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Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Enserfdom in eastern Europe

What happened in eastern Europe was even worse than mercantilism. There, absolutism by the kings and the feudal nobility was so rampant and unchecked that they decided to crush nascent capitalism. Former serfs, now free, had been moving from the rural lands to the towns and cities, there to work for higher wages and better opportunities in emerging capitalist production and industry. By the beginning of the fifteenth century, eastern Europe, specifically Prussia, Poland and Lithuania, had a freed peasantry. Towns and monetary exchange flourished, and clothmaking and manufacturing grew and prospered. In the sixteenth century, however, the state and the nobility of eastern Europe reasserted themselves and re-enserfed the peasantry. In particular, a rise in the price of grain (mainly rye) in Europe in the early sixteenth century made grain farming more profitable, spurring the socializing of cheap labour in service of the noble landlords. The peasants were forced back on to the land, and compelled to remain there, and were also coerced into corvées (periodic forced labour for the nobility).

The peasants were forced into large manorial estates owned by the nobles, since large estates meant cheaper costs of supervising and coercing peasant labour on the part of the nobility. In addition, in Poland, the nobles induced the state to pass further laws, severely restricting the activities of urban merchants. Polish merchants now had to pay higher tolls for shipping produce on the Vistula River than did landlords, and Polish merchants were prohibited from exporting domestic products. Moreover, the repression of the formerly free peasantry greatly lowered their money income for purchasing goods. These policies combined to destroy the Polish towns, the urban economy, and the internal market for Polish goods. As Professor Miskimin writes, ‘Out of self-interest the nobles successfully contrived to crush Polish economic development in order to reserve for themselves the rich grain trade and to assure adequate supplies of agricultural labor for the maximum exploitation of their estates’.

In Hungary, a similar process of re-enserfment occurred, but in the service of cattle-raising and wine-growing rather than rye production. In the later Middle Ages, rents by the peasantry had been converted from payments in kind to monetary payments. Now, in the sixteenth century, the nobles markedly increased the rents and reconverted them into payments in kind. Taxes on peasants were raised substantially and the burden of forced corvée labour was increased greatly in one area ninefold from seven days per year to 60. The lords got themselves granted a tight monopoly of wine sales, as well as exemptions from heavy export taxes on cattle payable by merchants. In that way, the landlords gained themselves privileged monopolies of buying and selling for the vital wine and cattle trades.

Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought (2 volume set)

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