Brenner, R (1976) Class struggle and development in pre-industrial Europe

Brenner, Robert (1976) “Agrarian class structure and economic development in pre-industrial Europe”, Past and Present, 70/1, 30-75.



In this article, the author offers one of the most commented “general interpretations of the processes of long-term economic change in late medieval and early modern Europe”. He rejects the rigid Malthusian theory based solely on the laws of supply and demand and introduces class struggle as the key element driving European pre-industrial economic history (p.30).

Brenner defines the class struggle as the conflictive class relations over property, i.e. the appropriation of the production surplus (p.32). The outcome of such conflict could be whether the creation of new “property relations” or the reaffirmation of the old institutions.

Against the demographic model

In doing so Brenner opposes historians such as Habbakkuk, Postan, and Ladurie for whom “long-term movements in prices, in income distribution, in investment, in real wages, and in migration are dominated by changes in the growth of population” (p.32).

These Malthusian historians consider that in case of high population density, as labour was cheap, peasants were weakened in their bargains with landlords and could not oppose the rise of serfdom. Meanwhile as demographic pressure decreased, the term of trade shifted and for example during the 14th-century demographic low-point, they could impose the end of serfdom in Europe (p.37). On the other hand, as the European population started growing again after 1450, the bargaining position of the peasants eroded again during the early modern period (p.39).

Yet this rigid system does not account for the numerous local exceptions and countercyclical trends. In particular, while the Black Death seems to have set the surviving Western European peasants free, it also appear to have thrown the Eastern European rural population into the bonds of slavery. The Malthusian model does not account for such discrepancy (p.42).

Against the commercial model

The so-called Rise of the West has been often explained by the positive stimuli the market provided to the Western European agriculture after 1500, thus creating incentives to increase productivity and becoming a vibrant market for the domestic industries. But on the other hand, commercialisation is also considered to be the reason the Second Serfdom developed in the East as the extra income provided by the export of agricultural commodities enabled the landlords to keep the peasants in bonds (p.43).So the same cause appear to foster two radically opposed consequences (p.45).

The 14th-century crisis

Brenner estimates that serfdom significantly decreased agrarian productivity on the long run. Indeed, extracting more surplus from the peasant was sufficient for the landlords who did not invest in innovation or even manure, thus exhausting both the soils and the workforce (p.49). This lead to the great demographic losses of the mid-14th century Malthusian check. The Black Death did indeed provide peasants with an improved bargaining position, but the Lords were by no mean forced to accept this new situation and the workers had to organize and fight to improve their situation. In Western Europe, by 1400 it was clear that the ‘Seigneurial Reaction” had failed (p.51).

But east of the Elbe, the lords managed to maintain their position and introduce serfdom in Eastern Europe (p.52). The key to the Western peasantry success was not the support received from the urban population (p.55). The strong communal and intercommunal organisation of the Western villages (e.g. common field) became the base of the resistance against the lords in the 1300s. On the other hand, eastern villages failed to develop independent political institutions and solidarity (p.56). These villages were mostly settlements of colons called in by the lord during the Drang nach Osten, they had developed a much more individualistic farming and the lord retained a key planning role in these villages smaller and less dense than their western counterparts (p.58).

The numerous disincentives created by serfdom sealed the fate of Eastern Europe for the centuries to come as the backward half of the continent since agricultural improvements were not adopted, a domestic market failed to develop and control over peasant mobility prevented the rise of an industrial labour force (p.60).

The crisis of the 17th century

But the fall of serfdom did not bring automatically on the tracks to capitalism as a comparison between France and England after the end of widespread serfdom shows. In England, the landlords had managed to appropriate the holdings left vacant by the peasants during the 14th and 15th century (p.61). The peasants tried to oppose this monopoly in the 16th century but failed (p.62). This overwhelming control over cultivable land led to the emergence of a capitalist agriculture, a rural wage labour market and a land market (p.63). This new structure had increased England’s agricultural output by the late 1600s. And allowed the kingdom to be well fed during what had been christened the General Crisis of the 17th century (p.65).

On the other hand, in France the peasants managed to keep the holdings left free after the 14th century and the lords failed to regain them (p.68). In particular, the peasants were supported by the rising central state (while the English state had supported the landlord class). By protecting the peasants’ proprietorship, the king made sure to replace the lords as main surplus-extractor through taxes (p.69). The strong disincentives created by peasant land ownership (i.e. lack of economies of scale and no tenant-like self-exploitation) led to poor productivity gained and forced France back into the Malthusian cycle during the 17th century (p.74).


This is certainly one of the most famous Economic History article. It has been widely commented and repeatedly proven wrong (in particular in regard of the French agricultural productivity) but the general hypothesis of the article remain as valid as in 1976: the institutions greatly influence the outcome of the larger trends of supply and demand.

2 Responses to Brenner, R (1976) Class struggle and development in pre-industrial Europe

  1. gio says:

    Brenner also wrote a great book called the boom and the bubble in 2002 which has proven very prescient, and his analysis predated the RE bubble. He puts the whole global boom of 82 to present in the context of one big credit bubble… that now is apparently popping, or deflating, if you like. Learned quite a bit from that book, and have watched the last 6+ years unfold without any surprise.

  2. […] of ordinary people swept history along – be they geographical (Guns germs and steel) or the shape of social institutions.   With Gove’s curriculum we have precious little chance of understanding the future.  […]

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