The Peasants of Ottobeuren, 1487-1726: A Rural Society in Early Modern Europe

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"The Peasants of Ottobeuren offers a new perspective on one of the enduring problems of early modern European history: the possibilities for economic growth and social change in rural society." Based on the records of the Swabian Benedictine monastery of Ottobeuren, the book underscores the limitations of the traditional narrative of a sixteenth-century boom which foundered on the productive rigidities of the peasant economy and then degenerated into social crisis in the seventeenth century. Population growth did strain resources at Ottobeuren, but the peasantry continued to produce a sizable agricultural surplus. More importantly, peasants reacted to demographic pressure by deepening their involvement in land and credit markets, and more widely and aggressively marketing the fruits of their labor. Marriage and inheritance underwent a similar process of commercialization which made heavy demands on the peasantry, but which produced a degree of social stability through the devastations of war, plague and famine.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Sreenivasan's sophisticated book emerged from many years of labor. Replete with staistics (almost numbingly so), it gains life from compellingly told stories of individuals and families participating in markets, shaping the early modern world in a far more direct way than most scholars of early modern Europe have ever imagined."Renaissance Quarterly W. David Myers, Fordham University

"This is a historiographical bouillabaisse with many provides a rich interpretive broth with many a good empirical tidbit...[Sreenivasan] has presented a centuries-encompassing synthesis that reveals a larger picture previously unseen."
William W. Hagen, Journal of Modern History

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780521044585
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press
  • Publication date: 10/1/2007
  • Series: Past and Present Publications Series
  • Pages: 412
  • Product dimensions: 5.98 (w) x 8.98 (h) x 0.91 (d)

Meet the Author

Govind P. Sreenivasan is Assistant Professor of History, Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts.

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Read an Excerpt

Cambridge University Press
0521834708 - The Peasants of Ottobeuren, 1487-1726 - A Rural Society in Early Modern Europe - by Govind P. Sreenivasan


The specter haunting the historiography of early modern Europe is the specter of transition. To be sure, the relatively recent1 designation of the period c. 1450-c. 1750 as an era unto itself represented multiple intellectual currents, in the first instance a rising interest in social and economic (as opposed to religious and political) questions. At the same time, however, the definition of these centuries as the decisive and traumatic passage from a medieval to a modern world generated a literature pervaded by themes of crisis and revolution (agricultural, commercial, financial, military, scientific, etc.), culminating in a breakthrough variously defined as the beginnings of industrialization, the end of the economic ancien régime, or the transition from feudalism to capitalism.2 Of course, it was always recognized that economic growth was hardly a universal experience in early modern Europe, but this was accounted for by labeling some parts of the continent (the Mediterranean in general and Spain in particular) as examples of failed transitions and others (northwest Europe in general and England and the Netherlands in particular) as successes. Outcomes were bound to vary, it was felt, in such a wide-ranging struggle between the forces of growth and change and traditional social and economic limits.

Over time, the transitional narrative of early modern social history has lost much of its initial coherence. First and foremost, fifty years of research have forced historians to acknowledge that the performance of the early modern European economy as a whole was sluggish at best.3 The special status claimed for these centuries has also been eroded from without, as a consensus emerges over the decidedly modest pace of economic growth during the early Industrial Revolution,4 while the turbulence of the later Middle Ages is now reframed as an episode of such "creative" destruction that there was virtually nothing left to be accomplished during the subsequent early modern era.5 Nevertheless, historians have been extremely hostile to the one attempt to face this conundrum squarely: Emmanuel LeRoy Ladurie's famous 1974 pronouncement that the quintessential feature of early modern European society was its "immobility," that is, its inability to escape the limits to economic growth imposed by the technological backwardness of agriculture.6 Increasingly uncomfortable with an earlier insouciance in judging success and failure, scholars have in recent years preferred to reconceptualize early modern economic stagnation and depression as "readjustment,"7 while monographic investigations increasingly stress the adaptability, hard work, and above all the agency of all peasants and commoners.8 As the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries become an age in which everybody wins and all must have prizes while no fundamental social change occurs, textbooks have been at pains either to minimize differential economic performance and its causes, or even to eschew explanatory characterization altogether.9 Originally conceived as a fundamental hinge in European social history, the early modern period is now threatened with reduction to an arbitrary chronological convenience.10

The irony of this conceptual implosion is that the early modern period is gaining increased significance from the broader perspective of world history just as it loses its cachet within European history. That medieval Europe was no wealthier (and probably poorer) than the Islamic and East Asian worlds has long been known.11 It is now also becoming clear that the standard indices originally developed to gauge the economic performance of early modern Europe - life expectancy, urbanization levels, agricultural productivity, and so on - reveal no significant European lead over much of Asia before 1800.12 Yet unless one wishes to write off to historical accident the undeniable gulf in material prosperity which emerged between the West and "the Rest" during the nineteenth century,13 three crucial implications follow. First, the long-term causes of European economic primacy are to be sought in the early modern period. They are also to be sought within European society, since, for all the suffering it inflicted on the non-Western world, European colonialism never generated profits on a large enough scale to explain the Industrial Revolution.14 Second, whatever differentiated Western Europe as a whole from the non-Western world ultimately mattered more than regional variation within Western Europe.15 Finally, any discussion of the economic origins of the rise of the West will have to go beyond the question of technologies of production. Technical innovation did become the hallmark of European economic superiority, but the origins of that superiority in an era of technological stagnation suggest that a history of innovation depends on a prior history of incentives and institutions.16

In my own view, the question of early modern social transition has been encumbered by an unfortunate fixation on the technology of production, which was in no small part derived from post-war models of Third World economic development. The problem started with the perfectly correct observation that industrial societies have more efficient technologies of production than pre-industrial societies, allowing the former to produce necessary goods (above all food) in far greater amounts and with far fewer workers than the latter. Industrial societies thereby free a great many people to produce luxuries, offer services, and do all of the other things that make the industrialized world an allegedly better place to live. Indeed, industrial societies have a lot more people, period, than pre-industrial societies.

Now, in the particular context of early modern Europe, two empirically irrefutable observations played a key role in ushering in the preoccupation with productive technology. First, Europe was in these centuries an overwhelmingly rural society operating at (by modern standards) a rather modest level of technical efficiency (especially in agriculture). Second, early modern Europe seems to have experienced considerable difficulties in sustaining the people that it did have. From the last decades of the sixteenth century onwards, historians have documented soaring increases in food prices, slumps in long-distance trade and industrial production, the multiplication of plagues and famines, and demographic stagnation or even decline in region after region all over the continent. It was thus an easy step to conclude that a biological ceiling was imposed by these technological shortcomings, a ceiling lifted only with the advent of modern science and technology during the Enlightenment. Having reached this at least initially plausible (and far from preposterous) conclusion, historians then began hunting - all too often in vain, as it turned out17 - for the surge in productivity and production that allowed early modern Europe to escape the constraints of the biological ceiling.

The unexamined assumption of this Malthusian vision of early modern social history (associated in particular with a group of French scholars known as the Annales school)18 is that the technological capacity for increased production itself called into being the necessary institutions and practices to distribute surpluses and allow for economic specialization and development. This assumption, if I may be forgiven the metaphor, puts the cart before the horse. The argument here is 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.19 Furthermore, I would contend, the pervasion of both the individual peasant household and rural society as a whole by market relations amounted to a genuine social and even cultural transformation, independent of the subsequent realization of increased productivity.20

It will of course be objected that nobody really believes in the original Malthusian model any more, and furthermore that there is no reason to revive an outdated Marxist preoccupation with the transition between various historical modes of production. Surely the prudent course would be to content ourselves with the position that the early modern economy was never completely stationary, but grew very slowly in the very long term with so much regional variation that any analytical generalizations are hazardous. Prudent, yes, but deeply disingenuous as well.

In the first place, such an approach refuses honest engagement with the mass of accumulated evidence that something began to go seriously wrong with the early modern European economy at the end of the sixteenth century. Even in the case of England, the most credible early modern success story, fourteenth-century levels of population and agricultural productivity would not be exceeded until after 1750.21 In the same way, recent efforts to rehabilitate the agrarian economy of early modern France have produced an overall picture strikingly similar to LeRoy Ladurie's conclusion that "For [all] the apparent movement, things had really stayed much the same."22 If the fate of all grand historical theories is either falsification or banality, it is surely the latter which has befallen the Annales school. Much more seriously, by retaining the traditional analytic categories while disputing the numbers, the gradualist continuity narrative perpetuates an older expectation of where to look for meaningful social change and thereby impedes appreciation of those significant developments which did occur, but outside the realm of output statistics.

I therefore offer this book as an effort to reconcile the impressive empirical basis of the Malthusian scenario with its inherently implausible implication that most of Europe experienced no significant social change in the two centuries after 1560. This is, in other words, an effort to redeem the old question of the transition from feudalism to capitalism,23 and the key to that redemption is to reconsider the terms originally used to frame the project of social transition. Recent work in development economics is highly suggestive here, as it is an open secret that the traditional neoclassical economic model is powerless to explain the gross disparities of material well-being which persist in the world today. In a world of frictionless exchange, inefficient practices and groups should rapidly be weeded out and replaced by more efficient competitors. That this has not, in fact, taken place underscores the problems of co-ordination and inclusion in human societies, problems heavily influenced by the structure of property rights and exchange practices.24

The essential precondition for realizing the potential of innovative productive technologies is a reliable, dense and broadly based network of socio-economic exchanges. Hindrances to such a network can be social, economic, or cultural, and the shift from a fragmented to a networked society is likely to be a complicated, drawn-out, but very significant process. Furthermore, I would argue, one of the most helpful ways to follow these changes concretely is to look at the inscription of human activity in time and space. That the time-space constitution of human activity is no mere backdrop, but rather an essential part of what those activities are is hardly an idea original to myself, and has become a commonplace in recent theoretical sociology (associated in particular with the work of Anthony Giddens).25 On the other hand, the extension of this insight to historical research has almost exclusively focused on the industrial era and on the transformation of experience by technological, rather than institutional, change.26 For the early modern period, the latter was the more important vector and receives correspondingly more attention here.

The argument that superficial continuities of form can conceal dramatic shifts in underlying mechanisms also governed the choice of the region for investigation: the lands of the Benedictine monastery of Ottobeuren, located in the countryside of Upper Swabia amid the political confetti of the German southwest. No serious scholar would advance Germany, and least of all its agrarian sector, as an economic "leader" in early modern Europe, and German industrialization was late by West European standards.27 In world historical perspective, however, the rapidity with which the late nineteenth-century German economy - and German agriculture, too28 - caught up with England and the Low Countries seems rather more significant than Germany's late start. Bavaria clearly had rather more in common with Belgium than it ever did with Bengal, and I find the long-term convergence in the social history of Western Europe a rather more compelling concern than the narrower question "Why was England first?"29 And yet, although research on the early modern German peasantry has accelerated dramatically in recent years,30 it is the political relations between subject and overlord which have commanded most attention. Material life looms rather larger in this account of a region - usually known as the Allgäu - which never industrialized, and which in modern Germany is notable primarily for its impenetrable dialect and conservative politics. Usually overlooked in the contemporary perception of the Allgäu is its unusually resilient agrarian economy31 and its unusual agrarian history: during the early modern period the Allgäu became the bread-basket for the industrialization of neighboring Switzerland. The peasants of Ottobeuren clearly figured something out. This is their story.

1 · Right and might (c. 1480-c. 1560)

History does not record when Anna Maier was born; neither does it record when she died.1 It does pay rather closer attention to her older brother Johann, who entered the world perhaps two years before his sister in November of 1486, and predeceased her by at least twenty-five years in February of 1543. Both siblings grew up in the Upper Swabian village of Egg, in what is now part of the German province of Bavaria, and was then the lordship of the Benedictine monastery of Ottobeuren. Johann left Egg at the age of eight to be schooled by his uncle Martin Maier, a priest in the city of Rottenburg. The boy went on to study philosophy, law, and theology at the universities of Heidelberg, Cologne and Freiburg, changed his name to Johann Eck, and rose to fame (and notoriety) as the theologian who locked horns with Martin Luther at the Leipzig disputations of 1519.2 As for Anna, whose story this is, she remained in Egg and inherited the family farm.

The Hof, as a large farm like this was called, had originally been held by Anna's grandfather. It came to her father, Michael Maier, in 1483,3 and sometime around the year 1515 passed to her husband, Thoma Schaupp.4 It was the largest Hof in Egg, measuring some 110 jauchert or 46.5 hectares,5 and it instantly made Anna's household one of the richest in the village.6 With wealth came social status: Anna's father served as village Amman, or mayor, until his death in 1525, and the office would subsequently be handed along with the Hof to Anna's husband.7 Retaining that position of wealth and prominence, on the other hand, turned out to be more of a struggle.

Thoma Schaupp died during the later 1520s, whereupon Anna took to husband a certain Simon Bürklin. Simon's death in 1533 again left Anna a widow, but she soon remarried, this time to Jerg Wagner.8 Quite apart from the attendant emotional strain, these repeated losses imposed serious fiscal pressure on Anna's household. In law, the Hof was never owned outright by any of those who farmed it. Instead, formal ownership remained with the monastery, which leased the Hof to each new (male) tenant for the term of his life. As a woman, Anna could not lease the Hof by herself, and thus could not remain a widow if she wanted to stay on the property. It did not matter that Anna had been born on the Hof; each remarriage required a new lease to the "new" tenant. And at each new grant, the monastery exacted a hefty transfer fee, known as Erdschatz. Three Erdschatz payments within twenty-five years was a great deal of money, especially since Anna had so many children - a 1548 census lists her with eight9 - to care for.

The repeated Erdschatz charges seem to have been a source of considerable anger to Anna's family. Her brother Johann Eck, now far away in Ingolstadt, took time from his polemics against the Reformation to write several letters to the Ottobeuren monk and humanist Nikolaus Ellenbog, sometimes asking for Ellenbog's intercession with the Abbot on behalf of Eck's relatives,10 and sometimes raging that "in dealing with my relatives your Abbot has always not only greatly humiliated them but also despised them."11 One way or another, Anna and her third husband managed not only to stay solvent, but even to prosper,12 and Jerg Wagner remained the tenant of both her family's ancestral Hof and the village inn in Egg for thirty-two years.

© Cambridge University Press
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Table of Contents

List of figures; List of maps; List of tables; Acknowledgements; Note on weights, measures and currencies; Introduction; 1. Right and might (c. 1480–c. 1560); 2. The discrete society (c. 1480–c. 1560); 3. A crisis of numbers? (c. 1560–c. 1630); 4. Integrity and the market (c. 1560–c. 1630); 5. Living on borrowed time (c. 1560–c. 1630); 6. To empty and to refill (c. 1630–c. 1720); Conclusion; Bibliography; Index of places; General index.

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