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9-08-2015, 15:46

Neo-serfdom and slavery in eastern Europe

In eastern and east-central Europe, poor migrants were rarely a problem. This was the result not of better economic conditions, however, but of a reintroduction of serfdom that tied people to the land, forbidding them to move or even travel. In the medieval period, serfdom had declined faster in eastern Europe than in the west. By the middle of the fi fteenth century, labor services (called robot in Czech, the origin of the word “robot” in English) had almost disappeared, rents were low and long-term, and communal village organizations were strong. This changed dramatically over the next century. Ruling houses in eastern Europe were weak and frequently changing, dependent on noble landowners (called Junkers in German) for money, troops, and political backing. Often acting through the parliaments they controlled, such as the Sejm in Poland or the Diets of Prussia and Hungary, these noble landowners introduced laws that raised rents, required ever more extensive labor services, and ultimately bound peasants legally to the land. They gave themselves tax exemptions and monopolies on trade, crippling older cities such as Danzig and limiting the development of new cities. These measures were progressively sharpened. The 1497 Russian legal code restricted peasants’ right to move to one two-week period during the year, and the 1603 code abolished this right to move completely. The 1649 code set no limit on the lords’ authority over their peasants, and who could buy, sell, and trade them. On estate surveys, peasants were listed as private property, with legal contracts and later newspaper advertisements describing their sale. During the American Revolutionary War, nearly 30,000 young men from Germany were sold to the British as soldiers. There were a few limits to landlords’ power; they could not kill their serfs outright, and in some areas village communal organizations remained strong enough to negotiate limits on labor services or rents. Peasants also engaged in work slowdowns, rituals in which a landowner or his manager was insulted or killed in effi gy, and at times even armed rebellion or the murder of offi cials or landlords. Because the nobles were the primary judicial and police offi cials on their lands, however, such actions were often counter-productive. In Hungary, for example, the Diet’s restrictions of peasant freedom and expansion of labor obligations led to a peasants’ revolt in 1514. Peasants under the leadership of György Dózsa (1470?–1514), a veteran of wars against the Turks, attacked estates, but the nobles united against them and Dózsa and other leaders were brutally executed. Later that year the Diet sharpened serfdom even further, while giving the nobles the power to elect the king and granting them freedom from taxation and military service (except in defensive wars). These laws, known as the Tripartitum, were the basis of the Hungarian legal code until the revolution of 1848. Neo-serfdom was just as onerous in its labor obligations and limitations on freedom as earlier European serfdom, but it was very different economically in that it was designed for the market, not for subsistence. Landlords sold the grain produced on their estates and taken in as taxes and rents on peasant land both regionally and internationally; in Poland, for example, rye exports to the west were 6,000 tons in 1460, 70,000 tons in 1560, and 200,000 tons in 1618. Nobles sold grain locally to the increasing number of peasants who had become landless when they could no longer afford their rents, and to the armies regularly engaged in dynastic/religious wars or battles with the Turks. Some landlords specialized in other types of commercial crops, such as winegrapes, hops, and fl ax, but grain remained their primary product. Increases in the price of grain during the sixteenth century encouraged landlords to raise rents, further expand labor obligations, buy more land, and put still more land into grain cultivation; all of these resulted in more short-term profi ts and were safer and easier than trying new crops or new agricultural techniques. In the long run, however, such practices lowered yields and productivity, and hindered economic growth of all types, not simply in agriculture. The situation was so terrible for serfs that slavery sometimes seemed a better option. Slaves were quite common in Muscovy – perhaps 10 percent of the population – where they included the offspring of slaves, military captives, indentured servants, and people who had enslaved themselves or their whole family to pay off debts. Most slaves lived in rural areas and worked the land, but some were estate managers, household workers, or soldiers, although a series of slave rebellions in the early seventeenth century led the government to prohibit military training for slaves. In the mid-sixteenth century, a central offi ce for recording and handling all types of slaves, the Slavery Chancellery, was established in Moscow. About half the slaves were limited-contract slaves, who after the 1590s were freed on the death of their owners. The fact that slave status was thus not heritable, and that slaves did not pay taxes, led peasants to sell themselves more frequently, especially after the legal changes in 1649 made serfdom even more onerous. Once the government realized what was happening, it converted all slaves back into serfs, which effectively ended slavery per se, although Russian serfdom by this point was not much different than slavery. Russians, along with Ukrainians, Poles, and other eastern Europeans, were also captured by Crimean Tatars and sold as slaves into the Ottoman Empire; perhaps as many as 2.5 million slaves were handled through the Crimean town of Kaffa in the period 1500 to 1700. The Ottoman state used slaves for construction projects, galley service, and in the army, while private individuals used them for agricultural and especially domestic work. Islamic tenets encouraged slaveholders to free their slaves after a long period of service, and census records indicate that slaves were only about 5 percent of the population of the Ottoman Empire. The regular freeing of slaves meant that there was a steady demand for new ones, however, which by the sixteenth century included Africans imported through Egypt, Roma (Gypsies) brought in from India, and Slavs traded by Italian merchants, as well as Russians sold by the Tatars. Most agricultural work in the Ottoman Empire was done not by slaves, however, but by peasants who farmed small family holdings, growing grain along with fruits, olives, and vegetables. They raised sheep and goats, which supplied milk, along with wool and hair to be spun into yarn and woven into cloth. Some agricultural goods were sold to provide money for taxes, though taxes were also paid in kind longer than they were in western Europe. Signifi cant production for regional or international markets did not begin in the Ottoman Empire until the eighteenth century, when large amounts of new land were put under cultivation for the fi rst time. Until then, stretches of empty land often separated quite small villages, a situation that provided little incentive or capital for agricultural innovations. Shortly after the Ottomans conquered an area, offi cials surveyed all the taxable resources, measuring the land, assessing its fertility, and counting the households. The state then divided the land into timars , administrative units assessed at a certain value of tax revenue. Military offi cers and government offi cials were given the right to collect the taxes from one or more timars instead of being paid directly in cash. As we saw in chapter 3 , timars were sometimes granted to lords or monasteries that had previously held the land – there were Christian timar holders, though their numbers decreased over time – but the taxes demanded were less than had been imposed before the Ottoman conquest.