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8-08-2015, 00:32

The peasantry and country life

The Byzantine dependent peasant, the paroikos, is a category which proliferates in the course of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The dependence is from a landlord, lay or ecclesiastical, including a pronoia-holder, and takes the form of payment of taxes and dues to the landlord rather than to the state.33 There is also cultivation of the demesne lands of the landlord but, with some exceptions, labour services seem to have been rather limited, the usual number being twelve days in a year; but twenty-four days and even, once, fifty-two days are attested.34 On lands which were not his, but which he rented from the landlord, the peasant either paid a fixed rent (pakton) or more commonly shared the crop, so that there was a double, or triple, source of revenues for the landlord: the tax (calculated and expected to be paid in coin),35 the rent (mort¯e or dekatia, literally one tenth of the produce, although the normal arrangement would give the landlord one third or half of the produce)36 and some labour services. The dependence, then, was both fiscal and economic. At the same time, it must be stressed that the peasant did own property, particularly the type of property that can be cultivated without much equipment, such as vineyards, olive trees and gardens. This he could leave to his heirs (in a system of partible inheritance, traditional in Byzantium, which leads to considerable instability in the size of the holdings and is not in the best interest of the landlord, but nevertheless survived), or sell, probably without having to obtain the permission of the landlord.37 The peasant was free in his person, and had freedom of movement. The legal and economic position of the dependent peasant, and the existence, alongside the large estates, of medium and small holdings, is linked to a type of exploitation which is based primarily on family cultivation of small plots of land, and less on the direct exploitation of domanial reserves.38 The peasant household in the fourteenth century was both a fiscal unit (upon which the tax was estimated) and an economic unit, a unit of production. It is noteworthy that households and families could be headed by women as well as men, although male heads of household are typical, and that there was no difference in the fiscal obligations of households headed by women. Peasant women like other women in this period could and did own property, much of it in the form of dowry. Typically, the peasant household consisted of a nuclear family, although it is also typical that most households were extended at some stage, usually while the older generation was alive. Laterally extended households, in which siblings with their own families form one fiscal unit, whether or not they reside together and jointly own or exploit property, are also attested, with varying frequency. Their presence is undoubtedly connected to the system of inheritance and marriage, which divided the economic assets of a household with each generation, and restructured them, through marriage, to which the bride brought a dowry, and the bridegroom also brought property. Joint ownership and exploitation of landed resources, beneficial as it was in economic terms, held only for siblings and first cousins, breaking down after that.39 This peasant population, especially in Macedonia where the documents permit a close study, was experiencing an economic decline in the first half of the fourteenth century, visible above all in the reduction of the property of peasant households, especially the wealthier ones. There are clearly factors at work which act as barriers to the accumulation or even the conservation of peasant holdings, and these cannot include the system of inheritance, since its effects were countered by the reconcentration of property through marriage. The economic decline has been seen by some as a crisis resulting from the overexpansion, into marginal lands, of a population which had been, and was still, expanding.40 According to this view, there was no demographic crisis in the countryside until the plague of the 1340s. A different interpretation suggests that the population had reached a demographic plateau around 1300, with a subsequent decline.We also find considerable mobility, with the migration both of entire families (among the poorer segment of the rural population) and of individuals (typically, among the wealthier peasants). There is, therefore, in the first half of the century, a crisis in rural society, whether only economic or both economic and demographic. Among its causes one must count the combined effects of wars, civil wars, plunder and pillage by troops both friendly and hostile to the state, all of which brought periodic high points to a crisis that was not yet acute.