Episode 67 Germany in the year 1200 – The Peasants

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Yes you heard right. This is about the peasants, no kings, emperors, popes, bishops at all. Ok one brother of a duke at the end because I simply cannot help myself. But yes, peasants. What was the life of a peasant in Germany in around 1200 really like? How much do we actually know about their living conditions? Did it differ much from country to country? The correct answer to all of these is – we are not really sure. These sections of the podcast are always the hardest ones. Following some king or emperor around is fairly straightforward. That s what the sources are focused on and you can compare them as well as the different interpretation and you get a half decent picture of what is likely to have happened. But nobody has written a chronicle about the poor Michel, sharecropper on the lands of the count of Pfullendorf. Let alone a second one from the perspective of the count.


Hello and welcome to the History of the Germans: Episode 67 – Germany around 1200 – The Peasants

Yes you heard right. This is about the peasants, no kings, emperors, popes, bishops at all. Ok one brother of a duke at the end because I simply cannot help myself. But yes, peasants. What was the life of a peasant in Germany in around 1200 really like? How much do we actually know about their living conditions? Did it differ much from country to country? The correct answer to all of these is – we are not really sure. These sections of the podcast are always the hardest ones. Following some king or emperor around is fairly straightforward. That s what the sources are focused on and you can compare them as well as the different interpretation and you get a half decent picture of what is likely to have happened. But nobody has written a chronicle about the poor Michel, sharecropper on the lands of the count of Pfullendorf. Let alone a second one from the perspective of the count.

We have to look at a variety of sources that are usually aimed at describing something entirely different, archaeology is crucial as is the Sachsenspiegel, a compilation of Germanic laws from the 12th century. And all the bits in the middle are made up I am afraid.

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When we last did this, we looked at Germany in the year 1000. Quite a bit has changed, but not the most important thing – the economy stupid. We are still in this almost 400 year long economic boom that started in around 950 and lasted until 1348, the year the black death descended upon Europe.

This economic boom had been a combination of climate change that broadened the range of land available for agriculture and the kinds of crops that could be planted. It was further driven by improvements in agricultural technology, namely the turning plough that not only breaks the earth but also forces nutrients up from below. To pull the plough peasants increasingly exchanged slow moving oxen with much faster horses thanks to the shoulder collar, another recent invention. The three-field system replaces the two-field system that reduces fallow land from half to one-third. The three-field system would remain the dominant technology until Johann Jakob Meyer promoted a reform of crop rotation and fertilisation in the late 18th century. 

What we did not yet have in the year 1000 was the next big boost to growth, widespread forest clearing. When the Romans arrived at the Rhine river, they found the lands on its eastern banks being almost entirely covered by huge and impenetrable forests. Some had been cleared during the Carolingian period from 500 to around 800, but that was mostly near the main Roman cities. Real large scale clearing of the forests began in the middle of the 11th century. For instance, the Black Forest, just across the river from the ancient Roman city of Strasbourg was almost completely uninhabited before 1100. Mining was the only reason why people would venture amongst the trees. As they cleared the woods, mainly because they needed it to melt the metals out of the ore, agriculture began, and villages were settled. A lot of the pioneering was done by monasteries, specifically the Cistercians who were looking for seclusion to focus on Ora et Labora.

Whilst the Black Forest is still very much covered in trees, other areas were completely cleared. For instance, the poor soil around Luneburg in the north were once covered in forests. A combination of salt mining and settled agriculture gradually turned it into heathland.

Today 1/3rd of Germany is covered in forest. However, this is largely due to the creation of forestry management in the 19th century. By that time forests had shrunk to no more than the hunting grounds  of the aristocracy and some patches of forests maintained by inefficient monasteries. The dramatic shortage of wood as heating material forced a rethinking and the poorest agricultural land was replanted mostly with fast growing conifers. Of the medieval forests of oak and elm, not much is left.

This improvement in agricultural technology and available land translated into a material increase in population, estimated to be around three-fold across Europe between 1000 and 1340. That is not contested, what is contested is the question whether it resulted in any improvement in the living standards of the peasants.

Chris Wickham points to archaeology to make the point that villages in the 12th century have become better planned and better built than 200 years earlier. In Italy wood construction is replaced by stone and in the North where wood was very readily available more complex wooden constructions and elaborate timber frames point to increased prosperity. Equally we find evidence of metal tools and dress ornaments supporting this thesis.

Model village Steinrode – aimed to replicate 1100 in Saxony

What limited the expansion of peasant wealth was the ever rising demands from landlords for more and more dues, be it for justice, the use of pasture or access to woodland. By around now, outright slavery had ended. Serfdom in its form as owing work to the landlord was in retreat. Starting from the 11th century peasants’ rents were increasingly determined and sometimes paid in cash. Silver coins were minted in Goslar and subsequently more silver deposits were found in Saxony and Bohemia. Still silver values were high and so they were more of a measurement tool than a genuine means of exchange.

The advantage of monetary rent for the landlord was that cash was a lot easier to move around. Rents received as wheat or hogs would need to either be consumed on the spot or brought to a market which requires manpower and organisation. The great advantage for the peasant was that it was transparent. A penny was a penny and if you owed 4 pennies in rent, there was no ambiguity what was owed. If you owed a day of work on the fields of the lord, there is the question of when does the day start and when does it end, what happens if the work is done shoddily, on what day is the work to be done, etc. etc., pp. Money is so much better, in particular when the obligations are written down on a piece of paper the peasant can show to the court of the local count.

The other reason why peasants saw an improvement in their living conditions had to do with the growing number of alternatives. When the tide comes in, all boats float up. In this time of economic boom, a tenant unhappy with his lot in life can find somewhere else to go. The lord who just cleared the forest on his territory is looking for settlers and is prepared to offer lenient conditions. Cities that want to grow offer freedom to everyone who can hold out there for a year and a day. And new cities are being founded left right and centre.

And then there is the big one, the colonisation of the East. By 1130 the lands between the Elbe and the Oder River, roughly equivalent to the modern states of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Brandenburg, Saxony and Sachsen Anhalt were sparsely populated by Slavic peoples, many of whom were pagans. Beginning with Lothar III the Saxon dukes invited colonists to settle in these lands under their protection. We will talk about this in more detail in the next season and I need to learn a lot more about the fate of the original population, so I will not make any comment on that.

For the purposes of what we talk about now, the important thing is that these colonists were offered  generous terms to go into these dangerous lands. Thanks to the Sachsenspiegel, the compilation of Germanic laws written down in 1220 by Eike von Repgow, we have a fairly detailed picture of how these new villages were set up.

During the period 1134 to 1320 the authorities will found 2500 villages in the Margraviate of Brandenburg alone, creating homes for an estimated 200,000 individuals.

The foundation of a village begins with the appointment of a Lokator. An official appointed by either the local prince, the church or an aristocrat. The Lokator will then go out and recruit peasant families from as far away as Flanders or Southern Germany, but mostly locally. A village would usually require between 6 and 20 families of free peasants plus a number of landless free labourers, so called Kossaeten and a vicar.

Lokator (wering straw hat) setting out the new village

The free peasants held the non-arable land in common. That means the surrounding woods, grazing land and ponds and rivers were managed jointly. The three-field approach meant that the land was divided into three parcels. Each of those would than be planted in rotation in line with the three-field method. These parcels would be cut into strips and a peasant would for example hold 2 strips, so that he would own 2 strips in each of the large parcels.

The free peasant would not own the land but hold it as an inheritable leasehold from the lord of the manor. Hence, he would have to pay rent. That rent was described in the Sachsenspiegel as an obligation in kind, namely, to deliver lambs on St. Walpurgis in May, fruit and wine in late May, in June meat, wheat in July, geese in August and cash and miscellaneous on St. Bartholomew’s day. In the case of Brandenburg it seems the landlords preferred obligations in kind to cash since they could sell those to the Hanse cities nearby.

The peasants were also obliged to use the lord’s mill at a price the lord could determine.

The Lokator would usually become the Burmester or Schulze. That means he would dispense the lower justice and generally organise village life, in particular the running of the commons. He determines the dates for seeding and harvest. He collects the rents on behalf of the lord

Apart from the Schulze, the priest and the free peasants there would usually be an alehouse run by a brewer. Beer was taxed to the margrave. Full-time artisans in a village were still rare. Many villages would have a forge, an oven and other tools as a communal space where peasants could be their own smith, baker and much more rarely, candle stick maker..

And finally, we have the lower classes. There are the free farm labourers who would often have a small dwelling with a garden to grow something for their own needs but mostly they would be employed by the free peasants or a noble landlord. In these eastern villages actual serfs obliged to do work on the master’s lands were rare.

Fishing on the rivers was usually done by the former Slavic population who were sometimes relocated wholesale to live along streams or rivers and fish for the lord. The Slavic population were generally not free and had no say in the management of the resources.

To bring the free peasants in, they would often receive relief from the various duties, usually for a number of years, though rarely more than 7.

That was not such a great deal in the  Mid 12th century as the Saxon nobles occasionally start unnecessary and badly prepared wars with the local Slavs such as the Wendisch Crusade. These unprovoked attacks resulted in an unsurprisingly large number of massacres of the colonists  But they prevailed over time and their villages flourished which had an effect even on the communities the colonists had left behind. Their landlords had to ease burdens if they wanted to avoid their tenants leaving en-masse.

 It is fair to say that economically peasants in 12th century Germany had it much better than 200 years earlier and probably 200 years later.

But all these are generalisations. In some villages the local lords were squeezing the last drop out of their peasants whilst in others they and their officials were lax. And things went in waves. At times there was a lot of forest clearing or a big expansion drive in the east creating opportunity and easier conditions, followed by periods of relative stability and tightening rules.

Economic conditions are one thing, but how did society work? As for family and inheritance, again we can look into the Sachsenspiegel for guidance.

The Sachsenspiegel does provide a lot of detail about inheritance laws and the financial settlement if a marriage breaks up, including in an annulment. It does however not describe the marriage itself. We know that by the 13th century marriage has become a sacrament and given we now have priests in most villages, marriages are concluded not necessarily in church, but by priests on the steps before the church. Marriage required consent of the bride in principle. But Again, customs vary.

The basic concept of the Sachsenspiegel is that women have no ability to lodge claims in court. Apparently a lady called Calefurnia had angered the emperor so much that he banned all women from appearing before his court to eternity. This story only appears here, nowhere else. So who knows where  Calefurnia comes from?

But thanks to that lady’s misdeeds all girls and women need to have a legal guardian. Until marriage that legal guardian is their father.. Boys on the other hand  are released from parental guardianship once they turn 12 or 13..

Once a woman had married, she falls under the legal guardianship of her husband. She does however have rights against her husband, namely she can constrain his guardianship if he wastes her money or seriously mistreated her. But otherwise, he is pretty much in charge.

Widows still need to have a legal guardian, usually a member of her family. That could mean that in case the older generation had died out, the son would become the legal guardian. If there is nobody left, she is subject to the guardianship of the king. She would however have ownership of her dowry and morning gift as well as usufruct of her husband’s property.

In case the marriage is annulled, the former wife also receives her dowry and morning gift back but no benefits from her husband’s property. She has to return into legal guardianship, though mercifully not to any member of her ex-husband’s family. Children may stay with the mother, though this is not made explicit.

The Sachsenspiegel was however not the only source of the law. In Southern Germany other traditions prevailed and the city law codes often diverged, namely when it came to the role of women. In cities widows could often take over their husband’s business, or at least run them until such time the children were old enough to take over. That meant they had to be able to enter into contracts and acquire property. In some cities women were allowed to start their own merchant businesses which again required them to be exempt from the obligation of having a legal guardian. Sometimes marrying a widow was a way to become member of a guild. And finally aristocratic women could and did take charge of regency councils on behalf of their children.

As with landlord obligations, the medieval practice is variable and what may be the immutable rule in one place is not at all strict in the next. This is not a centralised state with rules that apply everywhere. Local custom is what prevails and what changes. We are talking about a span of 350 years after all..

And one of these customs was the famous saying “Stadtluft macht frei” (= urban air makes you free).

This is the idea that once a serf had lived a year and a day in a city, he could no longer be claimed by his former master. This concept exists elsewhere in Europe but is most prevalent in central europe and in particular in Germany. And that has to do with the way German cities have developed.

In Italy for instance the ancient Roman cities continued to operate, first as seats of bishops and later as centres for both the local aristocracy and the emerging merchant class. Italian cities controlled the surrounding countryside, the Contado and had established social hierarchies, initially dominated by the local aristocratic landholders. As such they had no interest in providing incentives for tenant farmers of serfs to flee into their cities. Italy is an extreme example, but most French cities were also quite ancient.

In Germany there weren’t many Roman cities. Cologne, Mainz, Trier, Augsburg, Regensburg and a few more, mostly located along the Rhine river. If you take the 5 largest German cities by size, Berlin, Hamburg, Munich, Cologne, Frankfurt, Stuttgart, only Cologne had been founded as a city by the Romans. The rest date back to the Middle Ages.

Between the year 1000 and 1300 the number of cities in Germany rises from 150 to 3,000.

Often the cities are the brainchild of a local prince looking to improve the economy of his lands and maybe his income. Henry the Lion founded Munich because he wanted the steal the commercial traffic from Freising and Lubeck to build a trading centre in his newly acquired territories. Some emerge around a major imperial castle, such as Nuremberg, Rothenburg and Magdeburg or sometimes it is all a bit organic as was the case with Berlin.

The city of Freiburg im Breisgau, down in the southwest near the much older cities of Basel and Strasburg has long been regarded as one of the oldest foundation cities with privileges going back to 1120 or even 1091.. Freiburg was founded by the dukes of Zaehringen, a family we have come across before. The Zaehringer are very active founders of cities. Bern, the capital of Switzerland,  Fribourg, Villingen and Weilheim were all founded by them.

The archives of Freiburg hold a document that sets out the terms of the foundation of the city. It reads as follows – quote:

“Let it be known to the living and future generations that I, Conrad, am establishing a market on my property, namely Freiburg.

Therefore, I would like to gather merchants from everywhere to settle here.

I will allocate each merchant who comes here a plot of land on which he can build a house. In return, he and his children and children’s children will pay me an annual interest as remuneration.

I also promise the following rights, which I hereby certify and swear to observe for all time:

1. I promise that all who visit my market will receive peace and safe conduct. If anyone is robbed on the way to my market, I promise to return what has been robbed or to claim it from the robber.

2) If one of my citizens dies, his family may keep the entire inheritance.

3. All citizens of my city may use the common pastureland, rivers and lakes, forests and meadows on my property.

4. I shall waive the customs duty for all merchants.

5. My citizens may freely choose the bailiff (manorial official, representative of the feudal lord) and their priests. I confirm those elected by them in their office.

6. Legal disputes between my citizens will not be decided by me, but will be negotiated independently, according to the (customary) law of the merchants.

7. Every citizen may freely sell his property if he wishes.

8. Anyone who comes to Freiburg may live here freely and safely. But if he is the serf of a lord, then that lord may take him again. If the serf denies that he belongs to a lord, the lord may prove this with seven witnesses. If, however, a serf lives in the city of Freiburg for a year and a day without being taken by a lord, then he shall be free.

(9) A citizen of the city of Freiburg is one who owns free property of at least one mark in value.

In order that my citizens may believe that I will observe these rights, I swear with my twelve most prominent officials with one right hand upon the sanctuaries of the saints that I and my children and children’s children will observe these rights forever.” End quote!

These privileges given to the men and women who decide to come to Freiburg are very generous, which suggests Conrad, the brother of the then duke of Zaehringen was under some pressure to get his town going. Or, as some scholars suggested, the foundation document was at least partially a fake claiming rights and privileges the citizens have gained later on.

But whatever the precise details, these foundation cities were places that had to entice people to come and one of the incentives were more freedoms. For merchants and artisans, the key was justice, autonomy and protection against theft and robbery. For the urban poor it was the relief from serfdom.

It is unlikely that the serfs who made it to Freiburg and had stayed in hiding for a year and a day would quickly rise to prosperity. They are much more likely to just move into a different form of servitude as domestic staff or day labourers. But their sons and daughters or grandsons or granddaughters may rise in prosperity as the city grew and opportunities popped up.

You can see the key difference between German and Italian cities in the 13th century.. The leadership of Italian cities were the aristocrats. They are the ones who built the many towers that gave these places the appearance of heavily armoured hedgehogs.

The newly founded German cities did not attract aristocrats. Some explicitly banned them from living within their walls. Their leadership were the merchants and artisans. Only in the big episcopal centres of Cologne, Mainz etc. did the Ministeriales hold important positions, but again no aristocrats. Aristocrats lived on their castles.

Nor did the cities serve as capitals for territorial lords as they did in France. The empire famously had no capital, so there was no equivalent of Paris. The seats of important aristocrats were their great castles. Sometimes cities would grow up around these castles such for instance Brunswick around Henry the Lion’s palace or Meissen, the seat of its Margrave. These communities would serve the lord of the castle, but over time would shake off their links with the princes. A great example is Nuremberg, once favourite castle of Konrad III but by the 13th century the city and the Burgrave were permanently at loggerheads

But pure “capital cities” like Karlsruhe, Mannheim, Dresden and Hannover were things in the distant future.

I fear I have strayed a bit beyond the topic that I wanted to cover with this episode. Next week we will talk a bit more about the German cities in the 12th and 13th century and then take a look at what happened to that great urge to reform the church that had dominated the 11th century. Did it disappear? No, not at all. But it stopped putting their hopes into the papacy and looked for salvation from men and women who they believed to follow in the footsteps of the apostles.

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