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9-08-2015, 15:46

Rural developments in western Europe

In both areas with specialized agriculture and places where traditional grain-growing predominated, the relative prosperity of most peasants in the fi fteenth century generally gave way to the impoverishment of the majority by the late sixteenth. Landlords increased rents and fees faster than agricultural prices rose, and centralizing states, always in need of money, increased tax levies. Wealthier peasants were sometimes able to take advantage of the situation and purchase more land, but this came from middling and poor peasants, who were reduced to holding nothing but a cottage or no property at all. In England, by 1620 around 40 percent of rural residents held only a cottage and a garden without fi elds, and in southern Spain, almost three-quarters of the rural population had no land at all. This process of the increasing polarization of wealth in the countryside proceeded slightly differently in different parts of Europe. In Spain, government offi cials sold off communal lands known as baldios to wealthy aristocratic or ecclesiastical landlords, depriving peasants of places to gather fi rewood or let their stock graze. Those same noble landlords also purchased positions as tax collectors, thus assuring their exemption from paying taxes. They were not interested in agricultural improvements, but in extracting as much from their tenants as possible. Rents and taxes became so high that many peasant families could not pay them, and they lost their leases, swelling the ranks of the landless poor. In Italy, wealthy urban residents increasingly bought land around major cities such as Florence, Pisa, and Venice. They rented it out to tenant farmers, often through sharecropping contracts termed mezzadria in which the owner supplied the seed, animals, and tools as well as the land. Landowners increased the interest rates in mezzadria contracts and other rents, and the city governments that controlled the countryside fi xed prices artifi cially low to try to control infl ation and assure urban residents of enough food. Tenants were caught in the middle, and the number who were well-off declined; village organizations of self-government could do little to halt this. Neither peasant tenants nor wealthy landlords saw any benefi t in agricultural improvements, and landlords increasingly spent their excess income on fancy country houses, elaborate furnishings, art, and other types of conspicuous consumption. The situation was no better in France, where the religious wars destroyed crops and villages, and government policies exempted land owned by nobles and often that owned by bourgeois urban residents from taxes. This made land attractive to upperand middle-class buyers, but as they purchased more and more land, the tax burden was spread among fewer and fewer people. Only in the Netherlands , where taxes and rents on rural land remained moderate and leases long-term, did prosperity continue for a broad spectrum of the peasant population. Agricultural developments in this era have been studied – and debated – most intensively for England, particularly the process of enclosure, in which fences were built or hedges grown around fi elds and common land, and marshes and fens were drained to yield new land; the resulting consolidated plot of land was used by one owner rather than the whole village. In the early sixteenth century, when wool prices were very high, land was enclosed primarily to transform croplands into pasture; as Thomas More put it, sheep were devouring men. Later in the century enclosed lands were also planted with new types of crops such as clover or turnips, or used for convertible husbandry, in which fi elds were rotated every few years between crops and pasture, thus enhancing crop yields through natural fertilizers. These changes increased existing divisions between wealthy and poor peasants. Yeoman peasants along with urban and noble landholders expanded their share of landownership and their income per unit of land, while poorer peasants were often forced to sell their tiny plots, especially once they lost access to common land. The process was slow and uneven – by 1650, only 10 percent of the farmable land in England was enclosed – but it affected the area around London, which provided a huge market for wool and food, particularly intensively. Throughout much of southern and western Europe, then, infl ation, high rents, and burgeoning taxes increased the number of poor families who owned only a house or nothing at all, and survived solely by the labor of their members. Husbands and wives sometimes hired themselves out as a team, he cutting grain with a scythe while she bound it; they were generally paid according to how many bundles of grain they produced, one of the earliest examples of piece-work. From maximum wage regulations, enacted by governments in the sixteenth century in an attempt to slow infl ation, we can see that female agricultural laborers hired on their own were to be paid about half of what men were, and were also to be given less and poorer-quality food, which often formed the most important part of an agricultural worker’s income. An ordinance from south Germany in 1550, for example, notes that male laborers were to be fed soup and wine for breakfast, beer, vegetables, and meat at midday, and vegetables and wine at night, while women were to receive only soup and vegetables in the morning, milk

SOURCE 15 Petition requesting the prohibition of grain exports

Growing populations meant an increase in the demand for food in many areas, with a resultant rise in prices. Merchants sought to make the highest profi t, which sometimes led to shortages, even in areas where food was produced. In 1591 the town council of Velas, on the Portuguese Azorean island of S. Jorge, dealt with a petition from some concerned citizens about the impending departure of locally grown grains. Year of the birth of our lord Jesus Christ of one thousand fi ve hundred and ninetyone in this town of Velas of this island of São Jorge: Having gathered together in the town council the distinguished offi cials João Teixeira and Pero Gomez d’Avila, ordinary judges, and Amtonio Gonçalvez Tagalas and Francisco Breves, councillors, and the procurators Amtonio Gonçalvez, procurator of the council, and Mateus Lopez and Mellchior Garcia, shoemakers, and Amtonio Gonçalvez, weaver, procurators of the masters. By the said procurators of the council as well as the ones for the masters: it was said and requested to the said offi cials that it had come to their attention that in this region some provisions had arrived for some local individuals to freight wheat from the land that they rent out and the harvest that they have on this island. They requested, in the name of God and of the King our lord, that their Graces [that is, the town offi cials] as fathers of the people look after the necessity that so urgently exists in this region for the said wheat. All the laborers in wheat complained that there was a third less wheat than they had last year, and this from the best land that there was on this island. Last year, with much more [locally grown] wheat, ninety or one hundred moios [1 moio == 828 liters] of wheat from outside [still] entered this town and all was used. Every year what this region has from the outside always comes to eighty or one hundred moios of wheat, and all is used due to the little cultivation that there is of it [here]. They were informed that on this island there was also a shortage in districts that were supplied every year, for which reason they were ready to collapse with great distress because of not having a source [of wheat]. For this they requested of their Graces that they have a hand on what is gotten from the land, even if it is only a little, and with much vigilance not allow it [to be] loaded nor taken to any [other] area, and that guards be placed on the ports and on land and that the ports be sealed. If their Graces do not do this they protested thus: that if any persons perish for lack of the said wheat, their Graces account for it with God our Lord. The said offi cials, seeing the plea from the procurators and the outcry from the people from the lack of the said wheat, had the ports sealed and ordered that it be announced that no boatman nor carter be so insolent as to freight out any wheat or barley or rye or any victuals without fi rst showing the dispatch and judicial licence at the risk of a fi ne of fi fty cruzados and the owners losing the wheat or barley or rye or victuals as already ordered another time. It was announced by Amtonio Mateos and Bras Afonso, town criers. Mateus Dias wrote it. (António dos Santos Pereira, A Ilha de S. Jorge, séculos XV–XVII [Ponta Delgada: Universidade dos Açores, 1987], ff. 74–75v [326–7], trans. Darlene Abreu-Ferreira, in Monica Chojnacka and Merry Wiesner-Hanks, eds., Ages of Woman, Ages of Man: Sources in European Social History , 1400–1750 [London: Longman, 2002], p. 152.) and bread at midday, and nothing in the evening; they thus received less food, decidedly less protein, and no alcohol. The difference between male and female wages meant that in families with just a small plot of land, women often did all of the agricultural work on the family plot, while men worked for wages on other people’s land or in extractive industries such as fi shing, forestry, or mining. Men and women in the countryside with too little land to support themselves also served as a labor pool for expanding handicrafts. Peasant households had long made fabric, rope, baskets, barrels, household items, and farm tools for their own use or to trade with neighbors; women made cheese and butter from their own milk and whole families wove linen and wool from their own fl ax and sheep. They sold these in nearby market towns, or sometimes to urban merchants. In some areas, these merchants increasingly supplied rural individuals or households with raw materials they had not grown themselves – wool from Spanish sheep, silk from Italian silkworms, cotton from Egypt – and sometimes supplied the households with tools such as spinning wheels or handlooms as well as raw materials. These cottage or domestic industries (this is also sometimes called the “putting-out” system, as work was put out to households by capitalist investors) expanded unevenly across Europe, in some areas coming to employ a majority of the rural population. That happened more often after 1600 than before, so this process will be traced in more detail in chapter 12 . No matter how many family members worked, however, their wages could not keep pace with infl ation. Real wages for agricultural laborers and rural artisans in England were cut in half during the period 1500 to 1650, and those around Paris by two-thirds. There was often too little work available at even depressed wage levels, and large numbers of landless agricultural workers drifted continually in search of employment or better working conditions, in addition to those who migrated seasonally following the harvests. It appeared to many contemporaries that poverty was increasing at an alarming rate, and that more of the poor were what they termed “sturdy beggars,” that is, able-bodied men and women who could work if they chose rather than those who were poor through no fault of their own, such as orphans, infi rm elderly people, or the handicapped. Most cities in Europe began to pass laws forbidding healthy people to beg, ordering them to go back to their home area, or forcing them into workhouses.