Ogilvie S. (2001) The economic world of the Bohemian serf

Ogilvie, Sheilagh (2001) “The Economic World of the Bohemian Serf: Economic Concepts, Preferences, and Constraints on the Estate of Friedland, 1583-1692”, The Economic History Review, 54/3, 430-453.

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Introduction

Economic backwardness in the countryside now and then has often been explained by the peasants’ wholly different decision-making process for economic-related activities. The rural dwellers are said to “lack the concept of costs and profits, and abhor markets, money, and individual gain” (p.430). They’re reputed irrational (p.431).

The autarkic peasantry is seen as outside of both history and the market, living in a ‘moral economy’ with limited and culturally defined consumption targets such as purchasing land for its own sake.. In Europe, this society dominated by the values of communalism and egalitarianism is supposed to have lasted as late as the mid 18th century before retreating in front of the advance of rationality and individualism (p.432).

The not-rise of the East

It is also often argued that during the pre-modern period, individualistic and rational behaviours in the countryside were limited to NW Europe. Eastern and Central Europe, dominated by the Second Serfdom being the antithesis of such advanced rationality (p.434).  If profit-maximizing behaviours could be documented precisely in backward Central Europe, it would cast a grave doubt on the above-mentioned argument.

To try to find a market orientation, the author uses the court cases contained in a pledge-book of a large Bohemian estate, Friedland, “consisting of about 38 villages and two small towns” with 5000 inhabitant who were at 99% serfs (p.435).

Labour market

The first limitation commonly mentioned to support the peasant’s irrationality argument regards their inability to understand the concept of the cost of time. But the court cases show clearly that the serfs recognized the notion of opportunity costs and the cash value that should come to compensated the labour lost. For instance “serfs paid cash bribes to avoid spending time doing Robot (labour dues)”.

They also employed wage-workers on their farms or tried to be employ as journeyman on someone else’s (p.436). The issues of incentives and productivity were also perfectly grasped, for example a worker once explained his slowness to work by the low wages he was receiving. Finally in case of an incident, the guilty party was expected to compensate the Versäumnis, the loss of time (p.437).

Capital, interest and rent

“Court records reveal a dense network fo rural debts, for which interests was charged and collateral often demanded. Serfs regularly used the term Hauptsumma (principal).” The concepts of interest (p.438) and discount rate were also perfectly understood. The fact of renting one’s land was also extremely common (p.438). Finally, investment (e.g. use of manure) in order to improve land value was well know and assigned a money value (p.439).

Common awareness about inputs or yield on investments wasn’t a given, specially considering how “underdeveloped was the mechanism of price formation”. “Lacking dense markets, real-estate listings, and professional advice, early modern Bohemians had to rely on personal maturity and experience to assess land value”.

Maximizers

Peasants are also often assumed to be lacking any idea of profit (p.440). But the Bohemian serfs often engaged in speculative endeavours such as the resale of cattle to butchers (p.441). The serfs thus appear to have had no problem with seeking profit and with engaging on the market even when not forced by fiscal pressure (p.442).

Despite the risks (often linked to war) peasants engaged in commercial relationships of all kinds, sometimes with agents located hundreds of miles away. They sold and bought both agricultural and proto-industrial products.

Tough job

These transactions were common enough for the serfs to sometimes acquire a commercial reputation (p.443). Villages were alive with chats about so and so’s financial success (p.444). The sums involved without being ever large were sometimes significant enough. Even romantic relationships included the purchase of gifts for money (p.445).

Unlike what has also been often claimed, the serfs did not favour minimal risks over profit. Serves commonly broke rules and barriers in search for a greater profit. Furthermore, testimony to the competitive and profit-oriented frame of mind, fraud and theft among serfs were common (p.446). The author remarks that the usual view of the so-called peasant economy hardly fits with the local habit of calculating beer-tab separately (p.447).

A market economy after all

In the beginning of the period over half the estate’s households were smallholders and cottagers, who by definition relied on the market both for job and food. Using money was part of their daily life, no wonder that they had the conceptual tools to understand quite complicated economic realities.

In these conditions, the causes of the weakness of the market structure are to be found elsewhere. In particular while the overlords, the state and the merchants are usually assumed to be forces pushing the reluctant peasants towards the market, it seems that on the contrary they tended to act as barriers.

Obstacles

The landlords list of monopolies and privileges was certainly the main obstacle to market participation.  The serfs were for instance meant to offer their cattle first to the manor at a preferential rate before selling it elsewhere which created a significant opportunity cost (p.448).

While princely officials could be expected to favour market participation for the peasant as a way to acquire cash to pay taxes, the “Bohemian bureaucrats hindered many market transactions which serfs already conducted”. In particular, the rise of the number of tolls made trade costly and difficult.

Finally, townsmen stiffly defended their privileges in particular guilds commonly complained of the serfs infringements on their prerogatives (p.449). They often managed to prevent to peasants to pursue their Gewinnsnehmung (profit seeking; p.450).

Comment: this is one of the best articles I’ve ever read, it is a charge against the often lazy and self-righteous culturalist interpretations of economic history.

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