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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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The present part of the book is devoted to a brief summary of the principal theses put forward in the previous chapters and to a discussion of the main problems resulting from the methodological status of the presented theory.

(1) The process of a cascade is the fundamental concept used in this book. In the process, conceptualized in a conceptual apparatus of the idealizational theory of science, joint influence of secondary factors dominates at some point the impact of the principal factor for a phenomenon under study. The present book uses the concept of a cascade conceptualized in the above way to explain particular courses of history, namely to conceptualize the genesis of developmental dualism in Europe of the 16th–17th centuries.

(2) The book adopts non-Marxian historical materialism as a theory of historical development. I develop n-Mhm to make it capable of capturing fundamental developmental differences between Western and Central Europe. I modify the initial model of socio-economic development, broaden it by the concept of two types of economic revolutions and construct two new models of an economic society: with a surplus or shortage of manpower.

(3) According to the model of a society with a surplus of manpower, which approximates the development of Western-European societies only fragmentarily, the economic situation of direct producers deteriorates and social conflict between the latter and the owners intensifies. In an empirical reality, colonization and settlement on new terrains were the factors, which mitigated these tendencies.

(4) In contrast, according to the model with a shortage of manpower, the economic situation of direct producers improves and the forms of social conflict are mitigated. The settlement with German Law in Central Europe in the 13th and the 14th centuries may be interpreted as an approximation of the above developmental tendencies. However, a further development of Central-European societies stands in contradiction with the developmental tendencies assumed by model III of an economic society. As a result, the development of a manorial-serf economy may be interpreted in terms of deterioration, not improvement of the situation of the peasantry.

(5) The impact of factors present in the cascade of European differentiation, which outweighed the influence of basic developmental mechanisms, is subjected to an empirical analysis. The reconstruction is based on historical works devoted to Central Europe. The shortage of manpower played ←323 | 324→a double role in the cascade of European differentiation. On the one hand, under the conditions of undermined state authority, the low level of population density forced feudal lords to improve the situation of the peasantry in Central Europe. On the other hand, a shortage of manpower hindered the development of the urban sphere. In the phase of social peace in the rural sector of production, the peasantry was not forced to migrate to towns on a massive scale, to improve their economic situation. For this reason, towns in Central Europe were less populated than Western-European towns. The underdevelopment of the urban sphere in the estate monarchies of Central Europe disrupted the social balance between the king, the nobility and burghers. As long as the nobility was not able to fully dominate the state, the urban and peasant economies in these countries came to existence with ease. However, as soon as the nobility gained political superiority in particular Central-European societies, it begun to abolish the privileges of burghers and the freedom of the peasantry. The almost total influence of the nobility on the state allowed the former to confine the development of the alternative urban economic sector and to introduce the so-called second serfdom, which, in turn, enabled an increase of the villein service. The above social processes unfolded within a manorial-serf economy, which arose in connection to the increase of demand on agricultural products in Western Europe. The above-mentioned factors were present in each of the societies under study. Apart from them, the developmental paths of each of the investigated societies had their own characteristic factors.

Now, I would like to ponder on some of the problems resulting from the methodological status of the presented notions and concepts.

(1) The concept of the cascade, similarly to all notions of the idealizational theory of science, has an idealizational status. The concept assumes the presence of interactive links between factors. However, the phenomenon of interdependence of the investigated factors, namely the feedback between the determining and the determined factor is being disregarded.445 It is assumed that variables under study are in an isolation.

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(2) The presented models assume that the shortage (surplus) of manpower is stable. However, in an empirical reality, the level of population density fluctuated. The assumption of the stability of shortage of workforce does not allow for an analysis of the development of transition societies, which had an intermediate type of economy located between a rent system and a classic manorial-serf demesne.

(3) The factors of shortage and surplus of manpower introduced into a basic model of an economic society. However, model IV of an economic society is in n-Mhm an approximation of the history of feudalism. Incorporation of the above-mentioned factors into the model of feudal development would allow for, for instance, investigating the relations between the level of population density and technical advancement.

(4) The concept put forward in the present book was not subjected to the procedure of chronological-territorial specification. As a result, it is assumed that the factors working in the cascade of European differentiation and in its local variants were present throughout the entire period under study (12th–16th/17th centuries) on the entire area occupied by the societies under investigation. Certainly, it is untrue. We may, for example, distinguish specific regions, in which the factors of the cascade of European differentiation did not work at all, or exerted a smaller impact. In Poland, Royal Prussia (1466–1569) was such a region, due to the fact that it had a higher urbanization level and its towns had their participants in the self-governmental Prussian Council. Moreover, peasant living in the area owned large farms, which competed with manorial farms for paid workforce. For the above reasons, the development of the nobility’s farm based on compulsory serf labor was far less developed in Royal Prussia, in comparison to the remaining parts of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

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445 Jerzy Brzeziński, Jolanta Burbelka, Andrzej Klawiter, Krzysztof Łastowski, Sławomir Magala, Leszek Nowak and Włodzimierz Patryas, “Prawo, teoria, sprawdzanie. Przyczynek do marksistowskiej metodologii nauk,” in: Teoria a rzeczywistość, ed. Leszek Nowak (Warszawa-Poznań: PWN, 1976), pp. 107–135.