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310 Chapter 17

3 TABLE 17.1 3

Estimated Population of Europe in 1700


Population (in millions)



European Russia


German states




Italian states


Austrian Empire






Great Britain


Turkish Empire








Sweden and Finland


Source: B. R. Mitchell, ed., European Historical Statistics, 1750–1970

(London: Macmillan, 1975), pp. 17ff; and Jack Babuscio and Richard M.

Dunn, eds., European Political Facts, 1648–1789 (London: Macmillan,

1984), pp. 335ff.

conduct a regular census. The first modern census in

England, for example, was held in 1801. Isolated census

data exist for the eighteenth century, such as a Swedish

census of 1750 and the Spanish census of 1768–69,

but most population figures are estimates based on

fragmentary records, local case studies, and demographic analysis.

The best estimate is that Europe at the start of the

eighteenth century had a total population of 120 to 130

million people (see table 17.1)—less than one-seventh

of the count at the end of the twentieth century. Spain,

the richest world power of the sixteenth century, had a

population of 9.2 million in 1769. A good estimate of

the population of Great Britain (England, Scotland, and

Wales) at the beginning of the eighteenth century is

6.4 million—less than the population of London in

1998. The strength of France during the Old Regime

can be seen in its estimated population of 19.3 million

in 1700. In all countries, most people lived in small villages and on isolated farms. Even in a city-state such as

the republic of Venice, more than 80 percent of the

population was rural. In France, one of the most developed countries of the Old Regime, the figure was more

than 75 percent.


The Economic Structures

of the Rural World

Most of Europe lived, as their ancestors had, in small

villages surrounded by open fields. The land was

parceled for farming in many ways, but the general pattern was consistent: Peasants and small farmers inhabited and worked land that belonged to aristocrats, the

state, or the church. A typical village left some woodland standing (for gathering food and fuel), set aside

some of the worst soil as wasteland (for grazing livestock), maintained some land as commonly owned, and

left most of the land unfenced in open fields. Enclosed,

or fenced in, fields were rare, but in some regions of

western Europe—such as southwestern England, Brittany, and the Netherlands—the land was already subdivided by fences, stone walls, or hedgerows. Enclosure

had occurred in some places to assist livestock farming

and in others where peasants had been fortunate

enough to acquire their own land. In most of Europe,

however, the arable land was still farmed in the open

field system. From the midlands of England to eastern

Europe (especially the German states and Russia), open

fields were divided into long rectangular strips of approximately one acre each, defined by grass pathways

between them. A peasant family usually worked several

strips scattered around the community, plus a kitchen

garden near home. This was an inefficient system, but

one that allowed the bad and good fields to be shared

more equitably. In other regions of Europe (such as

Spain, southern France, and Italy) the open fields were

divided into small, irregular plots of land that peasant

families farmed year after year.

Whatever system of land tenure was used, most

plowland was planted with the grains on which the

world lived—wheat, rye, barley, and oats. These crops

were usually rotated annually, and each field laid fallow

on a regular basis, normally every third year (see document 17.1). Leaving a field unplanted was needed for

the replacement of nitrates in the soil because chemical

fertilizers were unknown and animal manure was

scarce. Fallow fields had the secondary advantage of

providing additional pasture land for grazing.

Scientific agronomy—the study of field-crop production and soil management—was in its infancy in the

Old Regime, but noteworthy changes were appearing.

In Britain, the improvements suggested by the studies

of Jethro Tull and the Viscount Charles Townshend significantly increased eighteenth-century harvests. Tull,

a gentleman farmer and scientist introduced a new

The Social and Economic Structure of the Old Regime 311

[ DOCUMENT 17.1 [

An Eighteenth-Century

Sharecropping Contract

This list summarizes the chief points of a contract negotiated

in southern France in 1779 on behalf of a great landowner. It

was an agreement “at half fruits”—a 50/50 sharing of the

crop between a marquis and the father and son who farmed his

land. A study of this contract has estimated that this land

would yield a harvest of 100 setiers of wheat. Thus, the peasant sharecroppers paid (1) 20 setiers off the top to the marquis; then (2) 10 setiers of wheat as the price of cutting and

flailing the wheat, leaving a harvest of 70 setiers. They then

paid (3) 35 setiers as “half fruits” and (4) 20 setiers for seed.

The result was 55 setiers to the marquis, 15 setiers for the

peasant family. A family of five ate 20 setiers of wheat per


1. The lease shall be for one year, at “half fruits”

and under the following conditions.

2. The lessees will furnish the seed.

3. Before the division of the harvest, the marquis

will receive twenty setiers of wheat off the


4. The lessees will deliver the wheat already cut

and flailed, at no cost to the marquis.

5. The lessees must use the “three field” system

of planting—1/3 of the land planted to wheat,

1/3 to some other grain, and 1/3 left unplanted.

6. If the lessees do not leave 1/3 of the land fallow, they forfeit the entire harvest.

7. All livestock will be held in common with

profits and losses equally shared.

8. If there is a shortage of hay and straw for the

livestock, the lessees must pay half of the cost

of buying forage.

9. The lessees must maintain the land, including

making drains for water, cutting brush, pruning vines. . . etc.

10. In addition to sharing the crop, the lessees

must pay a rent of 72 chickens, 36 capons, and

600 eggs.

11. The lessees must raise pigs, geese, ducks, and

turkeys, to be divided evenly; they must purchase the young animals to raise at their own


12. The lessees must make their own ploughs and

pay for the blacksmith work themselves.

Forster, Robert, and Forster, Elborg, eds. European Society in

the Eighteenth Century, New York: Harper & Row, 1969.

system of plowing and hoeing to pulverize the soil, and

invented a seed drill that increased yields and decreased

labor. Townshend advocated a planting system that

eliminated the need for summer fallowing of

plowland. His Norfolk, or four-course, system rotated

plantings of a root crop, barley, clover, and wheat.

Townshend championed the choice of turnips as the

root crop so vigorously (because they provided both

nitrogen fixation and fodder for livestock) that he became known as “Turnip Townshend.” Ideas such as

these, circulated by a growing periodical press, raised

crop yields to the extent that England fed an increasing

population and still exported grain in the early eighteenth century.

Most European agriculture was not so successful,

and peasant families faced a struggle to survive. Their

primary concern was a harvest large enough to pay

their obligations to the landowning aristocracy, to the

royal tax collector, and to the church in the form of a

compulsory tithe as well as to provide seed grain for

the next year, with food left over to sustain life for another year (see document 17.1). The yield per acre was

higher in western Europe than in eastern Europe, which

explains much of the comparative prosperity and

strength of the west. Each grain sown in Russia and

Poland yielded an average harvest of four grains, while

Spanish and Italian peasants harvested six grains, and

English and Dutch farmers averaged more than ten

grains. Peasants typically supplemented their meager

stock of grains with the produce of a small garden and

the luxury of some livestock such as a few pigs or

chickens. Surplus grain would be sold or bartered—a

money economy was not yet the rule throughout the

rural world—at the nearest market town to acquire necessities that could not be produced at home. Even

when livestock were slaughtered, peasants rarely ate the

entire animal; they generally sold the choicer cuts of

pork and kept the fatty remnants for soups, stews, or


Home production was an essential feature of this

rural economy and meant more than churning butter or

making cheese at home. Domestic manufacturing often

included making all of a family’s clothing, so many

peasants learned to spin yarn, weave cloth, or sew

clothing. This part-time textile production sometimes

led to the sale of excess household products, and in

some textile regions domestic manufacturing evolved

into a system of production known as cottage industry

(see illustration 17.1) in which a peasant family purposely made goods for sale instead of for use in the

home. Cottage industry sometimes grew into a handcraft form of industrial manufacture (often called

312 Chapter 17

Illustration 17.1

— Cottage Industry. The textile industry began in rural cottages, not great factories. This scene depicts a family textile shop

for making knitwear. Note the sexual division of labor: Women

spin and wind yarn while a man operates a knitting frame, making stockings.

protoindustrialization), when entrepreneurs negotiated

contracts with peasant spinners and weavers. An entrepreneur might provide raw materials and pay peasant

spinners to produce homespun threads; the yarn could

then be delivered to a peasant weaver who also worked

at home. This “putting out” system of textile manufacture stimulated later industrialization by developing

manufacturing skills, marketing networks, and a class of

prosperous provincial entrepreneurs. By some estimates

10 percent of the rural population of Old Regime Europe was engaged in cottage industry.

Domestic manufacturing, like farming, depended

upon a family economy; that is, everyone worked.

Peasant society generally followed a sexual division of

labor in which, for example, men did most of the plowing and women played an important role in the harvest.

In the production of textiles, women did most of the

spinning and men were more likely to be weavers.

However, the labor of every family member, including

children, was needed if the family were to survive. As

an old poem recalls:

Man, to the Plow

Wife, to the Cow

Girl, to the Yarn

Boy, to the Barn

And your Rent will be netted.

Working women were thus essential to the family economy long before industrialization and urbanization

transformed families and work. A study of peasant

women in eighteenth-century Belgium, for example,

has found that 45 percent of all married women were

listed in government records as farmers and 27 percent

were recorded as spinners; only 6 percent were listed

without an occupation. Unmarried adults were at a disadvantage in this rural economy, and widows were

often the poorest members of a rural community.

The rural community of peasant families was typically a village of fifty to a few hundred people. In parts

of Europe, these villages had corporate structures with

inherited rules and regulations. These might regulate

weights and measures, or they might regulate morality

and behavior such as the control of stray dogs or

mandatory church attendance. Village assemblies, led

by elders or by the heads of the households controlling

most of the land, often held powers such as assigning

land use (as they did in most German states and in Russia), dictating farming methods and crop rotation, settling disputes, collecting taxes, and even arranging

marriages. Women were usually excluded from participation, though widows were sometimes accepted. Recent research has identified some exceptionally

democratic villages in which women participated with

full rights.


Corporative Society and the Ständestaat

Europeans of the Old Regime lived in highly stratified

societies and generally accepted their fixed place in the

hierarchy. In two-thirds of Europe (France, Savoy, part

of Switzerland, Denmark, the German states, Austria,

Bohemia, Hungary, the Danubian provinces, Poland,

and Russia), law and custom divided people into estates. The division of the population into such bodies,

with separate rights, duties, and laws, is known as corporative society, or by its German name, the Ständestaat.

Corporative society was a legacy of the Middle

Ages. In much of western Europe, the legal basis for it

had disappeared, whereas eastern Europe remained

caste-ridden. Everywhere, hierarchical ideas provided

the foundations of society. The structure of corporative

society resembled a pyramid. Most of the population

(peasants and laborers) formed the base of the pyramid

while a few privileged people (aristocrats and wealthy

town dwellers) sat at the top, with a monarch at the

pinnacle. Everyone was born to a position in the hierarchy, a position that, according to most churches, was

divinely ordained, and little social mobility was evident

from one order to another.

The Social and Economic Structure of the Old Regime 313

3 TABLE 17.2 3

The Social Structure of England in the Old Regime

The data in this table are based upon statistical calculations

made by Gregory King in the last years of the seventeenth

century, based upon a study of the tax rolls.

Social group



on tax rolls



(with families)



of England


Landowning gentry




Small farmers








Rural total




Educated professions









Government service



Urban trades











Urban total

Military officers

Soldiers and sailors

Military total










Historians have mostly studied corporative society

in France, where the population was divided into three

estates. The clergy, approximately 1 percent to 2 percent of the nation, comprised the first estate. The aristocracy, also less than 2 percent of the population,

formed the second estate. The remaining 97 percent of

France, from bankers to vagabonds, collectively made

up the third estate. In central Europe, the Ständestaat often contained four orders (Stände) because Scandinavian

and German law divided what the French called the

third estate into two parts, an order of town dwellers

and another of peasants. The constitutions of the Old

Regime, such as the Swedish Constitution of 1720,

retained the ideal of corporative society. German jurisprudence perpetuated this division of the population

throughout the eighteenth century. A fifty-volume

compendium published in the 1740s, reiterated the

principles of the Ständestaat, and they were embodied in

subsequent legal reforms, such as the Frederician Code

in Prussia.

The society of the Old Regime was more complicated than simple legal categories suggest. In England,

the legal distinctions among social groups were mostly

abolished during the seventeenth century. The English

aristocracy remained a privileged and dominant elite,

but a new stratification based upon nonlanded wealth

was also emerging (see table 17.2). In contrast, Russian

fundamental laws perpetuated a rigid corporative society, and eighteenth-century reforms only tightened the

system. In central Europe, yet another pattern developed where reformers known as cameralists refined the

definitions of social categories. Austrian tax laws

adopted in 1763, for example, divided the population

into twenty-four distinct categories.

The composition and condition of each estate varied across Europe. The Polish aristocracy included 10

314 Chapter 17

percent of the population compared with 1 percent in

France; this meant that the Polish aristocracy included

barefoot farmers who lived in simple homes with

earthen floors. Only 1 percent of Poles lived in towns

of ten thousand, compared with more than 15 percent

of England and Wales. Sometimes, as in Spain, peasants

lived in farming towns, but they were not part of an urban estate. But everywhere, peasants were the majority.

In England, 65 percent of the population lived by

farming; in France and Sweden, 75 percent of the population were peasants; in Poland, 85 percent.

The rights and duties of people in each estate also

varied from country to country, with the most striking

differences evident between eastern and western Europe. Historians frequently express this division of Europe by an imaginary line called the Elbe-Trieste line,

running from the mouth of the Elbe River on the North

Sea to the Adriatic Sea at the city of Trieste (see map

17.1). West of the Elbe-Trieste line (including Scandinavia), peasants could own farm land. French peasants,

for example, owned between 30 percent and 40 percent

of the arable land, although it was frequently of the

poorest quality. East of the Elbe River, peasants lived in

a form of legal servitude called serfdom. Millions of

serfs were deprived of legal and civil rights, including

the right to own land. Even those states that permitted

peasant land ownership, however, saw little of it.

Swedish peasants accounted for 75 percent of the population but owned only 31 percent of the land; the king

and the aristocracy, less than 5 percent of the population, owned 69 percent of the land in 1700. Sweden,

however, was far ahead of most of Europe in peasant

land ownership. In Bohemia, one of the richest

provinces of the Habsburg Empire, the monarch owned

5 percent of the land and the nobility owned 68.5 percent, while peasants owned less than 1 percent.

The Aristocracy: Varieties of the Privileged Elite

The pinnacle of the social structure in rural communities was the aristocracy, who enjoyed a life of comparative ease. In most countries, aristocrats formed a

separate legal caste, bound by different laws and traditions that gave them special privileges, such as tax exemptions and the right to unpaid labor by the

peasantry. Nobility was considered a hereditary condition, which originated when a monarch granted noble

status to a family through a document called a patent of

nobility. In each generation, the eldest son would bear

the title of nobility (such as duke or count) and other

males in the family might bear lesser titles. Lesser aris-

tocratic status was typically shown by the aristocratic

particule within a family name; this was usually the

word of (de in French, di in Italian, von in German). Pretenders sometimes tried to copy this habit, but the nobility zealously guarded its privileged status. In Venice,

a Golden Book recorded the names of the nobility; in

the German states, an annual publication (the Almanac of

Gotha) kept watch on aristocratic pedigrees.

The aristocracy was a small class, but it was not homogeneous. Gradations of status depended upon the

length of time that a family had been noble, the means

by which it had acquired its title, and the wealth and

political influence that the family held. One of the distinctions frequently made in western Europe separated

a “nobility of the sword” composed of families ennobled for centuries as a result of military service to the

monarch from a “nobility of the robe” composed of

families more recently ennobled through service to the

government. In central and eastern Europe, important

distinctions rested upon the number of serfs an aristocrat owned. The aristocracy might include an elite of

less land and wealth, known as the gentry, although in

some countries, such as Britain, the landowning gentry

did not possess aristocratic titles. While the gentry enjoyed a comfortable existence, it was far removed from

the wealth of great nobles (see table 17.3).

The highest nobles often emphasized the length of

time their family had been noble. British history provides a good example. The leading figure in early eighteenth-century English politics, Sir Robert Walpole,

was not born to a noble title, but for his accomplishments, he was ennobled as the first earl of Orford in

1742. One of Walpole’s leading opponents, however,

was the fourth duke and eighth earl of Bedford, heir to

a pedigree nearly three hundred years old and a title

that originated with the third son of King Henry IV,

born in 1389. Thus, the earl of Bedford was unlikely to

consider the earl of Orford his equal. And both of them

yielded precedence to the earl of Norfolk, whose title

dated back to the year 1070, shortly after the Norman

conquest of England.

Many of the fine distinctions within the aristocracy

were simply matters of pride within a caste that paid

excruciating attention to comparative status. The aristocratic competition for precedence, however, involved

real issues of power and wealth. Only the top 5 percent

(perhaps less) of the aristocracy could hope to be presented at court and meet the royal family; fewer still

were invited to live at the royal court, hunting with

King Louis XV of France in the royal forests, sharing

the evening tabagerie (a smoking and drinking session)

with King Frederick William I of Prussia, or enjoying

The Social and Economic Structure of the Old Regime 315

3 TABLE 17.3 3

The Finances of a Great Noble in the Eighteenth Century

This table has excerpts from the financial records of a French

noble family, the counts and countesses of Tavannes. The

unit of measure is the livre, which had approximately the

same value as an English shilling (one-twentieth of the

pound sterling). Figures are given for mixed years because

only partial records have survived.

Income or expenses


Income from land owned by the count

Rent for lands in region #1 (annual average, 1696–1730)


Rent for lands in region #2 (annual average, 1699–1726)


Rent for lands in region #3 (annual average, 1698–1723)


Income from sale of wood from forest in region #3 (1788)


Gross revenue from all land (after paying upkeep and wages) in 1788


Income from pensions given by the king

Total pensions for 1754


Pension as commander of royal forces in Burgundy


Income from seigneurial dues (obligations paid by peasants)

Total dues paid in 1788


Income from the inheritance of the countess (1725)

Income from four houses in Paris (value = 200,000)

Income from investments (value = 367,938)

Total capital inherited in 1725




Wages paid to the count’s staff (1780–86)

Annual wages for the count’s agent in Paris


Annual wages for a forest warden in Burgundy


Annual wages for a gardener or a maid in Burgundy


Annual wages for a chef in Paris


Annual wages for a coachman in Paris


Personal expenses

Total personal expenses in 1788


Expenses for clothing, jewelry, and gifts in 1788


Expenses for the theater in 1788


Monthly expenses for Roquefort cheese (January 1784)


Monthly expenses for cognac (January 1784)


Monthly expenses for cayenne coffee (January 1784)


Source: Data from Robert Forster, The House of Saulx-Tavannes: Versailles and Burgundy, 1700–1830 (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1971),


the life of lavish dinners and balls. Yet a position at

court was often the route to political office, military

command, or perhaps a pension providing a lifetime income. Most provincial nobles lacked the opportunities

for such advancement.

The provincial aristocracy, living on inherited lands

in the rural world, encompassed a great range of social

and economic conditions. The Spanish, for example,

distinguished between grandees (a term for the greatest

nobles, such as the dukes of Alba) who possessed immense estates and national influence, locally important

aristocrats (called caballeros) who owned enough land to

live as a privileged elite, and a comparatively poor gentry (called hidalgos) who were said to have more titles

316 Chapter 17

than shirts. Such distinctions existed across Europe. In

the east, a few families of grand seigneurs owned most

of the land (and the serfs on it) while thousands of aristocrats owned little or nothing. The Polish aristocracy,

known collectively as the szlachta, included 700,000 to

one million people, but only thirty to forty magnate

families possessed the wealth and power normally associated with the nobility. Part of the szlachta worked on

the estates of great nobles as bailiffs, stewards, or tenant

farmers; most of this caste lived as small farmers on

rented land, and many were so poor that they were

known as the golota, a barefoot aristocracy.

The Privileged Status of the Aristocracy

The wealth and power of the high nobility present one

of the most vivid images of the corporative society of

the Old Regime. Some aristocrats enjoyed dizzying

wealth and a life of luxury. In the Austrian Netherlands

(now Belgium), the duke of Arenberg had an annual income eighteen times the income of the richest merchant. In Poland, Prince Radziwill kept ten thousand

retainers in his service. In England, the top four hundred noble families each owned estates of ten thousand

to fifty thousand acres. In Russia, Empress Catherine

the Great gave one of her discarded lovers a gift of

thirty-seven thousand serfs, and Prince Menshikov

owned 100,000 serfs. In Bohemia, one hundred noble

families owned one-third of the entire province, and

the poorer members of this group owned land encompassing thirty villages. In Spain, the count of Altamira

owned the commercial city of Valencia.

Such wealth produced breathtaking inequality. The

count of Tavannes in France paid a gardener or a maid

on his provincial estates seventy livres per year, and the

valued chef at his Paris residence earned 945 livres per

year; yet the count lavished twenty thousand livres on

clothing and jewelry. The count’s monthly expenditure

on coffee and cognac totaled nearly a year’s wages for a

servant, and his budget for theater tickets would have

cost the total yearly earnings of twenty-eight servants.

Sustaining a life of such extreme luxury led many lesser

nobles into ruinous debt. Extravagance and debt became so typical of the nobility (including royalty) in

the eighteenth century that some countries, such as

Spain, made arresting aristocrats for their debts illegal.

In addition to enormous wealth, nobles held great

power. They dominated offices of the state, both in the

government and in the military. In some countries, notably Sweden, Prussia, and Russia, the concept of aristocratic service to the throne had led to an arrangement

in which the aristocracy accepted compulsory state service and received in return a legal monopoly over certain positions. The eighteenth-century Russian Charter

of the Nobility, for example, stated: “The title and privileges of the nobility . . . are acquired by service and

work useful to the Empire.” Therefore, it continued,

whenever the emperor “needs the service of the nobility for the general well being, every nobleman is then

obligated . . . to perform fully his duty.” In return for

this compulsory service, the Charter of the Nobility

recognized the right of nobles to buy and sell villages,

excluded nobles from some taxes that fell on commoners, gave nobles a monopoly of some positions, and

spared nobles some of the punishments (such as flogging) specified in Russian law. In much of Europe, only

aristocrats could become army officers. Nobles universally dominated the highest positions in government.

At the beginning of the eighteenth century, the chief

minister of the king of France was a marquis, the prime

minister of the king of Prussia was a count, the head of

the state council of the Habsburg Empire was a count,

the chief minister of the tsar of Russia was a prince,

and the chief adviser to the king of Spain was a cardinal. For the century before the French Revolution of

1789, the chief ministers of the kings of France were (in

order): a marquis, a cardinal, a duke, a duke, a cardinal,

a marquis, a count, a minor aristocrat, a duke, a duke,

and a count.

In addition to personal wealth and powerful offices,

aristocrats of the Old Regime usually held a privileged

position in the law, exceptional rights on their landed

estates, and great power over the people who lived on

their land. In most countries, nobles were governed by

substantially different laws than the rest of the population. Some countries had a separate legal code for aristocrats, some had legal charters detailing noble

privileges, some simply adopted laws granting special

treatment. Legal privileges took many forms. Exemption from the laws that applied to commoners was one

of the most cherished. Aristocrats were exempted from

most taxes that fell on peasants or town dwellers, and

they tenaciously defended their exemptions even as the

monarchy faced bankruptcy. In Hungary, the Magyar

nobles were free from all direct taxes such as those on

land or income; they guarded this privilege by giving

regular contributions to the throne, but nobles controlled the process and the amount themselves. Aristocrats were exempt from the corvée, a labor tax by which

peasants were obliged to maintain roads and bridges

(see illustration 17.2). Penal codes usually exempted

nobles from the corporal punishment common, such as

flogging and branding.

The Social and Economic Structure of the Old Regime 317

Illustration 17.2

— The Corvée. The highway system of eighteenth-century

Europe required a great deal of labor to maintain it. In most of

central and eastern Europe, where serfdom survived, monarchs

expected great landowners to require roadwork as part of the ro-

bot owed by serfs. In France, where serfdom had largely disappeared, peasants were required to pay a tax, called the corvée, by

their labor, like the roadwork shown here.

Aristocratic privilege varied significantly from

country to country. In Britain and the Netherlands,

most exemptions were abolished by revolutions in the

seventeenth century. Both countries made aristocrats

and commoners equal before the law and allowed neither tax exemptions nor a monopoly on offices. Yet important privileges persisted there, too. English nobles

held hereditary control of the upper house of Parliament, the House of Lords, and the right to be tried

only by a jury of their peers.

The core of aristocratic privilege was found on

their provincial estates. An aristocrat, as lord of the

manor, held traditional manorial rights over the land

and its inhabitants. These rights are also known as feudal rights, because many had survived from the feudal

system of the Middle Ages, or seigneurial rights, because the lord of the manor was known as the seigneur.

Manorial rights increased significantly as one passed

from western Europe to eastern Europe, where peasants

remained in the virtual slavery of serfdom. But even in

regions where serfdom no longer existed, aristocratic

landowners were often entitled to feudal dues (payments in money or in kind), to unpaid labor by peasants in the seigneurial fields, or to both. Thus, peasants

might be expected to harvest an aristocrat’s crops before they could harvest their own and then to pay a

percentage of their own crops to the same aristocrat.

Seigneurial rights in many countries (particularly in

central and eastern Europe) also included the powers of

local governance. The seigneur provided, or oversaw,

the functions of the police, the judiciary, and civil government on his lands; a noble might thereby preside

over the arrest, trial, and punishment of a peasant.

Many aristocrats thus governed their provincial estates

as self-sufficient, miniature kingdoms. A study of the

Old Regime manors of Bohemia shows this vividly.

Only the noble landowner was legally a citizen of the

larger state (the Austrian Empire). The residents of the

noble’s villages and farmlands were completely under

his jurisdiction. Peasants farmed their fields for him. He

conscripted them for the corvée, selected them for service in the Austrian army, and collected their taxes for

318 Chapter 17

the Habsburg government. The same lord arrested

draft evaders or tax delinquents and punished them,

and peasants could not appeal his justice.

Variations within the Peasantry: Serfdom

The majority of Europeans during the Old Regime

were peasant farmers, but this peasantry, like the aristocracy, was not a homogeneous class. The foremost

difference distinguished free peasants from those

legally bound by virtual slavery. Outright slavery no

longer existed in most of Europe by 1700, although European governments allowed slavery in their overseas

colonies. Portugal (the only country to import African

slaves into Europe), the Ottoman Empire, and the

Danubian provinces (where 200,000 gypsies were

enslaved) were exceptions.

Multitudes of European peasants still lived in the

virtual slavery known as serfdom, a medieval institution

that had survived into the Old Regime (and would last

into the nineteenth century in parts of Europe). Serfdom was not slavery, but it resembled slavery in several

ways. Serfs could not own land. They were bound to

the soil, meaning that they could not choose to migrate

from the land they farmed. In addition, serfs might be

sold or given away, or gambled away. Entire villages

could be abolished and relocated. Serfs might be subjected to corporal punishment such as flogging. One

Russian count ordered the whipping of all serfs who did

not attend church, and the penalty for missing Easter

Communion was five thousand lashes. A Russian decree

of 1767 summarized this situation simply: Serfs “owe

their landlords proper submission and absolute obedience in all matters.”

The distinction between serfdom and slavery was

noteworthy. Unlike slaves, serfs were not chattel property (property other than real estate). Serfs were rarely

sold without including the land that they farmed or

without their families. Serfs enjoyed a few traditional

legal rights. They could make a legal appeal to a village

council or a seigneurial court. They could not press

charges or give evidence against nobles or their bailiffs,

so their legal rights protected them within the peasant

community but not against their lords.

Serfdom survived in some portions of western Europe and became more common as one traveled east.

East of the Elbe River, serfdom was the dominant social

institution. In parts of France and the western German

states, vestigial serfdom still restricted hundreds of

thousands of people. In Prussia and Poland, approximately 20 percent of the peasants were free and 80 per-

cent serfs. In Hungary, only 2 percent of the peasants

were free; in Denmark and in the Slavic provinces of

the Austrian Empire (Bohemia and Silesia), perhaps 1

percent; in Russia, less than 1 percent.

Variations did exist within serfdom. In Russia, a

peasant family typically belonged to a noble landowner, but 40 percent of the serfs were state serfs

farming the imperial domains. These state serfs had

been created by Peter the Great when he seized lands

belonging to the Russian Orthodox Church. Those

who labored for the nobility experienced conditions

as diverse as did their seigneurs; more than 30 percent

of landowners held small farms with fewer than ten

serfs, while 16 percent of the Russian nobility owned

estates large enough to encompass an entire village of

one hundred or more serfs. The great nobility possessed so many souls that many served as house serfs,

domestic servants whose life differed significantly

from their counterparts who labored in the fields.

The basic legal obligation of serfs was compulsory,

unpaid labor in the fields of landowners. This obligatory labor, called robot in much of central and eastern

Europe, was defined by law but varied from region to

region. In Prussia serfs owed the Junker aristocrats two

or three days of unpaid labor every week and more during the harvest. Junkers, however, needed more labor

than their serfs provided and therefore hired some free

peasants. The feudal labor laws of Bohemia specified

three days per week of robot, plus harvest labor “at the

will” of a noble. A law of 1775 defined a day of labor as

eight hours during the winter, twelve hours during the

spring and summer, and fourteen hours during the harvest. Russian serfs commonly worked six days per week

for a landowner (see document 17.2). In some regions,

however, a different system applied: Serfs farmed an allotment of land and gave the landowners a large percentage of the harvest.

A study of the serfs in the Baltic provinces of Russia

reveals how these obligations added up. A family of

eight able-bodied peasants (including women) owed

their master the following: two field workers for three

days per week, every week of the year; ten to twelve

days of miscellaneous labor such as livestock herding;

four trips, totaling about fifty-six days of labor, carting

goods for the seigneur; forty-two days of postal-relay

services; and twenty-four days of spinning flax. In addition to such labor, European peasant families owed feudal payments in kind, such as grain, sheep, wool,

chickens, and eggs. Even then they could not keep

their remaining production. They had to guard 20 percent to 25 percent of a harvest as seed for the following

year. Peasants also usually owed a compulsory tithe to

The Social and Economic Structure of the Old Regime 319

[ DOCUMENT 17.2 [

A Traveler Observes the Life of Russian Serfs

One of the difficulties facing social historians is that the surviving

records of the past were (by definition) written by literate, educated

people. The illiterate masses could not record the conditions of their lives

for posterity. Historians must therefore rely on the indirect evidence provided by observers (and their deductions from other sources). Alexander

Radishchev (1749–1802) was a Russian writer who opposed serfdom

and wrote about it, resulting in his exile to Siberia. The following excerpt is Radishchev’s description of his meeting with a serf, as published

in his A Voyage from St. Petersburg to Moscow (1790).

The corduroy road tortured my body; I climbed out of the

carriage and (walked). A few steps from the road I saw a

peasant ploughing a field. The weather was hot. . . . It was

now Sunday. . . . The peasant was ploughing very carefully. The field, of course, was not part of his master’s land.

He turned the plow with astonishing ease.

“God help you,” I said, walking up to the ploughman. . . .

“Thank you sir,” the ploughman said to me, shaking

the earth off the ploughshare. . . .

“You must be a Dissenter, since you plough on a Sunday.”

an established church—approximately 10 percent of a

harvest—and taxes to the government, which frequently took between 30 percent and 40 percent of the

crop. Studies have found that serfs owed 73 percent of

their produce in Bohemia, 75 percent in eastern France,

83 percent in Silesia, and 86 percent in parts of Galicia.

Such figures changed from year to year, but the burden

remained crushing.

Variations within the Peasantry: Free Peasants

The free peasants of western and central Europe had

been escaping from the burdens of serfdom since the

fourteenth century. The evolution of a money economy

reduced the importance of feudal services by enabling

some peasants to commute robot or corvée with cash. To

increase revenues from import and export tariffs, some

governments had encouraged a shift to livestock production by allowing aristocrats to enclose their own,

and sometimes their tenants’, lands. As a result, the capitalization of land was far advanced in the west by

“No, sir, I make the true sign of the cross,” he said,

showing me the three fingers together. “And God is merciful and does not bid us starve to death, so long as we

have strength and a family.”

“Have you no time to work during the week, then,

and can you not have any rest on Sundays, in the hottest

part of the day, at that?”

“In a week, sir, there are six days, and we go six times

a week to work on the master’s fields; in the evening, if

the weather is good, we haul to the master’s house the hay

that is left in the woods. . . . God grant that it rains this

evening. If you have peasants of your own, sir, they are

praying to God for the same thing.”

“. . . But how do you manage to get food enough, if

you have only the holidays free?”

“Not only the holidays: the nights are ours, too. If a

fellow isn’t lazy, he won’t starve to death.”

Radischev, Alexander. A Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1958.

1700, though most families still owed at least some feudal obligations to the landowning aristocracy. Whereas

eastern serfs were fortunate to keep 25 percent of their

harvest, free peasants could expect to keep more than

half. Two different studies of Old Regime France have

found that peasants owed between 33 percent and 40

percent of their total production in feudal dues, taxes,

and tithes.

The condition of free peasants varied according to

the forms of land tenure. The most prosperous peasants

were landowners themselves. Studies of the French

free peasantry found that nearly four million peasants

owned some land and their own home (see illustration

17.3) in the eighteenth century, though most families

owned so little land that they could not afford to market any of their harvest. Although most free peasants

were landless, one group of them found relatively comfortable lives. The most successful of the landless

French peasants were usually tenant farmers, about

10 percent to 20 percent of the landless population.

Tenant farmers rented land, typically for a long term—

such as nine years—for a fixed money payment, and

320 Chapter 17

Illustration 17.3

— The Home of a Successful Peasant

Family. Eighteenth-century peasant

homes often had only one room, which

was used for all purposes, including

housing animals. This Breton family

from a village near Morbihan possessed

considerable wealth in its horses, cattle,

and pigs. Note the limited furnishings

and the absence of windows.

they then made the best profit that they could after

paying the rent. Such long-term contracts protected

peasant families from eviction after a single bad harvest,

and many aristocrats discovered the advantages of

short-term contracts, which were typical in Spain.

Other tenant farmers managed the rented lands but did

not labor in the fields themselves, or they became

wealthy by trading in grain or other commodities.

The other 80 percent to 90 percent of landless peasants were not as fortunate as the tenant farmers. The

most secure group were usually sharecroppers, often

called métayers. They produced most of the grain marketed in France by farming the estates of great landowners under contracts negotiated as free peasants. The

sharecropping contract (see document 17.1) typically

provided leased land in return for a large share of its

yield. Sharecropping contracts provided these peasant

families with the means of survival, but little more. Below the sharecroppers was a lower class of agricultural

laborers. Some worked for wages, others, called cotters

in many countries, worked for the use of a cottage.

Some found only seasonal employment (working to harvest grapes in the autumn, for example), in some cases

living as migrant laborers, traveling with the changing

harvests. Thus, the peasantry included a range of conditions that saw some peasants employed as laborers (or

even domestic servants) by other peasants.

The Urban Population of the Old Regime

Urban Europe in the eighteenth century ranged from

rural market towns of 2,000 people to great administra-

3 TABLE 17.4 3

The Great Cities of Europe in 1700

Table shows all European cities with a population of

100,000 or more in 1700





























tive and commercial capital cities of 500,000. Important regional towns—such as Heidelberg, Helsinki, and

Liverpool—often had populations below ten thousand.

A population of 100,000 constituted a great city, and

only a few capital cities reached that level in the early

eighteenth century (see table 17.4 and map 17.1).

Berlin had fifty-five thousand people in 1700. St. Pe-

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