Did medieval peasants meet their masters?
The Rhön farmer in the Middle Ages
- Lemke, Dietrich: "History in the Thuringian Rhön" ISBN 3-00-007057-5
- Morgenroth, Volker: "Geological excursions in the Thuringian Rhön" in "The Rhön in the heart of Germany" Parzeller publishing house, ISBN 3-7900-0219-4
- Boockmann, Hartmuth: "Introduction to the History of the Middle Ages" C. H. Beck, ISBN 3-406-36677-5
- Hesselmann, Gerda: “From the history of our homeland - Empfertshausen and the surrounding area. - Part 1: Until the end of the Thirty Years War. ”Brochure
- Benzien, Ulrich: “Peasant labor in feudalism. Agricultural tools and processes in Germany from the middle of the first millennium of our time to around 1800 ”, ISBN 3-289-00468-6
- Model plows - A collection of the German Historical Museum, Berlin - PDF file 600KB for download
- Schlette, Friedrich: "Teutons between Thorsberg and Ravenna" Urania-Verlag Leipzig-Jena-Berlin
- Behringer, Wolfgang: "Cultural History of the Climate - From the Ice Age to Global Warming", C. H. Beck, ISBN 978-3-40-652866-8
- Reichholf, Josef H .: "A Brief Natural History of the Last Millennium", S. Fischer Verlag GmbH, ISBN 978-3-10-06294-5
Origin of the peasant class
In the distant past, when there were still the tribes of Chatti, Lombards, Hermundurs, Marcomanni, Quads, Semnones, Angles and Warnings - the unifying name "Germane" was just a way of distinguishing the Romans into subordinate and free peoples - there was Not yet a peasant class, just as little feudal dependence.
There was a settlement community, initially mostly a related clan who worked the soil together and tended the cattle together. They plowed crosswise with a hook plow, which only tore open the ground. Over time you learned to use the soil better. A mutually influencing process set in: the population increased, the land became scarcer and required higher yields through better tillage by learning to use heavier, clod-breaking plows instead of the light hook plow with which the soil was only scratched [see. Literature 6. "Model plows"]. Pliny [Nat. hist. 18] reports from the 1st century C.E. about a reversible plow with a cutting knife, mouldboard and wheel frame in Raetia. This in turn led to further population growth and, on the other hand, increased the time required for field work. It became more difficult to do military service - because there was not enough time.
In the current state of cultivation, the soil was so deprived of nutrients after 3 to 5 years that cultivation was no longer worthwhile. It is difficult to say today to what extent fertilization was carried out with marl, lime or animal excrement. Pliny reports of marl fertilization only among the Ubi people living on the Rhine (Nat. Hist. 17), who had adopted this custom from the Gauls. On arable land on the North Sea coast there are indications of fertilization with lime-rich marine deposits or manure. In general, however, the Germanic peoples have not yet used fertilization of the soil. The built-up areas had to be given up after a few years (even fertilization only extended this date by a few years) and became fallow. Natural vegetation, upward movement of cattle and lack of planting allowed the soil to regenerate, so that it could be built on again after 10 to 15 years. Since a high forest had not yet emerged and the grazing cattle prevented greater vegetation, no labor-intensive clearing was necessary. This change from field to fallow is also mentioned by Tacitus (Germania 26). We refer to this type of economy as «wild field grass farming». In north-west Germany the so-called plague economy was probably already practiced at that time, i. That is, you plowed in grass or heather plugs to improve the soil.
An estimate has been made of the yield of the soil with the methods of cultivation at the time and came to 2 to 3 dt of grain per 1 ha. The medieval three-field economy (see below), on the other hand, yielded about 5 dt per ha. If one calculates an annual consumption for an adult from 1 to 1.5 dt, 1 ha could feed two adults.
Plowing a hectare, on the other hand, took 8 to 9 working days. Taking into account the average duration of a cultivation period (6 weeks), the always necessary cultivation of the fallow land and the harvest with the sickle (1 hectare in 10 days), then 2 to 3 workers could cultivate and harvest 3 hectares of arable land annually, around 6 adults and to provide some of the children with basic plant foods. Around half or, in favorable cases, a third of the adult population was employed in the fields. For that reason alone, livestock farming was much more effective back then.
The settlement density and the effectiveness of the land use were still so low that such ineffective land use was permissible. It was even possible to move the settlement after the soil had been leached out. There is enough land and the primitive construction of the houses hardly hindered the rebuilding of a settlement. As a result, there was no private ownership of land, it belonged to the settlement community, which divided temporary processing rights to individual families. Cattle breeding almost always dominates over the cultivation of the soil, pastures are shared, pigs, for example, tended as a common herd in the forest. Caesar reported that the soil was redistributed among the clans every year. But already 150 years later, Tacitus reports that the field was distributed according to “dignity”.
Wars or raids did not extend over long distances or over long periods of time. A separate warrior class was therefore not necessary, the young boys were usually available for such moderately complex expeditions.
In the wake of the population increase, settlements moved closer together, agreements and compromises with neighboring settlements were necessary in order to avoid nonsensical conflicts over land use. A higher degree of organization became necessary; there was now a need for authorities who could represent one settlement vis-à-vis the other. The land, which now donated its income according to the processor's art and could no longer be cleared again at will - unless new land was colonized by military campaigns - gradually passed into the property of the processor.
Wars were now waged by a larger settlement association, a "tribal people", against other peoples, with the result that they led the fighters further away and they lasted longer. One who wants to sow and reap cannot afford a campaign. Even military service increasingly required better weapons equipment, possibly a horse, and the cost of war equipment is increasing. This state of the art of warfare was reached around the 6th century, at the time of the Merovingians, but at the latest by the time of Charlemagne in the 8th century. An increasing number of warriors could no longer afford to spend the necessary time in addition to the costs that they had to raise for the weapons and the war horse. Wars under Charlemagne usually dragged on for an entire summer season and led hundreds of kilometers away from home!
“Some of the hitherto free have evidently evaded these changed requirements by giving up their legal status and subordinating themselves to a master, a nobleman or even a church: a bishop or a monastery. They then received their property back from their new master for cultivation and had to provide him with duties and services. The free thus did not become a servus, not a unfree person in the ancient and early medieval sense, not a person without rights that his master could dispose of at will, but a person with a restricted legal status, a slave, as they say with a late medieval word. This word slave is just one of many that in the Middle Ages was used to denote the status of the peasant who was not free but lived under a landlord.
Since the 11th century at the latest, such manorial peasants have represented the bulk of the rural population. Unlike in the early Middle Ages, one can actually speak of peasants, not only because the sources now speak of rustici and geburen, but above all This is because production is different now than in the early Middle Ages, because now agriculture is primarily arable farming, more intensive arable farming on permanently cultivated areas, operated from fixed homesteads that are grouped together to form permanent settlements and villages.
The legal, social and also economic order in which these peasants live is denoted by the modern word manorial rule, a word that hides a large number of regional and temporal differences, but which is still meaningful because it means a fact that actually applies to the mass of high and late medieval farmers.
The word land lordship means that these farmers do not only pay taxes and services to their landlords because they are not the owners of their land. If only it were so, we could call them tenants.
The landlord peasants are not only dependent on the landlord with regard to the land they cultivate; they are subordinate to the landlord and are also obliged to provide him with services and taxes insofar as he exercises functions in the area of his landlord that we would call state functions today . The landlord ensures peace in his rulership, i.e. he ensures the orderly settlement of conflicts among those dependent on him, he is their judge, and he provides protection from external attacks, he carries weapons.
Or, to put it in an expression from the church constitution: the rulership is a kind of immunity, i.e. a district in which the ruler, the king or the duke does not exercise any power, an area in which the ruling functions are performed by the ruler, who therefore also receives the corresponding taxes and services. The landlord is not only master of the land, but also of the people who cultivate it. Manorial rule is "rule over land and people".
The question of how it came to this manorial order with aristocratic or spiritual landlords on the one hand and dependent peasants on the other is controversial.
The earlier opinion that the free peasants or the public free became unfree peasants through partly voluntary, partly violent loss of freedom, is not correct as a general answer because it only describes a change in the law, while the actual process of change was more extensive. But this opinion cannot be correct with regard to the change in legal status either, because it assumes that originally the bulk of the population consisted of free people.
In polemics against this older view, it has been said repeatedly in recent decades that even in the earliest Middle Ages there was no question of freedom of the population, that the public free as the vast majority of the population never existed, that rather rural freedom, wherever it appear, does not represent a remnant of the old freedom, but is of more recent origin. The free farmers that existed in the Middle Ages - even if only in exceptional cases - are the descendants of people who owed their special position to the king or other rulers, who used them for special tasks and therefore favored them: for the clearing of unpopulated land above all , as military settlers to protect endangered areas. Free farmers in the Middle Ages are, according to this, of course, disputed opinion, king-free or clearing-free. The rule over land and people is therefore not of recent origin, but ancient, derived in the end from the rule of the free over his house, to which not only his relatives belong, but also the servants.
All in all, there are obviously different processes that lead to manorial rule and the formation of a peasant class in the high Middle Ages, including for many, as mentioned above, a process of loss of freedom. For others, however, rise, because slavery in the manner of Greco-Roman antiquity, which was still a regular phenomenon in the first centuries of the Middle Ages, is now disappearing - also under the influence of church teaching. The servi become serfs and bonded peasants, or they rise even further. A quick ascent from bondage itself to the nobility is possible, especially if it takes place in the domain of a powerful person, especially the king. Polemical remarks against those who had emerged in this way have been handed down from the Merovingian period.
[quoted from Hartmut Bookmann: Introduction to the history of the Middle Ages]
Agriculture in the Rhön until the 12th century
Settlement geographical findings and grave fields near Kaltenwestheim and Kaltensundheim indicate a planned Franconian land development in the Rhön already in the 7th century by feudal landlords.
The interior of this landscape was initially difficult to access and was only culturally developed over time due to the increasing influence of the monasteries. The monks cleared the land, which resulted in new settlement areas and arable land.
Many goods and foundations flowed to the monasteries as donations during this time - which made them stronger and stronger and more influential. Such gifts were considered a "godly work". In this way, the secular rulers believed that they could buy “salvation” and a place in the hereafter. Many place names are mentioned in writing for the first time in this way in the deed of donation, including Empfertshausen in the deed of donation from Orentil to Fulda Abbey.
According to legend, a count of Nithardishusen had a new monastery built on the Neuberg in 822. It was not until 1136 that this monastery was moved to its current location in Zella.
The monks guarded and used the manuscripts of Roman agrarian writers, which were brought into the country by the missionaries across the Alps. There was such a manuscript handed down from the Romans in Fulda. In the monasteries in particular, such instructions for ancient agricultural production methods were implemented and later adopted by the farmers, e.g. the spread of new cultivated plants in agriculture, horticulture and viticulture. But the share of worldly spheres of power also grew. Feudalism developed. Both the monasteries and the royal estates already had a fixed production program in the 9th and 10th centuries.
In arable farming, the "three-field economy" dominated in that order
- Winter seed
- Summer sowing
In this way, a favorable distribution of work over the year and an optimal use of the land for the conditions at the time were achieved. Regular fertilization has also already been carried out. Written records of an already existing bookkeeping from that time have also been preserved in the archives of the monasteries and royal estates, on which important cultural and historical findings could later be built.
Grain, flax and wine were grown as early as the eighth century. It was also common practice to raise cattle, horses, sheep and pigs, with the pigs being kept outdoors in herds. The foods of horse meat, smoked bacon and raw ham and raw sausage were well known.
Due to a papal order, Boniface later forbade the consumption of horse meat and ham; Bacon and sausage should only be smoked or cooked. One should also enjoy such carnal dishes only after Easter. Oats, rye, barley and wheat were grown as cereals. Rye and wheat were used to bake bread, oats for porridge, and barley was used to make household drinks.
The population density was low in relation to the extensive forest areas. Even so, there was only a small amount of food available. There were repeated famines and plagues. According to the Fulda Chronicle, no less than 114 years of plague times were counted in the period from 779 to 1026.
Because of this situation, Charlemagne banned all grain trade abroad in 794 and allowed the "grain usury" or the smuggling of grain to be prosecuted across the country.
The years 1004, 1005 and 1006 are named as three years of severe famine, so that the grave diggers, in order to be able to carry out their overburdened work, buried the dead and those who were still breathing seriously ill at the same time.
A legend from the Fulda Chronicle from the year 850 tells the following: “A man from the grave field went with his wife and his little son over the mountains to Thuringia to save himself and his family from starvation. In the mountains, the desperation of hunger overwhelmed him.He proposed to his wife to slaughter the son and, when she resisted, tore him from her arms. He had already drawn his sword when he saw two wolves devouring a stag. Driven by hunger, he drove away the wolves and seized their prey and came back to his wife with the unharmed son. In fear and terror she saw the bloody flesh in his hands, thought it was her son and passed out. The man brought them back to life only with difficulty, and now they all three had a meal rich in raw venison ”.
Around the time 794, Charlemagne had the grain prices fixed as follows:
- One Maas oat = 7 denarius
- a Meuse barley = 14 denarius
- one Maas grain = 21 denarius
- a Meuse of wheat = 28 denarius
Denarius = pfennig = ancient Roman silver coin, the only minted unit of coins in the Carolingian era and up to the 13th century. (The coinage of this time was limited to only a few circles, generally commodities were still traded for commodities.)
Viticulture is said to have been introduced by the Franks in the Moselle region as early as 460 and later (531?) Also in the grave field. In the documents of the Fulda Abbey, viticulture has been mentioned since 765 in the Grabfeld area and in 973 in the Werra region, specifically near Salzungen. The Meiningen town chronicle shows that the years 1069 and 1124 were bad wine years and the years 1070 and 1186 were good wine years. Even before the 9th century there was little horticulture and agriculture, but the Fulda tradition shows that as early as 775, when salting, "water pipes" were used to maintain better meadows and to cultivate fruit through special systems.
The great peasant achievements of that time consisted in the building of houses of already proven, but still less widespread and less mature working methods and agricultural implements, some of which were passed down from previous epochs (e.g. Celts) or were imported by the monks from southern Europe.
Up until the 11th century, agriculture was of little importance in our homeland. It was not until the second half of the 12th century that it came more to the fore. The livestock industry declined. Many castles were built during this time. Feudalism took shape more and more. The peasants did labor. (after U. Benzien: Peasant Work in Feudalism).
In the Erbzynsbüücher Fuldas are listed in the 12th century in Empfertshausen (property Fuldas in Empfertshausen subject to inheritance interest - inheritance interest: annual fee that had to be paid to the overlord in the case of hereditary lease, i.e. inherited lease property).
- 5 whole manes (whole farms)
- 3 Halbmansen (half farms, the farmer has his own land, but also works in civil service)
- 2 lifts (1 lift = 30 acres of land -1 acres = what a farmer with a horse can do in one morning) 1 hectare = 4 acres
- 2 cows
- 16 eggs
- 8 "hedi"
- 13 pigs
- 20 goats
("Hedi" = little billy goats)
[Quoted from "From the history of our homeland" by G. Hesselmann]
Only since the Carolingian era did the rural settlement community of the village, which had long been regarded as "primitive Germanic", have been fully developed. And it was not until the 13th century that the essential features of village life lay before us in a fully rehearsed, "finished" form. At first it seems to have been the rule for a servant who was not free living on or near the manor to cultivate the land of the manor, the Fronhof. The commercial objects required for the house and yard of the landlord are also manufactured in-house in this association.
In the 12th century, as we said, the landlords begin to break the bond. The Fronhofland is divided into independent farms. The peasants pay in kind from their positions; the compulsory services that are no longer required are converted into cash levies. The manor farm becomes a farmyard run by a tenant; Meier Helmbrecht was one of them.
Grain, flax and wine were grown as early as the eighth century. It was also common practice to raise cattle, horses, sheep and pigs, with the pigs being kept outdoors in herds. The foods of horse meat, smoked bacon and raw ham and raw sausage were well known.
Agriculture from the 12th to the 15th centuries
Most people in the Middle Ages worked in agriculture. At the beginning almost all, at the end of the Middle Ages - around 1500 - still more than 80% - as many as today in Turkey or Pakistan. The reason for this is the low productivity. Whoever sows one grain of grain in the Middle Ages will hardly harvest more than three grains, and often it will be less. If the harvest is reduced by a third, half of it has to be used as seed; if two thirds fall victim to the bad weather, the harvest only yields what is necessary for the sowing. Hunger is an everyday experience in the face of such an economy, and premature death is the fate of most people.
At the beginning of the 6th century, 2 million people are likely to have lived in what would later become Germany and Scandinavia. More detailed calculations come to about 650,000 people for the territory of the Federal Republic, that is 2.4 per square kilometer. But these people did not live evenly across the country. They lived in small settlement areas that were embedded like islands in large forest and heather areas. Only around 3% of the area was built on. One did not know how to gain a yield from the light soils, nor could one cultivate the heavy ones with the wooden agricultural implements. It took half a millennium to learn how to drain wet areas.
In the following centuries the population slowly increased. Around 1000, 4 million people may have lived in Germany and Scandinavia. After that, the population began to grow rapidly, which continued into the middle of the 14th century. At that time Germany and Scandinavia should have had 11.5 million inhabitants. Now, in the late 11th century, the period of land development and eastern settlement begins. The old fields are being expanded, and numerous new settlements are being established, places that mostly reveal their emergence from clearing in their names. They end in -rode, -rade or -reut, on -hagen (which means a special systematic system), on -brand (which refers to the clearing method), or, reminiscent of the earlier state of the settlement areas, on -moor, -wald and -ried.
But it wasn't just the cultivation area that was increased. The working methods also changed. It is only now that new devices are being used on a wider scale, the clod breaking plow next to the old hook that only scratched the ground, the collar that allows the horse to use the power of the horse to pull the plow and, above all, to harrow, the horseshoe , which enables the horse to be used on stony ground. Above all, however, a new system of land use is only now establishing itself, the three-field economy. Each parcel is built on in regular succession with winter grain (1st year) and summer grain (2nd year) and lies fallow in the 3rd year, while previously development and fallow land had, at best, changed annually. This means that with three-field farming, two thirds of the cultivated area produce a yield, with the annual change of cultivation and fallow only half.
But more typical of the early Middle Ages is the irregular alternation between buildings and fallow land, with corridors that have not yet been clearly delimited, while the areas have now been precisely measured and delimited. This was also necessary because the abandoned arable land melted as a result of the clearing. The landscape as we still know it today: arable land after arable land, then pasture, then arable again, in between the village, then also forests, but accessible and - at that time mainly as pig pasture - managed forests and not primeval forests - this landscape is only in the originated in the high Middle Ages.
In the previous centuries, almost all agricultural production had been consumed by the producers themselves. The class of those who did not produce themselves was small. Now, in the expansion period, most of the cities were founded. Even if no more than 20% of the population lived in them, the part of the production that went out of the village was still large compared to the previous situation. It could not be explained without the new cultivation methods.
Of course, the cities are not fed exclusively by the countryside. A not inconsiderable part of the city's food is produced in the cities, in stables that can be found on the city's land where those workshops and back houses were later built that are now the goal of gutting renovation measures, and in fields around the city. The city does not end at the wall, but only at the border of the city mark, the field corridor belonging to the city. The arable citizen is not the exception in the Middle Ages, but the rule.
Nevertheless, grain and meat from rural production came to the urban market, from peasant taxes. Be it that the farmer in the city sold grain in order to be able to pay the taxes, be it that the recipient of the taxes received them in kind and in turn put them on the market. In addition, the farmers have probably not been able to bring much food to the market, as can be seen from calculations of farm yields.
A farm with 16 hectares of medium-quality arable land, cultivated in three-field farming, is likely to have produced 27 quintals of rye from one third of the area and almost 20 quintals of oats and barley from the second third. A third of this is to be subtracted as seed, so 18 and 13 quintals remain, from which 8 quintals are to be deducted as feed for 4 horses. Of the remaining 23 quintals of grain, a good 12 quintals have to be delivered as church tithes and as base interest. Almost 11 quintals remain for the nutrition of the people belonging to the rural household. If you calculate with 10.8 quintals and assume that there are 6 people in the household, you get 180 kilograms per year or 1600 calories per day and person. One cannot live on it - for the physically light-weight adult of our day one assumes double the consumption.
The fact that the medieval farmers still survived - except in the case of catastrophic poor harvests, however - is due, among other things. in the horticulture omitted in this model calculation. There is also a lack of milk and eggs and meat. Admittedly, this was probably only farm food in exceptional cases, and the fish was not freely available either. Fishing was - as it is today - tied to a special permit. Nevertheless, the above calculation should not be unreal. Because a lot of livestock, which could have led to a significantly different balance sheet, would have required additional workers.
In any case, such a calculation makes the vulnerability of agriculture clear. Every bad harvest leads such a farm into a crisis, causes a reduction in food, taxes or seeds, which explains why a bad harvest can easily be followed by a second. No wonder that the medieval chronicles keep talking about hunger and poor harvests. But we don't just depend on chronicles. We have passed on data from the 16th and 17th centuries, where production hardly differs from the Middle Ages, according to which almost every fourth harvest deviated from the mean value by 50%.
Of course, the consequences of bad harvests do not simply result from the decline in yields. Because on the one hand, differentiations result from the different farm sizes. Above all, in the high Middle Ages, we are not in an age of natural and domestic economy. The grain has a price, this price depends on the fluctuations in yield, and only when the grain prices are included can the respective economic result be estimated. Grain prices are one of the few data from the Middle Ages that we have available in such a way that we can count, measure and work statistically with precision. English, French and Italian wheat prices have been known since the early 13th century. In Germany, the tradition only begins 100 years later.
These price series initially show fluctuations from year to year, which are quite unimaginable for our terms. An arbitrary example, rye prices in Cologne are calculated in Cologne marks (since the period is short, the inflationary decrease in monetary value hardly matters) for one painter, that is about 1¼ quintals:
- 1390: 3.25 marks
- 1401: 6.00 marks
- 1419: 2.88 marks
- 1420: 2.00 marks
- 1437: 8.00 marks
Such price fluctuations had different consequences for the farmers, depending on whether they paid their taxes in kind or in money and whether they were able to bring part of the harvest onto the market.
A large farm can benefit from an inflation caused by a bad harvest because it always has grain for the market, while a medium-sized farm compensates for a decline in harvest and a price increase and the small farm does not bring anything to market.
Conversely, if the harvest is good and prices are poor, the large and medium-sized farms will gain little profit from the additional yield as a result of the low prices, while the small farm will have little advantage because it now brings something to the market - albeit at poor prices .
Such considerations show that, also for reasons of economic history, the question of the general situation of the peasants makes little sense and the explanation, e.g. of the peasant war, from peasant prosperity is just as unlikely as its opposite. It is not enough to turn the late medieval literary news about the poor farmer and the lush peasant over and over again to infer the real situation from them. You have to research it yourself: from district to district and from year to year. But the fluctuations in the price curve affected not only the farmers, but also the consumers in the city. How did they survive? Obviously not thanks to a corresponding movement in the wage curve. We have data here too, and it shows that urban consumers have been hit hard by short-term price fluctuations. So all that really remains is the import of cheap grain, the consumption of alternative foods or social welfare.
Importing cheap grain was out of the question as a general temporary measure. Because before the invention of the railroad and the construction of artificial roads, the only economical way to transport mass products was by water, and that too was expensive. In the late Middle Ages the Flemish cities lived on grain from the eastern Baltic countries, but these cities were very rich due to their high level of export trade.
And with alternative foods, things are no better in the Middle Ages. Because the great alternative to grain in Central Europe is the potato - the introduction of the potato as a staple food in the 19th century is a condition for the famines that are characteristic of the pre-industrial world to cease in Europe in the middle of the 19th century. Until then, if you will, the Middle Ages will continue in this area.
So what should city dwellers do when grain prices were four times what they were last year? Most of them couldn't pay them. Because even in the city, the income of the majority was only sufficient for an existence under normal circumstances. Most city dwellers need help in years of rising prices.
But they actually found it. In the medieval cities there is relief for the poor to an extent that is difficult for us to imagine - on the part of hospitals and other foundations made for religious reasons. There is - at least in the big cities - a public welfare. The cities set up grain stores, with the help of which they compensate for the short-term price fluctuations. In Cologne, for example, after all the largest German city, starvation has been defeated since 1370 thanks to the city's storage policy.
The contemporaries were only too aware of the short-term price fluctuations. The chronicles note price increases, sometimes high prices are carved into church walls. But there are also long-term trends in price developments. They remained hidden from contemporaries and only emerge from the subsequent compilation of price data over decades and centuries.
Since the middle of the 14th century, grain prices in Europe have been falling over the long term: for one hundred and fifty years. On average, they are now a little less than 50% of the previous average. At the turn of the century, a marked rise began: the average price of nine European countries had risen by a total of 386% by 1590. That seems to be an enormous increase that could justify the often used term price revolution.However, if you calculate the increase per year - and not by dividing by 90, but using compound interest so that you refer to the previous year's price - you get an average annual price increase of 1.52%: not much in view of ours own horizon of experience.
Nevertheless, the cuts in the middle of the 14th and late 15th centuries are considerable. Because the long-term movements do not affect all prices, but only the agrarian ones, especially those of the grain. So the price structure is shifting. In times of low grain prices, wages and the prices of industrial products rise. This is called a price gap.
Who cuts these scissors can be seen from the budget of a Saxon nobleman from 1474. This nobleman earns income that would have resulted in 1501 quintals of rye at the price at the time. According to the model calculation above, this would have to be the taxes of a large number of farmers. But in Saxony we can already count on estate management, and the knight who is interested here also operates himself. Accordingly, he spends almost 40% of his income on wages. The next largest expense item is clothing: 27% or 417 quintals of grain. Is that dress luxury? You can often find it during this time, but in the city. At the same time, the cloakroom of a Regensburg lady from the upper class was limited to the value of 700 guilders by a council ordinance. The equivalent for this would be about 1000 quintals of rye. In contrast, the knight's expenses for himself and his family are almost modest.
Other examples could be added. They would all show that anyone who in the later 14th and 15th centuries is dependent on selling grain on the market is doing badly, and not just because of the low prices.
The middle of the 14th century saw a turning point in economic history as a whole and not just in price history. The great expansion phase that began in the later 11th century ended in the middle of the 14th century. During this period Europe was struck by a series of famines and waves of plague - the most devastating of which occurred in the years 1347-1351 - and both of which had a profound effect on demographics. In 1450, at a point in time when the losses have not yet been balanced, only 7.5 million are likely to have lived in Germany and Scandinavia compared to 11.5 million people before the crisis. Correspondingly, part of the high medieval country development has been reversed. Fields and villages, sometimes even cities, became forests again and are still today. The remains are found everywhere; seldom in the form of church ruins - the stones were preferred to be used elsewhere - but often as a special, earlier cultivation of fields in the forest floor. A quarter to a third of Germany's population fell victim to the slump in the middle of the 14th century. A total of around 23% of the settlements within the German borders by 1918 were devastated.
So not only are grain prices falling, but the number of people, producers and consumers is also falling. For those who lived on peasant taxes, for noble, ecclesiastical or even urban landlords, the negative factors added up. The late Middle Ages are a bad time, especially for the nobility, unless they increased their demands. In doing so, however, he would only have driven the remaining farmers into the city, where high wages were tempting. That this is an often perceived possibility can be seen from contemporary complaints about rural exodus and from sovereign ordinances that try to restrict this migration.
With the farmers, however, one has to distinguish. The farmer who now wanted to enlarge his farm had good opportunities in view of the large amount of undeveloped land. Of course, the high wage costs prevented him from expanding his business.
On the whole, of course, there is a complex of problems here. The big line - expansion up to 1350, then depression up to approx. 1500 - is only visible to the retrospective observer. It will therefore not be used as a universal means of explanation - unless one sees only tendencies and anonymous forces at work in history. It does not follow from this that such pronounced secular trends would have been ineffective. To assess their effect means, however, to tackle the historian's most difficult task: the assignment of subjective motives and objective conditions of action.
[excerpts from Hartmut Bookmann: "Introduction to the history of the Middle Ages"]
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