The End of the Old Order in Rural Europe Analysis

Jerome Blum

The End of the Old Order in Rural Europe

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

Studies of the lives, labor and status of European peasants in the Old Regime did not attract the attention of historians to any extent until the later nineteenth century. Since then, there has been a spate of works on the subject by historians of many countries. In this book, Jerome Blum, a distinguished American historian, has performed a useful service by bringing together and synthesizing a good share of the published materials concerning the life and liberation of the peasants of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. His “List of Works Cited” covers forty-five pages and ranges from John Quincy Adams, Letters on Silesia (1804), through the classic studies of peasant emancipation in Prussia by G. B. Knapp, to the masterly work of Fernand Braudel in the 1960’s and 1970’s.

The End of the Old Order in Rural Europe is divided into three sections. The first, called “The Traditional Order,” explains the internal structure of the feudal hierarchy of the Old Regime and the activities of the two orders: seigniors and peasants. The second section, “Transition,” deals with the forces and elements that emerged, particularly in the eighteenth century, to undermine the traditional structure of European rural society. The last section, “Emancipation,” tells where, how, and when the peasants were given their personal liberty.

Blum uses the phrase “servile Europe” to mean those lands from France in the west to the Russian Empire in the east in which a process of rural change and of emancipation formed a common experience that lasted for more than a century. He does not include Spain, Britain, most of the Italian states, or the Ottoman Empire as part of servile Europe because the transition from servility to liberation of the peasants in those countries did not follow the same pattern, or come at the same time, as in the servile Europe.

Servile Europe in the eighteenth century contained more than one hundred million people, of which seventy to ninety percent—depending on the country—were rural peasants working the land of their seigniors and burdened with a host of obligations and services that had to be furnished to support the ruling orders. The peasantry of servile Europe was the “broad patient back who bore the weight of the entire social pyramid.” Above the peasants in the social structure of the Old Regime were the clergy and the nobility or seigniors. Each order or estate had its defined rights, functions, and obligations which had been formulated in the Middle Ages and which persisted through laws, customs, and habits. Some movement of individuals between orders was possible, as when a peasant became a clergyman, but that was relatively rare. In all, it was a hierarchical, fixed society resting on a “gradation of powers, authorities, eminences and distinctions” with each man born to his place.

Blum takes issue with some historians who hold that by the eighteenth century most peasants of servile Western Europe were no longer serfs because they had been freed from personal servility, and their dependence now adhered only to the land. This is technically true, but the distinction is specious in terms of practical consequences. Virtually all peasants, he points out, still owed servile obligations to a seignior and stood in servile relationship to the seigniorial order as a whole. Only remnants of serfdom may have remained to confine and oppress the peasants of Western Europe by the eighteenth century, but those remnants were sufficient to cause the peasantry to feel their servile status and wish to end it. In the “cahiers of grievances” sent to Paris on the eve of the French Revolution, peasants from all parts of that country complained of the multitude of servile obligations and seigniorial privileges that still existed.

At the same time, Blum acknowledges that, relatively speaking, the peasants of Central and Eastern Europe were much more servile and degraded than those of Western Europe. In Russia and elsewhere in Eastern Europe the peasants were serfs to be sold, mortgaged, exchanged, or gambled away by their seigniors as if they were chattel property. “Hybrids between animal and human,” said one Russian lord of his serfs, while another called the peasants “lazy, drunken, irresponsible louts. . . who were kept at work only by fear of the whip.”

Throughout servile Europe, almost all peasants were required to furnish a variety of dues and services to the seigniors. Blum cites many examples. In the province of Moravia, for instance, the peasants were susceptible to 246 different money payments for various dues. Not all the peasants of Moravia owed all those money payments, but most of them owed a large proportion of them. He also mentions a...

(The entire section is 1949 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

Journal of Economic History. XXXVIII, December, 1978, p. 975.