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

Carrying their distaffs and spindles


description of the peasant life has been taken entirely from the _Weisthuemer_, and, for reasons to be seen immediately, it perhaps represents rather a "golden past" than the actual state of matters at the beginning of the sixteenth century. It shows the peasants living in a state of rude plenty, but for the endless exactions of their lords and the continual robberies to which they were exposed from bands of sturdy rogues which swarmed through the country, and from companies of soldiers, who thought nothing of carrying off the peasant's cows, slaying his swine, maltreating his womenkind, and even firing his house.

The peasants had their diversions, not always too seemly. On the days of Church festivals, and they were numerous, the peasantry went to church and heard Mass in the morning, talked over the village business under the lime-trees, or in some open space near the village, and spent the afternoon in such amusements as they liked best--eating and drinking at the public-house, and dancing on the village green. In one of his least known poems, Hans Sachs describes the scene--the girls and the pipers waiting at the dancing-place, and the men and lads in the public-house eating calf's head, tripe, liver, black puddings, and roast pork, and drinking whey and the sour country wine, until some sank under the benches; and there was such a jostling, scratching, shoving, bawling, and singing, that not a word could be heard. Then three young men came

to the dancing-place, his sweetheart had a garland ready for one of them, and the dancing began; other couples joined, and at last sixteen pairs of feet were in motion. Rough jests, gestures, and caresses went round.

"Nach dem der Messner von Hirschau, Der tanzet mit des Pfarrhaus Frau Von Budenheim, die hat er lieb, Viel Scherzens am Tanz mit ihr trieb."

The men whirled their partners off their feet and spun them round and round, or seized them by the waist and tossed them as high as they could; while they themselves leaped and threw out their feet in such reckless ways that Hans Sachs thought they would all fall down.

The winter amusements gathered round the spinning house. For it was the custom in most German villages for the young women to resort to a large room in the mill, or to the village tavern, or to a neighbour's house, with their wool and flax, their distaffs and spindles, some of them old heirlooms and richly ornamented, to spin all evening. The lads came also to pick the fluff off the lasses' dresses, they said; to hold the small beaker of water into which they dipped their fingers as they span; and to cheer the spinsters with songs and recitations. After work came the dancing. On festival evenings, and especially at carnival times, the lads treated their sweethearts to a late supper and a dance; and escorted them home, carrying their distaffs and spindles.(56) All the old German love folk-songs are full of allusions to this peasant courtship, and it is not too much to say that from the singing in the spinning house have come most of the oldest folk-songs.

These descriptions apply to the German peasants of Central and South Germany. In the north and north-east, the agricultural population, which was for the most part of Slavonic descent, had been reduced by their conquerors to a serfdom which had no parallel in the more favoured districts.

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