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  1. PEASANTS • Overwhelming majority of Europeans in the 18th century were peasants • Peasants in Western Europe were relatively free but were still under the thumb of the seigneurial system • Which denied them sufficient land to achieve economic independence • Which also siphoned off whatever surplus they produced • In the form of rents and fees

  2. CHARACTERISTICS • Men labored from dawn to dusk, using primitive tools • Women married late and gave birth to five or six children • Of whom maybe one or two survived to adulthood • Majority lived in a state of chronic malnutrition • Often failed to consume the 2000 calories a day necessary to keep their health • Kept them in the firm grip of Malthusian demographic cycles

  3. THREE-FIELD SYSTEM • Grain yields remained at 5:1 • Could not raise enough grain to feed large numbers of livestock • And therefore did not have enough livestock to produce enough manure to adequately fertilize their fields • Trapped in a system of triennial rotation, where they had to keep 1/3 of their land fallow each year so that it could renew itself

  4. LACK OF INNOVATION • Could not convert fallow land to the cultivation of nitrogen-restoring crops like clover because they lived too close to the line of survival to risk experimentation • Farmed scattered strips of land in open, unenclosed fields • They sowed and harvested together • Stifled individual initiative because it forced everyone to perform their work at the same time and to employ the same methods • Any deviation might jeopardize the survival of the entire community

  5. MARGIN OF SURVIVAL? • Backyard gardens often provided the margin of survival for peasants • Because they did not have the land necessary to achieve economic independence • Much of their harvest drained by seigneurial dues, tithes, rents, and taxes

  6. PEASANT PROPRIETORS • Better-off peasants rigged collection of taxes so that tax burden fell mainly on the backs of poorer peasants • Created serious divisions with peasant community • Indebtedness also caused division • Poorer peasants frequently borrowed from better-off ones (who acted as local loan sharks) to meet their tax and seigneurial obligations • Hatred, jealousy, and conflicts of interest divided every peasant community in Europe

  7. SURVIVAL • Life was a constant struggle for survival • In times of scarcity, poor peasants had to buy their food • Suffered as consumers while, at the same time, rising prices allowed peasant proprietors to make a killing • Poor peasants had to survive by their wits during hard times • Spun and wove cloth in their cottages • Hired themselves out as farm hands • Did odd jobs • Or took to the road in search of work

  8. DESPERATION AND DEATH • Sometimes they took to the road for good • Drifting around Europe scavenging for food • Raiding chicken coops, milking untended cows, stealing laundry, and disguising their bodies to pose as invalids and collect charity • Became smugglers, highwaymen, pickpockets, and prostitutes • And in the end, they died--alone

  9. DEMOGRAPHIC DISASTER • 55% of all rural Europeans born in the 18th century died before the age of 10 • Marriages lasted an average of 15 years • Terminated by death, nor divorce • Relations between children in peasant families was harsh • Each new child meant the difference between mere poverty and destitution • or threatened destitution for the next generation by swelling number of claimants for inheritance

  10. INNOVATION • Agricultural innovation first appeared on the large estates of some members of the aristocracy • In response to inflationary spiral that began in 1750, some turned from rent to producing directly for the market to compensate for rising prices • The rise of commercial agriculture on many aristocratic estates in Europe in the late 18th century increased the amount of certain foods, including grains and meat for human beings and certain root crops for animals

  11. ROOT CROPS • Long range trend away from cultivation of cereal crops for human consumption and towards the production of root crops • Especially the potato • Barley, rye, and wheat were relatively low in nutrition and also exhausted the soil • Triennial rotation was inevitable result of planting cereals, which robbed soil of its nitrogen faster than any other crop

  12. CONVERSION • Poor peasants were subsistence farmers and could not afford to experiment • Failure of one crop could jeopardize their very survival • Life was unstable enough for them without the risk of experimentation • Only a major crisis could provoke poor peasants to break with tradition • Foundation of new agriculture for the peasantry lay in disaster • Failure of grain crops in England (1739-40), Germany and Austrian Empire (1770-72), and France (1788-89) • These massive crop failures forced poor peasants to convert to root crops or die

  13. SPREAD OF THE POTATO • Originally there was popular prejudice against the potato • Taste was ridiculed • Could not be stored for long period • Superstition that it was poison and caused tuberculosis • Disastrous grain harvests caused people to take a second look • Found out it was a more dependable crop than grain • Reputation of potato then spread rapidly

  14. BENEFITS • Irish switched to potato on a massive scale by 1800 • Spread to Germany, Poland, Austrian Empire, and Russia during first half of 19th century • Gave peasants levels of immunity and energy never known before • Yielded four time the quantity of food than grain had on the same amount of land • Could be used as fertilizer and as animal feed • High in calories and vitamins A and C • Caused population to double in regions that adopted it within 20 years

  15. NEW CROPS • With the adoption of the potato, other new crops also became popular • Industrial crops such as sugar beets • Vegetables • Grapes (in southern Europe) • New crops required new knowledge, intensive cultivation, care, and specific skills • Unlike old agriculture

  16. TURNIPS AND SUGAR BEETS • Turnips replenished the soil with nitrogen, could be used as fertilizer, and made excellent food for cattle and sheep • Sugar beets not only provided food for Eastern European peasants but were also good for the soil and could be used as fodder • also could be refined into sugar or distilled into a cheap, but potent, brandy

  17. LIVESTOCK • Production of fodder crops became widespread • Hay, clover, turnips, beets, and potatoes • Allowed peasants to increase size of herds • Also increased average size of individual animals

  18. WINNERS AND LOSERS • Food supply measurably increased through Europe in the 19th century • Population as a whole experienced an advance in nutrition • Peasant proprietors experienced rising standard of living because they were good farmers • Poor peasants had problems • New agriculture required new outlays of money, better knowledge and methods, and more intensive labor • Many poor peasants lacked money and knowledge to succeed • New agriculture separated the good farmer from the bad one and contributed to progressive disappearance of poorer peasants during the 19th century

  19. INTO THE EARLY 20TH CENTURY • Peasant proprietors continued to do well as long as they grew diversified cash crops • Number of agricultural laborers increased as poor peasants were squeezed out and because commercial agriculture required a large number of workers at the time • Their wages rose (although still less than urban wages) • Poor peasants continued to disappear • Either remained in countryside as tenant farmers or agricultural laborers • Or moved to cities to become part of growing urban workforce

  20. GENERAL TREND • Declining market for agricultural products after 1840 might have wiped out the peasant proprietor altogether • If governments had not stepped in and artificially propped them up with tax exemptions, protective tariffs, and price supports • Peasant proprietor transformed into a small commercial farmer increasingly protected by their governments against market slumps and overproduction crises

  21. SUMMARY • Poor peasants either became agricultural laborers or moved to the cities • Because they found it increasingly impossible to compete in commercial market • Given their limited holdings and agricultural knowledge • Given the disappearance of marginal producers and general increase the amount, diversity and quality of food due to commercialization of agriculture, the general standard of living in the countryside improved to the degree where most rural people had enough to eat and possessed proper nutrition • Population in the countryside was smaller in the 19th-20th centuries than it had been in the 18th but it was relatively better off physically and economically