While in the Suzzallo library browsing the stacks, I discovered a book which is turning out to be a great find.
The Great Elector by Derek McKay has details on Pomeranian society that are extemely useful in helping me understand my ancestors and their experiences. The book title refers to Frederick William of Prussia and Brandenburg.
It was a brutal life. The leading classes were callous.
In sections of Chapter 5 titled The Junkers and The Peasantry, McKay goes into expert detail on the situation.
First, he explains the Junkers and the very origins of the word.
The nobility of the lands east of the River Elbe sprang from a mixture of native Slavs landowners and German colonists and soldiers who had settled there in the late middle ages. As many of the newcomers were the younger sons of German nobles, they were called Junkers (Junk-herre) or young lords. By the sixteenth century these Junkers dominated Brandenburg, Pomerania and East Prussia, at the same time as the influence of their princely overlords had declined.
The Reformation was a pivotal period. Family members were practicing Lutherans into the 21st century. Catholic churches were converted to Lutheran ones. Ironically, this would happen in reverse at the end of World War II: Lutheran churches and cemeteries became Catholic.
The Lutheran Reformation and the resulting confiscation of church property benefited the Junker nobility rather than the chronically indebted princes. Although most ecclesiastical land went to the crown – the electors owned a third of Brandenburg and the dukes two-fifths of East Prussia – the best came into Junker hands, either directly or on favourable long leases.
Who are the the electors? I’ve always wondered about the use of this descriptor. According to Wikipedia, Frederick William was known as “The Great Elector” (Der Große Kurfürst) because of his military and political abilities.
Princes and royalty were not absolute monarchs, however.
But noble power not only profited from the decline of the princes and collapse of the Catholic church, it also benefited from a parallel downturn in urban fortunes. As the towns’ political influence slipped (Königsberg was the exception till the second half of the seventeenth century), the burghers could no longer enforce their monopoly over industry and trade. Instead the Junkers bypassed the towns, exporting their own agricultural goods and importing directly what they needed. This commercial role of the Junkers coincided with burgeoning profits from an expansion of manorial farming.
It is sad to read how backwards German society was. No wonder so many sought new lives elsewhere, some going east to Russia and others heading west to the Americas.
From the fifteenth century a contracting population in north-east Germany and Prussia had made it difficult for the lords to live off peasant rents, unlike in the more populated regions of the German south and west. They turned instead to managing directly parts of their estates, the manorial lands (the demesne), and forcing their peasant tenants into bondage, tying them to the soil and enforcing labour services of two or more days a week. These labour services and other dues were regarded as assets of an estate, having a monetary value when it was sold.
I am wondering how this was different from feudalism during the Middle Ages. It sure doesn’t appear that society had progressed much.
This system, known as Gutswirtscschaft (literally, manorial economy), where the manors functioned as self-contained economic units, was accompanied by the princes’ abandoning judicial and taxation control of the peasantry to the Junker lords.
Direct Junker authority (Gutsherrschaft) over the rural population allowed them to regulate who occupied peasant lands and to force the peasants to ask permission to marry or to move. Moreover, to ensure a cheap, steady supply of manorial servants, young peasants not immediately needed on the family farms had to work for their lords for a couple of years at low wages (Gesindezwangsdienst). This manorial economy, based on what Marxist historians called ‘the second serfdom’, was found in varying degrees throughout Europe east of the River Elbe and the Bohemian mountains, but also in most of Brandenburg west of the Elbe.
By enserfing their peasant tenants and directly farming their own manorial lands, the Junkers during the sixteenth century took full advantage of western Europe’s growing appetite for agricultural goods, particularly grain, but also timber, wool, hemp, flax and hides.