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Peasants and Peasantry

Defining The Modern Peasantry, Phases Of Historical Study, Historical Precedents, Bibliography

The words peasants and peasantry are generally associated with a way of life and mind-set that is the opposite of modernization. The terms referred, initially, to small-scale agricultural producers, also known as serfs, who comprised the majority of the populations of Western Europe from the fall of Rome in the fifth century C.E. and during the Middle Ages. Deriving their livelihood mainly, but not exclusively, from agriculture, medieval peasants depended heavily on landlords to whom they had sworn an oath of loyalty and on whose land they lived and farmed. They were expected to provide certain services and to meet specified obligations such as paying rent and taxes, in cash or in kind, and providing free labor as well giving tithes to the church. Lords, on their part, were obligated to protect the peasants under their care. While most peasants lived directly off the land, some earned their living from nonagricultural activities, namely as blacksmiths, tavern owners, or millers. Dependence on small-scale agriculture, lack of ownership of land, and subservience to a dominant class to which they gave their surplus were, thus, early characteristics of peasant societies and influenced the manner in which scholars conceived of them. Hence, Eric Wolf defined peasants as "rural cultivators whose surpluses are transferred to a dominant group of rulers" (1966, pp. 3–4). Similarly, Douglas Kincaid maintained that peasants were "rural cultivators from whom an economic surplus is extracted, in one form or another, freely or coercively, by non-producing classes" (p. 145).

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