Peasant society and its problems
WE HAVE BY NOW looked at some of the empirical issues that concerned the peasantries of our period from several perspectives: how the parameters of the exploitation of peasants by lords changed (Chapter 5); how some well-documented local societies worked (Chapter 7); and how villages operated, spatially and conceptually (Chapter 8)—the latter two seen, as far as possible, from the peasant's point of view. Overall, furthermore, throughout this book, a major sub-theme has been the ways that major landowners dominated over peasantries, whether these were their tenants or their clients or simply their poorer neighbours: by exacting rents, controlling peasant labour, acting as the local agents of the state, establishing local-level political domination, extending coercive patronage relationships, or simply expropriating peasant owners of their land. In other chapters, these issues have been dealt with regionally, and the ways that peasants related to each other and to lords were indeed highly differentiated from place to place. In this chapter, by contrast, I shall focus on generalizing, on the basis of these differences: for, unless we try to look at peasant society as a whole as well, the major vectors of social change risk being made invisible. The chapter will be divided into four parts, each centred on a distinct problem: first, the effect of the end of the Roman empire on the socio-political framework in which peasants lived; second, the basic structures of the economic system in the earliest middle ages in the West, when aristocracies were at their weakest, and peasantries at their most autonomous; third, the main elements of peasant social structure in that period, including status and gender differences; and, fourth, the processes by which western aristocracies took back control over peasantries in both economic and social terms, around the end of our period.
It was argued at the start of this book (p. 12) that peasantries saw less change across our period than did aristocracies: essentially, they were subsistence cultivators and continued to be, even if some of the major elements of their external environment changed—their fiscal obligations, at least in the West;