Continuing my ‘history of the world’ cycle of posts (which appears in full, with footnotes and references here), we come to the pre-dawn of the modern age in Europe:
Tracking forwards now over the later middle ages in Europe, one story to be told is the slow erosion of the peasant autonomy that had characterised the ‘Dark Ages’ – not only by the growing power of local lords, but also of royal houses which increasingly brought aristocrats to heel under the aegis of centralised, proto-modern royal absolutist states. Perry Anderson famously describes absolutism as “a redeployed and recharged apparatus of feudal domination, designed to clamp the peasant masses back into their traditional social position” involving “a displacement of politico-legal coercion upwards towards a centralized, militarized summit – the Absolutist State”.
In Anderson’s account, the rise of absolutism in Europe followed the ‘feudal crisis’ that began in the 13th century when a combination of over-population relative to agrarian capacity, state fiscal crisis, wars prompted by the declining revenues of warrior aristocracies, and plague convulsed the region – a case of Malthus and the four horsemen, perhaps? In these circumstances, unfree or servile status largely disappeared, often being commuted into money rents, and attempts to shore up the old feudal order were of limited success. Peasant uprisings were common in this period – the revolt in England of 1381 being one example among many. Few of them were fully successful (Switzerland being a notable exception) but perhaps they bequeathed what Rodney Hilton calls “one of the most important if intangible legacies of medieval peasants to the modern world”, namely “the concept of the freeman, owing no obligation, not even deference, to an overlord”.
In some ways this was a contradiction at the heart of absolutism. On the one hand, the exactions and repressions bearing upon the peasantry worsened. But at the same time, centralizing royal power created more of an impetus towards something like citizenship for ordinary cultivators. A serf disaffected with the behaviour of their manorial lord had relatively few options for redress, but that became somewhat less true under absolutist regimes as royal hegemony and royal courts began asserting themselves. Or at least it became less true in western Europe where the nobility was less successful than its eastern counterpart in “clamping” the peasant masses. On the face of it, it probably should have been the other way around – peasants in the west suffered the disadvantage of occupying a more populous region where it was harder to migrate beyond the reach of state or seigneurial power. In Anderson’s account, the difference was the towns – thriving in the west but marginal in the east – and the possibility they held out, even if only theoretical, for escape and a different way of life. In his words, “The typical Western constellation in the early modern epoch was an aristocratic Absolutism raised above the social foundations of a non-servile peasantry and ascendant towns; the typical Eastern constellation was an aristocratic Absolutism erected over the foundations of a servile peasantry and subjugated towns”. In essence, it’s harder to oppress people who have other options.
Not that peasant life in absolutist western Europe was a bundle of fun. Here’s Pierre Goubert’s account of it in the absolutist France of the 17th century:
“The majority of the poor in the countryside farmed only two or three acres, and tried to live off this land completely, which they were more or less able to do as long as the weather was kind and the harvests were good. But they were all forced to find money with which to pay the royal taxes (which went up sharply after 1635), as they had to be paid in coin, as well as to pay seigneurial and other dues. That is why they always had to take their eggs, young cocks, butter and cheese, and the best of the fruit and vegetables to market, or to the neighbouring big house….They could keep little for themselves except what was strictly necessary or unsaleable”
I often think of this quotation when people say peasant life is miserable. Well, yes it is if you’re being mulcted for every last egg and morsel of cheese by the state. Think about the splendours of Louis XIV’s court, largely built on the backs of the kind of people Goubert is describing here – who I doubt got much from the state in return. More subject than citizen. Think about what their lives might have been like without such exactions. Hence, the vision of peasant utopia sketched by Eric Wolf:
“the free village untrammeled by tax collectors, labor recruiters, large landowners, officials. Ruled over, but never ruling, they also lack acquaintance with the operation of the state as a complex machinery, experiencing it only as a “cold monster””
Those of us who nowadays speak up for the peasant way are routinely derided for our backward-looking romanticism. So it’s entertaining to note in the light of this quotation that backward-looking romanticism is in fact a real peasant trait, based to some extent on actual historical instances – Athens, the early middle ages, the feudal crisis, Switzerland, the pre-servile Russian mir (though medieval peasants also opted for forward-looking religious millenarianism, thus founding a lineage that still thrives today – see, for example, The Ecomodernist Manifesto).
But of course the critics are on firm enough ground in arguing that the historic peasant experience has generally been more like the one described by Goubert. Here, at any rate, we establish two possible paths for peasant political activism to have taken. One was to try to install something resembling as much as possible Wolf’s utopia – a ‘moral economy of the peasant’ involving non-market relationships, whether of a customary patron-client type, or something more radical and egalitarian, as sometimes emerged in medieval peasant millenarian movements. The other was to embrace the struggle for economic power which was opening up in an early modern Europe now largely free of servile labour, comprising aggressive absolutist tax states which held out at least the theoretical possibility for their subjects to become citizens. At the end of this essay I’ll come back to the former possibility – but the main drive in early modern Europe was the latter, in the context of an emerging European state system in which the complex mix of overlapping political entities that had characterized the medieval period was giving way to the sovereign national royal-military state. This system of states was solemnized at the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, which concluded the bitter carnage of the Thirty Years’ War, in which it’s estimated that as many as a third of Europe’s inhabitants died.