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A History of the Reformation (Vol. 1 of 2)

The Condition of the Peasantry


style="text-align: justify;">? 4. The Condition of the Peasantry.

The condition of the peasantry in Germany has also to be described. The folk who practise husbandry usually form the most stable element in any community, but they could not avoid being touched by the economic movements of the time. The seeds of revolution had long been sown among the German peasantry, and peasant risings had taken place in different districts of south-central Europe from the middle of the fourteenth down to the opening years of the sixteenth centuries. It is difficult to describe accurately the state of these German peasants. The social condition of the nobles and the burghers has had many an historian, and their modes of life have left abundant traces in literature and archaeology; but peasant houses and implements soon perished, and the chronicles seldom refer to the world to which the "land-folk" belonged, save when some local peasant rising or the tragedy of the Peasants' War thrust them into history. Our main difficulty, however, does not arise so much from lack of descriptive material--for that can be found when diligently sought for--as from the varying, almost contradictory statements that are made. Some contemporary writers condescend to describe the peasant class. A large number of collections of _Weisthuemer_, the consuetudinary laws which regulated the life of the village communities, have been recovered and carefully edited;(54) folk-songs preserve

the old life and usages; many of the _Fastnachtspiele_ or rude carnival dramas deal with peasant scenes; and Albert Duerer and other artists of the times have sketched over and over again the peasant, his house and cot-yard, his village and his daily life. We can, in part, reconstruct the old peasant life and its surroundings. Only it must be remembered that the life varied not only in different parts of Germany, but in the same districts and decades under different rural proprietors; for the peasant was so dependent on his over-lord that the character of the proprietor counted for much in the condition of the people.

The village artisan did not exist. The peasants lived by themselves apart from all other classes of the population. That is the universal statement. They carried the produce of their land and their live-stock to the nearest town, sold it in the market-place, and bought there what they needed for their life and work.

They dwelt in villages fortified after a fashion; for the group of houses was surrounded sometimes by a wall, but usually by a stout fence, made with strong stakes and interleaved branches. This was entered by a gate that could be locked. Outside the fence, circling the whole was a deep ditch crossed by a "falling door" or drawbridge. Within the fence among the houses there was usually a small church, a public-house, a house or room (_Spielhaus_) where the village council met and where justice was dispensed. In front stood a strong wooden stake, to which criminals were tied for punishment, and near it always the stocks, sometimes a gallows, and more rarely the pole and wheel for the barbarous mediaeval punishment "breaking on the wheel."


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