Markus Cerman, Hermann Zeitlhofer, Hrsg. Soziale Strukturen in BÖ¶hmen: Ein regionaler Vergleich von Wirtschaft und Gesellschaften in Gutsherrschaften, 16.-19. Jahrhundert. Vienna: Verlag fÖ¼r Geschichte und Politik, 2002. 317 pp. (broschiert), ISBN 978-3-486-56657-4.
Reviewed by Rebecca Gates (Library of Congress, Washington DC)
Published on HABSBURG (March, 2003)
Social Structures in Early Modern Bohemia
Social Structures in Early Modern Bohemia
This collection of essays is the final report of the research project Soziale Strukturen in Böhmen, 16.-19. Jahrhundert, a multifaceted endeavor that has been many years in preparation. Work on the project, which was funded by the Volkswagen Foundation, was completed in 1999. The goal of the project was to compare the economic, structural, and social development of selected regions of early modern Bohemia and to analyze the regional differences and their causes within a European context. Institutions participating in the project included the Department of Social and Economic History of the University of Vienna, the Department of History of the University of Salzburg, the Central State Archive in Prague, the Institute for Czech History of Prague^Òs Charles University, the Historical Institute of the University of South Bohemia in Ceske Budejovice, the Collegium Carolinum in Munich, and the Faculty of Economics and Politics of the University of Cambridge. Hermann Zeitlhofer, Alice Velkova, Alena Pazderova, Lenka Matusikova, Markus Cerman, Dana Stefanova, Josef Grulich, Edward Maur, and Sheilagh Ogilvie contributed essays to the publication.
The goal of the participants was to test the validity of historiographical generalizations about the nature of Bohemian society in the early modern period by examining evidence of economic activity and actual living conditions at the local level. Researchers hoped to investigate daily activities, explore the nature and impact of rural economic institutions, assess the degree of autonomy enjoyed by participants in the rural economy, and gauge the impact of change over time on each of these elements. Prevailing views about eastern Europe^Òs "second serfdom" as exemplified in Bohemia and the assumption that the dominant role of the Gutsherrschaft, or "demesne lordship", in the region prevented or retarded the development of economically sophisticated behavior among the inhabitants of rural society received special scrutiny.
For the researchers^Ò assessments of seventeenth-century conditions, the most important primary data were census and tax assessment materials: the Soupis poddanych podle viry (list of subjects according to religious denomination), an early, albeit flawed, attempt to describe, count, and categorize the population of the kingdom by age, position within household, religion, and profession or place of origin; and the Berni rula (tax assessment roll) from 1654 and its revisions, 1654-1683, which described and quantified in detail taxable, i.e. peasant, economic enterprises and products, including crops, livestock, and use of forests or handicrafts that produced income. For the eighteenth century, researchers drew heavily upon the data found in a cadastral register (Terezinsky katastr) that began in 1711 and was updated repeatedly until about 1730. These three data sources are found at the Central State Archive in Prague.
Researchers noted and attempted to compensate for inherent weaknesses in these source materials, such as the underrepresentation of land-poor or landless inhabitants and inaccuracies in reporting of crop yields. For individual regions, researchers also examined available local and patrimonial evidence, such as records of land transfers and seigneurial court proceedings. Participants used both quantitative, computer-assisted methods of data analysis and more traditional qualitative assessments of specific local conditions, linking data concerning household structure and economic activity and productivity over time.
In the first of the book^Òs two sections, separate essays describe conditions in individual estates in various regions of Bohemia: the estate Podebrady in Central Bohemia (Matusikova); Chynov in South Bohemia (Grulich); Frydlant and Liberec in North Bohemia (Cerman and Stefanova); Rychnov nad Kneznou in East Bohemia (Pazderova); and Vyssi Brod and Stahlavy in West Bohemia (Zeitlhofer, Velkova). These economic units exhibited a variety of economic conditions ranging from virtual subsistence agriculture to a mixed market-oriented agricultural and/or proto-industrial environment.
The primary focus of these case studies was the time period between 1650 and 1750. For each locale, the same types of research concerns were addressed, and participants turned to the more or less uniform data of the Soupis poddanych podle viry and Berni rula, drawing on additional estate records as available and appropriate. They noted a variety of socioeconomic characteristics: the ratios of landed peasant households to those in lesser or less common statuses - small farmers, cotters, landless hired help, craftsmen, workers in industries such as iron or textile manufacturing, etc.; the extent to which proto-industrial and other subsidiary economic activities as well as traditional agriculture were carried out by the inhabitants; demographic traits of the population and households; and the changes occurring over time in each of these categories.
The researchers found that all localities experienced a growth in the numbers of land-poor or landless inhabitants from 1650 to 1750, a circumstance that, as noted in the summary essay concluding the first section of the book (by Cerman and Maur), Bohemia shared with much of the rest of Europe at the time. They also noted that the Thirty Years War, while not without impact, was not uniformly devastating for all areas and did not always represent a serious break or shift in economic development, as generally assumed in Czech economic historiography; except in specific localized situations, the war did not result in the ruin, abandonment, and subsequent resettlement of peasant landholdings, nor was it a major factor shaping the relative sizes of socioeconomic groups and the degree of polarization among them. Complex socioeconomic differentiation was fully present in the locales examined, with many strata of landed, land-poor, and landless inhabitants; but each locale also displayed distinctive characteristics in the interplay of its peasant agriculture, proto-industrial and auxiliary enterprises, and seigneurial activity and influence.
The goal of the second set of essays in the publication is to present "micro- and regional studies," each one targeting an area of concern and pulling together a variety of methodologies and source materials. Data included extensive estate records documenting economic relationship of inhabitants to their landlords as well as the internal workings of rural society (partially reflected in judicial and property records) and, in some cases, records produced at the district or state level.
In the first essay, Maur examines the role of domestic servants in various regions of Bohemia. He finds that, aside from the greater proportion of landlord employees, Bohemian servants resembled other rural servants of central and western Europe, particularly in the characteristically transitional nature of their domestic service, which often provided a temporary livelihood for young men and women.
In the second essay, Matusikova and Pazderova compare economic conditions in two estates - Podebrady, where soil and climatic conditions favored the traditional crop and livestock production, and Rychnov nad Kneznou, a hilly and partially mountainous locale whose landlord and inhabitants turned to proto-industrial production (textiles for export, with auxiliary activities in forestry and metallurgy). The essay explores the differing impact of major factors - war, demographic trends, the landlords^Ò economic activities.
In the third essay, a microstudy of economic behavior in the Frydlant estate, Ogilvie presents evidence that rural inhabitants were not hobbled by "pre-industrial" attitudes as assumed by many historians. Peasants understood the practical impact of concepts such as the cost of labor, other tangible and intangible production costs, and profit. Their actions were limited not by passive attitudes but by practical circumstances that impeded their participation in a market economy.
The next essay, Cerman^Òs study of proto-industrial development and the impact of landlord dominance (Gutsherrschaft), focuses on the estates of Frydlant and Liberec. Cerman concludes that for these two estates the traditional depiction of the Thirty Years War as a cataclysmic break in economic development in Bohemia is inaccurate. Local evidence suggests continuity instead. Cerman finds also that rural inhabitants were busily engaged in both agricultural and industrial activity in spite of overwhelming landlord ascendancy. Inhabitants adapted their activities to existing conditions as shaped by the landlord, adverse those these conditions might be. Sometimes they could take advantage of assistance proffered by the landlord, an approach that maximized peasant profit while accommodating the landlord^Òs perceptions of his own self-interest.
In the next essay, Grulich looks at the life cycle of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century inhabitants of the estate Chynov, drawing on local and estate records as well as church registers. Grulich reconstructs circumstances of birth and baptism, childhood, and marriage and the founding of families. Stefanova^Òs study of the impact of Gutsherrschaft on the rural inhabitants of the Frydlant estate from 1558 to 1750 uses evidence from land contracts and protocols of community meetings and other transactions. Next, Stefanova finds that, contrary to traditional interpretations of "East Elbian" conditions, rural inhabitants had substantial economic autonomy vis a vis the landlord, both in disposition of property and in administration of justice within villages and towns.
The final two case studies examine methods of property transfer. Velkova, in a study of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Stahlavy, examines differences in the practices of social groups, the impact of Joseph II^Òs inheritance law of 1787 (which designated the oldest son as heir to landed property and required equitable payments to the other siblings), and the role of the landlord. Zeitlhofer selects the parish Kaplicky in the estate Vyssi Brod, 1640-1840, for special attention. He finds that although in the course of the eighteenth-century property increasingly remained within families, the traditional indivisibility of property (with payments to non-inheriting siblings) and the inability of land-poor or non-landowning inhabitants to acquire property did not prevent these poorer inhabitants from forming families of their own.
Cerman, Maur, and Zeitlhofer offer a final assessment of the project^Òs results, summarizing its themes and noting new areas that should be examined. Here lies the real significance of this publication. Certainly the essays have much intrinsic interest. These painstaking analyses bring the reader close to rural life and economic activity; the contours of rural society can be discerned as well as the variables that make each community unique. The most intriguing outcome of the project, however, is its identification of topics for future research. As the authors suggest (with specific local evidence to back their contentions), historians^Ò traditional assumptions about an East Elbian "second serfdom", the cataclysmic economic impact of the Thirty Years War, and the dominant role of the Gutsherrschaft, often cited as evidence of drastically divergent economic development in eastern Europe, need to be tested against actual local data. In some respects, conditions these researchers have found in Bohemia more closely resemble the western and central European norm than the classical "East Elbian" model; even the landlord^Òs power, while extensive in theory, was more limited in practice. Economic activity in rural Bohemia was more dynamic, and the inhabitants' sphere of autonomy was generally greater, than traditional interpretations have allowed.
Results of the project suggest that the peasant economy in Bohemia, a varied, "transitional" area between eastern and western Europe, had substantial flexibility. A reassessment of the predominant view is needed; its presumption of a stark dichotomy in European development does not fit when tested on the local level in Bohemia. One hopes that further investigations into the actual life experience of the rural populations of early modern Bohemia and other lands will follow.
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Rebecca Gates. Review of Cerman, Markus; Zeitlhofer, Hermann; Hrsg., Soziale Strukturen in BÖ¶hmen: Ein regionaler Vergleich von Wirtschaft und Gesellschaften in Gutsherrschaften, 16.-19. Jahrhundert.
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Copyright © 2003 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at firstname.lastname@example.org.