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(c. 1100 to c. 1500)



The student of medieval social and economic history who commits himself to a generalisation is digging a pit into which he will later assuredly fall, and nowhere does the pit yawn deeper than in the realm of rural history. It is of the nature of trade to overflow the bounds of geography and race, but the rustic world is a local world; it does what sun and soil demand and it is ruled by a custom which may vary from one village to the next. There is little enough in common between the daily lives of the wandering shepherds of Spain, Apulia, and the Carpathians, the vine-growers of the Rhineland and Bordelais, the men who tended seed gardens round Erfurt, the toiling plowmen of the English midlands, the Flemings draining their sea marshes, and the pioneers beyond the Elbe. Moreover, rural society was in a state of flux during the centuries to be considered here (roughly from 1100 to 1500). Estates were coalescing and breaking up, towns were rising, land was being brought under cultivation or becoming exhausted, the population was growing, men were struggling out of serfdom or falling into it, new forms of landholding were being evolved; and all this was happening unevenly in different parts of Europe. It is necessary, therefore, to consider first the chief differences in the local framework and then the changes, which were slowly metamorphosing the rural world during the last four centuries of the Middle Ages, before any general picture of village life can be attempted.

The peasant’s existence was unrolled in a double framework, the work in part of nature and in part of man. The geographical lie of the land, the climate, and the dominant occupation forced upon the district by these facts largely dictated the type of settlement, the field systems, even the personal status of the peasantry. For the organisation of estate and manor, and the complicated personal and tenurial relations between lords and peasants, which formed the artificial framework of rural life, were profoundly modified by the physical framework into which they were fitted, and elaborate historical explanations are sometimes given for differences which were simply due to geographical conditions. It is possible to observe certain economic equations which have a rough validity, despite the variations which race and history may introduce from place to place. Wide plains, which lend themselves readily to arable cultivation, usually lead to the clustered type of settlement known as the village, with houses lying together and open fields stretching round them. The home of the two and three field system is in country of this type, the south and centre of England, the great belt of north and north-eastern France, Germany from the basin of the Seine and the Swiss Alps across to the plains of the Slavonic north-east, and over the Danish peninsula to the Scandinavian lowlands. It usually breeds big estates and a strong feudal system, for feudalism ever thrives best in cornlands; it breeds a peasantry which, though often economically very prosperous, is strongly bound to the soil; labour services are numerous and serfdom is tenacious. It is the country of the typical, one might almost call it the “textbook” manor, the main characteristics of which are too well known to need further description.

On the other hand, hilly country and pasture-farming lead to different types of settlement and different social conditions. The people live not in large villages or rural bourgs but in scattered hamlets or separate farms, for their flocks and herds are spread over a wide area and water is usually abundant. Labour services are much less numerous, and payments in kind are correspondingly more important, for generally speaking it is more convenient for the lord of a manor to take his profits in the form of labour in an arable district, where he has his own demesne farm to cultivate, and of produce or money in a pastoral district, since how shall he utilise week work from all his peasants on a sheep farm and what profession is more essentially skilled and permanent than the shepherd’s? In these hilly pastoral lands, moreover, the feudal system in general and manorialism in particular are apt to be weak and serfdom is rarely onerous and disappears rapidly. In the most remote mountain districts, indeed, the peasants are often quite free; the lord exacts compulsory hospitality for himself and his servants when hunting or riding on business over these wild lands, but though such rights of gite and albergue are sometimes oppressive and exacted by violence, they are more often rigidly fixed by custom and early commuted for rents. In general, the control of the lords is slight and in some parts, as for example in the high valleys of the Pyrenees, the villages are actually independent. The valley of Aspe, disputing with Gaston Phebus, Viscount of Béarn, declared that “the valley of Aspe was before the lord was and the lord has only that which they have given him”; and the lord never entered the valley without exacting two hostages for his personal safety. The Pyrenean villages were in practice little republics, governing themselves according to the custom of the valley, and making pastoral treaties with the men of other valleys on both slopes of the mountains. The peasants of certain Alpine valleys were equally independent, and in the later Middle Ages the term Swiss became a synonym for freedom. “We will be Switzers” cried the insurgent peasants at Spires in the great revolt of 1502.

Marsh and forest lands, which have to be drained or cleared for cultivation, and frontier lands which must be settled by pioneers, bring about yet another combination of circumstances. In many cases settlements in these newly reclaimed areas are planned in a sense that the old casual villages and hamlets were not. The Waldhufen in the forest districts of Germany and elsewhere and the Merschhufen in the Low Countries and the marshes of the Weser and Elbe are long rectangular blocks, lying along the road as an axis and stretching to the edge of the forest or the dyke. Such villages, especially in the Eastern colonial areas where they were laid out by promoters, have an economical and logical ground-plan often suggestive on a small scale of a modern American town. Just as the conditions of reclamation and colonisation influenced the form of settlement, so they influenced methods of cultivation and social status. Individual cultivation was the rule in the fertile polders reclaimed from the sea along the Flemish coast, and Waldhufen and Merschhufen were usually enclosed, though in the colonial East the open field system was common. Moreover, from a social point of view reclaimed land and frontier land is free land. If freedom dwells in the mountains, she likewise flourishes in marsh and forest, because no man will bring them under cultivation save for an inducement and there are no inducements more potent than freedom and cheap land. The hosti who reclaim Brittany after the ravages of the Northmen, the settlers on the Jura plateau, the Flemings who drain their own flats and those of the colonial East, the wild clansmen of Ditmarschen, the backwoodsmen and cowboys of the Eastern frontier, the Castilian behetrías who settle the lands reconquered from the Moor and have the right to change their lord “up to seven times in one day,” all are free; and even in areas where serfdom prevails the man who makes an assart holds it by free tenure, though the rest of his land be servile and he a bondsman by blood. Serfdom is unknown in colonial areas, except where an aboriginal population cultivates the land of an alien ruling class side by side with free alien settlers, or where occasional owners of frontier latifundia import a few serfs from home, or where serfdom arises by retrogression after the frontier period is over.

Finally, it should be observed that certain specialised crops are usually associated with small holdings, individual cultivation, and a free or mainly free peasantry. This is notably the case in the vine and olive-growing districts of the Mediterranean, and the reason is to be found in the fact that vine-tending is a skilled occupation and that wine is, in the main areas of its cultivation, produced for a wide market. The peasant can find a ready sale for his vintage and even small holdings are profitable; the lord, on the other hand, finds rent-paying tenants and wage labour better suited than cultivation by unfree labour to an estate run for profit. But when we speak of a market we introduce a factor which is historical rather than natural, and historical and racial as well as geographical factors must always be taken into account in analysing the development of a district. The historical factors which most profoundly modified the life of the rural districts were the growth of towns and the consequent extension of the trade in foodstuffs, for an exchange economy invariably brings with it agrarian specialisation and in the long run freedom. The growth of towns led to the increasing devotion of land in their neighbourhood to dairy farming and market gardening, to meet the demand of the town population for food. The rise of industries led to the cultivation of certain industrial crops, such as the woad of Toulouse and the madder of Albi. More intensive farming and smaller individual holdings characterised such districts; and freedom came quickly to serfs in the vicinity of towns, which were the homes of free burgesses.

Thus the physical framework in which the medieval peasant passed his life, modified sometimes by racial and historical circumstances, conditioned not only his occupation but the kind of settlement in which he lived, his personal status, and his relations with his lord. The artificial framework of his existence was the institution known in England as the manor, the character of which was largely modified by geography. In general, a manor in a pastoral district consisted in rights over a large number of scattered homesteads and a heavy exaction of dues in kind, while a manor in an agricultural district usually contained a more or less large home-farm cultivated in part by the labour of servile tenants. The home-farm and the peasant tenures were bound together in a single economic system by these labour services and also by the fact that the lord, no less than the peasants, was subordinated to a common routine of cultivation in the open fields and bound to recognise rights of usage in the waste. The organisation of production differed. The lord of a single manor dwelt there and lived on the produce of his farm, the working of which he probably superintended himself. The lord of ten, fifty, or a hundred manors, had his seneschal to supervise his whole estate, and each of the manors was farmed by a bailiff, who sometimes lived at the manor house. The large landowner employed several methods of turning the produce of all these home-farms and peasant rents to his own use. Three in particular followed each othei1 in rough chronological sequence, though they co-existed until a comparatively late date. These were the system of the travelling household, the system of delivering food rents from the different manors to a central place, and finally the much more convenient system of selling the surplus produce and delivering money instead of goods to the lord.

The manorial system

As to the status of the peasantry it may be said that at the beginning of the twelfth century the mass of them were serfs, though free tenants were to be found everywhere and in certain districts predominated, and there still existed, especially in the mountainous south of Europe, little pockets of allodiers, who owned no lord but their king. Serfdom, however, involved two different relationships, one of status and one of tenure, which were not necessarily concentrated upon a single lord. A man might be a serf by blood, handing down his serfdom to all his brood, the personal chattel of some body-lord (Leibherr). He might, again, be a servile tenant, holding his land by bondage tenure of a landlord (Grundherr), but personally free. He might be the bondsman of one lord and the bond-tenant of another. He might be a bondsman holding a piece of free land. There was, however, a tendency for the relationships of status and tenure to be combined and a tendency also to transfer servile obligations from the person of the bondsman to the land. When payments were thus first transferred and then fixed and deprived of the uncertainty which clung to status-payments, by reason of the lord’s theoretical right to do what he would with his own, two steps had been taken on the road to freedom. Henceforth it was the mansa and not the man that was liable to tallage, the virgate and not the virgin that owed leyrwite for a slip from grace; and the land knew what it had to pay. The transference might, of course, be turned to the disadvantage of freemen, as in Germany in the later Middle Ages, when mere residence on certain land made a man a serf on the principle of Luft macht Eigen, and a revival of personal bondage took place; but in the early Middle Ages the transference of obligations from the person to the land was undoubtedly a step forward. Important as was the distinction between bond and free it was, however, a legal and not an economic one. The bondsman might, economically speaking, be a prosperous small farmer employing labour, while the freeman owned only a cottage and a croft and worked upon the bondsman’s land. Moreover, it is exceedingly difficult to say which of the many dues and services to which the medieval peasant was subject were characteristically servile, for there is hardly one which was not somewhere paid by freemen as well as serfs. The serf was usually marked by his inability to move from his holding without his lord’s permission, by his liability (in agricultural districts) to weekwork, by the payment of certain onerous dues on death and marriage, and sometimes also of a tallage which was theoretically arbitrary, though in practice usually fixed; while the freeman held his land at a rent in money or in kind and was liable only to occasional boons and less onerous payments. But freemen as well as serfs are sometimes found subject to mainmorte or to the maritagium.

Apart from the various “bans” by which the lords forced their tenants (sometimes free as well as bond) to grind corn at their mill, bake bread in their oven, and press grapes in their winepress, the peasantry was subject to a whole series of regular and irregular payments. The regular annual payments included ground-rent, payment for the use of commons, and tallage; the irregular payments fell due on death, marriage, and inheritance, or when the land changed hands. In addition, there were labour services, which varied with the nature of the land, some being regular weekwork or taskwork, others “boons” performed at certain seasons. The serf was also burdened by special obligations which differed from place to place: in England, for example, he was often obliged to fold his sheep on the lord’s acres for the sake of manure; in forest districts he had to do hunting services; in some parts he paid when he sold any of his livestock. All these payments had become fixed in the course of time, and although in theory the serf might own (as an Abbot of Burton once claimed) nihil praeter ventrem, in practice he enjoyed complete security of tenure while he paid his dues, and knew as exactly as the freeman what those dues were, the lord’s demands being more or less restricted by the custom of the manor. Occasional amenities softened the irksome­ness of forced services; boonworks were frequently rewarded by an armful of the crop harvested and by a meal and, with the fall in the value of money, these “beanfeasts” came to cost the lord more than the services were worth. Still, taken all together, the dues and services to which the serfs of many manors were subject were exceedingly heavy. He who is disposed to idealise the medieval peasant’s lot should study the list set forth in the famous Conte des vilains de Verson by the trouvère Estout de Goz in the middle of the thirteenth century, and borne out by the official extent of the revenues of the abbey of Mont-Saint-Michel at Verson and Bretteville, which Delisle has printed, or the customs of the bond-tenants of Darnell and Over, as recorded in the Ledger Book of Vale Royal Abbey in 1326. It is not surprising that the serfs of both these abbeys were in revolt at the time.

Of the irregular payments to which the serf was subject the most bitterly resented were those which entered his inmost life and cast the shadow of a ravening hand over bridal bed and deathbed alike. The payment of the maritagium (merchet, formariage, Bedemund) was sometimes exacted only when marriage was contracted outside the manor, but it was everywhere one of the dues which serfs were most anxious to evade, for it was a check upon their freedom of movement. The payments for incontinence, such as the English leyrzeite exacted from a serf when his daughter sinned, and the Catalonian cugucia which gave the lord the whole or part of the property of any peasant’s wife guilty of adultery, were no less resented. Much more onerous, however, was the mortuarium (heriot, mainmorte, Sterbfall, Buteil, Kurmede, Besthaupt) which was also almost universal. In France it was usually exacted only when a serf died without heirs living with him in his household, but elsewhere it was payable whenever a tenant died. A study of the different forms taken by the Sterbfall as recorded in the German Weistumer, or village “dooms,” provides some entertaining reading and a very strong impression of the burdensomeness of the tax. In some places it was levied on the capital value of the holding, and often amounted to as much as a third, sometimes even to a half. More often it was the best beast and best suit of clothes which a man possessed; if he had no son his weapons and sometimes his sharpened tools were taken, leaving the widow only a chopper to cut her wood. A woman owed her best dress and kerchief which she had been wont to wear on Sundays or at market, and her marriage bed, unless she left an unmarried daughter, who was allowed to keep it. Occasionally the husband was permitted to retain the bed as long as he remained unmar­ried, but if he took a second wife the lord’s steward might go and drag it out of the back door, while the peasant brought in his bride at the front, leaving her (like Anne Hathaway) with the second-best bed. When it is remembered that the Church also exacted its mortuary from the dead parishioner, taking the second-best beast and garment after the lord had taken the best, it is small wonder that the moralists of the age sometimes (but all too rarely) turned in disgust from lord and priest feeding like vultures on the poor man’s corpse.

The Vogt

Mention of the ecclesiastical mortuary calls attention to another aspect of the question of peasant dues. These were not payable solely to his lord. As a parishioner he owed the Church not only the irregular mortuary, but regular annual tithes, which were a heavy burden, though they often in the course of time fell into the hands of the landlord and merely added another item to the rent. But besides these payments the peasants on many parts of the Continent owed dues and allegiance to a third type of lord beside the Leibherr and Grundherr. Sometimes it was the lord’s suzerain; sometimes a Gerichisherr, who acquired jurisdictional rights over a territory and was responsible for its protection and for the public peace. This type of lord is not found in England, but on the Continent, particularly on ecclesiastical estates where the landlords were unable themselves to provide military protection, the Vogt or Avoué was an almost universal phenomenon. In theory his business was protection. “If a villager asks for the support of the Vogt,” says the custom of Nieder-Ranspach in Alsace, “the Vogt ought to come to his help so speedily that if he have but one foot shod he should take the other boot in his hand and fly to the defence of right.” At Neuillers the serfs of St Peter had the right to emigrate to Dossenheim and “if on the road a wheel come off their cart, the Vogt ought to dismount and give them bodily aid.” In return, the people of the villages over which he exercised his authority attended his court and gave him and his suite hospitality when it was held. But the exactions of the Vogt grew both in France and Germany; the maintenance claim developed into a regular tax (the Vogtbede), he took his share in death and succession dues and exacted his corvee from the people. In both countries Vogtei taxes were often heavier than those due to the landlord, and as a rule they fell on free as well as on bond. Moreover, free peasants were also liable to State taxes, which grew steadily as the centuries advanced, though they were sometimes merged with the Vogtbede. Inama-Sternegg calculated that in Germany towards the end of the Middle Ages the fourfold payment of rent to the landowner, ecclesiastical tithe, Vogtei dues, and State taxes amounted on an average to two-thirds of the gross product of the land; he works out the case of a free leaseholder paying an annual rent of one-third of his produce (not the worst form of lease), which shows that the ground rent amounted to 33’4 %, the tithe to 6’6 °/o, the Vogtei dues to 20% and the territorial tax to 4 %, making a total of 64 %, not counting labour dues, irregular payments such as the marriage and death dues, and fines, which probably raised his annual rent by another 5 %.

It has already been stated that throughout the Middle Ages changes were at work in the countryside; but at certain periods the process was accelerated, and the twelfth and thirteenth centuries are pre-eminently one of these periods of hastened change. Three movements in particular affected the life of the rural districts: the rise of towns, the impetus to clearance and colonisation, and the disintegration of the manor. All were connected with a still more fundamental economic movement, the growth of the population.

The steady growth of the population showed itself in a number of ways. One was the rise of towns, which was marked all over Western Europe. To take Germany alone, the researches of Puschel, based upon a study of town walls, streets, and buildings as well as upon written records, have shown that the old German towns of the West became too small for their inhabitants in the course of the eleventh century, grew very rapidly during the twelfth and thirteenth, and usually stopped growing some time in the fourteenth, from which time their area in most cases sufficed for their inhabitants until the nineteenth century. Such a phenomenon speaks eloquently of a crowded countryside, for the town population was obviously being fed by immigration from outside, and it is significant that the period of growth coincides with the period when the colonisation movement of the German people beyond the Elbe was most active. In the countryside the increase shewed itself in the subdivision of holdings, in a steady rise in land values, and in the carrying of cultivation as far as the technical knowledge of the time allowed, even to land from which the economic return was poor and which sometimes had to be abandoned later in the Middle Ages. Checked though it was by famines and pestilences, this upward movement of the population continued and is at the bottom of most of the economic changes of the time.

The growth of towns, one of its most important manifestations, inevitably reacted upon conditions in the surrounding countryside, for the town looked to the country to provide it with population, with food, and with some at least of the commodities of its export trade. It was to its interest to attract the more enterprising members of the peasant class within its walls, and it was easy to do so, since town air, as the proverb ran, made a man free. But besides the tendency thus set up for a flow of population from the country into the towns, they had a far-reaching effect upon the organisation of the countryside itself, for manorial lords found it increasingly expedient to supersede travelling households and food rents by the sale of their surplus produce in the market for cash. This fact provides a key to the nature of manorial economy during the central period of the Middle Ages. It was not, as it has often been represented, a closed economy, a kind of subsistence farming, aiming only at self-sufficiency. Marx’s epigram that the walls of his stomach set the limits to the lord’s exploitation of his peasantry rests upon a misconception.

The acquisition of landed property by lay and ecclesiastical lords went far beyond the limits necessary for self-support, and landownership was organised for profit at a very early date. An international trade in certain agrarian products (notably in corn, wine, and wool) was already in existence in the Dark Ages; in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries it was active and brought great profits to landowners as well as to merchants. The same chapter in the Rules of St Robert (c. 1240), which bids the Countess of Lincoln travel with her household from place to place, adds: “so arrange your sojourns that the place at your departure shall not remain in debt, but something may remain on the manor, whereby the manor can raise money from increase of stock and especially cows and sheep, until your stock acquit your wine, robes, wax, and all your wardrobe,” and proceeds to give details as to the sale of wool. Nor was it only in the pastoral districts that English manors were profit-making concerns. Almost every manor in the corn-growing areas sold its surplus grain in the market, and that grain came from the peasants’ holdings as well as from the demesne farm; a regular market organisation was developing early in the twelfth century, and well-defined market areas may be detected in the thirteenth. England was a land of comparatively small towns; the effect of this evolution upon the countryside was even more marked in those parts of the Continent where town life was more highly developed. Everywhere towns were a magnet for the peasant who wanted to leave the land and a market for the peasant who remained upon it.

No less far-reaching than the rise of towns was the effect of another and simultaneous movement. At the beginning of the period a large part of the soil of Europe was still uncultivated and uninhabited, sodden with marsh and fen or overgrown with forests. A steady work of drainage and colonisation had been going on piecemeal during the Dark Ages, but in the eleventh century it was pushed forward with new vigour. Nowhere was it more active than in the Low Countries, where the Counts of Flanders, the great abbeys, lay landowners, and peasants all combined to stem the encroachments of the sea along the coast, drain the marshes of the Lower Scheldt and Meuse, and bring the heaths of Brabant and Hainault under cultivation. In maritime Flanders associations called wateringues were formed to organise the control of the dykes and water channels. All the way from Flanders to Frisia they built up a wall against the sea and behind it cultivated a long line of fertile polders, where fat cattle grazed. In the thirteenth century the towns took a leading share in the work, and many polders to this day bear the names of the capitalist “undertakers” who drained them in that age of activity. A similar work of reclamation was going on in other countries, and harsh were the penalties on the man who failed to do his part in maintaining the defences against the invading waters. In one district in Germany it was laid down that if a man barked one of the willows which held the dykes together, “his belly shall be ripped up and his bowels taken out and wound round the harm he has done, and if he can get over that the willow also can get over it.” An equally energetic war was also waged against heath and forest; indeed, the attack on the forests was so relentless that towards the end of the Middle Ages rulers and landowners and sometimes the peasant communities themselves were obliged to make regulations for their protection. In this work of reclaiming the soil of Europe due credit must be given to the monastic houses, which had both the capital to undertake large-scale operations and the intelligence to supervise them. An additional motive came in the twelfth century, when the newly-founded Cistercian and Premonstratensian Orders deliberately settled in wild and savage places, far from the haunts of man, and slowly brought them under cultivation. The Cistercians in particular were great sheep and cattle farmers.

The work of reclamation was thus going on steadily in Europe throughout the Middle Ages, but for the Western nations it was a question of settling and bringing under cultivation land within their own national boundaries. With Germany it was different. The Germans were the colonising people par excellence of the Middle Ages, not merely on account of their intrinsic industry and enterprise (which were great), but because they alone of West-European nations had a movable frontier to the East. In character and achievement the eastward expansion of the German people over the Slav lands has aptly been compared with the westward expansion of the American people from Atlantic seaboard to Pacific, with the Slav in the role of the Red Indian; many centuries earlier, it passed through the same stages and bred the same types. Its fundamental cause was the growth of the population in old Germany, and the first stirrings of a new activity came early in the twelfth century. After Adolf of Holstein’s conquest of the Wagri in 1142, Helmold, whose Chronica Slavorum is the epic of the Saxon frontiersman, tells how he sent into the Low Countries, Westphalia, and Frisia, for settlers and how “there rose up an innumerable multitude of divers nationalities and they took with them their households and all their possessions and came into the country of the Wagri.” The Wendish Crusade of 1147 was followed by a similar rush of settlers to the East, “with horses and oxen, with ploughs and wains and labourers fit for the work”, which in places was a true mass emigration. At a later date (towards the end of the thirteenth century) German peasant settlers began to follow the Teutonic Knights into Prussia. Nor was the movement only across the Saale and the Elbe, for colonists also pressed into Poland and Silesia, Bohemia, Austria, and parts of Hungary.

Dutch and Flemish colonists

The chief colonising peoples of Germany were the Saxons and Bavarians, but a remarkable part was also played in the movement by peasants from Flanders and Holland. Their readiness to transport themselves so far from home was doubtless due to the over-population of the Low Countries and partly perhaps to the fact that they were weary of their incessant struggle with the ravenous ocean, “a people,” as Helmold said, “who bear the brunt of the sea.” They sought to find a better land in the East, and the often-quoted ballad, “Naer Oostland willen wy ryden,” may well enshrine the spirit in which they went. Their hereditary capacity for drainage and irrigation alike made them particularly valuable colonists in marsh and heath lands, and the lords and bishops of the East were anxious to obtain them as settlers. Gradually Dutch and Flemings reclaimed the marshlands of the Weser, Elbe, Havel, and even of the Oder and Vistula, taking their own law with them, sometimes even (as at Bitterfeld and Juterbog) using a special coinage, moneta nova Flamingorum Jutreboc, and leaving an indelible mark on place-names and on the architecture of barn and farmhouse. The Cistercians imported them into the morasses of the Thuringian basin, where under the leadership of the monks of Walkenried they reclaimed the famous Goldene Aue. They were even to be found in the mountainous south, scattered here and there as far as Transylvania.

It may well be wondered how these treks of colonists from West to East were managed, how they knew where to go, and who laid out their villages, for the business clearly needed organisation. The most common method was the employment by landowners of a locator, or professional agent, who was given a commission to settle a piece of unoccupied land. He would lay it out in large rectangular blocks of 125 acres or more, then set off westward to gather his colonists and bring them back with him, planting each family upon one of these big holdings, the “manses of Dutch measurement” referred to in so many charters, and setting aside one for the church and one for himself as Bauermeister. Each colonist paid a small premium in cash, but as a rule lived rent-free for a period of four to sixteen years while engaged in the work of reclamation, after which he paid an annual rent. They held by free hereditary tenure and usually brought with them their own law, “German law” or “Dutch law” as the case might be, and this law was spread through the East, and the villages of the aboriginal Wends and Poles and Prussians were sometimes assimilated to it. It is easy to see what an attraction the cheap land and freedom of these Eastern countries were to the more energetic peasants of the over-crowded and servile West; indeed, the colonisation movement, like the rise of towns, promoted emancipation at home, since the lords of old Germany were obliged to improve conditions lest their peasants should flee to the frontier. The locator was well paid for his work; he often received a holding rent-free in perpetuity in each village settled, and became the Bauermeister or Schulze, that is to say, the judicial and administrative head of the village, taking as a rule two-thirds of the fines in the village court (the other third going to the lord), and having the right to keep the village tavern and other privileges.

The rise of towns and the colonial movement were perhaps the most far-reaching economic events of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and were closely connected with a third change at work during the period, the slow disintegration of the manor, which substituted for demesne farming a totally different method of exploiting landed property for profit. The lord cultivating his home-farm in part by means of labour services under the direction of a bailiff became a landlord, living upon rents and cultivating his home-farm (if he retained one at all) entirely with the help of hired wage-earners. The process was accompanied by a marked change in the proportion of land in demesne and land in the hands of peasant farmers, the former shrinking steadily at the expense of the latter, and by the steady emancipation of the peasantry.

It has already been shown that the nature of the dominant economy brought about this change at ail earlier date in some parts of Europe than in others. It appeared first in places where the demesne farm was small or labour services unimportant (as in pastoral districts), or where specialised crops (such as vines) were being grown for an international market, or where uncultivated land was leased on easy terms for purposes of reclamation. The spread of the system into the big corn-growing areas which were the main strongholds of manorialism was due to the economic revolution which was taking place during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. On the one hand, the market for manorial produce was growing steadily and putting money into the pockets of the peasantry; and on the other, the towns and the colonial East were offering an asylum to discontented serfs. The lords tried to stem the increasing number of flights by repressive measures, concluding treaties among each other against the reception of runaways, or incorporating a clause to the same effect in town charters; but the tide was too strong, and in order to keep their peasants at home they had in the end to emancipate, to lighten burdens, and to commute labour services. Sometimes the process went on piecemeal by the emancipation of individuals, but there was an increasing number of regional emancipations, notably in the vicinity of towns. In Italy the freeing of the peasantry was one of the chief weapons of the cities in their struggle with the landed nobility, and in parts of France there was a tendency to form bourgs and villages into rural communes, with charters modelled on those of some town in the vicinity; the charters of Lorris and Beaumont, for instance, had a great vogue. Emancipation usually but not always carried with it the abolition of the more deeply resented servile disabilities, such as the mortuarium and the maritagium. From the point of view of manorial organisation the most interesting phenomenon was the disappearance of servile tenure and in particular of labour services. The process went on very unevenly in different parts of Europe, but in the end the result was everywhere much the same. The lords went over wholesale to the rental system, serfs were transformed into customary tenants, paying a fixed annual quit-rent, and more and more free leaseholders appeared. The leases were of an infinite variety as to conditions and terms, some hereditary, some for life, some for shorter periods. The main types were two: by the one the tenant paid an unvarying rent, usually in money, by the other (metayage, mezzadria) he paid a proportion of his harvest or stock in kind. In the long run metayage, which was common in the Mediterranean countries, paid the landlord best, for though he shared his tenant’s loss in a bad year, the price of land was rising and a fixed quit-rent or a long lease worked in favour of the tenant. At the same time, there was also an increase in the number of free proprietors who were able to buy their land outright, and especially in the South of Europe a considerable part of the soil began to pass into the hands of the peasants.

Disappearance of serfdom

It must not be supposed that this process of emancipation accomplished itself swiftly or evenly throughout Europe. In France, for instance, serfdom was strongest in the east, in Lorraine and Franche Comté, parts of Burgundy, Berry, and Nivernais, where it lasted until the fifteenth century, and in some parts until the eighteenth; in the Midi, a mountainous land of small properties, it was never strongly rooted, and most of the serfs of Provence and Languedoc had disappeared by the end of the thirteenth century; in the west it was weaker still and Normandy, Brittany, and Poitou were almost entirely free by the end of the eleventh. Serfdom came to an end early in Flanders and Italy largely on account of the prevalence of towns. In England it was always less prevalent in the north and west than in the south and east, where the process of emancipation was not complete until the end of the Middle Ages. In Spain feudalism was never firmly rooted except in Catalonia; in Leon and Castile the need for population (as the reconquest proceeded) and the protection of the towns had brought about an almost complete emancipation of the serfs during the thirteenth century; in Catalonia, on the other hand, a very heavy form of serfdom prevailed and was only brought to an end in the course of the fifteenth century. In Germany serfdom decreased most rapidly in the north-west (Lower Saxony and Westphalia) and in the Rhineland, but it was still to be found there at the end of the Middle Ages and was even more prevalent in the south-west, while it was actually increasing in the once free east in the fifteenth century, for reasons which will be explained later.

The change to a rental system meant something more than the spread of personal emancipation and an alteration in the terms on which the mass of the peasantry held their land. It did not, of course, preclude the lord from continuing to exploit his home-farm himself, with the help of hired instead of villein labour, but nevertheless the tendency grew for him to retire to a great extent, if not altogether, from the management of his demesne. This would rarely happen in the case of a small knight living on a single manor, but it became increasingly common on large estates where bailiff farming prevailed. On such estates the lords began to lease their demesne farms, now piecemeal, now en bloc. Even big stock farms were let out. In the thirteenth century the Earls of Lincoln had vaccaries in the Forest of Rossendale, which they managed themselves through local bailiffs supervised by a chief Instaurator; but in the course of the fourteenth century the new owners of the Honour of Clitheroe gradually abandoned their personal interest in cattle-raising and let out the farms to farmers. Many monastic stock-farms on the Continent were similarly leased instead of being directly cultivated by lay brothers or hired servants. This practice of “farming the demesne” was more subversive of the old manorial system than was the practice of letting out the tenant’s holdings at a money rent. Sometimes the farmers were the whole community of tenants, sometimes two or three rich peasants, sometimes the bailiff or the reeve, sometimes a speculator from outside. It is interesting to observe the part played in the process in certain parts of Europe by the lord’s bailiff (villicus, Meier, maire). In Lower Saxony in the eleventh and twelfth centuries the Meiers began to try to convert their position from an office into a tenure by making it hereditary, and they made use of the prevalent practice of exacting a produce rent from each manor to appropriate the surplus yield, and sometimes more than the surplus, to their own use. In the course of time the Meier often became de facto a leaseholder of the demesne, and the lords, making the best of the situation, began to separate the demesne farm from the rest of the manor and let it out by the same relatively free form of tenure (Meierrecht), at the same time converting the dues and services of the peasants into money payments or making them over to the Vogt. The next stage came when the lords began to throw together peasants’ holdings into larger blocks and let these out in Meierrecht also. This created a number of cottagers and landless men, but the Meiers (many of whom had thus no connexion with that office) formed a class of free leaseholders who were the most pros­perous peasants of Northern Saxony and whose life tenure steadily tended to become hereditary. In France a similar process began, and from the twelfth century many mairies were hereditary and an important feudal property, but the process never went so far as in Saxony, nor had it the same repercussion upon peasant tenure.

Thus throughout Europe a metamorphosis was gradually taking place in the exploitation of land ownership. The change was not entirely a beneficial one from the point of view of agriculture, for the large estates had often been pioneers of progress, and they could introduce improvements and undertake works of drainage and reclamation on a large scale, which were beyond the means of the peasant. It was the great landowners who studied the treatises on agriculture which had come down from classical times, and it was they for whom new works on the same model were drawn up, based in part upon Cato, Varro, Columella, or Palladius and in part upon practical experience. Such works are the famous thirteenth-century English group which comprises Walter of Henley’s Husbandry, the Rules of Robert Grosseteste, and two anonymous treatises on Husbandry and Seneschaucie; such too the Opus Ruralium of Petrus Crescentius of Bologna (1230-1307) and the delightful handbook for shepherds called Le Bon Berger written at the request of the King of France in 1379 by Jehan de Brie. In the exchange economy of the day, moreover, the new system must have been responsible for the great increase in the number of middlemen in rural areas, always a necessity for the small owner. The French or Rhenish monastery of old could employ its own negotiator to sell its wine and its own boats to freight the produce of its manors to port or market; the big English landlord could sell his wool wholesale to Lombard or Flemish merchants. But such organisation was beyond the small farmer. The dealer in agrarian produce had appeared at an early date (as town regulations against forestalling and regrating show), but the growth of tenant farming at the expense of demesne farming inevitably paved the way for that multiplication of corn-bodgers, wool-broggers, and other middlemen, decried as caterpillars of the commonwealth by sixteenth­century moralists, who failed to understand that they were now not merely convenient but essential.

The dissolution of the old manorial organisation and the emancipation that went with it were accompanied by a marked improvement in the position of the peasantry. Probably at no time in the Middle Ages was agriculture more flourishing and the mass of the rural classes better off than during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Brunetto Latini speaks of the open manor houses of the lie de France, surrounded by gardens and orchards and a peaceful countryside, and Froissart in the next century admires the rich Cotentin, so soon to be desolated by war. The prosperity of the French peasantry appears occasionally in the literature of the time, as in Bertran de Born’s savage sirvente against the rich peasant, and in those pictures of well-to-do vilains with wide lands which occur in certain of the fabliaux. German literature throws an even more favourable light on the prosperity of the peasantry of that country in the thirteenth century. It is the age of the satirical peasant-epic Meier Helmbrecht, of the charming tale Der Arme Heinrich, and of the school of courtly Dorf poesie, which is best represented by Neidhart von Reuental and Seifried Helbling. Neidhart shows the well-to-do Bavarian and Austrian peasants aping the gentry, village dandies with spices in their pockets for scent and pomade in their long curling locks, wearing silk-lined caps and coats of fine foreign cloth and carrying swords at their sides and clinking spurs at their heels, as though they were knights.

The causes of this rural prosperity must be sought elsewhere than in the progress of emancipation, which was only one of its symptoms. It was due in part to favourable external conditions. It is true that famine and pestilence took their toll as of old, but the latter at least was less deadly in the earlier centuries than the great series of visitations of bubonic plague which began with the Black Death (1347—49). The peasantry suffered considerably from time to time from war; the misery of England under Stephen and of Italy during the struggle between Frederick II and the Pope was great, and the crusading movement brought with it the harrying of the humble and backward Slav peasants in Eastern Europe and of the prosperous and enlightened Moorish peasants of Spain, as well as the terrible devastation of Languedoc in the Albigensian Crusade. Still the loss of Slav and Moor was the gain of German and Castilian peasants, and Languedoc at least rapidly recovered its prosperity. In general, the Crusades diverted fighting energy away from the Western peasantry, and there was nothing during this period as serious for them as some of the struggles of the Dark Ages or as the long horror of the Hundred Years’ War. Moreover, it has already been shown that the rise of the towns and the needs of reclamation, especially in the East, were during these centuries providing an outlet for the surplus population and raising both the status and the income of the rural classes as a whole. But there were yet more fundamental movements at work on the peasants’ behalf. Between the tenth and thirteenth centuries the growth of the population, the development of défrichement and of agricultural technique, and the rise in the price of agrarian produce increased the economic rent of the soil to a very considerable extent. Lamprecht has calculated that land in the Rhine and Mosel districts was worth at the end of this period about seventeen times what it had been worth at the beginning, but the old customary rents remained the same, with the result that something like four-fifths of the unearned increment was going into the peasant’s pocket. At the same time the purchasing power of money was steadily falling during the same period, and wherever payments were fixed in money the peasant benefited by this too. It is these facts which account for the shipwreck of large-scale demesne farming in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and for the desperate straits of so many of the great abbeys; they explain also the readiness of the lords to sell emancipation and the ability of the peasants to buy it.

The advance of the rural classes was not, however, everywhere main­tained during the later Middle Ages. In France the Hundred Years’ War undid a great deal of the benefit gained and some of the most fertile lands in Europe were reduced to the utmost misery, a prey alike to routiers and wolves. The wretched people whom Louis XI saw, as he rode from the prosperous Flemish countryside through the half-deserted fields of his own land, seemed to him gaunt and emaciated as though they had just emerged from dungeons, and Fortescue’s celebrated comparison of the French and English peasants draws a similar picture. It was only after the middle of the fifteenth century that the work of clearance and agricultural improvement could begin again in France, and in many places lords let their lands to peasants on terms as favourable as in the early days of défrichement and settlement, and for the same reason. In Germany, again, the rise of the small territorial States on the ruins of the Holy Roman Empire was far from a blessing to the peasantry, which suffered (with all other classes) from their burdensome regulations and increased taxation. Moreover, the territorial rulers turned the Gerichtsherrschaft into an instrument of oppression, by everywhere using these jurisdictional lords as their representatives and by greatly extending the office. In Italy the peasantry, emancipated largely through the support of the towns in a common struggle against the landed nobility, often found that they had exchanged one bondage for another, and if the lords had chastised them with rods the burgesses chastised them with scorpions. For the city republics subordinated the countryside to their own interests. They invested their money in it; in the whole territory of Florence in the fourteenth century there was hardly a rood of land which was not owned by merchants, bankers, and even artisans. They strictly regulated agriculture, forcing labourers to work at fixed wages, insisting on leases on the mezzadria system, burdening the peasants with heavy taxation, and above all regulating the price and forbidding the export of agricultural produce in order to secure the food supply of the town, a policy which severely hit the small peasant proprietor. Refusals by peasants to pay not only public imposts but also private debts to town merchants became more and more common and flights once again became general, amounting sometimes to an exodus en masse. Everywhere in Europe, moreover, the town showed itself an implacable enemy to the country in the matter of rural industry. In Flanders, where Bruges, Ghent, and Ypres sought, like the Italian cities, to dominate the countryside in the interests of their food supply, the townsmen made constant sorties to break the looms of the peasants; but both in Flanders and in England rural industry had triumphed by the end of the Middle Ages, though it was none the less subject to the economic control of capitalist clothiers.

But if the special circumstances of war, of State taxation and policy, or of urban interests worked in particular districts to the undoing of a peasantry whose prospects had seemed so bright in the thirteenth century, there were other and more fundamental conditions working in the same direction. In general the disintegration of the manor was a benefit to those classes which succeeded in keeping their hold upon the land. But all classes did not so succeed. That this was so, was due less to a breakdown of the old security of tenure in the framework of the manor than to the development of economic inequalities among the peasantry, as the increasing market for agricultural produce offered opportunities for enterprise, and in some districts perhaps to a continued pressure of population. In some parts of Europe, it is true, the growth of the population (so striking during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries) was arrested and static; towns and deserted holdings bear witness to a relatively sparse population. In others the rapid morcellement of peasant farms seems due to something more than a mere redistribution, and suggests a still over­crowded countryside. It is possible that there would in any case have been an agrarian crisis in the later Middle Ages, apart altogether from the breakdown of the manor, which merely dictated the particular form it assumed. That it was not more serious was due to the fact that from time to time pestilence and famine still acted as external checks upon the growth of the population, notably the Black Death of 1347-49, which, temporarily at least, gave rise to a severe under-population crisis throughout Western Europe. In the countryside during the later Middle Ages two phenomena may be remarked, which were present within the manor from an early date, but which only assumed serious proportions towards the end of the thirteenth century. These were the steady subdivision of holdings and the rise of a class of landless labourers. The subdivision of holdings had been going on for a long time, but it had to some extent been held in check by the interest of the lords in maintaining their integrity as a basis for labour and other dues. It naturally went farthest in those regions where the customary law of inheritance allowed division among heirs, and it was watched with anxiety by the lords, who sometimes insisted on joint cultivation by all the heirs living under one roof, the eldest or youngest being responsible for all obligations on behalf of the rest. The lords also tried to promote the practice of individual in­heritance, whether by primogeniture or ultimogeniture, and in other cases limited the number and laid down the minimum size of subdivisions. But the tendency towards morcellement increased with the dissolution of the manor, which weakened the direct concern of the lord in the peasant holdings, and with the growth in the number of hereditary tenures, and a great deal of subdivision and even more subletting was taking place during the later Middle Ages. The process no doubt promoted the formation of a prosperous rural bourgeoisie, the rich peasants bought up tenures and increased their own holdings and in some places (as in Holstein and Jutland) they voluntarily adopted the principle of majority or minority succession, instead of division among heirs. But while the Kulak was thus as familiar in the medieval as in the modern Russian village, the other side of the process was the formation of a rural proletariat, which was already making its appearance by the end of the Middle Ages.

Decline of prosperity

Cotters and wage-earners had been found from very early times upon the undissolved manor, where they were employed by lords and wealthy tenants alike, and they were common in districts where the intensive cultivation of vines and other commercial crops brought with it an earlier recourse to wage labour. But the number of persons dependent on wages increased with the commutation of labour services, and the result was a new element in the social problem of the countryside. The main labour problem of the thirteenth century had been the question of serfdom; that of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries was the modern question of free labour, its wages and conditions of employment; and the new employer was no less bent on controlling wage labour than the old lord had been bent on controlling his serfs. Everywhere there now appeared attempts to regulate rural labour, which became extremely vigorous when the Black Death, by .temporarily depopulating the countryside, created such a scarcity as to give the wage-earners the whip hand. Wages rose to unprecedented heights and labourers left their employers and went wherever they were paid most. The landowners were in a difficult position, since flights of villeins (in those regions where villeinage still existed) were also frequent for the same reasons. The situation was met, both in France and England, by government legislation fixing wages, imposing severe penalties on those who gave or accepted more than the legal maximum, and forcing all who were not fully employed on their own land to take service. Similar wage tariffs were issued at different times by the Teutonic Order in Prussia and by the Italian cities. They gave rise to a long and bitter struggle, and in England the Statutes of Labourers were among the causes of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. But the nature of the legislation must not be misunderstood. In Prussia (a country of big capitalist estates) and in Italy (where the land was in the hands of bourgeois capitalists) it was class legislation in the interests of landed capital against the wage-earners. But the position was not quite the same in England and France, where the people most severely hit by the rise in wages were not the big landowners but the small ones and above all the innumerable little peasant farmers who now employed hired labour.

The appearance of a large class of landless labourers and with it of an acute labour problem was not the only mark of deterioration in the position of the peasantry. In the course of the fifteenth century there appeared in Eastern Europe a manorial reaction, which brought about a recrudescence of serfdom in those parts, just as Western Europe was witnessing its final extinction. This reaction was the product of two movements working together. The first was that extension of the powers of the jurisdictional lord, or Gerichtsherr, to which reference has already been made. The second was the evolution of a new type of great estate, capitalistically organised for market production and worked by servile labour, but unlike the old manor by landless labour, production being concentrated on a demesne farm. This new type of estate (Gutsherrschaft), which was most common east of the Elbe, thus differed essentially both from the old manor (Villikation), in which the land in demesne was usually smaller than the land held by the peasants, and from the new Grundherrschaft, in which the landlord’s profits were derived from rents and the market was fed almost entirely by the tenant farmers.

The spread of the Gerichtsherrschaft may be observed in most parts of Germany during the later Middle Ages, often taking the form of an extension of the powers and exactions of the Vogt. The demands of these jurisdictional lords upon their subjects became increasingly onerous and were often modelled on old servile dues; the universal exaction of the Vogt’s hen, for example, was a recognition due based on the “bondage hen” paid by serfs to their personal lords. It was often easy to transform the control thus obtained over the peasantry into personal bondage, so tenuous was the line which separated the two relations. Such a transformation was easiest in places where the Gerichtsherr was also the Grundherr, and the peasant who was both his subject and his tenant could slip with tragic ease into the third relationship of dependence and become his bondsman, owning him as Leibherr too. Where the two lordships were distinct and often antagonistic the peasant had a better chance of maintaining his freedom. In western Germany the distinction was usually maintained, but in the east the landlord almost always possessed Gerichtsherrschaft as well, and the position of the peasantry was correspondingly worse. The whole movement was intensified by the hold which these jurisdictional lords began to get upon the waste, and the appearance or extension of all sorts of forest and hunting services as a result. The effect of this granting away of State functions to great lords was everywhere the same, a steady pressure upon the peasantry, which forced the landless class into personal bondage and too often amalgamated with them the less fortunate of the small proprietors. The new class of Leibelgene thus formed reached its lowest depths in the post-medieval period, but the process of decline was at work all through the fifteenth century.

The fate of the Leibeigene reacted on that of the remaining serfs of the old type and of the free leaseholders. The tendency to shift burdens from the person of the serf onto his land, which had once been a step in the process of emancipation, was now turned against the peasantry by the evolution of the doctrine of Luft macht Eigen, and in France too there came to be mainmortable districts in which every immigrant became subject to that due. Inheritance payments and burdensome dues which had long been dropped began to be exacted again. Landlords as well as Vogts increased their claims, and more precarious forms of tenure began to be substituted for those which had given security to the peasant leaseholder. The more fortunate retained their position as a prosperous rural middle class; but the mass of the peasantry became what they are so often called in the German literature of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the Arme Leute, the poor folk.

The formation of the new territorial bondage and the depression of the peasantry went farthest in those trans-Elbian lands which in the first period of colonisation had been essentially the home of free German settlers. Here the grant of jurisdictional and State powers over wide districts was usually made to the landowners, and those landowners were engaged in capitalistic farming on a large scale, which meant that they were in constant need of labour. From the very beginning in Prussia and other Eastern lands knights had held compact estates, side by side with the free German villages, but at first these estates were rather small and mostly engaged in cattle farming, so that their demand for labour was limited and could usually be met by employing the servile Slav villagers. There were, however, enough estates which did not contain such villagers to call into existence a class of landless labourers and small cotters, both Slav and German, called Kossaths in Prussia and Pomerania and Gärtner in Silesia. From the fourteenth century corn-growing for export was becoming increasingly common and the estates or Rittergüter were growing greatly in size, and in the fifteenth century they were being increased by the purchase of peasant farms and the seizure of commons. The inevitable result was the appearance of an acute labour problem, especially in Prussia. Here there was a numerous class of free labourers, made up of the Gartner, the hired servants in husbandry, and a body of so-called Austlohner, or harvesters, which was fed by the seasonal migration of Polish labourers. The wages of these workers were regulated by the tariff of the Order, and at the beginning of the fifteenth century the Grand Master was already fulminating against excessive wages paid in defiance of the rates. The Polish War of 1409-11 seriously depopulated the rural districts and the rise of towns had the same effect. The landed interests petitioned the Order to make agricultural labour compulsory upon “idlers who roam on the roads and in the towns,” and a series of statutes was passed fixing penalties for the exaction or payment of more than the maximum rate; but the labour shortage continued and the wars of the end of the century caused still more depopulation, while the policy of the Polish government in finally fixing its peasants to the soil (1496) brought to an end the seasonal migration of Austlohner to get in the Prussian harvest.

The result of this growing shortage of labour was that increasingly throughout the fifteenth century the farmer-knights turned their attention to the free German peasants and sought to solve the labour problem by reducing them to serfdom. Restrictions were gradually introduced on freedom of movement: a tenant could not leave unless he provided someone else to farm his holding and obtained a document of quittance from his landlord; those who went without the document could be forced back, and the Order entered into treaties with neighbouring countries for their extradition in 1436,1472, and 1481. The work of the big estates came to be done more and more by exacting labour services from the once free peasantry and by settling servile Gärtner, and the German peasant was gradually forced into a bondage indistinguishable from that of the Slav. This development only, it is true, reached its climax in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but it had begun much sooner. Already in the fifteenth century the big com-growing estates across the Elbe contrasted strongly with the rent-gathering estates of old Germany and the process of asservation was well on its way. It was generally characteristic of Prussia, Pomerania, Silesia, and Brandenburg and was to be found also in certain districts of Saxony, Brunswick, Hanover, and Thuringia. In England also, it may be observed, the Gütsherrschaft was making its appearance during the latter part of the fifteenth century, swallowing up peasant farms and engaging in large-scale production. But the English Gütsherrschaft vias, not, as in Prussia, a corn-growing estate but a sheep­farm which required little labour, and the problem to which it gave rise was not, therefore, a recrudescence of serfdom but a certain amount of depopulation and unemployment in the regions affected by the enclosure movement. In any case the dominant form of landownership in England remained the Grundherrschaft, and the chief cause of distress in sixteenth­century England was not enclosure but rack-renting and excessive entry fines.

The two factors mainly responsible for the recrudescence of serfdom and the depression of the peasantry in Eastern Europe were thus the extension of the powers of the Gerichtsherr and the appearance of a new type of capitalist estate. To these factors it has been usual to add a third, the adoption of Roman Law, which subjected the peasant, for generations ruled by local custom, to a strange law which he had no share in making and which tended to intensify the proprietorial rights of the landlord, particularly over the waste. In some parts the change to Roman Law did no doubt increase the distress of the peasantry, but the researches of von Below and Aubin have now shewn conclusively that this was not always and everywhere the case and that the Roman Law affected different classes and localities in different ways. In Lower Saxony and Westphalia, for example, the position of the peasantry suffered no decline and the new law contributed to the evolution of Meierrecht from a free time-lease into a hereditary tenure which gave the maximum of security to the small farmer. In general there was probably little direct connexion between the adoption of Roman Law and the manorial reaction, which had already advanced far upon its way before the adoption became general.

Thus peasants of all classes had cause for discontent at different times and in different places, especially during the last two centuries of the Middle Ages. Some were prosperous, resented feudal oppression, and were fain to hasten the process of emancipation; others were driven desperate by war, or by wage regulations, or by the growing demands of Vogt or lord, or by the exactions of city usurers, or by the loss of commons. National, political, and religious discontents often reinforced their economic grievances and they sometimes found allies among other classes and powers, now making common cause with the towns against the rural nobility (as in Flanders and Italy), now with the nobility against the towns (as in Wurtemberg and Baden), now with a native against a foreign landlord class (as in Bohemia and Denmark), now with the Crown against the Church and the nobles (as in Catalonia), now with industrial workers and poor priests against the bourgeois and ecclesiastical hierarchy (as in the English Peasants’ Revolt). A few general peasant risings took place on the eve of the period under discussion, notably that of the Breton and Norman peasants at the beginning of the eleventh century and that of the Low Countries at the end, but on the whole the twelfth and thirteenth centuries were free of them. It was an age of increasing prosperity for the peasantry and emancipation was making steady progress. Risings were sporadic and local, and most of them seem to have been upon monastic lands, though whether this is due to the fact that monastic chroniclers naturally recorded disturbances on their own estates, or to any particular severity on the part of monastic lords, it is hard to say. There is some reason to believe that monasteries were conservative landlords, slow to grant freedom and exceedingly tenacious of their rights. Moreover, the combination of ecclesiastical and territorial rights in the hands of one lord, who took your best beast as a heriot and your second-best as a mortuary when you died and annually exacted his tithe as well as his rental from your fields, may well have made monastic landlords seem harsher than lay lords and concentrated a double resentment on their heads. The peasants who rose were often prosperous, some of them themselves employers of labour, and it is a commonplace that such revolts are usually the work of those to whom economic prosperity makes their servile status seem doubly irksome, or who are threatened with unaccustomed burdens, rather than of men sunk in the lowest stage of depression. The revolt of the peasants of maritime Flanders in 1322-28 is a case in point; they were both free and well-to-do, and rose against the attempt to force serfdom upon them, and they were successful. Similarly in England Froissart was not far wrong when he attributed the rebellion of 1381 to “the ease and riches that the common people were of.”

A new spirit

It was not until after the middle of the fourteenth century that peasant risings became both frequent and general, sometimes assuming the proportions of a real “green revolution.” The long series began with the Jacquerie in France (1358), which was caused by the ravages of war and the resentment of the peasantry against a nobility which not only loaded them with exactions, but could not even perform its own business successfully and clear the English from the land; for Poitiers had just been lost, ‘the Peasants’ Revolt in England (1381), perhaps the most interesting of all, was precipitated by an unfairly graduated poll-tax, but it united villeins who wanted the abolition of serfdom with free labourers who wanted the abolition of the Statutes of Labourers, and gradually drew into its scope every smouldering grievance of the working-classes in town and country alike. It was suppressed with far less violence than had been shewn by the French nobles after the Jacquerie, probably because the peasants had been guilty of few excesses, and it had little effect upon the disappearance of villeinage. In Spain the method of revolt was more successful: the serfs of Upper Catalonia rose three times between 1395 and 1471 and finally won their freedom with the assistance of the Crown; in Majorca, on the other hand, four insurrections were directed between 1351 and 1477 against the town capitalists who had concentrated the bulk of the rural property in their hands, and were unsuccessful. In Scandinavia the free peasants of Sweden rose in 1437-40, as those of maritime Flanders had done a century previously, to prevent themselves from being reduced to serfdom, and were successful; but three great revolts in Denmark between 1340 and 1441 only increased the hold of the German aristocracy upon the peasantry. All these risings were to culminate in the slow-gathering resentment of the German peasant in the grip of the feudal reaction. The long struggle of the peasants of the Kempten estates against their Prince-Abbot began in 1423; there were risings in Saxony, Silesia, Brandenburg, and the Rhineland in 1432, and (as Dr Coulton has pointed out) at least eleven serious revolts in various parts of Germany during the thirty years before Luther’s appearance in 1517. The great Peasants’ Revolt of 1524 was only the climax of a long movement.

This effervescence in the rural world was accompanied by the appear­ance of a new spirit in the countryside, something of more universal significance than the old revolt against burdensome dues and services. This new spirit, half religious and half socialistic, is very marked in the English Peasants’ Revolt and in some of the German movements. Dreams of a reform of the Church were in the heads of English peasants in 1381, long before Hussite and German revolts linked agrarian discontent with the nascent Reformation. Moreover the peasant himself began to be idealised and his figure to take on a kind of mystic significance. Men quoted the words of the Psalmist, Labores manuum tuarum quia manducabis beatus es, and of Christ Himself, Pater mens agricola. It was labourer and not priest who was the type of holiness, whose sweat quenched hell fire and washed the soul clean. The remarkable English poem of Piers Plowman sounds a new note in medieval literature. No less marked was the growing class consciousness of the peasantry and the rise of egalitarian and socialistic doctrines. The German peasants marched with the wooden Bundschuh for their banner and the English repeated a doggerel couplet

When Adam delved and Eve span

Who was then the gentleman?

Froissart’s description of the preaching of the wandering priest John Ball in the villages is a locus classicus in the history of the democratic movement:

“Ah, ye good people, the matters goeth not well to pass in England, nor shall not do till everything he common and that there be no villains nor gentlemen, hut that we may all he united together, and that the lords he no greater masters than we he. What have we deserved or why should we be kept thus in sewage? We be all come from one father and one mother, Adam and Eve; whereby can they say or shew that they be greater lords than we be, saving by that they cause us to win and labour for that they dispend? They are clothed in velvet and camlet furred with grise and we be vestured with poor cloth: they have their wines, spices, and good bread and we have the rye, the bran, and the straw, and drink water: they dwell in fair houses and we have the pain and travail, rain and wind in the fields; and by that that cometh of our labours they keep and maintain their estates. We be called their bondmen and without we do readily them service, we be beaten; and we have no sovereign to whom we may complain, nor that will hear us nor do us right”.

Froissart, lover of chivalry and hanger-on of princes, had no sympathy for what he was reporting, but its tremendous import comes through him, in spite of himself, and all the clash of arms in his chronicle cannot hide that ominous note, the clatter of the Bundschuh on the road to freedom.

It is perhaps an inevitable result of the fact that economic history has been to such a great extent written by legal historians that the medieval peasant is usually considered primarily in relation to his lord. The profusion of manorial documents and the fact that all we know of medieval farming is concerned (save by implication) with demesne farming, have led to the same result. Yet the peasant was not only the inhabitant of a manor (and the manorial hold over him was often loose enough); he was a villager, the member of a community with a close and active life of its own. It was this village community which made rules for the common routine of husbandry, into which lord no less than tenant had to fit. Occasionally its regulations for such matters as the harvest are found enrolled upon court rolls; more often there have survived its customary rules for the use of forest and waste; and these are of great interest where there was an intercommoning of several vills over the same land, and often a Markgenossenschaft, with its own officials elected by the constituent villages to enforce the agreed regulations. The lords steadily encroached upon these organisations in the course of time, but they played an important part in rural life and many of their regulations may be read in the German Weistümer.

The religious, the social, the family life of the villager all elude the historian who confines his attention to estate books and manorial documents, save in so far as court rolls throw their light on his less reputable moments, his often sanguinary feuds and hues and cries, his burglaries, and his daughter’s peccadilloes. But there is ample other material from which to reconstruct it. Contemporary literature is rich in pictures of village life. What a familiar collection of types—mutatis mutandis still to be found in the countryside—is assembled in the thirteenth-century French lai, which prefaces “a rhymed octosyllabic curse” of peculiar force and comprehensiveness with a description of the twenty-three types of vilains to be stricken by it. There is the headman who announces feast days under the elm tree in front of the church, and the pious villagers who sit with the clerks and turn over the book of hours for them and who carry the cross and the holy water in procession. There is the surly vine-dresser who will not point out the way to travellers; and the grumbler, who sits before his cottage-door on Sundays and mocks the passers-by, and if he sees a gentleman coming along with a hawk on his wrist, he says, “Ho, that screech-owl will get a hen to eat tonight that would have given my children their bellyful'”; and there is the embittered fellow who hates God, Holy Church, and the gently. There is the accom­modating ass (Vilain Asnin) who carries the cakes and wine to the feast and if the weather is fine he carries his wife’s cloak too, but if it is wet he strips himself to his breeches and covers her up. There is the country bumpkin, who goes to Paris and stands in front of Notre Dame, gaping up at the kings and saying, “Look, there’s Pepin! There’s Charlemagne ” while a pickpocket cuts his purse behind. There is the village leader, who speaks for the others to the bailiff and says, “Sir, in my grand­father’s and great-grandfather’s time, our cows used to go in that meadow and our sheep in that copse,” and so gains a hundred sous for the villeins. There are also the miser; and the poacher who leaves his work at morn and eve to steal his lord’s conies; and the “cowled vilain, that is the poor married clerk who goes to work with the other vilains”; and the wood-gatherer, who brings his load in backwards because his cottage-door is so low; and the marl-spreader, who upsets the last cartload over himself, “and he lies there and does not trouble the graveyard.” Finally, there is “Vilain Graft, to wit he that taketh a gentlewoman to wife, even as a garden pear is grafted on a wild pear tree, or a cabbage, or a turnip,” a witness to the fact that in France at least rich peasants occasionally married above them. Similar pictures are to be found in the fabliaux and they abound, likewise, in German and English literature. Meier Helnibrecht’s family; Chaucer’s “povre widwe somdel stope in age,” in whose yard dwelt Chantecler and Pertelote, that incomparable pair; the village taverns in Piers Plowman and The Tunnyng of Elynour Rummynge (genre pictures as robust and redolent of the soil as Breughel’s paintings); all these linger in the memory. Langland’s great epic, indeed, is a whole gallery of peasant types, from the labourers who deigned not to dine on bacon and last night’s vegetables, but must have hot fried fish, to “the wo of these women that wonyeth in cotes” and the poor man’s pride that will not let his neighbours see his need. This last passage— too well known for quotation—is equalled in pathos only by the poignant vignette in Pierce the Plowman’s Crede which shews the poor peasant and his wife plowing, with their little babe in a crumb-bowl at the end of the acre, and two-year-old twins tumbling beside it, all crying one cry, “a careful note.” One is reminded of the sentence, so significant and so devoid of sympathy, in Pelagius’ De Planctu Ecclestae where he sets forth, among the sins of the peasant folk, that “they often abstain from knowing their own wives lest children should be born, fearing that they could not bring up so many, under pretext of poverty.”

Another particularly valuable source of evidence for medieval village life, in its non-manorial aspects, is to be found in certain ecclesiastical documents, more particularly in those dealing with the parochial visitations, which took place from time to time. Records of several of such visitations have survived, notably those of four Norman parishes made by the Abbot of Cerisy’s Official in the fourteenth century and those made by the Archdeacon of Josas in the Ile de France between 1458 and 1470, both of which are particularly valuable in covering a number of consecutive years. The picture which they give of village life with its immorality and violence and dilapidation is a sombre one, and has sometimes been ascribed in part to the effect of the Hundred Years’ War upon the countryside. That effect is, indeed, marked in the Josas series, a picture of desolation relieved only by the care with which, in place after place, the people are made to elect a village midwife, who is then sworn and licensed by the archdeacon. Nevertheless the general impression derived from those Cerisy visitations which belong to the period before the war is not very different from that derived from the later reports, although it is undeniably less gloomy, and there is much in common between both the Cerisy and the Josas series and the reports of the visitations of the diocese of Hereford in 1397, which have recently come to light.

These Hereford returns give a picture of English village life which is unsurpassed by that to be obtained from any other class of record. Here parish after parish is unrolled, with its superstitions, manners, morals, its village quarrels and its relations with the church. It is the border country, where Welsh and English mingle and occasionally the parson does not understand the language of his flock, as they complain. They are, indeed, nothing loath to complain of their parson if they have anything against him. The vicar of Eardisley is at feud with the whole parish; he has failed to supply a parish clerk, and his two maid-servants ring the bells and help him in the celebration of Mass, and his relations with them are gravely suspect; several men have died without the last sacrament by his default, and when he was burying one John Boly in the churchyard, he said publicly in the hearing of those present, “Lie you there, excommunicate!” He refuses to give the sacrament at Easter to the labourers of the parish, unless they agree with him for a tithe of their wages, and would not absolve a certain woman after confession unless she gave him 12d. towards the repair of the church books, so that she went into Here­ford to get herself shriven. The church is befouled with flax and hemp, and he is a common trader in corn and other goods and a usurer. Differuntur omnia contravencia Vicarii sub spe concordie, runs a note in the Register; but the hope seems faint. Even when Hodge had no complaint against his parson, he was not a particularly devout son of the Church. He grumbled over mortuaries and tithes, tried to evade his turn to provide the panis benedictus, and was reported for not coming to church on Sundays or for working in the fields on holy days. Nevertheless the church was obviously the centre of village life. There the people went to be christened, married, and buried. They might or might not learn something of the truths of religion from their priest, but they got a rough familiarity with the lives of the saints and with the Bible from statue or storied capital or from wall-paintings, St Christopher opposite the door to befriend the traveller, the Last Judgment over the chancel, and the Virgin in her lady chapel at the side. Nor did the people only use the church for their devotions; they were apt to do their buying and selling in the porch, and the priest himself sometimes stored and even threshed his grain there. The churchyard, too, was a convenient open space for village festivities. This was well and good if a miracle play came round, which might be considered edifying, but the fairs which grew up round the churches were apt to encroach on the churchyards, to the wrath of ecclesiastical authorities, and sometimes the people came there for dances and revels.

Village superstitions

One thing is certain, whether pious or not, the villagers, like country people in all parts of the world, were exceedingly superstitious and ready believers in charms and ghosts and witches. The Poenitentiale of Bartholomew Iscanus, Bishop of Exeter (1161-84), sets forth a list of such village superstitions. Whosoever has prepared a table with three knives for the service of the fairies, that they may predestinate good to such as are born in the house; whosoever shall pollute New Year’s Day by magic enquiries into the future; whosoever, labouring in wool or otherwise, shall lay spells thereon that the work may prosper, or who shall forbid the carrying away of fire or aught else from his house, lest the young of his beasts perish; whosoever shall cast into his barn or cellar a bow or any plaything soever wherewith “the devils called fairies” should play that they may bring greater plenty; whosoever shall believe that a man or woman may be changed into shape of a wolf or other beast; whosoever shall spy out the footsteps of Christian folk, believing that they may be bewitched by cutting away the turf whereon they have trodden. Many other superstitions are set forth, and readers of medieval exempla will remember too the peasant women who steal the consecrated Host, to sprinkle it among their cabbages or in their beehives as a charm against disease.

It is from the villages, one feels sure, that there come those tales of marvels which find their way into medieval chronicles. They smack of the rustics on the alehouse bench, or under the haystack at midday, or warming themselves around the fire at night. Villages in the West Country, where the Celtic strain was strong, were particularly prone to such tales, and many of them are collected in that most enchanting of books, Walter Map’s De Nugis Curialium, where may be read the story of the man who married a fairy and others full of a graceful imagination not always found in folk tales. The villages of the diocese of Hereford visited in 1397 were full of the same superstitions and not even the priests were always blameless. John the chaplain, say the villagers of Kilpeck, “seemeth to them by no means firm in the faith, for he hath oftentimes conjured by night with familiar spirits”. There is even a ghost: “the parishioners [of Shrawardine] say that a certain Nicholas Cutler of Ruwardyne on his father’s death publicly put it about that his father walked by night in the aforesaid parish and he watched at his father’s tomb one night, to the great scandal of the Catholic Church.” A group of really admirable village ghost stories comes from Yorkshire, where a monk of Byland Abbey wrote them down about the year 1400. The best tells of the man who was camped with a group of pilgrims beside a lonely road at night, and suddenly heard a neighing and screaming and galloping in the air and saw to his horror all the last year’s dead coming hell-for-leather down the road towards him riding upon their mortuaries, horses, cows, and sheep, a motley and grisly crew, with his own abortive and unchristened infant rolling along the ground in an old stocking in which his wife had buried it. The Hereford visitations show us witches too. Amice Daniel used sorcery in Cradley, and in Bromyard Alison Brown so practises that when she puts her curse on a man God forthwith visits vengeance upon him, which (say the villagers) is against the Catholic faith and tempting the Lord, and what can be expected of a woman who sells her hemp inside the church itself?

In general, however, the witch was much less unpopular than the village usurer, that still universal figure in rural society, from the gombeen-man of Ireland to the bániah of India. The small farmer is often hard up just before he gets in his harvest (when Langland shews the peasants tightening their belts and living on poor fare), or if the crops are bad, or if storm and flood destroy his little possessions; and to tide him over hard times he must borrow. In the Middle Ages the Church, of course, strictly forbade usury, but the rich neighbour who lent would not lend for nothing; so the peasants used him and hated him and when there was a visitation hurried to accuse him. Thus the villagers of Dymock say “that Henry Cece is a common usurer, viz. he lent to a certain Jak atte Hull 12s., the which he received back in full together with four bushels of wheat for the delay and he lent Proserpine Wele 10s. and received from her three bushels.” Sometimes it was the parish priest himself who lent out money at interest to his flock. At Yazor “Sir Thomas, vicar there, lent a certain Gylym of Erdeshope 40d. and took by way of usury twelve pullets; the same lent to him 20d. and received in usury two pounds of oats.” The village of Church Stoke (Montgomery) was full of usurers, and Jevan ap David ap Joris had lent Madoc ap David 15s. at 5s. per annum and had already received 30s. in this way.

A particularly vivid picture of German peasant life is to be found in the Weistümer, or customs drawn up in the village courts, mostly during the period when manorial organisation was breaking up and the lords were anxious to preserve their rights against the inroads of the peasants; they reflect a changing world and sometimes represent more than one stage of evolution. In these documents peasant speech is preserved and peasant life mirrored more clearly perhaps than in the custumals of any other country; they have a perfectly distinctive note, an atmosphere (as Professor Levett has observed) of Grimm’s fairy tales which is unmistakable, if only for the part played in them by animals. Here is the steward of the Provost of St Alban’s at Basle receiving the rent at Brattellen: “He shall come there, and after sunset when the night falls and the stars begin to shine he shall sit under the open sky and thus wait for the tenants to bring their rent. If they be slow and pay not promptly, he may rise and go into the inn and whosoever is behindhand and maketh not payment at the place where the steward sat, he owes twice as much next day and four times as much if he delay a day and a night; so let all be warned and pay their rent before they go to bed.’’ But in other places the steward must fetch the rent and the peasant pays it “over his hedge,” and the rent-hen must be sought “ so softly and quietly that the child is not waked in the cradle, nor the cock frightened on the perch.” This matter of rents and payments is one that calls for care. The hen due to the lord must be lively enough to fly “from the ground to the ladder, from the ladder to the manger, and from the manger to the roost”; the cheese “of such a hardness that if it be thrown against a wall it rebounds without breaking”; and if the Meier of Hengwiller suspects the quality of a grain rent, “let him take his stand at the door by which the swineherd passes and spread some of the corn on the ground; when a sow with seven piglings after her stops and eats thereof the Meier must be content, when the sow passes without stopping the villager must provide corn of a better quality.” The sow, one feels, was probably on the tenant’s side, and other definitions in his interest are found, such as that which bids the lord of Bischholz be content with the wine grown by his tenants, even if it be so sour that it would corrode a horse’s hoof, and directs that the cartload of wood gathered for the Count of Stolberg at Bom be so loosely packed “that a hare could run through with his ears erect.”

The records are full of Gargantuan feasts. When the men of Huningue take a boat-load of wine down the river to Basle, the provost serves them with food and drink, and “ they shall be made to drink so well that they can only stagger back to the boat”; and when wine has been carried by villagers on the estates of a Schwarzwald monastery, they are to be regaled with some of it until “no two men can carry the third to bed.” The foresters of Colmar, on their Martinmas inspection of the Waitmark, pass the night with the Abbot of Munster, “and he shall give them two kinds of bread, two kinds of wine (white and red), and a new tablecloth, and the loaves must be of such a size that when they set them on end upon their feet, the foresters can cut enough above the knee to glut themselves, and on their departure they can make a parcel of the cloth and the fragments and take the lot, unless the abbot pay them five shillings instead. When night falls, straw shall be strewn for them round the fire and a minstrel shall be sent to play them to sleep on the viol. A servant must keep watch over the clothes, lest the fire harm them; if the sleepers burn in front it is their affair, if they burn behind they shall receive compensation. When the foresters take leave of the abbot in the morning he shall cause each of them to be given a pair of new shoes and they shall go on and breakfast at the manor house of Wihr.” Here too we find the kindliness which remits the shrovetide hen to the pregnant bondswoman and makes her husband shew up its head, to be sure she has dined off it, or allows her to fish for herself in the lord’s brook; but also the cruelty which lays down that the man who has removed his neighbour’s landmark shall be buried up to his chin in the place where it stood, and the field plowed by a plough and four oxen, “and the buried mail may help himself as best he can.”

Migrant shepherds

The peasants with whose life and work this chapter has been concerned have been those who formed the vast majority of medieval farmers and labourers, sedentary persons living in their villages, hamlets, or separate faring It is true that the medieval peasant was much less sedentary than has sometimes been supposed. Under the food-rent system, carrying services often obliged the villein to travel far beyond the confines of his native village. The man whose lord owned but a single manor probably remained there and saw but a hundred or two hundred faces in all his life, but not so the tenants of St Paul’s carrying their food-rents from Essex up to London, the bondsmen of Darnell doing carriage with sack and pack throughout Cheshire, or the men of Huningue taking wine for the Meier of Ystein by boat down the Rhine to Basle. It is an interesting reflection that for a large part of the peasantry the growth of a money economy, the commutation of labour services, and the restriction of demesne farming probably made travel less rather than more frequent and considerably restricted their horizon. They had now only to take their rent up to the manor house and carry their produce to market, or wait until the travelling middleman collected it. Economically they were tied to the soil, if legally they were free; save for the congenital wanderer, compulsory travel came to an end with serfdom. In many places, too, manorial custom permitted the serf to live off the manor on payment of a fine, traites de parcours between lords provided for the intermarriage of their respective serfs, and in some parts of France the unfree peasant possessed the right of desaveu, allowing him to leave his tenement on giving his lord notice and abandoning his goods. The records of the time show that apart from the movement thus legitimised there were constant flights, and the steady recruitment of the towns from the countryside, to say nothing of the great mass emigra­tions of German and Flemish pioneers to the Eastern frontier, bears witness to a considerable mobility. Indeed the immobile medieval peasant, like the self-sufficing medieval manor, is something of a myth. It is interesting that in Wittenweiler’s poem Der Ring, written by a fifteenth-century Bavarian satirist, a peasant enumerating the ten points of good education puts first that his boy should serve God and second that he should visit a foreign land.

Certain classes of rural workers, moreover, were forced by the nature of their work to be nomads, wandering from place to place. The seasonal harvest workers who migrated from Poland into Prussia, or came down from Wales and the north of England to gather in the harvest in the agricultural midlands, are cases in point. But more interesting and more truly nomadic were the migrant shepherds who drove their great flocks of sheep every year from summer pasture in the mountains to winter pasture in the plains. This regular seasonal migration, which is usually known by the name of transhumance, has taken place from very early times in lands where changes of climate are extreme and where there exists a combination of low-lying plains, too dry to support flocks and herds in summer, with high mountain pastures, which are under snow in winter. The practice is found in a modified degree in many hilly districts. It was carried on in Scotland and Wales and even in parts of England, where a Bishop of Lichfield and Coventry in the early thirteenth century laid down that the tithes of wool taken by churches in his diocese were to be divided “if the sheep be fed in one place in winter and another place in summer.’1 In many of the Alpine valleys the peasants had a more or less permanent winter settlement in the valley, where their few cultivated fields were situated, but moved to summer huts in the mountains when the snow melted. Ill others they were more nomadic still, owning only temporary dwellings and moving from fief to fief with their sheep, so that in one charter, hailing from the Briançonnais district, it was laid down that a man who passed Christmas Day on a lord’s land was to be held that lord’s man for a year.

The home of transhumance proper, however, is in the Mediterranean region, where from an early period it has been characteristic of Spain, southern France, south-eastern Italy and the Roman Campagna, and northern Greece. The most remarkable example of the industry is certainly provided by Spain. Spanish wool had a great reputation in the Middle Ages, being considered second only to the fine Cotswold wool of England, and the merino sheep became the pivot of Spanish economic life. It has been calculated that the total number of sheep on the move in Spain at the close of the Middle Ages (1477) was over two and a half millions. They travelled very long distances along the cañadas or sheepwalks, the flocks from Leon often going 350 to 450 miles from their summer to their winter pastures; nor were Spanish sheep the only animals upon the road, for the ordinances of the town league of Daroca deal with “French, Gascon, Basque, and foreign herdsmen” coming from the South of France over the Pyrenees and down the Ebro valley to winter in southern Aragon. By the end of October all the flocks were in their winter camps in the sunny lowland plains and the lambing season began soon after their arrival. They stayed there until the middle of April and then began to depart. The sheep-shearing was done in sheds along the way, by clippers working in gangs of 125, each of which clipped a thousand sheep a day. The wool was either sold at once or stored in central warehouses, the chief of which was at Segovia, and then dispatched to the great fairs or to the ports. By the end of May the sheep were back in their home pastures in the northern uplands. The shepherds, who were a much favoured class in Castilian society, were engaged for the year, beginning on St .John the Baptist’s Day (24 June), and were paid, usually in kind, at the close of a year’s service. In the middle of the fourteenth century the legal wage was 12 bushels of grain, one-fifth of the lambs born during the year, one-seventh of the cheese produced, and six maravedis in coin for every hundred sheep under the care of the shepherd, who was also allowed to keep a certain number of his own sheep free of charge with his master’s flock.

Wherever it existed on a large scale, migratory sheep-farming had certain common characteristics. The routes followed by the flocks were fixed and the pasturages were communally owned. In southern Italy and Spain they were mainly Crown lands, but the Provencal flocks, whether they migrated westward into the Pyrenees or eastward into the Alps, had to depend mainly on the common lands of the upland valleys, the use of which they obtained by agreements with the lords concerned or with the virtually independent mountain villages. In one village in upper Dauphine the people say in 1354 that sheep from Provence have long frequented the Alpine heights above them, and when one of the nomad shepherds falls ill, the cure of their village goes up to him in the mountains and gives him the sacraments, and if he die the villagers fetch down his body at their own cost and bury him in their graveyard. But the transhumants were never as welcome to the people as to their lords, for the lords profited by the taxes which the visitors paid, while the local inhabitants some­times suffered from over-crowded pastures. These local taxes levied on the passing flocks, under different names (pulverage in Provence, carnal in the Pyrenees, montazgo and montadigo in Spain and Portugal), are an early and important form of the taxation of movables, and out of them there developed in the Spanish kingdoms and in southern Italy a system of taxation by the central government which led to the protection of flocks and maintenance of highways by the State and to the development of an elaborate machinery of administration. Another common characteristic of the migratory sheep industry is the deep-rooted antagonism to which it gave birth, between the sedentary husbandman of the plain and the nomadic herdsman who passed through his lands. The shepherds were everywhere blamed for deforestation and the ruin of husbandry, and all sorts of regulations were laid down to protect the latter. At the end of the twelfth century, when the Castilian kings granted wide privileges for sheep migrations, the flocks were forbidden to trespass upon the “five forbidden things,” to wit, pastures reserved for local animals, cornfields, vineyards, orchards, and mown meadows, though they were occasionally allowed to graze on the stubble after harvest. The hostility of the settled town and village dwellers often took the form of oppressive taxation and the formation of leagues of towns to protect themselves against transhumants.

These characteristics of the migratory sheep industry had two interesting consequences. In certain districts, notably in southern Italy and Spain, they led to the appointment of special itinerant officials and judges, whose business it was to protect the interests of the flocks. More important still, the need to deal with common routes, common taxes, and a common hostility brought about the organisation of great protective associations among the sheep-owners themselves. Of these associations the most famous was the Castilian Mesta, which by the end of the Middle Ages completely dominated the economic organisation of Spain and ultimately proved fatal to Spanish agriculture. The Mesta was first definitely organised as a single national association by Alfonso the Learned in 1273. It had some two or three thousand members, mostly small men driving their own sheep, though a few owners of big flocks, like the Duke of Bejar and the monastery of Escorial, belonged to it. Its meetings were held three times a year, and were attended as a rule by two hundred or three hundred owners, women often being present and having full rights. At these meetings the duties and behaviour of the shepherds were regulated, nego­tiations were carried on with towns over local taxes and with the Crown over privileges, and in general the migrations were organised and the interests of members protected. There were similar associations in Aragon and Apulia.

Such were the main features of peasant life and rural conditions during the last four centuries of the Middle Ages. From his contemporaries, or at least from those whose opinions have come down to us, the peasant received but little appreciation. Clerkly writers scorned him, and he was the butt of many half-proverbial rhymes and epigrams. “Servi qui non timent, tument”; “rustica gens optima flens, pessima gaudens”; “oignez vilain, il vous poindra, poignez vilain il vous oindra”; “Knechte schlagen wenn sie nicht zagen”; “Der Bauer ist an Ochsen statt, nur dass er keine Horner hat.” Very few are the writers who suggest that villein is as villein does, and express any sympathy for the hard lot of those who labour in the fields.

It is not until the later Middle Ages that there appears the idealised peasant type and the mystical exaltation of manual labour performed not by monk but by husbandman. Yet these inarticulate and despised masses had two achievements to their credit which are worthy to be set beside the greatest works of art and literature and government produced by the Middle Ages. They fed and colonised Europe; and slowly, painfully, laboriously they raised themselves from serfdom to freedom, laying hands as they did so upon a good proportion of that land which they loved with such a passionate and tenacious devotion.