The European Peasantry from the Fifteenth to the Nineteenth Century

The European Peasantry from the Fifteenth to the Nineteenth Century

The European Peasantry from the Fifteenth to the Nineteenth Century

The European Peasantry from the Fifteenth to the Nineteenth Century

Excerpt

Not much more than a century ago by far the greatest part of the people of Europe were peasants who lived on the land and followed a way of life that had changed scarcely at all from what it had been in medieval times. In 1800 these peasants made up 90 per cent or more of the total population of nearly every European country. Only England and Wales, where 22 per cent of the population lived in towns, and Italy and Flanders, had fairly high urban concentrations. Europe's economy and its social organization rested predominantly, and in some parts of the Continent almost exclusively, on the utilization of the soil. These facts have sometimes been neglected because students of history are likely to be interested--and understandably so--in the forces making for change, so that they focus their attention upon such matters as the growth of the power of the central state, the development of political and social ideas, the relationships between states, and the expansion of trade and industry.

The purpose of these pages is to furnish some information about the history and activities of Europe's peasants from the end of the Middle Ages into the nineteenth century. Obviously, in the short space of this pamphlet only the most sweeping kind of generalization is possible. A distinguished English medievalist once warned that the historian "who commits himself to a generalization is digging a pit into which he will later assuredly fall, and nowhere does the pit yawn deeper than in the realm of rural history." The village world was a local world, hemmed in by forests and hills and marshes, with little knowledge and even less concern about what went on beyond its limited horizon. The English plowman, the Magyar herdsman, and the peasant of the Russian plain, differed much from one another. Nonetheless, a comparison of their ways of life reveal that they, and all of Europe's peasants, shared certain common cultural patterns, so that despite the differences among . . .

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