taxes and compulsory services, but only with the rise of Muscovy (from the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries) were peasants enserfed permanently bound to their lords or lands. Despite periodic revolts, this condition continued until 1861.

Peter I inaugurated a campaign of Westernization that imitated European modes of life and government. Perhaps ironically, in an age when Western Europe was abandoning serfdom, these initiatives increased the exploitation, as well as the traditionalism, of Russian peasants. St. Petersburg's Italianate palaces were built with conscripted peasant labor, and Russia's new Western-style army and bureaucracy were supported by a range of new taxes, among them the "soul tax" that was now demanded of peasants on top of the dues they paid their lords. Exploitation, however, was often indirect. The village commune (obshchina ) distributed lands and obligations among its members, serving as a buffer between peasants and the outside world.

Although peasants generally regarded the cities and the Europeanized elite with suspicion, they were not totally isolated from urban society. Permanently bound to the soil, they could still depart temporarily to earn money in crafts, trade, or wage employment. In some provinces more than half the adult males engaged in work away from villages. A few even became millionaires.

Peasant agriculture flourished among the Slavic (and mainly Orthodox Christian) population of the Russian Empire. During the eighteenth century arable cultivation expanded into the steppe grasslands

of the south and southeast, and some serfowners tried to introduce new crops and systems of cultivation into these regions. Most, however, left peasants to organize and cultivate the land according to traditional norms. Under communal tenure, which flourished among Russian peasants but not among Ukrainians and other non-Russians, each household received strips of land in many different fields. The number of these could be increased or decreased to match a family's ability to work. Grains were planted in a fixed rotation, and crop yields were often disappointing, even in areas of higher fertility.

Russia's defeat in the Crimean War (1855) convinced its leaders to modernize, and the result was a vast array of reforms, foremost among them emancipation of the serfs in 1861. For the sake of social stability, former serf owners were generously compensated, retaining a substantial share of the land. Freed peasants had to reimburse the state for their land. The commune kept the job of distributing lands and tax obligations. This arrangement produced little innovation and less prosperity, though migration to Western Siberia during the later nineteenth century did offer some hopeful signs of change. At the end of the nineteenth century crop yields grew more rapidly than the population, and the Russian Empire became a major exporter of grain and other agricultural products.

In the general census of 1897, the empire had a population of 125,000,000, of whom roughly three-fourths were legally classified as peasants, and an even greater proportion resided in rural areas. Peasant unrest was endemic, and in the revolution of 19051907 peasants rose up to confiscate private lands and drive off their former lords. Harsh punishment was followed by a new ("Stolypin") land reform promoted by Prime Minister Peter Stolypin, designed to replace communal tenure with private ownership, but the outbreak of World War I prevented its full implementation. In 1917, unrest returned. Private lands were seized and redistributed and manor houses destroyed. The village commune took on a new life.

At this time peasants were roughly eighty percent of Russia's population, impoverished, tradition-minded, and suspicious of outsiders. Vladimir Lenin's Bolshevik (Communist) Party tried to enlist them in its revolution, but needed their grain and labor power more than their goodwill. During the Civil War of 19171922 and later during the industrialization drive of the 1930s the Party resorted to confiscation and coercion. Poor and landless peasants were thought to be natural allies of the urban proletariat, but efforts to promote class warfare in the villages produced instability and food shortages. Under Josef Stalin's leadership collective agriculture was forcibly introduced, but instead of producing efficiency it caused disruption and starvation, with the loss of millions of lives. After several years of turmoil peasants were assured the right to cultivate small private plots alongside their duties to the collective farm (kolkhoz). Throughout the following decades these plots produced a vastly disproportionate share of the country's food.

The Soviet Union became an urban industrial society, but its rural roots were poorly nourished. At the time the USSR ceased to exist, some twentyfive percent of Russia's population continued to lived on the land, resistant (for the most part) to privatization or economic reform.

See also: agriculture; collectivization of agriculture; enserfment; peasant economy; serfdom


Blum, Jerome. (1961). Lord and Peasant in Russia. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Moon, David. (1999). The Russian Peasantry, 16001930: The World the Peasants Made. New York: Addison-Wesley.

Robinson, Geroid T. (1932). Rural Russia Under the Old Regime: A History of the Landlord-Peasant World and a Prologue to the Peasant Revolution of 1917. London and New York: Longmans, Green and Company.

Shanin, Teodor. (1985). The Roots of Otherness: Russia's Turn of Century. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Robert E. Johnson


views updated May 29 2018


About 90 percent of the people in Renaissance Europe were peasants—rural laborers who planted crops and tended animals. Agriculture was the most important economic activity throughout Europe, and the peasantry produced the food consumed by people living in cities.

During the Middle Ages most European peasants were serfs, legally bound to the land they worked. Serfdom began to decline in western Europe in the 1300s, and by the late 1500s it had largely disappeared. As a result, Renaissance peasants enjoyed much greater freedom. Many peasants moved to other villages, to other regions, or to towns and cities in search of a better life. Those most likely to migrate were the young and the landless. Adult peasants often became seasonal migrants, helping to harvest crops in areas far from their own villages—or even in foreign countries.

Peasant villages served as the economic and political foundation of Renaissance society. Each village had a local assembly or council to govern it. Outside authorities, such as nobles and the church, granted villages a large degree of local self-rule because they recognized the need for local decisions about some issues. In theory, all citizens could participate in village government on equal terms. However, wealthy landowners or merchants often dominated local assemblies.

Village councils regulated the use of local resources such as forests, pastures, and farmland. They also took charge of building and maintaining roads, wells, and anything else that would benefit the community as a whole. Village governments also played a role in the hundreds of peasant rebellions that took place in the Renaissance. These revolts often resulted from the growing power of nation-states, which cut into time-honored peasant rights.

Rural society during the Renaissance was quite varied. Many peasants not only worked in agriculture, but also labored as shopkeepers, artisans*, or traders. Furthermore, the boundaries between rural and urban society were often unclear. All towns and cities had residents who worked in the surrounding countryside. The social and economic life of the villages often overlapped with that of nearby cities. Beginning in the 1400s, many peasants started growing cash crops for sale, rather than merely producing enough for their own needs. A few of these peasants became wealthy and bought up their neighbors' lands, while others moved into trade and other businesses. These changes made rural society more diverse and weakened traditional peasant life.

(See alsoAgriculture; Artisans; Daily Life; Economy and Trade; Nation-state; Peasants' War; Population; Revolts; Social Status. )

* artisan

skilled worker or craftsperson


views updated May 18 2018

peasantry. Although widely used, in a British context the term ‘peasant’ has no obvious contemporary definition which fits the way it is employed today. Medievalists have questioned whether Britain ever had a social group to which the word peasant was applicable, and would certainly question the continued existence of such a group beyond the Middle Ages. Even the famous ‘Peasants' Revolt’ of 1381 was referred to by the chronicler as a rustic rather than a peasant tragedy. In literary sources the term was occasionally used of labourers, implying someone of low birth and inferior standing, rather than a small owner and/or occupier in the countryside. This link with rural labour can be found into the 19th cent. The term also acquired romantic overtones, with the peasantry depicted as the humble members of a fast-disappearing rural society, a Hardy-esque chorus.

By the later 19th cent. historians writing of England from a European perspective often saw peasants as small freeholders, copyholders, and even farmers. Modern anthropological definitions of peasant societies allow the term to be employed for what has been called ‘analytical simplicity’, largely because it is widely used (as in the French term paysan) to mean simply a countryman. As a result, it has been employed as a useful shorthand term without specific definition. Most historians use the term to mean small landowners and/or small farmers, but it can also be used loosely to include the cottager, the commoner, and the squatter; in other words, of the social group which depended on common rights (at least prior to enclosure) and stitched together an income from farming, labouring, and a range of other activities. As such, ‘peasant’ refers to some of the least identifiable rural dwellers, simply because they do not appear in the written record.

The term has also become a catch-all for the social group largely displaced through the economic conditions prevailing in the post-Restoration period, or at enclosure. Some have argued that the term is inappropriate after 1750 because by then England had no peasantry in the continental sense of the word. However, it is accepted that peasants survived in Ireland and in thinly populated parts of Wales and Scotland, and even in some of the pastoral upland counties of northern and western England. Recent scholarship asserting a stronger survival of ‘peasant-type’ rural dwellers than has often been accepted suggests the term still has a currency.

John Beckett


views updated May 21 2018


peasants collectively. a body of peasants, 1553.