- The Peasants of Ottobeuren, 1487-1726: A Rural Society in Early Modern Europe
Scholars focusing on early modern Europe face the stubborn paradox that an era once defined as a crucial transition from medieval to modern life was in fact a [End Page 571] time of material, economic, and demographic stagnation. For Emmanuel LeRoy Ladurie, immobility imposed by the technological limits of agriculture was the chief characteristic of the centuries from 1500–1750, particularly after 1600. During these apparently unchanging centuries, though, Europeans expanded dramatically their involvement in worldwide trade (and conquest), and somehow set the stage both for the rapid expansion of industry and population and for the primacy of European economies throughout the nineteenth- and twentieth-century world.
Govind Sreenivasan seeks to resolve these paradoxes in his richly researched study of peasant economies in the territories ruled by the Benedictine monastery of Ottobeuren, southwest of the city of Augsburg in Upper Swabia, now part of Bavaria. The Peasants of Ottobeuren, 1487–1726, provides a compelling vision of an isolated rural economy that nevertheless experienced great social change in these apparently unchanging centuries. One of the distinct pleasures of this often difficult book is the author's adroit use of individual stories to show that the peasants of Ottobeuren were neither faceless nor impassive, but that they actively participated in adapting to, and taking advantage of, the constraining circumstances that confronted them.
Sreenivasan shifts the focus of research from the problem of technological limitations on agriculture toward social and production relations. The author disagrees with the Annales-based assumption that increasing technological capacities "called into being" new institutions and practices. He argues the opposite, that "secure and transferable property rights, dense market networks, and the widespread use of money and credit were essential prerequisites for any dramatic gains in agricultural production" (5). As a result, despite longterm trends showing only modest increases in grain production overall, by 1700 peasant households were accumulating more and more movable wealth, and their productive activities were less and less dependent on external sources of credit (345). In other words, production itself might not have changed dramatically, but commercialization and the social organization of production had. Once consisting of smaller, nuclear households "definitively split off from the ancestral home," the village in 1700 was now a place of "larger, extended, and less discrete households where the householder only gradually became independent from retired co-resident parents" (351). "Cash and credit" now mediated kin relations, and ad hoc, mostly local commercial exchange gave way to an "impersonal, continuous, and supra-regional marketing network" (351). The processes underway in Ottobeuren by 1700, then, can be classified as capitalist, even though the author seems reluctant to embrace the term (349).
The book divides rather neatly into two halves. In the first three chapters, covering roughly the period from 1480–1630, the author sets out the forms and relationships of an isolated rural society marked by "commercial claustration" (105). Of central importance is the idea that both the lords and peasants of Ottobeuren found this isolation beneficial. The author therefore downplays the great upheavals of the early sixteenth century: "the 'Revolution of 1525' looks [End Page 572] much more like another episode in the time-honored process of negotiation for advantage between the peasants and their overlord, except that this time the process spun briefly out of control" (39). Sreenivasan appears here to underestimate both the extent of the revolt and the violence of the reaction to it, which undermine the notion of a minor exception to business as usual.
Sreenivasan rejects the idea that a "crisis of numbers" or production set rural economies back. After all, the levels of population density and agricultural productivity were roughly the same in stagnant late sixteenth century Ottobeuren and in nineteenth century Bavaria, considered ripe for industrialization (154). It was not production per se, then, but social relations that transformed Ottobeuren. This is the theme of the...