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The Historical Distinctiveness of Central Europe

A Study in the Philosophy of History


Krzysztof Brzechczyn

The aim of this book is to explain economic dualism in the history of modern Europe. The emergence of the manorial-serf economy in the Bohemia, Poland, and Hungary in the 16th and the 17th centuries was the result of a cumulative impact of various circumstantial factors. The weakness of cities in Central Europe disturbed the social balance – so characteristic for Western-European societies – between burghers and the nobility. The political dominance of the nobility hampered the development of cities and limited the influence of burghers, paving the way to the rise of serfdom and manorial farms. These processes were accompanied by increased demand for agricultural products in Western Europe

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3 On the Distinctiveness of Central Europe

3 On the Distinctiveness of Central Europe

Theories developed to explain the developmental distinctiveness in Europe can be divided into three types.77 The first type of theories underlines the significance of factors external to a given society, the second type of conceptualization focuses on the importance of internal factors and the third type of explanations stresses significance of both types of factors, internal and external, to the emergence of the developmental distinctiveness of Europe. In the present overview, the theories put forward by Marian Małowist and Immanuel Wallerstein analyzed the impact of factors external to a given society. The concepts of Robert Brenner, Jerzy Topolski, and Benedykt Zientara stress the importance of internal factors. Finally, the views presented by Jeremy Blum, Daniel Chirot, Władysław Rusiński, and Jan Rutkowski represent the third, mixed type of conceptualizations emphasizing the indispensability of internal and external factors.

1 Theories Referring to External Factors

1.1 The Concept of Marian Małowist

Marian Małowist was one of the first authors who rooted his account of the developmental distinctiveness of Europe in an international context.78 He argued that developmental disproportions between the East and the West derived from the fact that the West benefited from the “great achievements of the Roman civilization.” On the contrary, the developmental capabilities of the East were limited by “more primitive social structures,” “low level of population density,” “worse ←57 | 58→geographical and climate conditions,” and “migrations of nomad tribes of Turkic origin” to the terrains of Central and Eastern Europe.79

Due to the civilizational advantage of Western Europe, Western-European economy reached its peak of development as early as in the 13th century. However, the continuous development of Western Europe was put on hold by an economic crisis. A substantial increase of the level of population density exceeded limited production capabilities of the economy. This brought about malnutrition of large layers of the population, which, in turn, weakened its immunity to epidemics caused by infectious diseases. In the 14th century, famines caused by incidental climate fluctuations and epidemics reduced the population of Western Europe by around 40 %. A devaluation of currency was another cause of the crisis. It was brought about by a growing trade in goods under the conditions of limited resources of bullion. It caused a drastic deprecation of currency in a large number of European countries. A decrease of the value of money resulted in a drop of the real value of taxes payable to the State Treasury and a drop of the real value of peasant services paid to the nobility.

Simultaneously, in the 13th and 14th centuries, the majority of Central-European countries was experiencing a phase of intensive development initiated at the turn of the 12th century, which lasted until the end of the 16th century. Central Europe experienced the most intensive development in the 14th century. German settlement with German Law was a significant stimulus for economic development. German Law, a modification of Western legal solutions adapted to the conditions of Central Europe, brought about an improvement of an economic and legal situation of the peasantry founded on it. Settlement with German Law boosted the productivity of the peasantry, which proved to be a substantial factor intensifying the economic development of Poland, Bohemia, and Hungary. The consequence of the German settlement undertaken by grand landowners was a stabilization of workforce. Previously, due to a small population density, increased compulsory service stimulated a rotation of workforce – cases of escapes were common among the peasantry. To increase their income, the ruling classes in the Central-European countries had to refer to economic stimuli, not to coercion. The ruling elites in Poland, Bohemia, and Hungary were becoming aware of their backwardness in comparison to the Western countries:

[T];he previous, relatively slow pace of economic growth of Poland, Hungary and Bohemia supported the evident disproportion of political and military forces between the above-listed countries and their stronger western neighbors, and the differences in ←58 | 59→the level of population density were significant. It was a dangerous situation for all social groups of the western countries under study.80

An additional factor, which accelerated the emerging process of colonization by grand ownership, was the political balance which had developed between Central-European countries, and which prevented them from gaining income from wars. Armed conflicts, where a victorious side would acquire looted goods and prisoners to supplement manpower, had been in fact a significant source of wealth for rulers and the nobility.

An intensification of Central-European economy contributed to the development of trade contacts with Western Europe. These contacts have existed since early Middle Ages; however, a significant increase of trade in goods took place only in the 13th century. At that time the Hanseatic League was crated and a number of towns, including Dubrovnik, Vienna, and Hamburg, developed into trade centers between Western and Central Europe. As a result, the structure of trade exchange between the two parts of Europe received a unilateral character:

[W];estern merchants, whose previous outlets have contracted and experienced severe structural transformations, perceived the developing Eastern countries as highly attractive. The number of luxury goods, let alone craft products of average sort, was growing, because local producers in Poland, Hungary, and Bohemia, not to mention Balkan countries, were unable to satisfy the demand.81

Consequently, the mechanisms of international trade and non-equivalent exchange brought about the following situation:

[A]; certain type of economic relations between Eastern and Western Europe was formed as early as in the late Middle Ages. Western Europe provided its Eastern partners with finished craft products, luxury goods, and capital, and to a certain extent also people, whereas Eastern countries predominantly exported raw materials, including such significant articles as bullions and other metals. The above contributed to a diversification of economy of the then developed North-West and South-West Europe, and to an acceleration of growth of craft production and, in a sense, industrial production on those terrains. (…) On the contrary, in the East, which was economically backward due to adverse starting conditions, trade with the West contributed to the civilizational advancement and increasing wealth of local and migrant merchants and feudal lords; however, it simultaneously brought about a certain economic unilateralism.82

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For this reason, the mechanisms of international trade consolidated the underdeveloped economic structure of Central-European countries. Its backwardness was a result of the late start of urban economy caused by an insufficient civilizational development of Central Europe and the civilizational advantage of the Western-European societies.

1.2 The Concept of Immanuel Wallerstein

In the perspective of the World-Capitalist System, the main analytic categories include a notion of the center, peripheries, and semi-peripheries connected with relationships of economic exchange. This perspective introduces a new understanding of the essence of capitalism and the category of transition from feudalism to market economy. Immanuel Wallerstein maintains that capitalism is an economic system, in which products are manufactured with an intention to be sold on a market for profit subsequently expropriated based on the law of ownership. The transition from feudalism to capitalism took place between 1450 and 1600.83 Wallerstein claims that it was a unique development, which happens only once in history. The phenomena of “proletarianization of workforce” and “commoditization of land” were the aspects of the process.

A transformation of feudalism into a global capitalistic system was a consequence of a crisis, which spread over feudal Europe between 1300 and 1450. In the Middle Ages, the European continent comprised a number of independent political organisms, not connected politically or commercially. Presence of a number of isolated economic entities was a characteristic feature of the feudal system of production. The system had enjoyed a period of expansion and advancement in the years 1150–1300. However, in the years 1300–1450, the feudal economy had gradually exhausted its internal reserves for development. A combination of three factors brought about a crisis:

after a thousand-years-long expropriation of economic surplus, exploitation had reached a level, at which the ruling class was no longer able to further increase exploitation of the peasantry;

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the level of production reached its peak at the given state of technology;

deterioration of climate conditions caused a decrease of fertility of soil.

Pressured by the developing crisis, the ruling classes in Europe were forced to invent a new system of expropriation of production surplus. Direct expropriation was replaced with indirect expropriation founded on the mechanism of international trade. At the international market, luxury goods were replaced with mass consumption ones.

As a result, there emerged a global capitalistic system covering North-West Europe, countries with a Mediterranean coastline, Central Europe and a number of non-European regions: New Spain, Antilles, Peru, Chile, Brazil, the Atlantic islands, and the coast of Africa.

In the 16th century, Russia, the Ottoman Empire and the Far East were out of reach of the impact of the above system. The market mechanisms divided the global economic system into center, peripheries and semi-peripheries. As a consequence, North-West Europe became the center of the system, which specialized in production requiring highly qualified contract workforce. Eastern Europe and the agricultural regions of Western Europe turned into peripheries, which specialized in the export of crops and low-processed materials. Finally, the Mediterranean coastline became semi-peripheries involved in semi-industrial production of silk, and specializing in transfer of credits and trade. European peripheries slowly developed toward capitalism by introducing the commercialization of the land market and proletarianization of workforce, however only Scandinavian countries succeeded in joining the center.

Wallerstein ponders on the question why Eastern Europe became a periphery of the system and the North-West Europe – the center. The above differentiation is more interesting in light of earlier evolution of both parts of the continent in the 13th and the 14th centuries. In this period, both parts of Europe, eastern and western, developed analogically: feudal control over the peasantry lessened and the monetary economy prevailed. The development of global economic system in the 14th and the 15th centuries brought about an increase of developmental distinctiveness in the two parts of Europe because these two regions become complementary parts of a more complex whole – world economy system:

Northwest Europe emerged as the core area of this world-economy, specializing in agricultural production of higher skill levels, which favoured (. . .) tenancy and wage labor as the modes of labor control. Eastern Europe and Western Hemisphere became peripherial areas specializing in export of grains, bullion, wood, cotton, sugar – all of ←61 | 62→which favored the use of slavery and coerced cash-crop labor as the modes of labor control.84

Wallerstein ponders on the question why the situation was not opposite. Why did not Western Europe transform into a periphery of the system, and Eastern Europe – the center? The above situation developed as a result of a number of factors, which exerted a decisive influence on the evolution paths of the two parts of the continent. Wallerstein investigates the impact of these factors as follows:

Thus if, at a given moment in time, because of a series of factors at a previous time, one region has a slight edge over another in terms of one key factor, and there is a conjuncture of events which make this slight edge of central importance in terms of determining social action, then the slight edge is converted into a large disparity and the advantage holds even after the conjuncture has passed.85

The particular station mentioned above was the colonial expansion of Western Europe undertaken in the 15th century. The level of acquired profit depended on the degree of introduced specialization of economy in the Western Europe – the development of industry, sea transport, etc. The introduction of specialization required a lot of attention from the Western-European societies, to the detriment of the development of agriculture. As a result, Eastern Europe transformed into a food producer and the supplier of resources and crops for Western Europe. However, as Wallerstein claims, the situation could have been opposite. Western Europe could have specialized in agricultural production for Eastern Europe. According to him, in the 15th century an unsubstantial factor determined which part of the continent gained the advantage over the other, and decided on the implementation of one of the two alternatives. Due to this unsubstantial factor, in the 16th century the small advantage of Western Europe over Eastern Europe had been growing continually to finally bring about a distinction between countries situated in the center and those belonging to the peripheries. The system of compulsory labor in Eastern Europe, as Wallerstein names the manorial-serf system, developed in response to the impact of two factors: the opportunity to achieve a significant profit on the global market of agricultural products and a relative absence of manpower, when compared to large areas of uncultivated land.86 The relatively large abundance of uncultivated farmland allowed for a ←62 | 63→colonization of new terrains. And this, in turn, facilitated an introduction of the system of compulsory labor since, according to Wallerstein, it was easier to impose such system on the newly colonized areas, in comparison to areas with the old tradition of settlement. In his discussion of the remaining factors, which determined the course of historical development, Wallerstein lists weak condition of Eastern-European towns. While in the 13th century the difference between Eastern- and Western-European towns was insignificant, in the following centuries the distance had grown and brought about an indirect dependency of Eastern-European agriculture on the Western demand.

The approach of World-Capitalist System may provide a very useful explanation of the expansion of capitalism. However, according to the concept, the problem of the genesis of capitalism, and particularly of the differentiation of developmental paths of the countries in the center and the countries in the peripheries, is not subjected to a theoretical explanation, but merely to a historical analysis. According to such description, peripheral countries are usually treated as homogenous and internally undifferentiated objects of analysis. However, as demonstrated by Darius Žiemelis, the economic development of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania between the second half of the 16th century until the abolition of serfdom in the Russian Empire in 1861, only roughly falls under the definition of the development of the peripheral capitalism assumed by Wallerstein’s model. In the first period from the mid-16th century to the mid-18th century, serfdom was just one of the many forms of feudal rent implemented mainly in the estates of the great magnates. In the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the main source of income for property owners was not the sale of agricultural products on the internal and external market, but the profits from the lease of taverns and mills.87 Moreover, the “received funds were invested [by the estate owners] not in maximizing the held resources, but to the expansion of the usage of the social elite,”88 which, according to the author, precludes the possibility of treating a manor as an enterprise operating in the conditions of peripheral capitalism. Furthermore, the intensification of serfdom in the second half of the 18th century was not, according to Žiemelis, the main source of income in the Grand ←63 | 64→Duchy of Lithuania.89 In 1795, the direction of export of agricultural products has also changed: “due to its incorporation into Russia from the end of the 18th century [Lithuania] became the agrarian periphery of the empire beginning with the 20th century. All of this ‘conserved’ even more the peasant production for family consumption in agriculture and determined the weak development of Lithuania’s cities.”90 Then, the economy of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was more in line with the model of peripheral development.

The World-Capitalist Economy approach, explaining the phenomenon of backwardness of peripheral countries, focuses on external rather than internal factors. There are reasonable doubts as to whether external factors are so significant.91 Topolski puts forward a critique of Wallerstein’s concept with relation to Poland:

In general, in the following years [of the 17th century], the Baltic region produced annually the maximum of 100,000 tons of grain (mostly wheat), which satisfied the demand of ca. 750,000 people. When compared to the level of population density in Europe of around 104,000,000 people in the beginning of the 17th century, it accounted for an unsubstantial percentage (less then 1%). […] When compared to the global grain production of Western Europe, the exported amount was also insignificant. Wyczański, an author of the most comprehensive estimations of grain production in the 16th century Poland, has recently stated that the export of Polish grain in the second half of the 16th century accounted for the maximum of 2.5% of global production.92

Certainly, economic relations consolidated the underdeveloped economic structure of Central Europe. However, they did not itself determine the pivotal direction of the social evolution, the tendencies of which had manifested in the past.

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2 Theories Referring to Internal Factors

2.1 The Concept of Robert Brenner

Robert Brenner put forward an alternative account of the dichotomy between developmental paths of Eastern (including Central-European countries) and Western Europe. Brenner devoted a number of papers to construct and subsequently develop a general model of feudalism with the purport to grasp the developmental differences between England and France, on the one hand, and Western and Eastern Europe, on the other.93

According to Brenner, the factor of class structure is the key category of social development. On the one hand, it encompasses organizational dependencies between direct producers and their approach to material tools used in the production process. On the other hand, a social class structure dictates ownership relations, which allow the nonworking class of owners to expropriate secondary production. Expropriation may be direct or indirect, but in the end it always depends on the factor of violence. Following from this, ownership relations determine the fundamental social division into the class of direct producers and the ruling class capable of expropriating secondary production.94

For this reason, a class structure is the basic category determining the mechanisms of social development. However, the category of class structure has taken on a number of forms within various socio-economic formations. For instance, feudalism and capitalism were two completely different social systems. Most importantly, the class of direct producers – the peasantry – had a direct, not mediated by market mechanisms, access to work tools and means of production. The peasant mode of production consisting in cultivation of land did not require intervention from lords. Moreover, the slight evolution of market relations brought about a self-sufficiency of peasant farms. As a result, in order to purchase goods the peasantry did not have to sell its products on the market. To be able to expropriate secondary production, a feudal lord had to have a political ←65 | 66→power over the peasantry. This way, by referring to the means of coercion, feudal lords could expropriate the production surplus. As Brenner claims:

“fusion” (to put it imprecisely) between “the economic” and “the political” was a distinguishing and a constitutive feature of the feudal class structure and system of production. This was manifested in the fact that the “economic” conditions for the reproduction of the ruling class – the income it required to carry out its life activities, including the continuing subjection of the peasantry – depended upon a system of extraction of surplus labor from the direct producers, which was characterized by extra-economic (“political”) compulsion.95

The above structural distinctiveness of the feudal system dictated feudal rules of reproduction, which determined the dynamics of the system. Brenner emphasizes that both, the lords and the peasants, had access to the means that guaranteed their survival. Additionally, the absence of market brought about a situation, in which economic entities were not forced to increase production to maximum.

Brenner discusses two sources of the dynamics of feudalism: colonization of new terrains and a so-called political accumulation. Colonization was a typical form of development of feudalism. The increase of the level of population density stimulated the process of land-use of new terrains. As a result, the economic situation of the peasantry improved and feudal lords became capable of conducing a mostly conflict-free expropriation of the production surplus brought forth by the class of peasants. However, the boundaries for colonization were set by the limited amount of land available for cultivation with the medieval production technique. After the land resources had been exhausted, political accumulation became the second source of dynamics of the feudal system. It consisted in an expansion of the private or state military-clerical apparatus purported to redistribute income or increase exploitation of the peasantry using imposed taxes. Additionally, Brenner studies mutual relations between two sources of the dynamics of the feudal formation. Political accumulation was the basic mechanism of the evolution of the feudal system on the central terrains of the European feudal society. There emerged centralized state monarchies and, subsequently, absolutist monarchies. Differently, on the peripheral terrains of European feudalism – in Poland, Bohemia, and Hungary, colonization dominated over accumulation. As a result, the ruling classes of the above-listed societies did not have to expand their centralized state apparatus.96

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The above-described internal tendencies embedded in the developmental mechanisms of feudalism brought the formation to an internal crisis. Due to absence of market mechanisms, an intensification of production was not required. Production grew in an extensive way – the evolution of the population led to land use of new terrains. However, a constant increase of the level of population density at the unchanging production technique brought about relative overpopulation and shrinkage of the area of cultivated land. In the middle of the 14th century, as a result of famine and the plague epidemic, the European population was significantly reduced. The crisis of feudalism had different consequences for various areas of Europe, depending on the ability of individual social classes to push across their interests. I will now discuss Brenner’s explanation of the developmental differences between Eastern and Western Europe.

In the 13th and the 14th centuries, the terrains of Eastern Europe were subject to colonization with German Law. By organizing German colonization, feudal lords attempted to expropriate production surplus. Since the 15th century, after the settlement stimulated by the migration of Western-European (particularly German) peasantry decreased, North-East Europe has experienced a rise of slavery. An enforcement of serfdom was purported to solve the problems brought about by a shortage of workforce. The problems appeared when the level of Western-European population density decreased and it became impossible to bring settlers from this area. In Brenner’s words, the decreasing population, and the growing possibility to purchase luxury goods and sell grain on the internal market brought about an increase of the control of the feudal lords over the peasantry. As a result of the above processes, the feudal lords introduced a limitation of free movement and an increase of the burdens of serfdom. Brenner ponders on why if a reorganization of class relations succeeded in the East, similar simultaneous tendencies proved unsuccessful in the West. According to him, absence of successful peasant revolutions allowed the Eastern-European nobility to increase the scope of their control over the peasantry. And on the contrary, the attempts to introduce serfdom in Western Europe were unsuccessful, due to effective resistance of the peasantry. According to Brenner, it was a consequence of varied class relations on the East and the West of Europe, which resulted from different models of evolution implemented in the two parts of the continent.

On the East, the nobility organized and controlled the process of settlement, and granted privileges and economic rights to the peasantry. On the West, on the contrary, the colonization of new terrains was in general a bottom-up initiative of the peasantry, only top-down controlled by the feudal lords. From this source, the freedom of the Western-European peasantry was a result of a long-lasting class struggle, which led to the creation of common peasant institutions. On the ←67 | 68→East, the same scope of freedom was granted in a top-down way, as a result of German settlement organized by the feudal lords. Therefore, when it became impossible to bring settlers due to the population crisis on the West of Europe, the nobility introduced a more rigorous system of management of the peasantry.97 Eastern-European peasantry – less organized and with no tradition of class resistance, was unable to effectively oppose the policy of the feudal class.

Introduction of serfdom exerted significant influence on the socio-economic evolution of Eastern Europe. Most importantly, the economic system based on compulsory labor of the peasantry brought about a technological stagnation in agriculture. Additionally, a decline of income of the peasants brought about a decrease of demand of this social group for craft goods produced in towns. Limitation of the mobility of the peasantry deprived towns from access to cheap workforce. The above two factors combined with anti-town policy of the nobility led to a degradation of towns and a long-lasting socio-economic backwardness of Eastern Europe.

According to Brenner, the principal factor differentiating the development of Eastern and Western Europe resulted from the character of class resistance of the peasantry: effective in Western and ineffective in Eastern Europe. The above difference was a consequence of the impact of institutional and consciousness-related factors: Western-European peasantry, in contrast to the Eastern peasantry, was better organized and had longer traditions of class struggle. However, within the presented conceptual model, the category of effectiveness or ineffectiveness of class struggle is highly unclear. It may be understood in two ways: an effective resistance of the peasantry directly leads to a transformation of a class structure of a society or brings about an improvement of the financial situation of the peasantry within a given class structure. Nonetheless, if we adopt the first understanding of the notion, then the class struggle of the peasantry in both, Western and Eastern Europe, was ineffective, since it did not bring about a transformation of the structure of ownership. The second understanding of the category must refer to a social context. If the balance between social classes of a feudal society: rulers, burghers, and the nobility, prevailed, then resistance of the peasantry forced the feudal class to grant concessions and led to an improvement of the economic situation of the peasantry. The above-described social conditions were present in the Western Europe. This, however, puts an emphasis ←68 | 69→on the impact of the urban sphere, which Brenner deprives of any significance to the process of European distinctiveness.

Another unclear point in Brenner’s concept is the link between the end of the settlement processes in the Eastern Europe, which ended in the 2nd half of the 14th century, and the introduction of serfdom. According to his theory, the shortage of manpower was the only factor, which influenced the evolution of the manorial-serf system. However, a manorial-serf economy emerged in Central Europe over 150 years after the plague epidemic and the ending of the settlement processes (symbolically, a manorial-serf economy in Poland was initiated with the decisions of the Piotrków Sejm from 1496 and the Bydgoszcz-Toruń Statutes from 1520; in Hungary with the completion of the Tripartitum in 1514 and in Bohemia with land statutes in 1627/28). Brenner’s reference to the Teutonic State as an example, which already at the beginning of the 15th century issued regulations targeting the desertion of the peasantry, is unconvincing. The Teutonic State had a different social structure then the rest of the countries in the region. In the Teutonic society, there was a significant concentration of power and ownership (and the means of spiritual production, too)98 in the hands of a single social class able to implement the means of state coercion to regulate work relations. In Central-European societies, social conditions were different, since the political power was independent from the nobility and burghers balanced the influence of the nobility. Over 150 years had to pass before the nobility in the Central-European countries became capable of subjugating the state to its needs and of limiting the rights of burghers. The introduction of serfdom is a reaction to the deficiency of workforce; however, this holds true only in a situation when the class of owners gains dominance in the state and limits the influence of the urban labor market. Otherwise, the only strategy available to owners is granting concessions. The above conclusion becomes clear only if one adopts a different theoretical perspective, in which the state is not only a servant of ownership but also an institution hiding a social class with a separate social interest than the owners.

2.2 The Concept of Jerzy Topolski

Topolski discusses a problem of the development of the feudal system and its differentiation in a series of books and papers published during his entire academic carrier.99 In the area covered by the Carolingian Empire, the feudal ←69 | 70→system emerged as a result of the dissolution of slavery and the introduction of the social institution of Germanic tribal communities. Differently, in the East – in Germany, Poland, Bohemia, Slovakia, Hungary, Ukraine, and Belarus – the emergence of feudalism was a consequence of the dissolution of agrarian communities, the gradual development of private property and the rise of the nobility. In this part of Europe, the state was the factor, which stimulated feudal transformations, since it supported the process of development of the class of owners. In the period of early-feudal monarchy, the institution of state set up its own economic sector where the peasantry, which was grouped in special servicing villages, performed specialized services and produced the needed goods. The ruler identified with the state and treated the entire state, including the land, as his patrimonial property. However, subsequently, the development of the nobility brought about dissolution of the primal system of the state economy. State authorities granted privileges and immunity concessions, which led to the development of a feudal layer of landowners, who were solely interested in management. As a result, the processes of increasing the significance of the nobility brought about a collapse of the institution of state. While in the 10th and the 11th centuries the state constituted the principal factor, which stimulated the economy, in the 13th and the 14th centuries the feudal lords replaced it. This class organized grubbing-up forests, set up new villages and towns, brought in settlers. The action of grand ownership created favorable conditions for the development of peasant farms, which in the 14th and the 15th centuries constituted the primary factor of economic growth.

Differently, until the second half of the 13th century Western Europe was experiencing a period of rapid economic development, which was put to an abrupt halt in the middle of the 13th century. The economic stagnation was caused ←70 | 71→by the discrepancy between the rapidly growing level of population density and the production capabilities of medieval agriculture. The above phenomenon brought about the fragmentation of farmland, increase of prices of agricultural products, decrease of industrial prices, and drop of agricultural productivity. A further increase of the level of population density above the production capabilities of the economy led to food crises, and a decreased immunity of the population against epidemics and diseases. The relationship between the population and the production potential of the economy begun to stabilize around 1369 after a series of famine and epidemics, which drastically reduced the population of Western Europe.

The above-described disruptions of the economic evolution brought about an emergence of a particular tendency in the entire Europe, namely a drop of income of the European nobility. The reasons for the reduction of income were various but, according to Jerzy Topolski, they were in general associated with the consequences of the development of the money-goods economy:

[D];ifferent social classes and social layers had differently benefited from the evolution of this economy. At first, the nobility had also profited. However, their benefits soon proved to be apparent because they were not connected with direct production activity, but with a certain reorganization of the system of expropriation of feudal rent. By implicating an increase of money-goods relations, this reorganization consisted, as we know, in a shift from various types of serfdom and compulsory serf labor (pańszczyzna), and various tributes in kind to paid rent.100

The income of the nobility decreased due to the resistance of the peasantry, which precluded a further increase of villein service. Moreover, the processes of depreciation and devaluation of currency constituted a permanent feature of the medieval economy. This brought about a decrease of real (but not necessarily nominal) income of the nobility. Additionally, at the turn of the 14th and the 15th centuries, the wages of paid workers in agriculture increased. Moreover, the expansion of burghers posed a risk for the nobility. At that time, burghers in Italy, Spain, France, Germany, and Poland took over a number of the nobility’s estates. The economic expansion of the Church brought about similar consequences. Due to donations, grants and legacies made in testaments, many land estates were transferred into the possession of church institutions. Additionally, at that time there was much devastation connected with wars and defeats. Topolski also mentions a biological factor – an increase of the level of population of the nobility caused a growing fragmentation of demesne of this social group.

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The reduction of income forced the nobility to launch a counter-action. Jerzy Topolski lists four principal ways, in which the nobility enlarged its income: by increasing the income expropriated form the peasantry, by seizing part of the income of burghers, by changing the division of profit inside the feudal class and by undertaking an economic activity.101 Attempts to increase exploitation of the peasantry brought about a series of revolts and revolutions, which had swept throughout Europe from the 2nd half of the 14th century until the beginning of the 16th century. Moreover, burghers successfully hindered the acquisition of their income. The only way to seize it was via relationships and family ties. A more effective method of preventing a decrease of income of the nobility was to change of the method of distribution within the feudal class. In the current period, the nobility, supported by the state, was seizing church assets.

Nonetheless, in a long-term perspective, the economic activity of the nobility was the only successful method of increasing income or at least preventing a reduction of income. It took on various forms, depending on local conditions, i.e. the English nobility took up sheep farming, in Bohemia the nobility set up ponds and engaged in fish farming, and in Poland this social class took up grain production. In Western Europe, the strength of burghers and the existing capitalistic system directed the economic activity of the nobility toward money-goods economy using paid workforce.

The socio-economic conditions of Central Europe gave grounds for the diffusion of a manorial-serf economy. According to Topolski, it was a different manifestation of the same economic process:

The nobility took up various forms of economic activity, particularly if we compare the situation in the countries west and east of the river Elbe. However, all of these activities were a response to the common situation of the process of decreasing income. In this sense, there is a new explanation of the emergence of a manorial-serf economy in Poland and in other countries. It is not a manifestation of the developmental distinctiveness of Europe, west and east of the river Elbe, but predominantly a consequence of the common processes of activation born on the common ground. Both the English enclosure and the development of villein manors (folwarki pańszczyźniane) belong to the same larger process. The forms of economic activity of the nobility predominantly depended on the natural conditions of a given terrain (i.e. location, climate, etc., level of manpower, which was associated with the level of dissolution of slavery in the end of the Middle Ages) and with the character of the market available to the production connected with the increased economic activity of the nobility.102

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Topolski provides a more detailed description of factors, which determined the forms of economic activity of the nobility. He divides them into three groups associated with: (1) relationship between land and workforce; (2) potential to sell crops; (3) natural conditions. On areas where the existence of the urban market dictated high wages for workers and where the peasantry enjoyed personal freedom, the nobility chose forms of production not requiring a lot of manpower (e.g. sheep grazing in England). Differently, in Poland and other Central-European countries where serfdom prevailed and towns were underdeveloped, the nobility could introduce more labor-intensive forms of production (e.g. the production of grain in Poland). Another group of factors was associated with the possibility to sell crops. For instance, because of the weak internal urban market, the Polish nobility could only sell its products to the West. Polish producers specialized in production of grain and other agricultural products to answer the demand of Western Europe on these goods. Finally, the third group of climate and geographical factors exerted additional influence on the economic decisions of the nobility. Topolski lists location, climate, class of soil, etc. A combination of factors belonging to the above-described three groups brought about the development of a number of types of villein manors specializing in production of grain, cattle, sheep, fish and wine.

Topolski distinguishes between two stages of re-feudalization of economic relations in Central Europe. The first stage, lasting from the end of the 15th century until the first decades of the 17th century, was characterized by:

development and spread of a manorial-serf economy and the so-called second serfdom. During the period the economic structure underwent a significant transformation. Peasant farms […] lost their independence and became a mere part of a whole, in which a manorial estate had a domineering position. This position was associated with the non-economic (political) power of the nobility.103

The second stage of re-feudalization was associated with the influence of the manorial system on the economic life. Manorial-serf economy put the process of development of capitalistic elements in the economic structure of Central Europe to a long halt. In the social sphere, the process of concentration of feudal ownership and aristocracization of the nobility accompanied it in the Central Europe in the 15th and the 18th centuries. It was not until the agrarian reforms of the 19th century, which granted landownership to the peasantry and abolished their dependency from landowners, that the development of a capitalistic economy became possible.

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The key idea of Topolski’s concept is his statement on the reduction of income of the nobility. This decrease led to a counteraction of this social class, which in consequence brought about a dichotomy in the development of Europe and a rise of the manorial-serf system in Central Europe, among other things. However, Topolski’s thesis has an empirical and not a theoretical character. It does not derive from a more general model of feudalism. Therefore, it is not clear whether the decrease of income of the nobility – the principal factor, which brought about capitalistic transformations in the West – resulted from internal developmental mechanisms of the feudal formation, or was caused by pure coincidence. Topolski does investigate the phenomenon, however he offers a historical analysis, not a theoretical one. If the drop of income of the nobility was caused by coincidental factors, then it is necessary to pose the following question: what would have happened if the reduction of wealth of the nobility had not taken place at all? Would there have been no capitalism and no developmental diversification in Europe? Without embedding the phenomena described by Topolski in a more general theory, it is difficult to provide a reasonably supported answer to the above question.

2.3 The Concept of Benedykt Zientara

Benedykt Zientara claims that, as distinct from the situation in Western Europe, the agrarian relations east of the river Elbe were characterized by the concentration of all aspects of feudal sovereignty over the peasantry in few hands.104 As a result, feudal lords were able to enforce service of unpaid labor on the peasantry. A noble’s demesne (folwark szlachecki), instead of an independent peasant farm, was the basic production unit. According to Zientara, the underdevelopment of the urban sphere was decisive in the rise of a manorial-serf system:

[T];owns were weak economically and politically divided, and as such unable of uniting around common interests and of becoming a factor capable of balancing the influence of feudal lords to a certain degree. Therefore, absolutist monarchy could not arise in the Central-European countries […] Instead, there developed a “democracy of the nobility” with more or less concealed superiority of the great magnates – the owners of latifundia, who were gradually pushing towns to the margins of political life (in Poland earlier than in other countries).105

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The underdevelopment of towns allowed the nobility and magnates to dominate state power, using the system of the democracy of the nobility, and to introduce the so-called “second serfdom.” Zientara stresses the significance of the internal factors responsible for the social development of Central Europe.106 Zientara concludes his reflections with the opinion that “the structure of class power […] based on economic premises” exerted a decisive influence on the development of a manorial-serf economy:

Economic and political weakness of towns, the association of some of them with the nobility’s economic interests, the relatively weak development of the internal market – all of these factors allowed feudal lords to gain a much stronger social position than they had in Western Europe and prevented the development of absolutist monarchies.107

3 Combined Theories

3.1 The Concept of Daniel Chirot

When analyzing the genesis of manorial-serf economy in Central Europe, Daniel Chirot states that this type of production – based on compulsory labor performed by farm workers, where the effects of production are sold on the market – differs from classic serfdom in feudalism and from the system of slavery.108 In these economic systems the greater part of products manufactured by direct producers was intended for consumption by owners, and not for the market.

The system of compulsory labor came to existence as a consequence of the impact of four factors. The first factor was the presence of the class of grand landowners. This social category did not descend from the class of small landowners, but mostly stemmed from the war aristocracy or the ruling elite, which first conquered and later economically subordinated the native peasantry. Following from this, the presence of the layer of grand landowners was one of the causative factors of the system of compulsory labor in Eastern Europe, Asia, and Latin America. The existence of this social category brought about economic polarization of the society: concentration of land ownership in the hands of a small minority and emergence of landless layer of farm workers.

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A shortage of manpower was the second factor which enabled the development of the system of compulsory labor. If there is surplus manpower in comparison to the amount of farmed land cultivated with a given level of technique, then “labor will compete for work on the large estates and laborers will be free to leave since landlords will always be able to find new labor. A free tenancy system or a wage labor system (generally with cheap wages will prevail.”109

Differently, if there is a shortage of workforce in comparison to cultivated land, than “laborers will tend to migrate to areas where less of their products is taken from them, and landlords will be hard put to find easily exploitable labor. In such situation, if landlords control the political process, they will tend to reduce labor mobility by law and force.”110

An agricultural system based on cultivation of only one species of plants was the third factor enhancing the development of the system of compulsory labor. Agriculture based on monoculture brought about demand for unqualified workforce, which could have been provided only via the system of compulsory labor. Mechanization and technological advancement associated with a more diverse system of crops created demand for qualified workers.

Finally, the last factor was the presence of a market, internal or external, which created demand for production manufactured under the system of compulsory labor. Therefore, a reorganization of the production mode depended on the impact of market forces, among other factors.

According to Chirot, Poland was one of the classic examples of an economic transformation. In the 16th century, trade contacts between Poland and Western countries have developed significantly. Demand for grain, production of which did not require an advanced technology, was one of the conditions for reorganization of the mode of agricultural production. Presence of the class of owners, which controlled political life, and the state of deficiency of workforce allowed for a reorganization of the system of production into a manorial-serf economy. This system prevailed until the middle of the 19th century when a growing level of the population density and technological advancement led to the substitution of the analyzed mode of production in favor of a capitalist economy. Analogical systems of production came to existence in Latin America, Asia and Africa. According to Chirot,

[t];he combination of markets for agricultural products, labor shortages and concentration of landowning into relatively few hands produced servile labor systems in other ←76 | 77→parts of the world as well as in Eastern Europe. Thus, the key reason for the growth of slavery in Americas was the acute labor shortage on the European owned sugar, cotton, and tobacco plantations.111

Chirot ponders on the question of the status of the system of compulsory labor. He perceives it as a system of production different from the system of slavery, feudalism or capitalism:

Agrarian servile labor systems oriented to the market have enough similarities that they can be viewed collectively as a distinct mode of production with its own economic and social characteristics. This mode of production does not fit into classical Marxist modes of production (communal, city, Asiatic, feudal, capitalist, socialist) any more than it fits into traditional stereotypes of “peasant economies” characterized by subsistence economies and more or less pure “folk cultures.”112

The above-presented model displays a connection between Eastern Europe and other underdeveloped countries. What is questionable in Chirot’s concept is the decisive role attributed to grand ownership. In Poland, and more broadly in Central Europe, grand ownership did not descend from war aristocracy, which conquered the native population. Moreover, the area occupied by a noble’s demesne was not large – ca. 60–80 ha. It follows that the concentration of ownership and the rise of magnates was not so much a cause as a consequence of the development of the manorial-serf system.

3.2 The Concept of Władysław Rusiński

Władysław Rusiński claims that villein manors had already existed in the Middle Ages.113 A noble’s demesne descended from the feudal lords’ own farm (praedium, allodium), which was intended for subsistence farming. During settlement with German Law, these farms begun to employ paid labor. Gradually, as the absorbency of the internal market and the development of towns grew, farm ←77 | 78→production shifted to commercial production. The internal market was rather limited, hence

further expansion of production is possible with expansion of foreign outlets. Profitability of commodity production dictates entrance into these markets. The peasantry is forced to work more, in order to acquire profit. As a result, commercial production for expanded markets leads to the so-called second serfdom. The process is slow and gradual; praedia gradually specialize, focus on grain production and transform into villein manors.114

The acreage of villein manors was enlarged at the expense of fallow, uncultivated lands. Another way to expand a manor was through acquiring a better land farmed by the peasantry in exchange for lower-quality land and buying out village headmen’ manors (folwarki sołtysie). Two factors brought about the rise and development of manorial-serf economy: political superiority of the nobility and the increased demand for agricultural products of Western Europe. According to Rusiński, the development of the nobleman’s demesne would be impossible without a broad outlet. The internal market, even in the period of the most intense boom of towns, was restricted within certain limits; therefore, the development of a manor depended on sale of grain in Western-European countries. The evolution of industry, the rise of population employed in non-agricultural sectors, the growing prosperity, and the general growth of the population density, particularly in the years 1450–1600, brought about an increased demand for grain in Western-European countries. During this period, Western-European agriculture fell into a technological stagnation. According to Rusiński,

[t];he demand for Polish grain and in part for other products offered by the agricultural and livestock farming economy (meat, fur, etc.) in Western Europe is possibly one of the most significant reasons for the development of a manorial-serf economy. Other reasons […] had a secondary character (internal market, fallow land, access to the sea).115

There was also another factor which brought about the rise and development of the manorial-serf economy: “the nobility in Eastern-European countries exerted a decisive influence on the state affairs and a free hand with the peasantry.”116

The above is associated with a question posed by Rusiński: Why the increase of demand for grain was not satisfied with agriculture in England or the Netherlands, countries where the developments could have unfolded in a similar way? He answers in the following way:

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[T];he significant increase of productive forces in the industry, the improved standard of living and the global increase of population caused the indigenous agricultural production to lag behind the evolution of industry; due to higher rate of income in the industry, people moved from rural areas to towns, agricultural land turned into pastures and became a resource base for textile industry – there was no material stimulus for the development of agriculture, since imported agricultural products were less expensive.117

Imported products were less expensive because the nobility was able to increase the extent of serfdom, using vassal relationships gained through political superiority. On account of unpaid work of the peasantry, the export of grain to the West was cost-effective. According to Rusiński, the fundamental factors, which brought about the distinctiveness of Central Europe, were both intersocial and external. Political dominance of the nobility in the state was essential to the process of reintroduction of serfdom and the expansion of villein manors. It was accompanied by a demand for grain of the Western-European countries, which consolidated the backward structure of the Central-European countries.

3.3 The Concept of Jeremy Blum

When presenting his account of the history of serfdom in Western and Eastern Europe, Jeremy Blum points out that the disappearance or emergence of serfdom depended on the level of state interference into economic life:

A sign of the waning of serfdom was when the central power began to intrude itself between lord and serf, chipping away at the formers’ legal and administrative powers and establishing norms for the obligations he could demand of his peasants. Conversely, the withdrawal of the sovereign from interference in the lord-peasant relation doomed free peasantry to serfdom.118

At the beginning of the 12th century, the greater part of peasants in Western Europe were serfs. In the 13th century, a substantial part of rural population enjoyed freedom, and at the dawn of the 16th century its majority was free. The process of liberation of Western-European peasantry took place in various economic conditions: in the period of prosperity and economic boom (the 12th and the 13th centuries) or stagnation and economic collapse (the 14th and the 15th centuries). In Eastern Europe, in the period preceding settlement with on German Law, the peasantry was losing the remnants of its freedom and was becoming more dependent on feudal lords. However, German settlement reversed this trend because:

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The sovereigns and seigneurs of the countries to which the German colonists migrated were eager for the new settlers to come, not only because they would increase the population but also because the technical skill of the Germans, gained from the experience with the more experienced with the more advanced state of economic development of the West, was superior to that of native population. That meant there would be greater yields from the land and thus increased revenues for the princes and the seigneurs and the establishment of new towns and the growth of the old ones would be promoted. The colonists for their part, could be persuaded to come only if they received assurances that they would be rid of princely and seigneurial burdens that weighed upon them at home and that they would get more land for themselves, under better terms.119

These inducements, combined with the pressure of growing population west of the Elbe, persuaded great number of Germans to seek new homes in the broad eastern reaches of the Baltic plain, and in Bohemia and Hungary. The native population of these regions was small and little of the soil was tilled, and that poorly, so that there was plenty of room for newcomers.120

Concessions granted to settlers were being gradually extended to the local population. As a result, in the 13th and the 14th centuries the peasantry of eastern Germany, Latvia, Bohemia, Silesia, Poland, part of Lithuania, and Hungary enjoyed more freedom than the substantial majority of the peasantry in these countries had enjoyed in the previous centuries and the centuries that followed after the period of colonization.

In the 13th and the 14th centuries, both in the East and the West of Europe, the situation of the peasantry was successfully improving. However, in the second half of the 14th century and particularly in the 15th century, a process of differentiation in the situation of this social class in both parts of Europe took place. While in the Western Europe the living conditions of the peasant class continued to improve, in the Eastern Europe the social conditions of the peasant class begun to gradually deteriorate. This resulted from a socio-economic crisis, which affected both parts of Europe in the 14th century. Eastern-European nobility attempted to take measures to protect itself against degradation. Some of the actions undertaken by this social group were similar to the actions undertaken by its western counterpart: setting maximal wages for paid farm workers and maximal prices on craft products, etc. However, Eastern-European nobility took additional measures, which did not have a reflection in the behavior of the Western-European nobility and were, in fact, significantly dissimilar. Instead of:

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reducing obligations as was the general practice in the West where the lords tried to hold their peasants and attract new ones by asking less of them, seigneurs in Bohemia, Silesia, Poland, Brandenburg, Prussia and Lithuania imposed new and heavier obligations, notably in the form of labor dues and cash payments.121

Between the end of the 15th century and the dawn of the 16th century, the greater part of the peasantry living between the rivers Elbe and Volga was once more turned into serfs. Blum ponders on the question why, although the Eastern- and Western-European peasantry had the same starting point, namely an economic collapse and stagnation of the 14th and the 15th centuries, they met so different fates. He lists four factors, which influenced the development of Eastern Europe: increased political power of the nobility in all countries of the region, increased legal power of the nobility over the peasantry, high demand for grain, and weak condition of towns and burghers.

According to Blum, the key factor in the development of serfdom in Eastern Europe was the downfall of the authority of central power brought about by wars, dynastic conflicts, etc., because:

The growth of the political influence of the nobles was of critical importance for the ultimate appearance of serfdom in Eastern Europe. It gave them the power to make successful demand of their sovereigns for a freer hands in dealing with their peasants. As a consequence, there was a progressive withdrawal of the state from the lord-peasant relationship in the course of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. This left the way open for the seigneurs to solve labor problems raised by the depression of the fifteenth and the prosperity of the sixteenth centuries by gradually converting their erstwhile free tenants into serfs.122

The second factor, directly associated with the first one, was a rise of the administrative and legal power of lords over peasants. Owing to this, a typical nobleman could, without the approval of the state, set obligations of the rural population as he pleased. During the heyday of serfdom, a lord or his proxy acted as a judge, a policeman, a prison warden, and a tax collector and even selected a parish priest. In fact, a peasant was a vassal of a feudal lord, rather than of a king.

The third factor listed by Blum, which decisively influenced the emergence of the developmental distinctiveness of Eastern Europe, was the increase of demand for grain in Western Europe. This favorable economic situation forced the nobility to reorganize farmsteads and accelerated a transformation of the form of feudal rent – from quitrent to socage. The fourth factor, which complemented ←81 | 82→the three above-described circumstances, was the underdevelopment of Eastern-European towns. The weak condition of towns was caused by external factors, such as a collapse of the Hanseatic League, the competition with English and Dutch merchants, and internal factors, such as, most significantly, an anti-urban policy of the Polish and Bohemian nobility. The underdevelopment of Eastern-European towns was among the most significant factors because:

the experience of Western Europe suggests that the enserfment of the peasantry and its corollary, the economic and political supremacy of the landed nobility, might have been avoided if the burghers of the East had been as powerful as their opposite numbers in the Western Europe.123

In Blum’s conceptual framework the factor of the weak condition of towns allowed the nobility to gain political supremacy in particular Eastern-European societies, which, in turn, was essential for the rise and subsequent development of serfdom:

it seems to me that the most important reason for this divergence in the evolution of the lord-peasant relation in the two regions lay in their differences in political evolution. In the struggle for domination of the state, the nobility of the East won out over the princes and the town […] As a result, the Eastern nobility, in pursuit of what it conceived to be its own best interests, was able to establish economic and social control over the peasantry and to dominate over the townsmen.124

3.4 The Concept of Jan Rutkowski

Jan Rutkowski was one of the first scholars to put forward an explanation of developmental dualism of Modern Europe.125 Rutkowski claims that:

To answer the question concerning the genesis of dualism in the agrarian development of Europe in the dawn of the Middle Ages, one has to set it against a broad comparative background. This way, factors influencing economic development can be divided into principal, which presence was the necessary condition for the expansion of a manorial-serf economy, and secondary, which accelerated the process, but did not bring about an overturn in the agricultural system by themselves, without the impact of principal factors.126

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According to Rutkowski, the system of rent prevailed in the greater part of European countries until the 14th century. It was not until the 15th century and, more particularly, the 16th century, that the manorial-serf system begun to popularize in Poland and its neighboring countries, including northeast Germany, Denmark, Bohemia, Hungary, Romania and the Baltic countries, as far as the Gulf of Finland. Rutkowski lists two principal factors contributing to the process: the ease of selling agricultural products and the serfdom of the peasantry.127

High demand for grain was a necessary condition for emergence of the manorial economy specialized in providing products for a mass market. The demand for grain developed in Western Europe at the turn of the 15th century, as a result of the rise of urban economy in the West. However, this factor is not the only driving force behind the emergence of the manorial economy. The second factor was the existence of the serfdom of peasants exacerbated to a certain level, which enabled a transformation of the agricultural system in the European countries under study. The system of serfdom allowed the nobility to decrease the costs of agricultural production. Employment of unpaid peasants-serfs, who supported themselves with their own farms, exerted a decisive impact on the profitability of the economic activity of a manor. Additionally, the owner did not have to worry for agricultural tools or draught animals because the peasantry used its own resources when working for a manor. Rutkowski recapitulates his analysis with a conclusion that serfdom decreased the amount of financial capital required to start production and guaranteed profitability of the economic activity of a manor.

Rutkowski also ponders on the question why the nobility decided to reorganize the agricultural system, instead of, e.g., increasing quitrent in the rent system. The necessity to reorganize the agricultural system resulted from the specificity of the process of production in the rent system, where a peasant controlled agricultural production. He decided which part of the production – after rent, tax and tithe – were paid, was to be devoted to further production, and which to consumption. If rent exceeded a certain amount, a peasant would devote a decreasingly smaller part of income for investment, which resulted in a drop of agricultural production. This phenomenon did not exist in the manorial-serf system, where a lord controlled the process of production.

The coexistence of the serfdom of the peasantry and outlets on agricultural producers was a sufficient factor, which influenced a transformation of a rent system into a manorial-serf system. Apart from the above principal factors, ←83 | 84→a number of secondary factors exerted a varied influence on the processes of European distinctiveness, discussed by Rutkowski. He lists:

factors of geographical nature, such as fertility of soil, navigable waterways, which facilitated trade beneficial for manorial estates, changes in military organization, such as wars devastating the country and, finally, factors of a physical nature, such as traditionalism, influence of religion and Church, national sentiment, etc.128

However, the greater part of the above-listed factors exerted only local influence, and neither of them was necessary for a manorial-serf economy to develop. According to Rutkowski, these factors were also present outside Central Europe where a manorial-serf economy did not emerge.

4 A Recapitulation

If one takes the method of idealization under consideration when developing a theory explaining particular facts and historical trends, one is obliged to disclose the range of idealizing assumptions, based on which the primary model reduces the influence of some factors to establish a hierarchy of factors determining the phenomenon under study and determine a strategy of concretization. This way, one can avoid arbitrariness and randomness in selecting factors to explain the phenomenon under investigation. However, the greater part of the presented concepts can be charged with the above to a greater or lesser extent. For instance, Blum explains the emergence of the manorial-serf system with four factors: the increased political impact of the lesser nobility, rise of legal power of this stratum of nobility over the peasantry, high demand on grain and weakness of towns.

Blum’s concept does not have a strategy of concretization, because the factors present in a given period are not clearly prioritized. Moreover, it is difficult to determine relations between the distinguished factors – i.e. we do not know the relations between the increase of demand for grain in the Western-European countries and the consolidation of legal power of the nobility over the peasantry. Furthermore, the genesis of the weakness of towns is also unclear: was it a result of political supremacy of the nobility in the Central-European countries, or did the underdevelopment of the urban sphere result from other causes, which allowed the nobility to gain political dominance?129

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A reference to a more general theory of historical development gives an advantage of the possibility to determine mutual relations between more detailed concepts. For instance, Rusiński in an analysis of internal factors, which contributed to the development of a manorial-serf economy, claims that political supremacy of the nobility enabled the introduction of an exacerbated serfdom of the peasantry (i). Zientara, in turn, puts forward a more developed explanation. He states that it was the weakness of towns, which allowed the nobility to introduce the manorial-serf system (ii). Absence of theoretical control in putting forward such accounts brings about problems in determining the character of relationships between then. We do not know if statement (ii) is an alternative explanation to statement (i) – it would be, if the political supremacy of the nobility resulted from other causes than the weakness of towns – or is statement (ii) an extension of statement (i) pointing toward further, less direct links in a chain of working factors.

Additionally, if certain explanations do not refer to a broader theory of a historical process, a substantive inconsequence appears. For example, the factor of shortage of workforce initiated the process of developmental differentiation in Europe. Source literature on European modern history regularly underlines the significance of this factor. When combined with the interference of political power on behalf of the owners, this factor brought about an introduction of the system of exacerbated serfdom in Europe. One can often come across the following statements about Central-East Europe in the literature on the subject-matter:

The land/labor ratio had been a permanent historical problem in the East, and after the demographic collapse of the 14th and 15th centuries, labor shortages were even more pronounced. As late as 1600, population density totaled a mere to 3 to 7 person per square kilometer, equivalent to the land/labor ratio some 10 times higher than that of Western Europe. Faced with vastly underpopulated spaces, the Eastern nobility saw serfdom as the most effective method to squeeze from the potentially productive lands; and with an enserfed labor force, cereal cultivation become the obvious avenue for production within the Eastern environment.130

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However, an alternative view that the shortage of manpower brought about counter results is also very popular. Namely, that the factor of shortage of manpower, caused by the plague epidemic, contributed to the relaxation and later disappearance of serfdom:

Scarcity of peasants meant a decline not only in the level of rent, but equally in the lord’s ability to restrict peasant mobility, and peasant freedom in general. With competition among lords to obtain scarce peasant tenants, one gets according to the laws of supply and demand, not only declining rents in general, and labor services in particular, but giving up by the lords of their rights to control the peasantry. Demographic catastrophe determines the fall of serfdom.131

The aforementioned lack of consistency in explaining the consequences of depopulation and the low population density in both parts of the continent is also noted by I. Schöffler. In the eastern part of the continent, the introduction of second serfdom was seen as a reaction to the shortage of manpower, “the landlords in Eastern Europe tried by force to keep the few laborers left to them.”132 Why did the same factor bring about opposing effects in different parts of Europe: the disappearance of serfdom in the Western part of the European continent and its emergence in Central Europe. According to Schöffler: “In the West the landlords were only able to keep the laborers on their lands by offering them more favourable conditions, i.e. rents instead of labor services.”133 This, however, leads to another question: why the landlords in Western Europe were willing to ease the conditions of labor, while in Eastern Europe they were not.

This type of inconsequence can be found in the works of the most distinguished historians. For instance, Marian Małowist claims that the shortage of manpower in the 13th and the 14th centuries pushed feudal lords to grant concessions to the peasantry, a process which manifested by the founding of villages with German Law:

Certainly, in the 13th century the state and the magnates succeeded in bringing the greater part of the peasantry in these countries [of Central Europe] to serfdom, however the income from their obligations was unsubstantial, while the needs of the senior group were growing. Internal and external circumstances and the growing level of culture required an increase of its income. It had to gain more work from the serfs, but increased compulsory work was almost impossible under the then existing circumstances. Depending on the population, still very volatile in some places, the peasantry could avoid compulsory work by escaping from the most demanding lords, particularly if ←86 | 87→there was a high competition for workforce. […] For this reason, the local population and foreign colonists had to become interested in a reorganization of economy, particularly in an intensification of agriculture. This objective could have been reached by introducing strong economic stimuli, which were supposed to attract immigrants and encourage the local population to replace old methods of work with more productive ones. […] Simultaneously, a reorganization of peasant obligations toward the lords and a reduction of their duties toward the state were conducted everywhere. In Bohemia, and shortly thereafter in Poland, it became possible to introduce quit-rent. This giant step forward gave peasants more freedom and encouraged them to work harder.134

However, the same factor brought about opposite results three centuries later. According to Małowist: “because of the absence of workforce and financial resources,” the nobility “was forced to impose serfdom on the peasantry.”135

Interestingly, the two above-presented theses seem incompatible, however, under certain dissimilar social circumstances may be true. A owner deprived of the support of the state may behave differently than a owner who can ask the state for help in a situation of conflict with direct producers. However, to systematically investigate the problem, one should build a model of an economic society, which eliminates the influence of the distorting factors. Then, one may interrogate the circumstances under which a shortage of manpower stimulates economic concessions and may determine the factors, which bring about a counter-tendency – an increase of exploitation.

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77 Jerzy Topolski puts forward another typology of theories explaining the genesis of socio-economic dualism in the development of modern Europe. He distinguishes two groups of theories. The first group includes theories, which search for common factors in the emergence of capitalism and the manorial-serf system. The second group includes theories, which treat the above phenomena individually and search for separate reasons to explain them, see: Jerzy Topolski, “Causes of Dualism in the Economic Development of Modem Europe (A Tentative New Theory),” Studia Historiae Oeconomicae, No. 3 (1969), pp. 3–4.

78 Marian Małowist, “Z problematyki dziejów gospodarczych strefy bałtyckiej we wczesnym średniowieczu,” Roczniki Dziejów Społecznych i Gospodarczych, Vol. 10 (1948), pp. 81–120; Marian Małowist, Wschód a Zachód Europy w XIII–XVI w. Konfrontacja struktur społeczno-gospodarczych (Warszawa: PWN, 1973).

79 Małowist, Wschód a Zachód, p. 7.

80 Małowist, Wschód a Zachód, p. 21.

81 Małowist, Wschód a Zachód, pp. 373–374.

82 Małowist, Wschód a Zachód, pp. 375–376.

83 See his trilogy: Immanuel Wallerstein, The Modern World-System. Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World-Economy in the XVIth Century (New York: Academic Press, 1974); Immanuel Wallerstein, The Modern World-System II. Mercantilism and the Consolidation of the European World-Economy, 1600–1750 (New York – London: Academic Press, 1981); Immanuel Wallerstein, The Modern World-System III. The Second Era of Great Expansion of the Capitalist World-Economy, 1730–1840 (New York – London: Academic Press, 1989).

84 Immanuel Wallerstein, “The Rise and Future Demise of World Capitalist System: Concepts of Comparative Analysis,” in: The Essential Wallerstein (New York: The New Press, 2000), p. 86.

85 Wallerstein, The Modern World-System, p. 98, original emphasis.

86 Wallerstein, The Modern World – System, p. 99.

87 Darius Žiemelis, “The Socio-Economic History of Lithuania from the 16th to the 19th Century (until 1861) from the Perspective of Economic Development Concepts,” Romanian Journal for Baltic and Nordic Studies, No. 2 (2013), p. 79.

88 Darius Žiemelis, “The Problem of Application of the term second serfdom in the history of Central Eastern Europe,” Romanian Journal for Baltic and Nordic Studies, No. 1 (2015), p. 136).

89 Žiemelis, “The Problem of Application,” p. 138.

90 Žiemelis, “The Problem,” p. 142.

91 Compare for example with Hunt who claims that war devastations of the 16th and the 17th centuries substantially contributed to the developmental backwardness of Central Europe, see: Verl F. Hunt, “The Rise of Feudalism in Eastern Europe: A Critical Appraisal of the Wallerstein ‘Word – System’ Thesis,” Science and Society. An Independent Journal of Marxism, Vol. 42, No. 1 (1978), pp. 43–61. Also, according to Nerijus Babinskas, the external factors (selling grain on the international market) were not decisive in introduction of second serfdom in Moldova and Wallachia at the turn of the 16th and the 17th centuries, see: Nerijus Babinskas, “Economic Challenges in Early Modern Ages and Different Responses of European Margins. Comparative Considerations Based on Historiography: The Cases of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and Moldovian Principality,” Romanian Journal for Baltic and Nordic Studies, Vol. 4, No. 2 (2012), pp. 57–60.

92 Jerzy Topolski, Prawda i model w historiografii (Łódź: Wyd. Łódzkie, 1982), pp. 309–310.

93 Robert Brenner, “Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development in Pre-Industrial Europe,” Past and Present, Vol. 70 (1976), pp. 30–75, Robert Brenner, “The Agrarian Roots of European Capitalism,” Past and Present, Vol. 97 (1982), pp. 16–111; Robert Brenner, “Economic Backwardness in Eastern Europe in Light of Developments in the West,” in: The Origins of Backwardness in Eastern Europe. Economics and Politics from the Middle Ages until the Early Twentieth Century, ed. Daniel Chirot. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), pp. 15–51.

94 Brenner, “Agrarian Class Structure,” p. 31, original emphasis.

95 Brenner, “The Agrarian Roots,” p. 28.

96 Brenner, “The Agrarian Roots,” pp. 27–30.

97 Brenner, “Agrarian Class Structure,” pp. 53–60; Brenner, “The Agrarian Roots,” pp. 69–76, Brenner, “Economic Backwardness,” pp. 42–45.

98 See chapter: “The Basic Ideas of non-Marxian Historical Materialism”).

99 Jerzy Topolski, “Causes of Dualism in the Economic Development of Modem Europe (A Tentative New Theory),” Studia Historiae Oeconomicae, No. 3 (1968), pp. 3–12, Jerzy Topolski, “The Manorial – Serf Economy in Central and Eastern Europe in the 16th and 17th Centuries,” Agricultural History, Vol. 3, No. 48 (1974), pp. 347–348, Jerzy Topolski, Prawda i model w historiografii (Łódź: Wyd. Łódzkie, 1982), Jerzy Topolski, Narodziny kapitalizmu w Europie XIV-XVII wieku (Warszawa: PWN, 1987), Jerzy Topolski, “The Development and the Crisis of the Manorial System Based on Serf Labour: A Tentative Explanation,” in: Entrepreneurship and the Transformation of the Economy (10th–20th Centuries). Essays in Honour of Herman Von der Wee, eds. Paul Klep, Eddy Van Cauwenberghe (Leuven: Leuven University Press, 1994), pp. 135–147, Jerzy Topolski, Polska w czasach nowożytnych Od środkowoeuropejskiej potęgi do utraty niepodległości (1501–1795) (Poznań: Wyd. UAM, 1994), pp. 19–47, and posthumously: Jerzy Topolski, Przełom gospodarczy w Polsce XVI wieku i jego następstwa (Poznań: Wydawnictwo Poznańskie, 1998).

100 Topolski, Narodziny kapitalizmu, p. 68.

101 Topolski, Narodziny kapitalizmu, p. 72.

102 Topolski, Narodziny kapitalizmu, p. 182.

103 Topolski, Prawda i model, p. 320.

104 Benedykt Zientara, “Z zagadnień spornych tzw. ‘wtórnego poddaństwa’ w Europie środkowej,” Przegląd Historyczny, Vol. 1, No. 47 (1956), pp. 3–4.

105 Zientara, “Z zagadnień spornych,” p. 44.

106 Compare with Tymieniecki’s argument stressing the importance of internal factors, see: Kazimierz Tymieniecki, “W sprawie zaostrzonego poddaństwa w Polsce i Europie Środkowej,” Roczniki Historyczne, Vol. 24 (1958), pp. 283–328.

107 Zientara, “Z zagadnień spornych,” p. 46.

108 Daniel Chirot, “The Growth of the Market and Service Labour Systems in Agriculture,” The Journal of Social History, No. 2 (1975), pp. 67–80.

109 Chirot, “The Growth of the Market,” p. 68.

110 Chirot, “The Growth of the Market,” p. 68.

111 Chirot, “The Growth of the Market,” p. 69.

112 Chirot, “The Growth of the Market,” pp. 75–76.

113 Władysław Rusiński, “Drogi rozwojowe folwarku pańszczyźnianego,” Przegląd Historyczny, Vol. 47 (1958), pp. 617–655; Władysław Rusiński, “ ‘Pustki’ – problem agrarny feudalnej Europy,” Roczniki Dziejów Społecznych i Gospodarczych, Vol. 23 (1961), pp. 9–50; Władysław Rusiński, Rozwój gospodarczy ziem polskich w zarysie (Warszawa: Książka i Wiedza, 1969); Władysław Rusiński, “Rugi chłopskie w Europie środkowo-wschodniej w XVI–XVI1I w.,” Roczniki Dziejów Społecznych i Gospodarczych, Vol. 38 (1977), pp. 1–47.

114 Rusiński, “Drogi rozwojowe,” pp. 623–624.

115 Rusiński, Rozwój gospodarczy, p. 74.

116 Rusiński, Rozwój gospodarczy, p. 646.

117 Rusiński, Rozwój gospodarczy, p. 642.

118 Blum, “The Rise of Serfdom,” p. 809.

119 Blum, “The Rise of Serfdom,” p. 814.

120 Blum, “The Rise of Serfdom,” p. 816.

121 Blum, “The Rise of Serfdom,” p. 820.

122 Blum, “The Rise of Serfdom,” p. 823.

123 Blum, “The Rise of Serfdom,” p. 833.

124 Blum, “The Rise of Serfdom,” p. 836.

125 Jan Rutkowski, Historia gospodarcza Polski (do 1864 r.) (Warszawa: PWN, 1953), Jan Rutkowski, Studia z dziejów wsi polskiej w XVI–XVIII w. (Warszawa: PWN, 1956); Jan Rutkowski, Wieś europejska późnego feudalizmu (Warszawa: PWN, 1986); see also: Jerzy Topolski, Jan Rutkowski (1886–1949). O nowy model historii (Warszawa: PWN, 1986).

126 Rutkowski, Historia gospodarcza, pp. 91–92; Rutkowski, Wieś europejska, p. 219.

127 Rutkowski, Historia gospodarcza, p. 91.

128 Rutkowski, Wieś europejska, pp. 222–223.

129 According to I. Schöffer, also relation between the rise of the lesser nobility and introduction of serfdom is unclear: “There is a danger here that the rise of the nobility may be used as a part of explanation of the increase in serfdom at the same time as serfdom is used to explain the rise of the nobility. Blum avoids this pitfall. It is only fair to state here, that Blum prefers to talk about ‘corollaries,’ ‘inter-related,’ ‘developments,’ instead of explanations. Even so, one remains a little dissatisfied” (I. Schöffer, “The Second Serfdom in Eastern Europe as a Problem of Historical Explanation,” Historical Studies, Vol. 9, No. 3 (1959) p. 48.

130 Hunt, “The Rise of Feudalism in Eastern Europe,” p. 55; see also: Schöffler, “The Second Serfdom,” p. 48.

131 Brenner, “Agrarian Class Structure,” pp. 38–39.

132 Schöffler, “The Second Serfdom,” p. 48.

133 Schöffler, “The Second Serfdom,” p. 48.

134 Marian Małowist, Europa i jej ekspansja XIV-XVI w. (Warszawa: PWN, 1993), pp. 18–19.

135 Małowist, Europa i jej ekspansja, p. 136.