from General Economic History, by Max Weber, trans. by Frank H Knight, Ph.D., Greenberg, Publisher, 1927
THE POSITION OF THE PEASANTS IN VARIOUS WESTERN COUNTRIES BEFORE THE ENTRANCE OF CAPITALISM
France.- Originally there were slaves (serfs) and half-free persons side by side. The slaves may be serfs de corps, subject to unlimited services, and over whom the lord has absolute authority short of life and death, or they may be serfs de mainmorte with limited service and the right of withdrawal; but the lord has the right of resuming disposal over the land on the death or removal of the tenant. The half-free peasants or villeins have the right of transferring their lands, and render fixed services or payments - the sign of an originally free status. These relations underwent extensive transformations as a result of two sets of circumstances. In the first place, the numbers of the servile population were notably reduced by wholesale emancipations as early as the 12th and 13th centuries. This took place contemporaneously and in connection with the introduction of money economy. It was in accord with the selflsh interests of the lord, since free peasants could be made to bear much heavier burdens of dues.
A further cause was the origin of peasant unions. The village community organized itself as a corporation which assumed a joint obligation for the rents of the lord, in return for full autonomy in administration, which autonomy was also protected by the king. Both sides obtained an advantage from the arrangement: the lord because he had only one debtor to deal with, and the peasants because their power was enormously increased. Temporarily, the unions were even summoned to the Estates General.
The nobility found the change the more convenient the more they evolved - in contrast with the Prussian Junkers of the time - into a courtier nobility, a class of rentiers living far from the land and no longer representing any organization for work, so that they were easily eliminated from the economic organization of the country in a single revolutionary night.
Italy.- The original agrarian organization was in this case changed at an early date through the buying up of the land by the townsmen, or expropriation of the occupiers in connection with political turmoil. The Italian towns early did away with personal servitude, limited the services and payments of the peasants and introduced cultivation on the shares, not originally with capitalistic designs but to cover the needs of the proprietors. The share tenants had to furnish the table supplies of the patricians, each being under obligation to supply a different sort of prodnet. The movable capital was regularly furnished by the propertied townsman, who did not wish to employ his wealth in capitalistic agriculture. This system of share tenantry distinguished Italy and Southern France from other countries of Europe.
Germany.- Northwestern and south western Germany and the adjacent parts of northern France were the region especially characterized by the vacation organization, with scattered holdings, referred to at the close of the preceding chapter. From this as a beginning the development of agricultural organization proceeded by very different courses in the southwest and the northwest. In southwest Germany the vacation system disintegrated. The rights of the lord to the land, to personal fealty, and the justiciary right, became transformed into a simple right to receive a rental, while only relatively few compulsory services and dues in connection with the transfer of inheritance remained as relics. The Rhenish or southwest German peasant thus became in fact his own master, able to sell his holding or transmit it to heirs. This came about primarily because manorial law developed its greatest power here and because holdings were extremely scattered; several land holders often lived in one village. Land holding, judicial authority, and liege-lordship were in different hands, and the peasant was able to play off one against the other. The chief gain which the land holders were able to secure in west and southwest Germany was the appropriation of large portions of the common mark, and to a much smaller extent, of the common pasture.
In northwest Germany the villication system was dissolved by the landholders. As soon as they saw a possibility of marketing their products they became interested in an increase in the income from the land and in securing holdings suited to production for the market. Consequently, at the time of the Sachsenspiegel, and even a little earlier, there were wholesale emancipations of the serfs. The land thus liberated was leased for definite periods to free renters called "Meier" whose property became hereditary under strong pressure from the state, which protected them against unexpected increases in rental. If the proprietor wished to evict a tenant, the state compelled him to secure another peasant, so that the tax revenue would not be decreased. The interest of the lords in large holdings led to a law of single inheritance, the lord forcing the assumption of the holding by an heir. As a rule the rent was paid in kind, while money payments took the place of the compulsory feudal services. In certain parts of Westphalia, serfdom had persisted, but only to the extent that the lord could resume a part of the inheritance on the death of the tenant. In the southeast - Bavaria, the upper Palatinate and southern Wurtemberg - the property rights of the peasant were often insecure. A distinction was made between hereditary tenure (Erbstift) and non-hereditary (Letbgeding) and also between protected leases and unrestricted leases (Schutzlehen and Vollehen). The latter were only for life and permitted the lord to increase the payments at the death of a holder or to grant the holding to someone else. The lord himself usually stood out for the law of compulsory inheritance. The payments consisted of tithes, and fees on occasion of change of tenant. Their amount depended on the hereditary or non-hereditary character of the property. The labor dues were very moderate. Personal bondage was the rule down to the 18th century, but signified nothing beyond a very small and modest and variously limited obligatory payment to the personal overlord who was often separated from the lord of the land.
Eastern Germany showed, down to the 16th century, the most ideal legal position of the peasantry. The cultivators usually held the land on terms of a quit-rent, rendered no labor services, and were personally free. Relatively large masses of land were in the hands of nobles who from the beginning were endowed with large-hides, often three or four or more in a single village. Judicial authority and land holding were identified to a considerable extent. This peculiarity made it easier later to subject the tenants to compulsory services and to convert into large scale farms the holdings which the nobles managed directly.
In England, there were villains in gross who were serfs and villains regardant who were technically in a higher position; they were strictly attached to the soil but were members of a popular court. Manorial law became very strong, making it difficult for the lords to oppress the peasants or increase their obligatory payments. The title to the land and the juridical authority were identified, and at the time of the Norman conquest unified districts were granted to vassals. But over the land holders stood a strong state, and the English kings possessed in their royal courts and trained jurists a power which put them in a position to protect the peasantry against the feudal landlords.