The End of Servility

The End of the Old Order in Rural Europe

by Jerome Blum
Princeton University Press, 505 pp., $12.50 (paper)

Among scholars on the continent of Europe the transition from “feudalism” (a term commonly used in this connection even by writers who are not Marxists) to “bourgeois society” has long been a major preoccupation. Put more precisely—for the word feudalism has been used to describe many different forms of social relations—this transition was one from what the French call a “société d’ordres” and the Germans a “Standegesellschaft” to the kind of society that became the predominant type in Europe in the nineteenth century and is usually described as capitalist or bourgeois. Jerome Blum, a professor of history at Princeton, accepts these categories but gives them more readily intelligible names. He calls the société d’ordres the society of orders (although he has misgivings about anglicizing these foreign technical terms). For “capitalist” or “bourgeois” society he substitutes “modern society,” although the society to which he applies this description can hardly be said to be modern any longer.

One of the principal characteristics of the “society of orders” was the division of the population into orders or estates each with its special rights and duties defined and enforceable in law. Capitalist or bourgeois society by contrast is a society in which groups are distinguished one from another not by their legal rights but by differences arising from socio-economic circumstances of which the law takes no cognizance. Professor Blum, following Max Weber, sees these differences as being primarily the consequence of different degrees of wealth. “Modern society,” he says, “is a class society. Those with comparable incomes form a class with a common way of life.”

Judged by this criterion a “feudal” order or estate was not a class, nor was it one in the Marxist sense of the term, according to which classes are groups of people united by common relations to the means of production. For within any given estate there were great differences in material circumstances—which in the estate of nobility could vary from destitution at one end of the scale to vast wealth at the other. Nor did the members of any given estate necessarily fulfill any particular role in the processes of production. Nobles, for example, were not necessarily landowners—in Prussia in 1800 the landless nobles outnumbered those with land by three to one; bourgeois in France in the eighteenth century owned as much land as did the nobility; in the nascent industries of mining and metallurgy there were noble entrepreneurs in many countries who showed a highly developed business sense.

Orders or estates, in fact, at least in that stage of their evolution with which Professor Blum is concerned, were merely legal categories. They were a relic of past ages when it could plausibly be maintained that the nobles fought, the clergy prayed, and the rest of the population provided them with the means of doing so. When these conditions had ceased to exist the estates remained a testimony to the belief, which persisted until the French Revolution, and in some countries even after it, that inequality was not merely an inescapable fact of life but was a state of affairs so necessary and desirable that the law must be invoked to defend it.

Capitalist or bourgeois society by contrast is commonly described as being based on equality before the law, although this is plainly a somewhat inexact description, since even after the orders or estates had been abolished it proved necessary to subject the members of particular groups for particular reasons—because of their jobs, for example, or because of age or infirmity—to special laws.

The differences between the society of orders and bourgeois, or, as Professor Blum says, modern, society are not easy to describe briefly or in such a way as to make them readily intelligible to people unacquainted with the way of life that endured in Europe for centuries, but that has now vanished to the extent that even the words formerly used to describe its institutions have become obsolete, and are not to be found in ordinary dictionaries.

If, nevertheless, one were to attempt to set out in one or two paragraphs the essential attributes of this way of life, at least in those of its aspects with which Professor Blum is concerned, one could hardly do better than quote the words of the Bavarian lawyer Anselm von Feuerbach, when, in 1809, he set himself to expound the basic principles of the Code Napoléon, as he understood them.

First of all, Feuerbach said, the Code proclaimed “freedom of the person,” that is, that there should be “no more serfdom or comparable institutions.” “Every subject” (Feuerbach used the word Untertan, or subject, being insufficiently radical to wish to speak of citizens) “shall stand to every other subject in the relation of a free man.” He quoted articles 1780 and 1142 of the Code in which, he said, it was laid down that “no citizen should be compelled to serve another citizen for life or for an unspecified period,” such a compulsion being, as he put it, contrary to the dignity of man.

Secondly, Feuerbach said, the Code proclaimed “equality before the law,” that is, that no individual should be granted any special privileges for his own private advantage and that no group should be exempted from the law on similar grounds.

Finally, among various other provisions irrelevant to the present discussion, he noted that the Code proclaimed freedom of property, that is, that no perpetual or irredeemable obligations should be imposed on the land. By this he meant that no person should be required to render dues or services in perpetuity because he owned or occupied the kind of land to which, in the society of orders, burdens of this sort were attached. For in this society not only groups of individuals had particular legal duties or privileges by virtue of the estate to which they belonged; the land was also divided into categories, notably noble land and peasant land, which were subject to different laws in relation to taxation and other matters, including sale and inheritance when these were permitted. The Code Napoléon abolished all such provisions and Anselm von Feuerbach was in no doubt that in so doing it ushered in a new order of things. “Where the Code Napoléon comes,” he said, “there begins a new age, a new world, a new state.”

This is what Professor Blum believes and it is the subject of his book. “The transition,” he says in his introduction, “from the old order to modern society, from a society of status to a class society, is what this book is about. Beginning with an examination of the traditional order, it seeks to tell when the transition happened, why it happened, and why it happened when it did.”

Professor Blum has confined his investigations to rural society because in the periods that concern him the overwhelming majority of people—upward of 80 percent—lived on land, and the abolition of their servile status was the sine qua non of the birth of what he calls modern society. There are thus aspects of the society of orders which he leaves out of account; but even so the scope of his task is enormous, for he deals with the rural communities in countries that in conjunction constituted the greater part of Europe—in France, Savoy, Switzerland, Germany, Schleswig-Holstein, the Habsburg dominions, the Danubian principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia, Poland, Lithuania, the Baltic provinces of Russia, and Russia itself.

The peasants in these various territories were emancipated at different dates, beginning with 1789 in France and ending with 1861 in Russia. It is, however, Professor Blum’s contention that notwithstanding the differences between these various territories, and the different pace of their development, the relations between lords and peasants, as long as the society of orders remained in existence, bore everywhere significant resemblances to each other, as did also the causes that led to peasant emancipation. His purpose is to trace these common patterns.

He describes the territories with which he deals as “the servile lands,” though as he continually emphasizes, not all the peasants in all of them were serfs. What then does he mean by “servile”? At first sight it must be admitted that this is not altogether clear. In his introduction he describes servility as “the submissiveness of the great majority to the few,” a state of affairs by no means peculiar to the periods and countries he investigates. Attentive readers can nevertheless deduce his meaning from what he says later on. The servile person, it is clear, is distinguished by the fact that he does not serve his master as a result of a commercial bargain which either side is at liberty to enter into or refuse; within the limits set by law or custom he is compelled to render services because of his own inferior and his master’s superior legal status. These were, for example, the conditions that prevailed in the relations between seigneur and peasant in prerevolutionary France; for peasant land was burdened in perpetuity with so-called “feudal dues”—dues which the seigneur had a right to exact merely by virtue of having bought or inherited the seigneurie.

The serf also shared this servile status; he was, however, in Professor Blum’s analysis, distinguished from the merely servile because he was, as it was said in the German-speaking lands, “an die Scholle gebunden,” that is, tied to the soil, or, as in Russia, tied to his master, who could not only sell him apart from the land (which nevertheless cannot have happened except in a minority of cases) but could send him into a town to ply a trade from which the master could take as much of the profit as he saw fit—a practice unknown in Central and East Central Europe.

Whether Professor Blum’s distinction between the servile and the serf should be accepted is a mere matter of words. But words in this subject can be a source of much confusion. In English, French, and Russian there is only one word for serfdom, but in German there are a great many, the most common of which, Leibeigenschaft, meant something quite different in parts of southern and western Germany from what it meant in the Prussian provinces east of the Elbe and in the Habsburg dominions. Among these many German words—Leibeigenschaft, Erbuntertänigkeit, Hörigkeit, Eigenbehörigkeit, and others—which can be translated into English only by the term serf, a number were applied to peasants in parts of Germany who lived in conditions very similar to those of the French peasants. By German standards, in fact, the French peasant was a serf, though his serfdom was of a very light variety, and the French have always described him as a free man because he could come and go, marry, and choose his job without his seigneur’s consent, and even—though subject to impositions which were often heavy—sell, mortgage, or bequeath his holding, which he was always said to “own.” Though subject to a number of servile obligations French peasants were immune from the most burdensome and degrading—from the personal servitude, from the heavy and sometimes unlimited labor services, from the insecurity of tenure and from having to give their children into service in the lord’s household—which were features of the kind of serfdom that prevailed in many parts of Central and Eastern Europe.

When Professor Blum distinguishes between serfdom and mere servile status this seems to be simply a concession to conventional Western terminology which, at least until recently, has always described the peasants of Western Europe as free men and those of Eastern and much of Central Europe as serfs. Unlike many other authorities on the subject he himself does not seem to see much virtue in this distinction between East and West, and it finds no place in his main argument. One of his essential points, for example, is that rural relations in France must be considered in conjunction with those in all the other lands he labels servile, and not compared, as is commonly done, with those in England, where the essential features of the society of orders had either never existed or had long ceased to exist before they came under attack on the Continent.

Professor Blum says a great deal that is highly illuminating on the characteristics that were common to the rural communities in the servile lands, and on the combination of circumstances that brought servility to an end. In Part I of his book he shows how the peasants were everywhere the victims of a struggle between the landlords, the governments, and in the Catholic countries the Church, for the fruits of their labors. They were burdened with state taxes, with seigneurial dues, and, particularly in France, with the tithe. In addition they had obligations to their own peasant communities, such as providing for the village schoolmaster where he existed and, often, maintaining the fabric of the Church. The miracle is, as Professor Blum says, that they managed not only to keep alive but even, in the eighteenth century, to increase their numbers, and to do so while practicing methods of agriculture that, by modern standards, were fantastically inefficient and unproductive.

In Part II Professor Blum describes the attempts that began in the eighteenth century to improve the peasant’s lot. He shows the results which these attempts achieved (before 1789 almost all of them failed) and the sources from which they emanated. These were principally government circles, for though peasant emancipation was the sine qua non of the birth of bourgeois society, it was not bourgeois who initiated the movements in favor of it or, except in France, carried these movements through.

In his final section Professor Blum deals with the process of emancipation which in every case, as he shows, except the French, was the work of absolute monarchies—of monarchies, one might add, which though they were bound to their nobility by an umbilical cord, were forced by their very nature, as Tocqueville pointed out, to pursue ends incompatible with the continued existence of the society of orders.

For the age of absolutism was an age of great wars. The absolute monarchs, while striving to assert an undisputed authority at home, found themselves forced, for purposes of aggression or defense, continually to increase their armed forces and the taxes required to pay for them. But these tasks could only be achieved by extending the power of the state at the expense of the privileges of groups, and particularly the privileges of the nobles—privileges which, it became increasingly clear, were an obstacle to efficient government, to economic development, and to mobilizing resources for war.

Among the many causes which combined to destroy the old order it would be hard to deny that war was the most potent, although this is not a matter to which Professor Blum devotes much attention. As an agent of social change, nevertheless, war would have been no more effective than it had been in the past had it not been for the new ideology of the Enlightenment, and the growth of wealth and education which facilitated its reception.

By substituting reason for revelation and tradition as the guide to action the prophets of the Enlightenment challenged every principle upon which the old order was based. In the sphere of human activity with which Professor Blum is concerned, enlightened thinking, as he himself demonstrates, attached a new importance to agriculture and saw the relations between peasant and seigneur in a new light. In the second half of the eighteenth century, in many countries, the need to increase agricultural yields by changing the methods of cultivation and giving incentives to the peasants became a veritable obsession with ministers, groups of intellectuals, and some, though a minority, of landowners.

This desire for change was stimulated by the example of the agricultural revolution in England and by the fear or reality of peasant revolts. Preoccupation with agricultural problems spread from France eastward to the other servile lands. In all these lands, however, a prosperous agriculture on the English model was not possible without a social revolution—a revolution which involved not only liberating the peasant from all forms of serfdom, but abandoning the open field system with its communal methods of cultivation—its “servitudes collectives,” as the French said, which compelled everyone, seigneur and peasant alike, to sow and harvest the same crops at the same time. These practices had prevailed from time immemorial. They prevented all those changes that the English had gradually introduced—notably enclosures and the rotation of crops which were the sine qua non if yields were to be increased and stock-breeding developed.

In the course of time the serfs were liberated on the continent of Europe and agriculture became, as in England in the eighteenth century, a commercial undertaking based on private ownership and free labor. These changes occurred at different dates, in different ways, and with different results, in different countries. In all the servile lands, however, they were the consequences, broadly speaking, of the same pressures. It is the great merit of Professor Blum’s work that he brings this fact out. His less pertinacious readers may nevertheless be discouraged from attempting to follow his argument because of the mass of detail with which he supports, but also often confuses, it.

Much of the responsibility for this indigestible detail rests with the subject itself, for the society of orders, as contemporary officials continually complained, was a society in which legal and administrative confusion reigned. The relations of peasant and seigneur were governed by laws or customs which varied not only from region to region and country to country, but within any given country from province to province, from district to district, and from manor to manor. For a writer who attempts to cover as wide a field as does Professor Blum the difficulties created by this state of affairs are compounded by the need to rely to a large extent on secondary accounts written by historians of different nationalities, with different ideologies, who set themselves to answer different questions.

Organizing his material in these circumstances presents Professor Blum in an acute form with the problem that faces all writers of works of synthesis on this scale. He wants to find a set of reasons that will explain everything—what he calls in his preface a “totality pattern.” He does not intend, he says, to make “a comparative study of country after country”; but at the same time he finds it impossible to avoid cataloguing the differences between one country and another. The recitation of these differences, however, invites comparisons which the reader cannot make, not only because the information, abundant though it is, is often insufficient to permit them, but because the author is unwilling to provide such guidance as he plainly could.

Most of the German writers on serfdom, for example, and some of the French, insist on the fundamental differences between the relations of serf and seigneur in Western Europe, where the seigneur did not farm the bulk of his land himself but let it out to tenant farmers or sharecroppers, and in those parts of Central Eastern Europe where the system prevailed that is known as Gutsherrschaft, from Gut meaning an estate and Herrschaft meaning not ownership but lordship or dominion. Gutsherrschaft, which existed—to name only the principal countries—in Russia, Poland, East Elbia, and large parts of the Habsburg dominions, was a system under which the estate was run as a single unit by the lord or by his bailiff and was worked to a greater or lesser extent by the unpaid labor of serfs who were tied to the soil and subject to the burdens mentioned earlier.

Professor Blum is perfectly aware that this was so, but he makes no judgment on the different effects which these two systems had on the lives of those who lived under them, and gives his readers little idea of the very different problems which the systems posed to the legislators and administrators who had to draw up and enforce the edicts of emancipation.

Again, some of Professor Blum’s most illuminating chapters are those which deal with the traditional agriculture practiced under the society of orders and with the gradual introduction of new methods and techniques that were incompatible with servility. When, however, he comes to the question of emancipation and to what he calls “the pluses and minuses,” he makes no explicit comparisons between what happened in different countries and regions, highly significant though the differences were. In France, for example, emancipation was achieved through revolution and without compensating the seigneurs. The consequences were an increase in the number of small properties, a largely unreformed and stagnant agriculture, but a peasantry sufficiently satisfied to oppose—and thus to defeat—the revolution of 1848. In Russia, partly because of the terms on which the nobles were compensated, emancipation resulted in a peasantry so unsatisfied that it supported—and thus made possible—the revolution of 1917.

Prussia, to give only one other instance, conformed to neither of these models. Emancipation there, notwithstanding all the mistakes and injustices that accompanied it, and the extremely unfavorable circumstances in which it was undertaken (during and after a peculiarly destructive war followed shortly by a cataclysmic fall in grain prices) resulted in a doubling, within forty years or so, of the land under cultivation and the introduction, at least on the larger estates, of a highly efficient agriculture. In Austria and many parts of Germany in 1848, Friedrich Lutge observed in his Geschichte der deutschen Agrarverfassung, “the ‘feudal system’ was still a clear conception which reflected people’s daily experience. In Prussia even the radicals were unable to trot out this old stalking-horse.” In contradistinction to what happened elsewhere in much of Central Europe, the Prussian peasants did not rise, and Prussia, for this and other reasons, became one of the principal agents in the suppression of revolts in other parts of Germany.

Throughout Europe, and now increasingly throughout the world, there are always new ideas which, after a shorter or a longer time lag, find general recognition and are reflected, though in different degrees and different ways, in the actions of governments. These general trends, however, have always co-existed with beliefs and practices peculiar to particular regions or countries; and from many points of view the differences can be as important as the similarities. Professor Blum’s readers are greatly in his debt for what he has to say about the general trends, but (although with misgivings about seeming ungrateful) they must regret that he has been unable to find any criteria by means of which to organize the large body of facts in his work which testify to these national and regional differences.