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About this book

This new study provides an up-to-date survey of social and economic developments in early modern Eastern European rural societies. Markus Cerman revises the traditional images of mighty lords and poor, powerless 'serf peasants', discussing the theories which led to the assumption that serfdom existed throughout the region.

Cerman contrasts the interpretation of a long-term backwardness with a fresh view of the legal, social and economic status of villagers, their living standards and their role in actively shaping rural communities. Featuring helpful tables, a glossary and a comprehensive bibliography, this is a stimulating reassessment for anyone studying this period and often neglected topic in European history.

Table of Contents

1. Understanding Demesne Lordship

Abstract
Historical research has long assumed that in the early modern period rural societies in Western and Eastern Europe evolved along different paths. As a consequence, the notion of a fundamental ‘agrarian dualism’ between ancien régime Western and Eastern Europe was established, in which the Western model came to represent liberal modernity and progress and the Eastern re-feudalisation and authoritarianism. Many aspects of this conceptualisation overlap with views of a more general ‘backwardness’ of Eastern European societies and economies since the early modern period. The historical roots of this thinking, which also relate to the ‘otherness’ of Eastern Europe, are quite deep and complex [53]. However, based on research emerging since the late 1980s, this book will challenge the view of Eastern European rural society as ‘backward’ and characterised by a poor, suppressed peasantry (‘serfs’) and their powerful overlords. Revising this image does not only result in a new account of rural economic and social development in Eastern Europe, but also in questioning the idea of an agrarian dualism between Eastern and Western Europe that is well established in past and current historiography.
Markus Cerman

2. The Myth of a Second Serfdom

Abstract
The idea of a dualism in the agrarian development of Europe is strongly linked to the assumption that there existed a monolithic ‘second serfdom’ in Eastern Europe from circa 1500 up to the emancipation of the rural population in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Based on recent advances in empirical research, this chapter will systematically question and criticise previous characterisations of this alleged system and of the social and economic situation of the rural population within it. There emerges considerable regional variation in the practice of the seignorial system of demesne lordship, which is in contradiction to traditional descriptions of ‘serfdom’ and ‘subjection’. The process of the establishment of demesne lordship occurred in stages and lasted over a long period, from the middle of the fifteenth until the second half of the seventeenth century (or until the eighteenth century in Russia). It was traditionally characterised by the assumption that villagers’ personal and property rights were severely weakened. However, there was significant variation between the individual territories and over time in this respect. More recent research has identified important areas of autonomy and independent action among villagers and in their communities, which challenges the idea that the asymmetric relationship between villagers and lords resulted in the former’s complete suppression in early modern East-Central and Eastern Europe.
Markus Cerman

3. Explaining the Rise of Demesne Lordship and the Demesne Economy

Abstract
Research has long argued over an explanation for the rise of demesne lordship and about individual factors that influenced its establishment. A single explanatory approach has not yet been accepted, but the significance of influences such as the sixteenth-century price revolution or the political power yielded by the Estates is generally uncontested, even if disagreement arises as to their concrete effects and their importance relative to other factors. Various hypotheses have been proposed to explain the establishment of demesne lordship and the rise of the demesne economy. Possible explanations vary according to the theoretical approaches adopted. As discussed in Chapter 1, some favour analysis of the legal and political framework, while others give more weight to economic factors and particularly to what is regarded as the roughly simultaneous emergence of demesne lordship and a commercial demesne economy. This chapter will present a brief survey of explanations offered so far, then discuss and critically evaluate three approaches in greater detail.
Markus Cerman

4. A Fresh Characterisation of the Demesne Economic System

Abstract
An extensive and commercially oriented demesne economy formed the economic basis of demesne lordship. It was established from the sixteenth century onwards, but with quite varying densities, and differences occurred in the relative importance of arable demesne farming and other sectors of the demesne economy. Several approaches to demesne lordship agree that its rise caused the most important economic consequences for the development of the tenant economy because of the possible seizure of tenant land, the reliance on tenant labour rents and possible competition for its products on local and international markets. This chapter will investigate the economic structure in detail by analysing the extent of demesne farming and its variation over time, the sectors of the demesne economy and their importance for seignorial income, as well as the extent of labour rents and the processes that led to their establishment. It will challenge generalisations in the literature and earlier descriptions such as that labour rents could simply be imposed on villagers, that demesne farms were predominantly operated with forced labour and that lords simply seized tenant land to extend their demesnes.
Markus Cerman

5. A General Backwardness?

Abstract
Did the demesne economy system cause long-term economic stagnation and backwardness in the rural economy and obstruct economic development [11, 47]? There has been an astonishing degree of agreement that it did in many approaches to research, irrespective of their theoretical background (cf. Chapters 1 and 3). According to their verdicts, (i) demesne and tenant agriculture were largely traditional, market averse, backward and characterised by low yields and lack of productivity, which led to a stagnation in overall income; (ii) seignorial interests and regulations such as mobility restrictions or monopolies undermined the economic activities of the rural population; and (iii) urban development and the growth of crafts and proto-i ndustries remained very limited because of demesne lordship.
Markus Cerman

6. Towards a New Assessment

Abstract
This book started with the traditional description of rural societies in early modern East-Central Europe, according to which they experienced a significant rise in the power of landlords. This is claimed to have led to a stricter form of the seignorial system (demesne lordship) and the growth of a commercial demesne economy. It was assumed to be accompanied by the deterioration of village autonomy and an erosion in the legal and economic status of villagers and their property rights. These were the two pillars — strong lords and weak, bonded villagers — regarded as characteristic of early modern Eastern European rural societies. The previous interpretation put these at the heart of the idea of a fundamental East—West divide in early modern rural Europe, synonymous with the idea of a liberal and modernising West and a backward East. From the 1960s onwards, research gradually began to question this meta-narrative.
Markus Cerman
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