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Rural credit and monetarisation of the peasantry in the late Middle Ages: The Eger city state c. 1450

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Tomàs Kiir


On the threshold of the early modern period, we record deep changes in the social, economic, and demographic regimes of European peasant society. The early modern peasantry seems to us in comparison with the late medieval as strongly monetarised, commercialised, oligarchised, and also saturated with sophisticated credit regimes. This was accompanied by changes in economic management, improvement living standards, and the beginnings of consumer society. The causes of the peasantry transformation are sought through the combined effects of external and internal factors that have generated an increasing financial burden on peasant households and the need to regularly obtain high amounts of cash. Attention is drawn to demographic growth, the price revolution, state fiscalism, changes in the practice of property disposition, and inheritance law and the difficult position of the primary heirs of farmsteads within the primogeniture. However, our knowledge is very erratic. While the social and economic structures and processes within the early modern peasantry are well known in detail, the situation in the late Middle Ages is rather modelled and remains hypothetical (for the Czech Lands in particular Kostlan 1987; German & Zeitelhofer 2002; Chocholac 1999, 2005; Prochazka 1963; Cechura 1990; Mika 1960, pp. 208-21). The lack of late medieval data is characteristic of the whole of Central Europe (German 2008). The Eger (Cheb) city state is the exception where we can see inside the peasant economy thanks to the unique interplay of fiscal and court records (Kiir et al. 2016). Our question is what was the degree of monetarization of the Eger peasantry and what was the nature and extent of the peasant credit market in the late Middle Ages?

We narrow our view to a relatively short but sufficiently representative period of 1435/1442-1456 because the highest quality source base is available for this period. In doing so, we build on previous studies (Kiir et al. 2016; Kiir 2018, 2019). We will focus only on the ‘subject’ farmsteads that prevailed in the Eger city state (95%); we leave aside ‘free’ farmsteads.

Region and sources

In the late Middle Ages, the Eger region had the status of an imperial pledge to the Bohemian king (1322), later the Crown of Bohemia, and its territory was already more or less stabilised geographically (after 1413). Territorial power was in fact executed by the city council in Eger (Cheb), which was materialised by the annual collection of the land tax and organisation of the land militia. Eger’s city state in the 15th century had a size of around 400 km2, included 11 parishes with approximately 130 rural settlements, 1,000 farmsteads and roughly 10,000 denizens (Kiir et al. 2016, pp. 31-58,124-7; Kiir 2019, pp. 344-6). In terms of geographical and market conditions, its entire territory can be divided into several zones, from the agro-climatically optimal part of the Eger Basin along the River Eger (400-500 m a.s.l.) to foothill, climatically harsh and agriculturally unfavourable areas (500-650/700 m a.s.l.). Agricultural production in the Eger city state was characterized by a three-field fallow system and, especially in the Eger Basin, market-oriented cattle breeding (Kiir 2018, pp. 177-9, 201-2, 224; Kiir 2019, pp. 345-6).

The period of 1435/1442-1456 was relatively calm, defined, on the one hand, by the so-called Hussite and on the other the Hungarian wars. At the same time, it was a period of a power vacuum when the power of the Eger city council peaked (Kiir et al. 2016, pp. 19-21). We judge according to the geographically relatively close Nuremburg data that the period after 1440 until 1465 was also abnormally stable as whole also in the Eger city state, in terms of crop yields, demography, and prices (Bauernfeind 1993, pp. 178-201).

The main source for knowledge of the Eger peasantry in the late Middle Ages are the fiscal sources. They are the registers of the land tax (1392-1757) and registers of the city tax (1390-1758). Thanks to this high-quality source base, we are informed on the monetary value of all of the real estate and moveable property in the countryside and in the city. For the ‘subject’ tenants, we know not only the amount of the land tax, but also the land rent (Kiir et al. 2016; Kiir, in print). The so-called debt protocols, kept at the Eger city court, are crucial for understanding the credit market (Schuldprotokolle, 1387-1496).

All of the peasant households which held a farmstead paid the land tax. The land tax was property, progressive, and the tax rate fluctuated most often in the range of 1.5-3.0%. The amount of the tax was determined according to the monetary value of the (1) tenure right to the farmstead; (2) horses, cattle, and sheep; (3) the so-called non-farmstead plots; (4) other rights, properties, and moveable property (Kiir et al. 2016, pp. 144-57, 175-7; Kiir 2018, pp. 181-2).

All of the members of the city community (burghers) paid the city tax. In the 15th century, the city tax was assessed both as a fee for a fireplace (chimney) and further as a progressive tax for all the real and moveable property (tax rate of 1.5-2.0%). The rural properties of the burghers were also subject to the city tax.

The tenants had a relatively wide disposition, family property and inheritance rights to the ‘subject’, that is ‘purchased’ farmstead. The farmstead was usually passed as whole to only one of the heirs (the so-called primary heir), and the remaining members of the family received an ideal share from its monetary value. A distinction was made between full-fledged peasant farmsteads (‘Hof’) and smallholder/cottager farmsteads (‘Herberge’) which usually did not own a team of horses. Full-fledged peasant farmsteads predominated in the Eger city state (77-80%; Kiir et al. 2016, pp. 146-50; Kiir 2018, pp. 184-91; Kiir 2019, p. 346; cf. Prochazka 1963; German 2008, pp. 58-64).

In addition to inalienable land, firmly bound to ‘subject’ farmsteads, there were other, independent and separately taxed plots in the Eger city state, subject to ‘fief’ law, which the holder could relatively freely dispose of (so-called non-farmstead plots). Their absolute share in the land fund was relatively low (estimated at 2-5% of fields, ca 25% of meadows) but the economic importance was high (Kiir et al. 2016, pp. 152-4; 2018, p. 185).

The landlords’ rights in the late medieval Eger city state were extraordinarily fragmented and dispersed. Estates in the sense of economically consolidated dominions were lacking. Land rent most often had in-kind nature (grain); the labour rent was minimal. This all indicates a relatively weak landlord control of the property transfers of peasant land (Kiir et al. 2016, pp. 159-61,237-41; Kiir 2018, pp. 187-8).

Feudal rent was comprised of the land rent, land tax, and church tithe. The land rent had a fixed nature; it reflected the size of the peasant holding and favoured some ‘subject’ farmsteads. The land tax was progressive and in principle respected the level of commercialisation and monetarisation of the farmsteads. Both forms of feudal rent drew on the seasonal agricultural surplus and were complementary in time and physically. The land rent drew directly from the grain surplus (collection on St Michael); the land tax indirectly on the animal surplus (collection after St Martin). The church tithe was of an extremely variable nature, compared to the rent of the land, it was 10-25% (Kiir, in print). The analysis of land rent, land tax, and church tithe showed that the feudal rent as a whole was set to a minimum production level of farmsteads, below which they did not reach even in the agriculturally unfavourable years in the monitored time segment. Most peasants thus surely had an available surplus in hand, the specific amount of which fluctuated year-on-year (Kiir, in print).

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